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Writing Epiphanies

I'm reading an interesting book by David Jauss: On Writing Fiction.  Most writing books I read now, since I've read a LOT, cover the same ground in somewhat the same way: how to create character, how to make sensible plots, the use of setting, etc., but Jauss is making me rethink fiction.

I knew I was into a good book after I read the first chapter, "Autobiographobia: Writing and the Secret Life."  I wanted immediately to share the chapter with one of our English teachers who is also a poet.  It seemed exactly what he would like to read.  There aren't many books lately that I've wanted to share so strongly.

jaussThe chapter I read today was on epiphanies.  The epiphany is such an important part of my own thinking about story telling, that I make it a part of my short story writing assignments.  A definition for epiphany that I might use is suggested in Jauss's chapter.  It comes from achieving "the sort of transforming moment one looks for in the short story form, a shift in understanding, a glimpse of unexpected wisdom."  My argument is that to create an epiphany for the main character, the writer will have to pay attention to characterization (why are the events in this story important to this character), and the writer will have to pay attention to theme (we only tell stories, I say, that have at some level a meaning--the meaning is contained within the epiphany).

Either the character has an epiphany, I say, or the reader has one (or both).

So, teaching new writers about epiphanies is a way to make them reach for stories that are significant.  That's what I try to do with my stories.  Jauss, however, in today's chapter, "Some Epiphanies about Epiphanies," says, ". . . most of them are unearned and unconvincing, the literary equivalent of faked orgasms."  Jauss quotes an essay by Charles Baxter, "Against Epiphanies," where Baxter prefers stories that "arrive somewhere interesting without claiming any wisdom or clarification."


As the chapter went on, it turned out that he's not opposed to epiphanies, necessarily, just bad ones, like the ones that are ". . . a blast-of-trumpets/choir-of-angels moment of sudden insight . . ."  He breaks down poorly done epiphanies into four categories: discursiveness, the proclamation effect, conclusiveness, and rhetorical inflation.

Jauss makes me rethink what I'm doing.  That's the sign of a good book. 


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 10th, 2013 01:12 am (UTC)
I wonder where 'The Motherhood Statement' fits in, as a poorly done epiphany.
Jul. 10th, 2013 08:53 pm (UTC)
I'm not familiar with that one.
Jul. 10th, 2013 10:06 pm (UTC)
From the Turkey City Lexicon.

"SF story which posits some profoundly unsettling threat to the human condition, explores the implications briefly, then hastily retreats to affirm the conventional social and humanistic pieties, ie apple pie and motherhood. Greg Egan once stated that the secret of truly effective SF was to deliberately “burn the motherhood statement.” (Attr. Greg Egan)"
William Preston
Jul. 21st, 2013 08:36 pm (UTC)
Thanks for posting about this book. I'm unfamiliar with it--and unfamiliar with this author.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )