Category Archives: Breaking the Rules

Moment of Truth: A Word on the ‘Epiphany’

Recently, I had an epiphany over my protagonist’s epiphany. In revision, I saw that he had a sudden flash of insight towards the end of the story. Which is fitting, of course, because it often takes a plot-length’s worth of time for conflicts to gather and emerge. The interesting part is that I didn’t plan my main guy’s hasty manifestation. It wasn’t part of my master plan, my pre-story outline, my scenic design, my line-by-line breakdown. In truth, I never saw it coming, and frankly neither did my character. Just…boom. Revelation.Divulgence.Disclosure.Epiphany.

Dictonary.com defines epiphany in four ways. Based on the context of this post, I will share with you numbers three and four, respectively:

3. A sudden, intuitive perception of or insight into the reality or essential meaning of something, usually initiated by some simple, homely, or commonplace occurrence or experience.

4. A literary work or section of a work presenting, usually symbolically, such a moment of revelation and insight.

zeev manor → in Landscapes

As an undergraduate studying literature, I loved the concept. I reveled in character epiphanies; I wanted to have epiphanies in my own life, and I thought for certain that I would. Anytime I struggled with indecision or contemplated worldly conundrums, I’d look inside myself (or sometimes, up at the sky) and say, ‘Come on, Vision! Bring it on!’ And I’d wait…and wait…and wait. I’d go to bed confused, and I’d wake up confused. Eventually, my so-called issues dissolved,  and I’d somehow know I was wiser. But there was never any instant gratification. No blast of insight. It’s like Emerson once said, “The years teach much which the days never know.”

But in literature? It was fabulous. I’d wait for it. I’d take the characters’ new-found knowledge with me. Add it to my list of personal philosophies. Nothing beat the ending of John Updike’s “A&P,” or the myriad of reflective wonderments in  James Joyce’s Dubliners.  And how great was it when the concept of racism dawned on Scout Finch and Huck Finn?

But these days, as I come across new and exciting forms of literature, I wonder…is the classic epiphany necessary? Do characters need to have epiphanies in order to be fully realized? I might suggest that this is especially true in the case of short stories, but certainly has its place in novel-dom as well.

So I ask you…do all protagonists need to epiphany (Can this word be used as a verb? Epiphanize? Epiphinate?)

Here is where I run into problems with this notion:

1. Unclear definition: I used to get it—or at least I thought I got it. It’s pretty clear cut, right? Just look at the definitions above. Actually, no, it’s not. Does epiphany have to be a grandiose discovery? Instant knowing? A blast of understanding so powerful that one is forever changed? Or could it be…well, slower? An evolution of thought, as opposed to a revolution of thought. Sure, our characters learn, they grow, they transform, but all at once?

2. Unrealistic portrayal: They say art imitates life, but I can’t remember the last time I had an epiphany. With each year that passes I gather strength and wisdom, but it’s done through trial and error. And only when I stop and think about my path do I notice the differences. In fact, I’d argue that epiphanies don’t actually exist in life at all. Anything I’ve ever learned or uncovered about myself, I likely—somewhere, somehow—already knew. In other words, epiphanies are dormant thoughts, emotions, and experiences that haven’t yet erupted, and in certain cases, never will. So to give a character a sudden jolt of understanding? I just don’t think it works. It needs to be set up, so to speak. The character needs to be on the very path that leads to epiphany from the beginning.

Here is what I know for sure:

Your characters should struggle. They should fail. They should try again. They should fail again. They should completely and utterly unravel. They should hurt others. They should hurt themselves. They should forgive. They should redeem. They should regenerate. They should triumph. If somewhere along the way, they just happen to blindly fall victim to the almighty epiphany…well, then that’s awesome for them.

What’s your take on epiphanies? Do your characters have them? Are they always necessary?

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Filed under Breaking the Rules, Inspiration, Writing Process

Why I will not publicize my writing goals

Anyone who follows this blog knows one thing for sure: I want to write. Not only that actually, in fact, I want to be a writer. Yes, this is a goal of mine, but that—aside from the various writing-related quandaries I discuss so ebulliently with you on a weekly basis—is about as far as I’ll go. I will shed no light on my specific goals, nor will I enlighten you with the proverbial notion of where I’d like to be in five years. Why? Because despite Emma Bombeck’s adage, “It takes courage to show your dreams to someone else” it has never, ever worked for me.

In the past, publicizing my aspirations has lead to one of three outcomes:

  1. The corresponding person, in blunt terms, doesn’t give a rat’s shiny ass
  2. The corresponding person masks an envious expression, which leads me to believe that he or she secretly hopes I will fail.
  3. The corresponding person feigns support by smiling and nodding; this is where my ability to read minds comes into play. He or she is churning this perception around his or her brain: Yeah sure, like that’s going to happen.

Recently, I came upon number four on my list of “Clandestine Ambitions.” I commonly use talks from www.ted.com in my English classes. In turn, I regularly peruse the site for interesting lectures to entice thought in both my students and myself. I came across Derek Sivers’ three-minute speech, “Keep your goals to yourself.”

I’ll paraphrase. When one spreads the word of a new resolution, it is more likely that said person will not reach said goal. Why? Because, psychologically speaking, simply relaying the fact that I will learn French, or I will open my own yoga studio deceives the mind. It makes us feel like we’ve already accomplished something. In turn, the goal is never realized.

I recommend watching the clip. It’s ingenious, and it totally supports my argument.

I’m not saying that this works for everyone. I was born an introvert, and holding in my personal feelings has always come naturally to me. Sure, some need the motivation that comes from others. I am not one of those people. My intrinsic determination runs deep, and I know exactly what I want to accomplish. I have a clear-cut vision. I’m just not going to tell you what it is. (Sticks tongue out).

Agree? Disagree? As always, all comments are welcome.

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Filed under Breaking the Rules, The Writing Life, Writing Fears

Autonomy

“Writing is like being in love. You never get better at it or learn more about it. The day you think you do is the day you lose it. Robert Frost called his work a lover’s quarrel with the world. It’s ongoing. It has neither a beginning nor an end. You don’t have to worry about learning things. The fire of one’s art burns all the impurities from the vessel that contains it.”
—James Lee Burke

This is essentially true. But as both intrinsic writers and student writers we do learn rules. Lots and lots of rules. Endless rules about characterization, plot, structure, dialogue, thematic undercurrents, and on and on. And yes, there is a basic format to a piece of writing. It has to be organized–this organization takes on many, many, forms, but it still must have a form.

So maybe we can ‘learn’ things about writing, but it seems like everywhere I look the rules are being broken. Maybe that’s why Burke is saying the ‘learning process,’ in a sense doesn’t really exist in writing.

I’ve heard countless critiques about my characters and their lack of dimensions, yet then I read a published piece in a literary magazine where the characters don’t have names, backgrounds, anything. They’re shadows who live in a timeless space. Do we learn the rules to ignore them? Or is there a certain recipe to follow regardless?

I think every piece of writing must work in spite of itself. It has to operate in its best capacity as it stands. Any reader can tell when a story, poem, essay has value. It’s isolated from every other story, poem, or essay. Maybe once an intrinsic learns all the learns he or she can pick and choose the ones he or she wants to incorporate into the piece.

As a child I learned how to print my letters. Then I learned cursive. Now my handwriting is a unique hybrid of the two. Maybe writing is like that. But then again, I don’t really know.

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Filed under Breaking the Rules, Breaking Through, Characters, Description, Inspiration, Plot & Structure, Revision, The Writing Life, Writing Process

I defend my right to write

“The real writer learns nothing from life. He is more like an oyster or a sponge.”
—Gore Vidal

I want to talk about this one for a bit. What makes a real writer? Extensive travel? Interesting parents, background, etc.? Exemplary intelligence? Does it take having something ‘special?’ Luck, perhaps? All of the above?

If so, well, I’m in trouble. Often when I meet or read/hear about other writers, there seems to be a cloud of “interesting-ness” (I’m aware that I just forged a word) surrounding them. Their fathers were award winning professors who drank a lot, their mothers were mentally unstable poets, they’ve been married and divorced ten times, they lived in Sri Lanka for two years, and Venice for three. Now they live in either a bustling, ambitious, intellectual city (i.e. New York) or in some lovely country home–lakefront, oceanfront, etc.

I have no clue where I’m getting this from. Of course it’s not even true. But somewhere in my mind, I believe it is, especially in comparison to my own life, which I’m readily willing to admit is frankly, ordinary. Happy, safe, wonderful, but ordinary.

Yet, I’m still a writer inside, an intrinsic writer that is. Is there a difference between a ‘real’ writer and an ‘intrinsic’ one? Can one decide to become a writer at a point in life after an array of odd and uncanny experiences? Is that possible? Or does the urge always have to be there? What if it’s all one’s got? No therapist’s dream of a childhood, no complexities of love or of the heart, no real travel except for 5 nights in Las Vegas for a friend’s wedding (OK, I’ve been to more places), and no living abroad. Just the natural inclination to write, write, write?

Well then, I suppose that’s all there is. I defend my right to write.

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Filed under Breaking the Rules, Breaking Through, Inspiration, The Writing Life, Why We Write, Writing Fears