The Nature of Epiphanies

[This is “Writing Wednesdays,” #3. Our winner–of a signed copy of The War of Art–is David Cutshall. Here’s the fave quote he sent in: “Our job in this lifetime is not to shape ourselves into some idea of what we imagine we ought to be, but to find out who we already are and become it.” Thanks, David! The following takes off from there.]

How do people change? How do they turn their lives around? An aspiring artist, for example, or a wannabe entrepreneur. What propels someone from sitting on the sidelines to actually entering the arena? What makes a person move from dilettante to professional?

There’s usually a Moment, isn’t there? Something happens. The lightning bolt strikes and nothing is ever the same.

The American College dictionary defines epiphany as “an appearance or manifestation, esp. of a deity.” In common usage, we mean something like a flash, a breakthrough. A moment of insight. I have a dear friend who’s a lawyer. Here’s hers.

I was driving, alone, from San Francisco to L.A. I had a meeting I had to get to. I got to Bakersfield around five and pulled off to find a gas station. I woke up the next morning by myself in a Holiday Inn Express, in the same clothes I was wearing the day before, with an empty fifth of Jim Beam on the bedstand beside me.

We usually think of breakthroughs as moments that elevate us from one plane to another. In my experience, it’s the opposite. An epiphany trashes us, humbles us. We fall on our face. We fail. We flame out. But this time for some reason, we can’t summon our habitual ally–denial. This time the scales fall from our eyes, this time we see.

If you’ll forgive me for quoting myself, the following is from Killing Rommel:

All genuine epiphanies seem to follow this model: their defining quality is the relinquishment of illusion. The initial dread is that you’ve lost something. A cherished self-conception must be given up, and you feel diminished by it. This is mistaken however. One discovers that he has been made stronger by the jettisoning of this sham and disadvantageous baggage. In fact he has become more “himself,” by aligning his self-concept more scrupulously with fact.

If you’ve read The War of Art, you know that the book’s thesis is that what keeps us from living out our authentic lives is a force I call Resistance with a capital R. Internal self-sabotage. Resistance, when it hits its peak, produces the aforementioned debacle. If we’re lucky, this is how we rise from those ashes:

Amid the smoking shards of this ultimate debacle, we come face to face with our own bullshit. We reckon our limitations. We are fallible, we are flawed, we are human. We realize, finally in our guts, that we don’t have the power/brains/beauty that we so deliriously imagined we did. We recognize that the forces arrayed against us–specifically our own interior impulses of self-sabotage–are far more powerful than we are. And they’re playing for keeps. They’re out to bury us, and they will kick our ass today and every night and day into the future.

The essence of epiphanies, we have said, is the stripping away of self-delusion. In that stripping lies power. Because now we know how hard it is, now we know how deep we have to dig. We acknowledge that we are not Spiderman. We don’t possess superhuman powers. We turn this moment into power the same way a recovering alcoholic does. One day at a time. With help, which we are now not too proud to ask for.

In that moment, we see Resistance for what it is and we see ourselves for what we are. It ain’t a pretty picture. But now we have two things going for us that we didn’t have five minutes ago: we have reality and we have humility. These are powerful allies. And we have a third force working in our favor: shame. Why is shame positive? Because shame can produce the final element we need to change our lives: will.

My friend blinking in the dawn outside a Bakersfield motel. The writer (me) who quits ten pages short of finishing his novel. The aspiring software entrepreneur who accepts his boss’s offer of a raise–and shambles, head down, back to his cubicle.

Epiphanies hurt. There’s no glory to them. They only make good stories at AA meetings or late at night among other foot soldiers in the trenches. These soldiers know. Each one has his story too, of that ghastly, mortifying moment when it all turned around for him and set him right.

More Quotes from The War of Art

Please continue sending me your quotes from The War of Art. Rather than closing the contest each week, it will remain open. I will track the quotes that I receive via Twitter (@spressfield), as well as those posted to the wall of my “Writer” Facebook page, and to the comments section following my “Writing Wednesdays” posts. Some of you have submitted the same quotes. The person connected to the first submission will receive credit. Another signed copy of The War of Art will be sent to the person whose quote is chosen next week.  Thanks!


Steve shows you the predictable Resistance points that every writer hits in a work-in-progress and then shows you how to deal with each one of these sticking points. This book shows you how to keep going with your work.

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A short book about the writing of a first novel: for Steve, The Legend of Bagger Vance. Having failed with three earlier attempts at novels, here's how Steve finally succeeded.



Steve shares his "lessons learned" from the trenches of the five different writing careers—advertising, screenwriting, fiction, nonfiction, and self-help. This is tradecraft. An MFA in Writing in 197 pages.



Amateurs have amateur habits. Pros have pro habits. When we turn pro, we give up the comfortable life but we find our power. Steve answers the question, "How do we overcome Resistance?"



  1. Carolyn Burns Bass on August 5, 2009 at 7:14 am

    Reality, humility, shame: The triumvirate of success. Maybe not for everyone, but for many. An author I interviewed recently said one of the driving forces in her success was the need to complete what she told everyone she’d started. She now has two books published, recently sold her third, and is working hard on her fourth. That’s Kristy Kiernan, folks.

  2. Claude Batmanghelidj on August 5, 2009 at 8:46 am

    You mentioned Hamas, Al Qaeda (which does not even exist, and was a name created by the CIA) and Hezbollah as “tribal” movements. Hamas and Hezbollah are resistance movements against another tribe, the Israelis. The Israelis are the greatest tribe to ever walk the face of the earth. Highly organised, incredibly united, and with an unbroken history of 2000 years.

    What you need to understand is that if Hamas and Hezbollah are “tribal movements” as you like to call them, they are mirroring the actions of the Israeli Tribe which has seized their territory and made a fully hostile takeover of their native lands. America is a universal state, and far from being tribal, however, the president tapped atavistic impulses within the public to support launching his ill advised campaign.

    A very significant element behind the campaigns, especially in the case of Iraq was Israel. We see in Iraq and in Afghanistan, local tribes making use of American firepower to deal with thier rivals. There have been numerous cases of rivals giving coordinates of their competition to the US and then these people being vaporised by Predator strikes and the like.

    That kind of thing is small fry compared to the Israelis doing exactly the same thing, except for describing its enemies, Iran and Iraq, as deadly threats to America, and having American firepower try and take them out. Same damn principle.

    So, unless you deign to introduce the single most important element in the middle east, Israel, into this “tribal” metaphor you want to use, then you are not the real deal, but simply tossing around red herrings to take the spotlight of Israel.

    The minute you honestly start addressing Israel, will be the minute I start taking you seriously.

    However, where we may differ is that

  3. viviana goldenberg on August 5, 2009 at 10:07 am

    Resistance is our natural enemy. As you mentioned in “War of Art” ,it takes many different shapes. It is what makes us renounce to our dreams, and to choose a path in life that might not be wrong, but it is not what makes us happy… Well let me rephrase that: if it does not makes us happy, then it is wrong, but it is easier. I learnt that in the hard way, now I feel that is really hard to move on and recover my dreams but I keep trying. Resistance in my case has resulted in a comfortable life as physician, but it is far from what I envisioned in my teenager years.
    I really love this “Writing Wednesdays”. Thank you, Steven

  4. Jennifer Maurici on August 5, 2009 at 4:59 pm

    Favorite quote for this week – “Seeking support from friends and family is like having people gathered around at your deathbed. It’s nice, but when the ship sails, all they can do is stand on the dock waving goodbye.” – pg. 51

  5. Kevin Ward on August 5, 2009 at 8:33 pm

    Favorite War of Art quote for the week — “The humanist believes that humankind, as individuals, is called upon to co-create the world with God. This is why he values human life so highly. In his view, things do progress, life does evolve; each individual has value, at least potentially, in advancing this cause. The fundamentalist cannot conceive of this. In his society, dissent is not just crime but apostasy; it is heresy, transgression against God Himself.” –pg. 36

  6. Sarah Mable on August 6, 2009 at 12:35 am

    Favorite quote for this week :”We have a job to do, a calling to enact, a self to become. We are who we are from the cradle, and we’re stuck with it. Our job in this lifetime is not to shape ourselves into some ideal we imagine we ought to be, but to find out who we already are and become it.” (pg. 146)

  7. viviana goldenberg on August 7, 2009 at 11:08 am

    For the last hour I have been trying to take a nap and avoiding to do what I was suppose to do in my day off: following my dream. So I opened “the War of Ar” as an excuse for Resistance, yeah anything can be an excuse even that book, and my eyes fell on this: ” This second we can turn the tables on Resistance. This second we can sit down and do our work”. You didn’t give a chance to back up today, Steven!. Well, I guess that it would be my phrase for this week then.

  8. Howard on August 15, 2009 at 9:46 pm

    A momentary flash of enlightenment? An fleeting glimpse of nirvana? Getting one’s pecker placed in the dirt?

    In my manic lifestyle torn between art and science, violence and love, loyalty and self interest… an epiphany is but a fleeting reminder. Once I get sustainable, I’l let the rest of you know the path. hahaha


    Good points, however, the discussions on this blog have not focussed on the “handling” of our allies. Just because it is of your particular importance does not detract from the current incarnation of the real-time multilog Stevo is creating here for us. I hope your comment prompts further discussion, however. In my view, the Israelis’ are a semetic tribe with very similar traits to the arab tribes at the core level. On the surface, they are more “western” than us poor white trash; down deep, they are desert psychopaths with long memories. I would probable agree with you that unquestioning US support of Israel is not sustainable realpolitik.

    One major point of meaningless disagreement. The Celtic and Viking tribes are objectively the greatest tribes at this time. Given the “hair cut” experienced during the ’30s and ’40’s, the Israeli’s, as a tribe, leave much to be desired. Their existence today is largely reliant on the good graces of the Celto-Vikings. This now heavily intermixed super-tribe is responsible for 90% of the current progress and trouble the world now faces.

    The point of this blog (it seems to me) is that the Celto-Viking horde (USMC and US Army) in Afghanistan must return to its’ roots to be successful.

  9. Laurie Black on September 8, 2009 at 7:59 pm

    A quote I love: “But the Muse had me. I had to do it. To my amazement, the book succeeded critically and commercially better than anything I’d ever done, and others since have been lucky too. Why? My best guess is this: I trusted what I wanted, not what I thought would work. I did what I myself thought was interesting, and left its reception to the gods.” BRAVO! 🙂

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