Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Why You Write

I've been thinking about the moment of epiphany a lot lately.  Google the term and you'll find religious and literary iterations, but though they're accurate in one way, they're rather, on the whole, misleading. Yes epiphany is "an experience of sudden and striking realization" and "breakthrough" and may be "manifestation of a deity" yes, yes. But here's the issue with such definitions for me.  Epiphany is therefore conjured as a rare occurrence, a kind of wondrous, magic experience, an Oprah "Aha" moment in which one enters into a spiritual struggle and eventually sees a kind of light and learns acceptance and is inspired and things get better...

But who says that epiphany leaves you feeling so much better? In James Joyce's quintessential epiphany story "Araby," a young boy moves, in a brief three pages, from the romantic, moist, sustaining illusions of childhood into the darker, dry, difficult world that is reality. The plot in brief: a boy has a crush on a girl, and promises to buy her a keepsake at the local fair.  He gets there late, and there really isn't anything much to buy. The story ends with these lines:
Gazing up into the darkness, I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.
My students are usually not impressed with their first reading. Nothing happens! they say.  It ends so quickly, without resolutionIt's not about anything! He's so dramatic! Our discussion usually focuses on how the boy, throughout most of the story, has used his imagination to illuminate and beautify his world.  Carrying packages for his aunt through a dingy market, he pretends to be a knight on a quest:  "I imagined that I bore my chalice safely through a throng of foes." He dreams of the girl he hardly knows and believes that by getting her a small keepsake he can win her love. What is a crush, after all, but a thoroughly imagined love? 

And then, at the fair, in an instant—an unremarkable, tiny instant—he sees the folly of his thinking. He sees how the world he has always accepted—his imagined world—is only that. What was I thinking? he seems to be saying. In this way he is no different from all of us who have to, one day, move from a childhood or innocence through our particular door of experience, one way or another. No matter what happens from then on in his life, this moment, this realization, will always be a part of his experience, a tincture to his view. It will be the aesthetic which shapes his life's materials. If there is a light involved, it is light only that it illuminates a life less rose-colored. If there is inspiration, it is inspiring only in the true definition of the word inspire: to breathe life into. That is, it will be as much a part of his daily life as each breath he takes and probably as imperceptible as well.
And it is no different for us all. Your epiphany, too, which you may not have realized: you have already had that one. And it has been a part of all you have done and will do. If you write, you may not even be fully aware of it. Depends what kind of writer you are, I suppose. But it's there. Your tiny, essential epiphany, when you moved from innocence to experience.

Each of us has had that moment when we realized that the world as we had always imagined it was not the world as it was in reality.  If I asked you to name that moment for yourself, what's the first thing that comes to mind?  

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