In the August 30, 2015, issue of the New York Times, an essay in the Magazine section caught my attention. Called “Standstill,” by Sam Anderson, it is an essay about “the political world’s obsession with the moment.” Acknowledging that modern humans weren’t the first to consider “the moment,” Anderson looks back to the Greeks to explain two different kinds of time:
… chronus (the vast, inhuman, infinite stretch of time) and kairos (the moment). A boring old hour is a patch of chronus. Kairos, on the other hand, is where the magic happens: those decisive instants in which the world suddenly changes. Kairos is significant time, charged time, heavenly time. It transcends calendars, soaks everything in meaning.
Virginia Woolf called it moments of being. James Joyce took the spiritually laden word epiphany and put it to much the same purpose. In the introduction to a collection of Woolf’s essays, titled Moments of Being, Jeanne Schulkind explains Woolf’s philosophy:
… the individual in his daily life is cut off from “reality” but at rare moments receives a shock. These shocks … are “a token of some real thing behind appearances.” … [In Woolf’s writings] the moments of being, sometimes charged with revelations of astonishing intensity, are threaded in among scenes of typical days and occasions, describing the physical environment, the social forces, the family and personal attachments and passions, which shape the outer self.
As for epiphany, one definition in the Oxford English Dictionary is: any “sudden, intuitive perception of or insight into the reality or essential meaning of something.” This is what a person means when he says, “I just had an epiphany.” Joyce uses epiphanies to allow a character to gain a deep insight, and he often ended the short stories in the Dubliners collection with epiphanies. The main character of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen Dedalus, describes it as such:
By an epiphany [Stephen] meant a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself. He believed … they are the most delicate and evanescent of moments.
You probably see where I am going with this. Whatever you want to call it, kairos, a moment of being, or an epiphany, these instances of revelation and insight are essential to any piece of writing. If a story, novel, or memoir is nothing more than “scenes of typical days and occasions,” with the characters going about their business and never seeming particularly aware of their lives, never changing in any way, then no matter how stupendously well written that story or book is, the reader will quickly get bored and toss it aside.
On the other hand, your story should not have so many epiphanies and insights that characters are constantly amazed at these revelations and walk around awestruck. That’s not particularly believable, for one thing; and allowing your characters one insight after another after another weakens the value of each insight.
These moments of being need to be earned. They can come unexpectedly and from something as mundane as the clock in a railway station or from a seemingly trivial conversation. Whatever the insight is, it needs to shift the character’s perception of herself and of her place in the world. Maybe not drastically, but enough so that as she moves forward, the choices she makes will be subtly changed (for the better or worse).
Consider Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, a novel filled with “scenes of typical days and occasions.” But there are dawning realizations throughout the book—except among those characters who remain firmly fixed in their perceptions of themselves and their place in the world and never change—most especially Elizabeth Bennet’s epiphany that whereas Mr. Darcy may be overly proud, she has been unreasonably prejudiced. Austen skillfully leads us to that moment; the reader, intimately acquainted with Elizabeth by then, believes it; and Elizabeth embraces the kairos.
Your story or book does not have to be filled with lightning bolts of realizations. Sometimes quiet, simple ones are more powerful. But whoever your protagonist is at the start, after an epiphany or two, she needs to be at least a bit different by the end.