The following is a chapter from my book The Wheel of the Year: A Writer’s Workbook (2015, Red Dashboard). The book is structured with sixteen essays, one for each of the eight seasons of the year, covering two years. This essay is from Year One. Enjoy.
December 20-23: Winter Solstice (Yule)
Celebrating Yule: How Epiphanies Happen
Short gloomy days. Long cold nights. Living in the country, my retired partner and I find ourselves easily adapting to the season. As nights grow longer and days dwindle to brief stretches of gray, we read more, play more board games, and talk more than we did during the busy warm months when we often work outside at separate tasks.
Here on the prairie we welcome the Yule season surrounding the Winter Solstice as a bright break from winter chores, an opportunity to drive to town, enjoy the lights, and hear the special music. Though we deplore the season’s commercialization, we understand that modern practices of gifts, greetings and gaiety preserve ancient traditions designed to drive the gloom away and hasten the return of spring. We enter into the spirit of the season.
Yet in spite of the distractions, Yule is particularly appropriate as a time of meditation on writing. The ancients understood how completely both darkness and light are essential to life. Only from the night’s dark womb can light be reborn. Though we may be cold and exhausted from summer’s planting and harvest, winter’s slow periods of reflection, along with the indulgences of the yuletide season, can refill our reservoirs and produce a spring of writing.
I have learned to serve my writing life by exploring the boundaries that separate it from the rest of my existence. Instead of allowing myself to be wrapped in the dark blanket of winter, I can build symbolic fires to lure the sun of my writing inspiration back.
The word “solstice” means “the time when the sun stands still,” because the ancients may have believed that the sun would cease moving and vanish if not cajoled to return its warmth to the earth. The scientific explanation for the sun’s apparent immobility is simple: because of the earth’s tilt, our hemisphere is leaning far away from the sun. Therefore the sun’s arc in the sky is short, making daylight brief, night long. No matter how we hustle, we may accomplish only the most basic requirements of our days before darkness signals our bodies that it’s time to rest.
Similarly, I might find it easy to let my writing congeal as my blood thickens unless I am firm with myself. How easy it would be to immerse myself in yuletide excesses! I could happily choose and wrap gifts, decorate the house, bake sweet treats and read thick books, allowing writing to sink to the bottom of a long list of chores.
So I try to outsmart myself, to insist on keeping writing central to my daylight schedule. Moving from household job to mundane task, I carry my journal. Jobs like peeling potatoes and wrapping gifts allow my mind to delve into ideas for next season’s writing, and my journal is right there on the kitchen counter where I can make notes. Yes, some pages are smeared with potato juice or tomato sauce; those decorations add specific memories when I return to the notes!
Looking around me in the early dark, I see my neighbors’ so-called “security lights” bathe the hillsides in lurid orange, reminding me how early humans must have feared the lengthening nights of winter. Apparently that fear is still with us. Most civilizations in the northern hemisphere appear to have created rituals intended to drive away winter’s dark cold and bring back light and warmth; in the southern hemisphere, of course, the year’s rituals are reversed and celebrations of summer’s heat are underway. Feasting and merrymaking at this time may also have offered an opportunity to evaluate the harvest and plan how to make it last until spring. After the festivities, families stayed close to the hearth, drawing inward, spending more time together.
If modern Americans could attend an ancient celebration of the Winter Solstice, we might be surprised by its familiar aspects: candles light the room around the hearth and twinkle on the branches of an evergreen tree; friends sing hymns; decorations are red, green and white. Despite differences in religion or ancestry, many customs and symbols that mean “Christmas” to us today originated with ancient pagan rituals in another part of the world.
In writing, I often focus on origins. When I was studying early Greek history as an undergraduate, I was stunned to learn that the hero or sage born from a virgin mother was a familiar legend in the Hellenistic world; Pythagorus, Plato, Alexander were all believed to be born of a woman touched by the power of a holy spirit. The union of a virgin with some supernatural force was intended to demonstrate that their offspring was special. Priests endeavoring to win converts to any new religion might have included the story in their dogma because its power was familiar.
Since then, when I am beginning new writing, I often research word histories, including origins and definitions. The information may not appear in what I eventually write but the knowledge deepens my thinking or extends my mind. For example, Joseph T. Shipley in his Dictionary of Word Origins suggests that the term “yule” may be related to “wheel,” as in the Wheel of the Year, and informs me that Queen Victoria’s husband Albert was the first to develop the practice of celebrating the season with a green tree instead of the burning yule log.
One Yule season, I tried for weeks to write a winter solstice message for my correspondents and my website. I produced drafts of several ideas and wrote several blog messages but nothing suited.
What I needed, I told myself, was an epiphany; that is, a brilliant idea.
I turned first to my compact edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. Handling the unwieldy books reminds me that I was living on beans and rice when I bought this compressed version of the famous dictionary in 1971. Besides working on my MA degree at the University of Missouri-Columbia, I was editor of the school’s literary magazine and was helping edit an alternative anti-war publication. My marriage was rapidly disintegrating. Owning the OED raised my spirits and made me, I believed, a real writer.
Lugging one of the ponderous tomes to my desk and placing the accompanying magnifying glass to its tiny print still gives me a huge satisfaction that can never be matched in joy or speed by searching for a word on the Internet—even if the Internet provided accurate information, which it frequently does not.
The word “epiphany” appears to derive from a Greek word meaning “manifestation,” or “to appear,” and carries multiple meanings. In religion, Epiphany is “a Christian feast” observed on January 6 or “a revelatory manifestation of a divine being.”
The meaning I’m seeking, though, is “a sudden manifestation of the essence or meaning of something” and “a comprehension or perception of reality by means of a sudden intuitive realization.” That’s it: “A sudden intuitive realization.” The goal of a considerable amount of writing is to arrive at that sudden realization, that understanding of the essence or meaning. Sometimes we can only do it by blundering around in vagueness and imprecision, stumbling through the word-jungle without a path or a flashlight.
Those final meanings touch writers and other creative artists most closely, since they explain that moment when an idea catches fire in our minds, begins to burn with a light that can lead us through the darkness of multiple revisions. Few occasions in life can match that ebullience, that explosion of delight.
Finishing a poem or essay is a long hard grind for me, but after a blinding instant of understanding, I usually wade through the required hours of moving commas, looking up words and re-reading aloud with a smile as I work to convey to anonymous readers what I realized in that moment of dazzling light. This definition is not inherently religious, but suggestive; whoever labeled this divine feeling an “epiphany” must have been aware of the word’s religious connotations. Finding the puzzle piece that makes a poem work is a spiritual experience.
Here’s the important question for writers and other creators: Can epiphanies happen in front of a TV? With a cell phone in hand? While texting?
For me, the answer is no. I have experienced epiphanies in a variety of situations but never in the presence of such distractions. I’m not entirely ruling out mechanical devices as agents of epiphany because one of my favorite times to think is while driving. With no interruptions but the need to pump gas into my vehicle, I’ve sorted out all kinds of problems.
A real epiphany, I believe, requires solitude and time to think, above all other needs. Driving, I’m often alone. I may play music but rarely the radio because its advertising racket destroys solitude. Or I might entertain an epiphany while treating my sinuses by lying in a hot bath infused with eucalyptus, peppermint, wintergreen and juniper. A writer friend says, “I’ve solved quite a few writing quandaries in the shower.” Another swears by walking his dog at night. Almost any kind of reading can allow the mind to wander down different pathways and lead to new ideas.
Some revelations arise from the peacefulness inherent in washing dishes and cooking. Since I set my own work hours, I’ve found homemaking chores can contribute greatly to my creativity. Sometimes I burn the rice when I run downstairs to the computer to record the revelation I’ve just had about that poem I started at 5 a.m., but the poetic satisfaction erases my annoyance at myself. (And vinegar and soda erase the burn marks from the pan.) Vacuuming floors and even cleaning toilets have led directly to poems. The mind cannot abide a vacuum. Deprived of advertising jingles, chatter, e-mail, and twittering, it may produce something original.
Writing in the journal, too, can enlighten as well as discipline a writer. When the dogs wake me between four and five in the morning, I let them out, record the temperature, and let them back in. Then I sit against pillows in bed, the dogs beside me, and pick up my journal. At that moment, I may have no conscious idea of what to write beyond “12/2/10 4:35 a.m. 25 degrees.” Once I have recorded those traditional details, though, I have limbered my mind and pen and may write about a dream, or thoughts from wakeful moments in the night or the sunrise and the heron looking for frogs in the pond outside the window.
On that particular December 2, sitting at my computer, I wondered how I could create an epiphany that would lead me to a winter solstice message.
Outside my study window stands my new greenhouse. With its curved, pointed roof, it reminds me of the tiny retreats used for meditation by Eastern monks. Half-laughing at myself, I dashed through falling snowflakes into the greenhouse and sat on an ancient stool my mother had painted blue so long ago the paint is cracked.
Taking deep breaths, I stared at the shells and peculiarly-marked rocks I’ve tucked into niches in a piece of driftwood, at wind chimes and a mobile of beads and driftwood made by a friend. I looked overhead at the tomato cages waiting in the rafters for spring; one had a few drying tendrils of creeping jenny vines still attached. Beside me stood a set of shelves filled with flower pots. Japanese fishing floats my partner’s family collected in the Pribilof Islands several decades ago hung from the ceiling. Despite the cold, the rich soil smelled as though something might be growing.
“I need an epiphany,” I announced, rubbing my thumb over one of the turtle figurines I collect to remind me to slow down. Mother turtle, in any form, whispers to me that I am part of the earth’s slow cycles.
I straightened my spine and breathed even more deeply.
Black cattle grazed across the tawny field below the hill; snow lay white over the ice on the pond. A rabbit nibbled grass under a juniper tree. A grouse stood on a top branch of another tree, craning its neck to watch for danger.
And in the silence, my epiphany arrived: I could write about epiphanies!
How do you find an epiphany?
Sit down, relax, close your eyes, and listen. Perhaps your revelation will come from your own mind, free at last to give you the thoughts it’s been incubating while you wrapped presents and baked cookies. Or perhaps an idea will manifest itself in touch, or in the breath of a concept. Footsteps may alert you to its approach. No matter its origin, your epiphany is your spark, the flame that will lead you to your springtime of writing.
Starhawk, a writer of many books on earth-based spirituality, has written a powerful chant to the goddess that could also describe an epiphany:
She changes everything she touches and
everything she touches changes
She changes everything she touches and
everything she touches changes
Let your epiphany change your writing.
Seek an epiphany. Sit quietly, breathe deeply, and clear your mind of distractions as fully as you can. When you think five minutes have passed, look at a clock and note how long has really passed. If you are surprised to discover that you spent only a minute or two at this task, do it again and try for five minutes. Repeat this practice every day until you can comfortably sit for five minutes without looking at your watch.
When the time is up, write down any thoughts that came to you, no matter how trivial they may seem. Look at them: are those epiphanies?
Have you ever had what you would term an epiphany? Write about it.
Nebraska State Poet and teacher Bill Kloefkorn used this writing suggestion, “Finding the Bull’s Eye Inside the Epiphany,” to begin each of his poetry classes.
Write down a word or phrase that reminds you of a painful experience; possibilities for pain are not necessarily physical.
If you can’t do that, then guess at it. If you can’t do that, lie.
“If lying bothers your conscience, you will never be a writer,” says Bill Kloefkorn.
Then ask questions about the word you’ve written down:
- What country were you in?
- What cosmos?
- How old were you?
- What town were you near?
- How far were you from (insert name of some nearby town)?
- How far were you from (insert name of some distant town)?
- Were there any lower animals with you?
- Any people?
- What were you wearing?
- Was it too big?
- If it wasn’t too big, where was it tight?
- Were you outside or inside?
- If you were inside, what color was the wallpaper?
- What were you walking on‑‑pavement, or another human being?
- Did it smell?
- Does it smell now?
After answering these questions, free write on what you’ve come up with for 45 minutes or so. That is, put pencil to paper or fingers to the keyboard and don’t stop writing for 45 minutes.
Wait! Don’t turn the page. You can do this. If your brain goes blank at any point, keep writing the same phrase or word over and over until your brain begins to supply something else. Your brain cannot abide a vacuum; it will not leave you gaping like a beached fish.
It is, however, best to time this writing practice, because if you think you can estimate the time, you will be surprised how long it can be, and it’s best not to stop writing to look.
From this writing comes material from which you can write almost indefinitely. Kloefkorn said his students sometimes spend the entire semester writing about the material generated in this first session, continuing to follow the clues they had given themselves, to discover “the bull’s eye inside the epiphany.”
One goal of this writing exercise is to write enough on one topic to begin to dig down into subjects that are hard to write about, and that therefore matter.
One result is that the more specific sensory detail you include, the more the reader will identify with what you have written. This is an odd fact, but true: even if the dress you wore to your first day of school was long and blue while mine was red and short; if your hair was long and black and mine was short and blonde; if your father drove you, and my mother drove me, and my teacher was fat and hugged me with her massive breasts while yours was skinny and stood tall and pointed you toward a seat– your specific memories will bring mine back to me, and I will then identify with what you have written.
I was delighted to see confirmation of this idea from popular singer Roseann Cash, who said, “That’s the discovery I made on this record: The more specific you are about places and characters, the more universal the song becomes.”
Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota
© 2019, Linda M. Hasselstrom
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The Wheel of the Year: A Writer’s Workbook (2015, Red Dashboard) is structured with sixteen essays, one for each of the eight seasons through two years, with an intermission essay, “Respect Writing By Not Writing,” which discusses taking time off. Extensive writing suggestions are included, as well as additional resources. The workbook is intended as a guide and teacher as a writer sets up her own schedule of writing and develops a relationship with the natural and mundane worlds in which we live. If the reader came to a retreat at my Windbreak House Writing Retreats, this might be a series of conversations we would have about writing.
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