Saturday, October 1, 2011

Yearning and the epiphany in fiction: Robert Olen Butler

"James Joyce appropriated from the Catholic church the term epiphany. An epiphany literally means "a shining forth." He brought that concept to bear on the moment in a work of art when something shines forth in its essence. That, he said, is the epiphany in a story or novel.

What I would suggest is that there are two epiphanies in any good work of fiction. Joyce's is the second, the one often called the climax of crisis of a story. The first epiphany comes very near the beginning, where the sensual details accumulate around a moment in which the deepest yearning of the main character shines forth. The reader responds in a deep visceral way to that first epiphany -- and that's the epiphany missing from virtually every student manuscript I've read.

It is an element also, of course, missing from much published fiction. Various stories you read may leave you a little cold, distanced -- you may admire, maybe you have a kind of "smart" reaction -- but nothing resonates in the marrow of your bones, and the reason is that the character's yearning is not manifest.

This lack is interesting, because writers who aspire to a different kind of fiction -- entertainment fiction, let's call it, genre fiction -- have never forgotten this necessity of the character's yearning ....  The difference between the desires expressed in entertainment fiction and literary fiction is only a difference of level. Instead of: I want a man, a woman, wealth, power, or to solve a mystery or to drive a stake through a vampire's heart, a literary desire is on the order of: I yearn for self, I yearn for an identity, I yearn for a place in the universe, I yearn to connect to the other. But that there must be yearning the genre writers never forget. We do.

Desire is the driving force behind plot. The character yearns, the character does something in pursuit of that yearning, and some force or other will block the attempt to fulfil that yearning. The character will respond to the force in some way, go round or through or over or under it, and continue the pursuit. The dynamic beneath the story is plot: the attempt to fulfil the yearning and the world's attempt to thwart that."

Extract from, 'From Where You Dream: the Process of Writing Fiction' by Robert Olen Butler.

I have been reading about fiction and how it works because I am marking Honours papers in creative writing and the end of year portfolio arrives soon, because I am working with first year students on fiction after weeks of poetry, because this year I have been forcing my first years to buy notebooks and to observe the world and write it down and share it and to use it every week, because a student turned an average story into something with real potential using an observation of dead flowers in a vase - the look of death, the smell, the way they turned a place loved into a place less welcoming; because a student said defiantly the other day that she 'likes cheesy', because we're doing PLOT this week and PLOT is tricky.

The two epiphanies. Thinking about them has taken me back to my novel The Blue. I know exactly where the epiphany comes near the end, and I am reminded again of the shock of that:  it came as much as a surprise to me as it did to Lilian. And I'd say there was an epiphany near the beginning - a meal of fish pie, the family eating together, the simple stuff of family, the thing she'd chosen -- but really it's a little way in, and is it really about what she yearns for? When I think about an epiphany right near the beginning, one based on yearning, I need to pause a moment, and I have a couple of false starts.

I realise eventually that it is where Lilian emerges from feeding the chickens (a responsibility/crowded/demanding/society of sorts) and looks down from her home at the beauty of the place she loves (and fears) - the deep water Sounds - 'drowned valleys' where the land feels for a handhold - all that expanse of water is quite simply purity and beauty and freedom and escape from familial responsibilities and the demands of love.

This is evoked a little later on when she's out fishing with her son and looking back at the island where they live, and which holds their whole complicated history, and she says something about liking to go out on the boat and fish because things look different from out there. I knew all this instinctively when I was writing the novel, but hadn't thought of it the way Olen Butler puts it. I certainly hadn't focused on the need to have the epiphany based on yearning near the start to orient and engage the reader.

This is wonderful stuff. I realise my favourite readers like Alice Munro do the epiphanies (two of them) exquisitely. That is what I read them for.  All very useful for teaching plot. Clearly, my student with the dead flowers in a vase needs an earlier epiphany with strong sensual details, and she doesn't. And very useful for writing my own fiction too...

The next chapter of Olen Butler's book is called 'Cinema of the Mind', and I will discuss it here next week sometime.


Anonymous said...

OMG - what a concise explanation, must get that book - love the idea that there are two epiphanies Mary, that is so inspiring - wondering back to my work now and have brain freeze. Makes such sense. Thanks for this, can't wait for your next installment

Penelope said...

Much to think about here, thank you, Mary. I'm interested to learn the literal meaning of epiphany. In esoteric philosophy it is the object of each object or being to 'shine forth', and one might hope for the same from each character and ultimately from each scene or even sentence in a novel, but I'm certainly going to ponder the presence or absence of the two epiphanies you outline in my own fiction and others'.