One of my favorite writing quotes of all time comes from Flannery O’Connor, well known for her sharp observations and refreshing honesty. “The writer operates at a peculiar crossroads where time and place and eternity somehow meet,” she said. “His problem is to find that location.”
O’Connor manages in these two short sentences to say so much about the mystery, the dedication, and the frustration of writing, while also reassuring those of us who have temporarily lost our roadmap to creativity that this is normal, ongoing, and to be expected. The peculiar crossroads is indeed elusive, which is why artists are both crazed and exhilarated most of their days.
O’Connor was Catholic, of course, and may not take kindly to my equating her views with a central Buddhist concept, but that connection is something else I like about this quote. And O’Connor, while spitting in my eye, would perhaps applaud me for having the courage to say what I mean.
So here goes: I think O’Connor is also speaking here of enlightenment.
The Sanskrit word for enlightenment, bodhi, means “awakened.” For a long time, I held all of the common misperceptions that we in the West usually have about Buddhism – most of what we know of the tradition was often learned from New Yorker cartoons of a mystic sitting atop a mountain. One of those misperceptions is the persistent idea that enlightenment is the final goal of Buddhism; that once enlightenment was attained, the ethereal Buddhist sits, perhaps glowing and smiling at the lesser beings trudging along the path below.
That, of course, is utter nonsense. Enlightenment is of no use unless it is employed to better the world for all beings, and enlightenment—like any awakening—can come and go. Indeed, it can be very fleeting.
Writers who struggle with a poem, or story, or essay, for draft after draft after draft, may on occasion experience a smidgen of enlightenment. It is the moment that the perfect word, or precise action by a character, or the ideal phrasing of an idea, is revealed to the writer.
So often, this ideal phrase or line of dialogue is more of a discovery than an invention. It is often a flash of sorts, like the proverbial light bulb above the head depicted in cartoons. This flash of insight doesn’t come from thinking, from intellect, or from reason; it comes instead from a more mysterious part of our awareness. For that moment at least, it can seem as if time and place and eternity have somehow met.
Once a writer is fortunate enough to experience such a moment, however, she doesn’t stop. Her job is to find that “peculiar crossroads” again, to somehow pinpoint the ever-shifting “location” where insight forms. And then, once the story or poem is finished, the search begins again.
Dinty W. Moore is a Now Write! Nonfiction contributor, and the author of The Mindful Writer: Noble Truths of the Writing Life, as well as the memoir Between Panic & Desire, winner of the Grub Street Nonfiction Book Prize in 2009. He also edited The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction: Advice and Essential Exercises from Respected Writers, Editors, and Teachers. Moore has published essays and stories in many literary magazines and The New York Times Sunday Magazine. A professor of nonfiction writing at Ohio University, Moore has won many awards including a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Fiction. He edits Brevity, an online journal of flash nonfiction.