The Writer’s Desk: Writing Epiphanies

Novelist Charles Baxter’s book Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction is a must-read for anyone interested in the art of fiction writing. One of the most evocative essays in the book is called “Against Epiphanies.” Though Baxter is critiquing American culture and literature in this incisive essay, I believe his assertions have unique resonance in Mormon culture.

Indulge me as I quote several passages.

 Regarding the place of the epiphanic in the contemporary market, Baxter says: “Almost anything can be mass produced and marketed, even insight. Especially insight.” We see this in our TV shows, don’t we, and in our self-help books, and on the shelves of the Mormon bookstore?

Baxter says the middle-class appetite for insight has served as a substitute for the difficulties of religion: “When the middle-class discovered insight—revelation free of the obligations of organized religion—they made a serious investment in it.” Commenting further on the middle class, Baxter says: “A professional-managerial class believes that it needs insight in order to survive. For the middle class, information and mental events are far more important than physical actions.”

Insight has advantages for officialdom, too: “Officials, and official culture, are full of epiphanies and insights and dogmas.” And, Baxter assures us, “Because [insight] is a private experience, it can’t be debated or contested.” My fellow Mormons, how are we doing? Does he have us pegged, along with the rest of America?

But we’re not done yet. The way Baxter connects surfaces, insights, and conspiracies should sober us even more:

“Insights, in art and outside of it, depend on an assumption that the surface is false. […] That almost everyone has been mistaken. All cults, and the occult arts, assume this to be the case. The loss of innocence is partly a recognition that there are depths to things, that what you see is not always what you get. […] But the fascination with false surfaces leads, fairly quickly, to a fascination with conspiracies.”

Is anyone thinking Glenn Beck?

I’m thinking that, but I’m also thinking of what I learned when I joined the LDS Church: the insight that a Restoration necessarily followed the conspiracy of the Great Apostasy. Don’t get me wrong: I believe an Apostasy occurred, and I believe in the Restoration. Why, then, do Baxter’s words cause me to take notice? Because of his assertion that any insight, any epiphany, requires the assumption of false surfaces.

How easily, how often, do we assume that all surfaces are false, that nothing is what it seems to be? Baxter’s conclusion is a damning critique of contemporary American culture: “Insight’s connection to the loss of innocence, to a vestigial religious worldview, and to conspiracy theories, make it particularly suited to a culture like ours that thrives on psychotherapeutic models, paranoia, and self-improvement. A belief that one is a victim will lead inevitably to an obsession with insight.” In other words, epiphanies require false surfaces, and the view that every surface is false requires paranoia.

What do Baxter’s assertions mean for the Mormon writer who seeks meaning and epiphany? Let’s consider some history first. An epiphany in Greek mythology and literature is a “showing forth,” a moment when a god or goddess casts off its disguise and reveals its divinity. In Christian usage, the word signified a manifestation of God’s presence in the created world. Twentieth-century novelist James Joyce used the word in an early draft of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (published posthumously as Stephen Hero) to describe “a sudden spiritual manifestation” when the “whatness” of an object “leaps to us from the vestment of its appearance,” when “The soul of the commonest object … seems to us radiant.”

Joyce’s adaptation of the epiphany is significant in his modernist focus on the inner self. In a Joycean epiphany, the climax occurs within the individual, not without. Such inward transformation has roots in the romantic idea of transcendence. Perhaps this explains why it’s easy to read analogs of the epiphany in nature. A seed becomes a shoot; a caterpillar becomes a butterfly; a rain cloud bursts, bringing rain; a child becomes an adult. In nature and societies, contending forces clash, fall away, and clash again, until one or all are irrevocably transformed. Old order moves through conflict and into new order. When we look at nature and ourselves, it seems that transformation and transcendence are fundamental to our existence.

Perhaps, then, Baxter’s argument is a straw man. He says false surfaces precede the epiphany. But caterpillars and rain clouds aren’t false surfaces. Sometimes an epiphany is meaningful simply because we didn’t know the thing that was concealed.

Nonetheless, Baxter’s words should be cautionary. The next time we find ourselves in the epiphanic moment, we might ask, “What had I assumed about the surface before?” We might even wonder, “Did I set up my own false surface, on purpose, in order to reach this epiphanic moment in which things suddenly seemed so clear?” Often for the fiction writer, this exactly what happens. Writers allow characters to believe things, things that aren’t quite right, in order to lead to an epiphany. But the epiphanic moment also should be, to some degree, at least, genuine for the writer. That’s the way to meaningful fiction.

My best fiction-writing moments come when I have a genuine question, something I really don’t know the answer to. Then I begin to explore that issue through writing. By the time the story is finished, I’ve acquired my own greater understanding in the process. However, fiction is not just the transmission of knowledge. Wikipedia can do that. In fiction, the epiphanic is entwined with the experiential, with characters, circumstances, and actions, which come together to reveal new and meaningful vicarious experience the reader has never had before.

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19 Responses to The Writer’s Desk: Writing Epiphanies

  1. Jonathan Langford says:

    Somewhere — possibly in a college class — I recall encountering the notion that our modern world (conceptually speaking) has been formed largely by streams of thought flowing from three heavily influential thinkers: Darwin, Marx, and Freud. Of these, Freud is the one who seems most relevant to modern notions of interiority, particularly as regards character. Come to think of it, though, the other two thinkers as well were largely about revealing an inner truth that wasn’t obvious on the surface (as they saw it).

    I also can’t help but think about postmodernists and their insistence that there is no difference between surface and interior. I’m not sure it’s possible to write literature that way, postmodern experiments notwithstanding. The very notion of postmodern literature sounds like a prescription for a trip through Lehi’s vast and featureless wilderness. On the other hand, perhaps postmodern literature would be the literature of divinity, in which all of time and space and truth is so thoroughly known that there is no inside and outside.

    I’m also reminded of the view of character in ancient and medieval literature, which is as something largely static that is revealed, rather than something that develops and changes over time. This is one of the key differences between the medieval romance and the novel as genres, and why science fiction and fantasy (for example) are often called modern romance genres in this sense as opposed to novelistic genres. The story arc of a romance is one in which hidden character is revealed, but does not truly change. This may be one reason why Mormon writers and readers seem to be disproportionately drawn to sf&f (something I remember Eugene England lamenting). Maybe romance (again, in this sense, which has nothing inherently to do with romantic love) is inherently more congenial to a revelatory worldview.

    Or maybe that romantic worldview is something we impose on the gospel. A lot of our thinking about becoming gods seems to be framed in quasi-genetic terms — fulfilling innate potential, as opposed to becoming something we’re not.

    Interesting stuff.

  2. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    All this deep thinking about literary epiphany hurts my little brain. I’ve been thinking about the idea of false surfaces and fiction all day. Ironically, all fiction, even that moment of epiphany is a type of false surface. When I realized that, I realized I was about to fall into the abyss of overthinking. All I want is to know how to write that epiphanic moment better.

    I think Jack is on to something when he speaks of the epiphanic in literature being tied to the experiential, among other things. To me, the experiential means, at least in part, the psuedo-experience the reader is involved in as he travels through a story with the protagonist. The epiphanic moment in lit doesn’t really work unless its some level of epiphanic moment for the reader. Maybe this is why some MoLit feels didactic instead of revelatory. If the audience already has possession of the insight (if we already “know” the gospel is true), than writing the moment of conversion resounds hollowly. So I think Jack is correct. The best epiphanic moments we can write are probably those we experience ourselves, those little insights that make us unique human beings. And unique writers. But its tough to do. Experiential. Yes.

    • Jonathan Langford says:

      Lisa,

      Thanks for commenting. I was beginning to worry that I’d killed off the conversation before it even had a chance to start…

  3. I don’t know. Maybe it’s just me. But I don’t see epiphanies as involving false surfaces at all.

    When I experience an epiphany, either in my own life or in fiction that I enjoy, it involves putting together the puzzle pieces so that they finally make sense.

    I’ve been trying to think of what I understand to be epiphanies in terms of false surfaces, and I can’t think of any.

    Maybe my understanding of epiphanies is wrong, and I’m thinking of something else entirely?

  4. Moriah Jovan says:

    I’ll confess: there were too many big words and too many concepts and too much unpacking to do and more accessories to buy.

    This is where I stopped: “Insights, in art and outside of it, depend on an assumption that the surface is false.”

    Total BS.

    An insight MIGHT reveal that the surface is false, but more often, it reveals something you didn’t know yet.

    Disease used to be chalked up to sin and/or witchcraft. And then people discovered this thing called soap.

    Dead bodies do certain things that made people think they were arising from their graves and doing vampiric things to people in the night. And then people started stealing bodies and cutting them up to see how they worked.

    My daughter has insight every time she sees something, makes a FALSE ASSUMPTION about what it is, based on her entire 7.5 years of experience, and then I have to explain what it REALLY is because I have a wee bit more experience than she is. And then, when she can extrapolate further, voila. Insight. The only falsehood was the one she told herself about what X thing was.

    The essay writer is equating all insight to the false front of the Old West Mercantile, and that simply isn’t true.

    • Jonathan Langford says:

      Moriah,

      It seems to me that what you’ve described is precisely the case of a false surface. The initial assumption your daughter makes, the “truth” that seems obvious initially — that’s the false surface. The epiphany is the revelation (your revelation to her) that there’s a truth that was previously hidden.

      The point is: In order for there to be a need for, or even the possibility of, an epiphany, something about what people see on the surface — what they thought or believed before their moment of insight — has to be false. Otherwise there would be no higher or deeper truth to be accessed.

      • Moriah Jovan says:

        The point is: In order for there to be a need for, or even the possibility of, an epiphany, something about what people see on the surface — what they thought or believed before their moment of insight — has to be false.

        That is not true. What you see is probably the truth. You see previously dead bodies having longer hair and fingernails than they had before they died. That is truth. What you don’t know is why. So you look at it another way and eventually someone figures out that a) yes, some dead bodies do grow their hair and fingernails a bit and b) no, some dead bodies’ skin just retracts so it looks like that.

        But what you see is the truth. The assumptions you make about the truth you see… That’s another matter.

    • Jonathan Langford says:

      Also: calling something BS? Not cool. You can say you don’t agree with it, you can say it doesn’t make sense to you, but all of us need to try to stay away from the line of insulting someone else’s intelligence or motives.

      • Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

        I don’t agree that Moriah insulted anyone’s intelligence. She disagreed with an idea, said the idea was false–which shouldn’t upset anyone because this whole post is about identifying false ideas and creating moments of epiphany from them, a thing she set out to do. She didn’t say Baxter is an imbecile. Its sort of like saying you hate the sin, but not the sinner. Could she be less “Moriah-ish”? Sure. But what fun is that?

      • Moriah Jovan says:

        “BS” was me censoring myself. Trust me, if it were any other board, I’d have said the whole word.

        I guess I could’ve ignored the whole post, but I truly don’t understand it and don’t understand the language used. Neither did two other people before me, who said, “I don’t understand this post.”

        This “false surface” and its accompanying explanations (ad infinitum) is, to me, a fancy way of saying: “You think everything is a lie and it’s an insight when you figure out it’s not.”

        Yes, he does say:

        “[...] The loss of innocence is partly a recognition that there are depths to things, that what you see is not always what you get. […]”

        But the sentences bookending that totally negate it:

        “Insights, in art and outside of it, depend on an assumption that the surface is false. […] That almost everyone has been mistaken. All cults, and the occult arts, assume this to be the case. […] But the fascination with false surfaces leads, fairly quickly, to a fascination with conspiracies.”

        Conspiracy theories? Glenn Beck? Really? Because you see something in X thing that you didn’t see before and are therefore enriched with knowledge? Could he be more insulting?

        Thanks to the writer of the book for telling me what everybody, i.e., *I* think right before I have an epiphany. And that it leads to conspiracy thinking and Being Glenn Beck? Yeah, that’s not insulting at all.

        That’s why I’m calling BS. And I was being nice.

  5. Moriah Jovan says:

    Oh, to add further: Epiphanies happen. They just do. The very nature of an epiphany is that it smacks you in the face, usually when you aren’t looking.

    You can be sitting in the back seat, kicking it on a Friday, thinking about nothing in particular and then an insight sneaks up on you and smacks you in the face.

  6. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    I have a love/hate thing going with literary theory. Its relatively easy for me to play the game, but I really do think lit theory is essentially useless to the writer. Its a fun game for the literati, but if I were to attempt to craft a story full of false surfaces so that there could be an epiphany, I’d probably end up with a story that every reader immediately identified as full of it. The epiphanies I like to read are those that occur when clarity increases, not when something is demonstrated false. Like Jack points out, “Sometimes an epiphany is meaningful simply because we didn’t know the thing that was concealed.” Epiphany is enlightenment, then, not necessarily revelation.

    I really don’t believe epiphany is born of false understanding. The epiphany is a new way of looking at something. As a lit theorist, it seems (from what Jack describes) that maybe this guy is stuck in black and white. Right and wrong. Maybe he does have “resonance” for many MoLit works because of this.

    • Moriah Jovan says:

      Actually, I think the analogy from what Baxter says to Mormonism also dead wrong.

      We exist in a state of doctrinal tension, which is to say, we both believe in personal revelation AND we follow a set doctrine with a prophet who lays down the law (aka guidelines). Yet again a demonstration of the paradox of our faith.

      As far as I know, no other faith does that. So it doesn’t take long to pick the analogy apart, so it falls apart on its…surface. Shall I say.

      • Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

        I didn’t mean to connect what he says to Mormonism, but to a certain type of MoLit, a type that we really don’t see published much, if at all, anymore. The stuff that is black and white, full of “I was wrong, but not I’m made right through my conversion or my repentance.”

  7. No help for me on my “epiphany is getting the puzzle pieces right” idea?

  8. Moriah Jovan says:

    No help for me on my “epiphany is getting the puzzle pieces right” idea?

    I like it. I should probably post when I agree instead of only when I disagree. And then there are the multilayered puzzles. As you get more experienced, with more knowledge, you can see the next layer down and have further epiphany that doesn’t negate the truth of the what you initially saw or your first epiphany about it.

    • Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

      There should be a “Like” button. I’d have pushed it.

    • Scott Parkin says:

      I also like.

      (Sorry for being late to the party; I was travelling yesterday.)

      The idea that epiphany is understanding the relationship of the pieces (as opposed to understanding the nature of each piece) makes a lot of sense to me. An inevitable result of understanding that context is to then reinterpret what we see about the pieces, and often to notice new detail that had previously escaped our eye—or to learn to look more deeply, or to rethink the uses and purposes of that which we’ve already seen.

      Is that seeing past a false surface? I suppose so, but the formulation of the idea that the surface is an intentional lie leads directly to a broad application of conspiracy theory that I don’t accept.

      Sometimes the surface is a lie (intended to deceive). Sometimes the surface is very complex and our understanding is incomplete (unintentionally deceives—or at least fails to fully reveal). Sometimes the surface is intended to obscure, but not deceive (the wrapped present that announces its own falseness). Sometimes the surface is mutable and changes to reveal a newly created truth (without denying the previous truth).

      I think this last one is often interpreted as a false surface when it isn’t. Using the caterpillar analogy, the caterpillar is not a lie though it is (ideally) a temporary or transition state. Understanding the surface of the caterpillar accurately describes its caterpillarness—until it becomes a changed being and is no longer a caterpillar, in which case the new thing must be reinterpreted in light of its changed nature.

      They are two different things, even though one derived from the other. To say that a caterpillar is merely the false surface of a butterfly may be a functional truth. But that increased understanding does not deny the real and ongoing truth of caterpillars—it only expands the context for understanding them.

      In other words, the caterpillar was never a lie even though it may have been a false surface.

      I guess I would argue about the definition of the word. To me epiphany is when I understand that larger context and the relationship of this thing to other things. My understanding of the thing is transformed because I understand its use and usefulness more completely, but the thing itself is not changed.

      (tangentially related illustrative digression…

      When I was sixteen I went to a Poppin’ Fresh Pie House in the northwest suburbs of Chicago and ordered a slice of french apple cream-cheese cake. The waitress brought out a slice of pie with apples and whipped cream on top, but a grayish, glistening base layer that was rapidly losing its shape and oozing outward over the edges of the bottom crust.

      That was nasty looking cheesecake. But I took a taste anyway and discovered a sharp, rancid quality (and a deeply gooey texture) that were more than a tad alarming. That cheesecake had gone bad, and I was a little upset that the waitress would serve spoiled food to a paying customer. That was the worst cheesecake I had ever tasted.

      When confronted, the waitress revealed that she had brought a fresh apple sour cream pie, not a french apple cream-cheesecake. In light of that new information I tasted it again and discovered that it was in fact a lovely, fresh confection with the somewhat distinctive sharpness and viscous consistency I expect of a sour cream pie.

      As cheesecake it was deeply flawed and alarming; as sour cream pie it was yummy and well prepared.)

      Did the sour cream pie present a false surface? Did the waitress misrepresent the nature of the sour cream pie? I would argue no in both cases, though my understanding was different at the moment of initial tasting—and flawed based on reasonable assumptions I had made about what cheesecake should look and taste like.

      Though the effect is the same and my understanding was transformed, there was no conspiracy or intent to deceive; only a mismatch between expectation and delivery.

      In other words, it wasn’t false surface; it was false eyes (seen through a glass, darkly) or a false interpretive model. I applied the false surface to the object rather than the object projecting a false surface to me. Perhaps the result is the same—action based on false understanding—but the actual problem was not in the surface itself.

      It may be a technical distinction, but that distinction matters to me if I want to truly understand the thing, not defend my interpretation of it. Through no fault of my own, I misinterpreted that sour cream pie. I was wrong—and I was right. That sour cream pie really was a lousy cheesecake, just as warm corn chowder is a really lousy gazpacho. Fortunately, it wasn’t really a cheesecake.

      There may be multiple useful definitions of the word epiphany. I tend to think of it as connecting dots (understanding contexts) more than penetrating false surfaces. But it’s quite arguable that both formulations are powerful and useful, and that more great and important (and useful) models will yet be revealed.

      Fun thought exercise.

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