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Monday Flash Focus: Searching for Epiphanies About Epiphanies

“And you, you ridiculous people, you expect me to help you” (77). For Charles Baxter, writing in his book of essays Burning Down the House, this excerpt from Denis Johnson’s writing illuminates Baxter’s problem with epiphany stories: Why would any reader look to writers (of all people) for the realizations of life that will save them? The emphasis and resulting desire for epiphanies make such sudden insights the raison d’être for stories; they exist for characters to encounter the unknown and be transformed as a result of the confrontation with chaos. They are creation stories (or is it recreation stories) ending with a new Self—and, of course, a new, more mature understanding of the world.

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The traditional hero, then, becomes someone who changes to conform to the demands of the world. What’s interesting about that idea of “heroic” is that it is oftentimes an unyielding refusal to see and conform to reality often defines the heroes of myths and legends. They never bend, even if such a stance dooms them. They remain fixed, constant—all the way down the line. That sense of impending doom, of being trapped in a Fate from which one cannot escape, does indeed seem missing from modern storytelling. It, as Baxter points out, runs counter to a culture that demands a sense that people can change at any moment—with the very next purchase, the next flick of the channel, the next Oprah or Dr. Phil program. I wonder how flash might remind us of the myth of such life-transforming epiphanies. If an epiphany does come at all, can it also create a pervasive, lasting sense of doom rather than the sudden life-affirming enlightenment?  In other words, can the light sometimes goes off, rather than on?<

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My story in Storyglossia “For This Moment To Arrive” (now that I look back upon it) was my attempt to address the nature of epiphanies in stories and reconcile them with their nature in “real life.”

Jonathan, all his life, has resisted epiphanies. So what else is there but to put him in a story, the place of irresistible change. No one likes that stubborn refusal to yield to circumstances. It’s inhuman. And a million other god-awful things. Read the rest here.
Resisting the epiphany feels like resisting “meaning” in writing a story, since the so much of a story’s meaning focuses upon that final revelation and transformation. How else might a flash piece mean something to readers?

Comments (1) Comments RSS

  • Really really liked your story. Really.

    My comment has nothing to do with flash...novelists struggle with the same thing. I just reviewed Anne Tyler's latest novel for the Inquirer. 36 pages before the end, the main character has an epiphany--based on that, he has a choice to make. After the big E...he agonizes...frets...goes in fits and starts...and ends up sitting in his chair, content, having allowed his decision to happen to him: He'll do Nothing About It. This got me thinking. He's a passive character, and it's very hard to write an interesting passive character. In this case you're rooting for him to change, and the ending is disturbing because he chooses not to(It really works in the novel). (when I was a pre-teen, I decided that mythical heros were boring because they were only about one thing.) Maybe the emphasis on epiphany springs partly from the desire to avoid passive characters?

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