This is no. 81 in a series of craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.
I continually puzzle over something the essayist Amy Benson said during a seminar on “the lyric essay.” Or maybe she didn’t say it but alluded to it by the structure of her syllabus. This was a while ago, but essentially she proposed that essays might follow one of a few types of arcs: the arc of narrative, the arc of argument, the arc of epiphany.
This concept made intuitive sense to me. The feeling of the word arc—which for me always conjures the bowing of a ship’s prow, something sturdy and flexible, something constructed but buoyant, something that cuts through water and ice but is smooth enough to run your hand over—matches the feeling of an essay. The arc of narrative seems clear enough: The essay uses as its keel the rising and falling action of story. Its end point is coterminous with a feeling of resolution, or maybe just arrival, in the narrative. The arc of argument shapes an essay around an idea that needs advancing, a thought that needs interrogating and articulating—whether it’s clearly an argument or just a notion the writer is toying with.
But what is an essay that follows the arc of epiphany?
I don’t remember how Benson defined it, and I prefer it that way. This way the arc of epiphany is something I get to imagine, to theorize, to puzzle over, to strive within. Is it an essay that provokes an epiphany? An essay that finds its arrival point in a moment of epiphany or bright realization? Does it replicate, structurally, the feeling of epiphany: total confusion followed by rupture and maybe rapture, followed by reassessment of everything that came before in light of the new knowledge, followed, perhaps, by disillusionment or fading fervor? Is it an essay that completely upends itself part of the way through and starts over on new premises? Does it just go right ahead and manifest the divine, as the word’s earliest uses in English (first, to describe Christ’s appearance to the Magi; and then to denote the revelation of a divinity more generally) would indicate?
When I wrote my first book, Thin Places, I toyed with creating an arc of epiphany not only within a single essay but through an arrangement of essays—or, to put it in geometric terms, a major arc produced by a series of minor arcs. I wanted to make a collection of essays that each individually riffed on the epiphanic (say, by ending with the appearance of a holy orange; or by putting the reader in a prolonged confrontation with death; or by pulling a U-turn halfway through a piece about debutante balls to talk about queerness) but also collectively and gradually, through sequential reading, crested into something like the epiphanic. I wanted that big inrush of air, that clearer picture, that sudden recognition of pattern.
This is an extremely lofty goal, I realize, and I didn’t necessarily think such a thing would be possible (not least because I still wonder what “arc of epiphany” means), but it gave me something to play with and push against. Most writing that I like—of my own or by other people—is written as a genuine and urgent attempt to understand something inscrutable. When the writer stretches to comprehend something just out of their reach, or to articulate something for which they have no words—that’s when the air begins to crackle. It feels like a goal worth reaching for, even and especially if you have to make up its rubric yourself.
Jordan Kisner is the author of the essay collection Thin Places (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020). Her writing has also appeared in the Atlantic, the Believer, the Guardian, n+1, the New York Times Magazine, and the Paris Review Daily. The recipient of fellowships from Pioneer Works, the Millay Colony for the Arts, and Art Omi, she is currently a fellow at the Black Mountain Institute in Las Vegas.Thumbnail: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Photo Library