Why every writer needs a sense of awe

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The lexicon of awe is one that is both beautiful and dazzling.

For all writers, a sense of awe is a commitment not only to aesthetic practice but to embodying this lexicon in the writing we offer to the world and in the writing lives we lead.

Having a sense of awe requires us to orient towards:

  • epiphany
  • connection
  • eternity
  • mystery
  • questions
  • self-forgetting
  • surrender
  • flow
  • nature
  • sacredness
  • reverence
  • blessing
  • numinous

This is not a religious orientation, but a spiritual one. It is an attitude towards writing and the writing life that respects our connection to all life.

Awe as connection

In Upstream, the poet Mary Oliver, who died in January this year, puts it like this:

I have begun to look ... past the provables in other directions ... What I mean by spirituality is attitude...

... I would say that there are a thousand unbreakable links between each of us and everything else, and that our dignity and out chances are one. The farthest star and the mud at our feet are family, and there is no decency or sense in honoring one thing, or a few things, and the closing the list ... We are at risk together or we are on our way to a sustainable world together. We are each others' destiny.

Similarly for Jung, spirituality was not about institution and dogma, but about attending to the

Numinous, those moments of peak emotion, when we experience flashes of awe or epiphany that don’t necessarily relate to religious belief or notions of divinity.

Why is this particularly important to writers?

Awe as essence

The writer's task is always more than providing mere content. When we write, we’re opening ourselves up. Writing takes us into another space. We write to bear witness to events, to the world, to our context or history. We write to explore what it is to be human, to make meaning and to connect. We write to have an impact on the world and to imagine alternatives that might provide a new myth as humanity moves forward. We write to learn, to think, to research, to dig deep inside ourselves and to make art out of everyday, ordinary moments.

So much gets lost. There are too many moments to capture them all, to always find the meaning, but some of them make it. We write for the love of stories and because it's who we are.

All of this demands a stance that is life-affirming, open to huge questions and always exploratory. This is the territory of awe. When our frame of mind is one of humility, questioning, courage and generosity then we are much less likely to believe we have the answers or to write didactically and with hubris.

Writing about the need for mystery in Against interpretation & other essay Susan Sontag talks about how a trend of over-interpretation kills art and reduces it to content. This could equally be applied to so much of life. How we consume story, visual art, nature, the night sky or the universe can be cold, utilitarian and destructive. But we don't have to take this route. Instead art and nature can be viewed as nourishing, life-giving and there to interact with rather than gobble up.

Sontag notes:

Interpretation, based on the highly dubious theory that a work of art is composed of items of content, violates art. It makes art into an article for use, for arrangement into a mental scheme of categories

The alternative is to insist that art, nature and literature are more profound, more deserving of deep engagement, which in turn encourages art that takes risks and pushes our questions further.

Real art has the capacity to make us nervous. By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art. Interpretation makes art manageable, conformable

Sontag favours sensory experience over interpretation since this makes us more likely to lose ourselves in the work of art, something she calls 'active surrender', so that the art or story infiltrates and claims our souls.

Interpretation takes the sensory experience of the work of art for granted, and proceeds from there… Ours is a culture based on excess, on overproduction; the result is a steady loss of sharpness in our sensory experience. All the conditions of modern life — its material plenitude, its sheer crowdedness — conjoin to dull our sensory faculties. And it is in the light of the condition of our senses, our capacities (rather than those of another age), that the task of the critic must be assessed.

What is important now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more.

This is not an anti-intellectual attack on criticism, but a call for a style of critical engagement that doesn't trample our souls.

Our task is not to find the maximum amount of content in a work of art, much less to squeeze more content out of the work than is already there. Our task is to cut back content so that we can see the thing at all.

The aim of all commentary on art now should be to make works of art — and, by analogy, our own experience — more, rather than less, real to us. The function of criticism should be to show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means.

When awe is at the essence of our writing, replete with openness, flexibility and all the vulnerability and risk implied, we are ready to enter a deep state of flow as writers.

Awe as a hunger for eternity

This is Mary Oliver again in her final and brilliant collection of essays, Upstream.

Certainly there is within each of us a self that is neither a child, nor a servant of the hours. It is a third self, occasional in some of us, tyrant in others. This self is out of love with the ordinary; it is out of love with time. It has a hunger for eternity.

Writers know this self as the 'tyrant' but a tyrant we welcome and want to inhabit as much as humanly possible. When we satiate this hunger for eternity we feel ourselves to be beyond time and space.

Writing about the impulse of creativity, Alan Lightman expresses the same sentiment in A Sense of the Mysterious:

As a novelist, I’ve experienced the same sensation. When I suddenly understand a character I’ve been struggling with, or find a lovely way of describing a scene, I am lifted out of the water, and I plane. I’ve read the accounts of other writers, musicians, and actors, and I think that the sensation and process are almost identical in all creative activities. The pattern seems universal: The study and hard work. The prepared mind. The being stuck. The sudden shift. The letting go of control. The letting go of self.

To hunger for eternity is an act of letting go. It is a self-forgetfulness in the face of much larger questions and the mystery of life.

Awe as not knowing

Mystery implies not having all the answers, not being the only person or species that matters. Lightman goes on:

I believe that [Einstein] meant a sense of awe, a sense that there are things larger than us, that we do not have all the answers at this moment. A sense that we can stand right at the edge between known and unknown and gaze into that cavern and be exhilarated rather than frightened… I have experienced that beautiful mystery both as a physicist and as a novelist. As a physicist, in the infinite mystery of physical nature. As a novelist, in the infinite mystery of human nature and the power of words to portray some of that mystery.

Awe as reverence

Seeing awe as the essence of the writing life, placing writing in the stream of eternity with a recognition that we are fallible, limited and don't have all the answers, brings us full circle to how connected we are to all things. The more deeply we contemplate this, the more we are in awe of life itself and full of reverence.

Oliver Sacks, an extraordinary writer and scientist, saw this with remarkable clarity and with a spiritual insight that owed nothing to narrow religious adherence.

In The Island of the Colourblind, he writes about wandering the rain forest of Rota in a state of reverence. Resonating with Thoreau’s notion that nature is itself a form of prayer, he writes:

I find myself walking softly on the rich undergrowth beneath the trees, not wanting to crack a twig, to crush or disturb anything in the least — for there is such a sense of stillness and peace that the wrong sort of movement, even one’s very presence, might be felt as an intrusion… The beauty of the forest is extraordinary — but “beauty” is too simple a word, for being here is not just an esthetic experience, but one steeped with mystery, and awe.

Nature has a way of blurring boundaries — we become part of its expansiveness, so that to call it merely 'beautiful' seems inadequate, too limiting:

The primeval, the sublime, are much better words here — for they indicate realms remote from the moral or the human, realms which force us to gaze into immense vistas of space and time, where the beginnings and originations of all things lie hidden. Now, as I wandered in the cycad forest on Rota, it seemed as if my senses were actually enlarging, as if a new sense, a time sense, was opening within me, something which might allow me to appreciate millennia or eons as directly as I had experienced seconds or minutes.

Once more we are pulled into a sense of eternity and an awareness that all life is connected. As the naturalist John Muir’s puts it:

when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.

Sacks goes on:

The sense of deep time brings a deep peace with it, a detachment from the timescale, the urgencies, of daily life. ... Standing here in the jungle, I feel part of a larger, calmer identity; I feel a profound sense of being at home, a sort of companionship with the earth.

Awe as sanctuary

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When we forget about ourselves and our egos; when we surrender to much huger mysteries than our individual noisy thoughts; when we enter states of flow in order to take risks, create or simply be, we feel that companionship.

Writing in his notebook, Walt Whitman says it like this:

After you have exhausted what there is in business, politics, conviviality, love, and so on — have found that none of these finally satisfy, or permanently wear — what remains? Nature remains; to bring out from their torpid recesses, the affinities of a man or woman with the open air, the trees, fields, the changes of seasons — the sun by day and the stars of heaven by night.

The exact nature of this sanctuary can vary from writer to writer, person to person. Some of us are most inspired by forests, others by mountains, some by seascapes, others by the night sky. For Hermann Hesse, writing in Wandering Notes and Sketches, it is trees that most move and shelter him:

For me, trees have always been the most penetrating preachers. I revere them when they live in tribes and families, in forests and groves. And even more I revere them when they stand alone. They are like lonely persons. ... Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree.


Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. ... A tree says: A kernel is hidden in me, a spark, a thought, I am life from eternal life. ... I was made to form and reveal the eternal in my smallest special detail.


Whoever has learned how to listen to trees no longer wants to be a tree. He wants to be nothing except what he is. That is home. That is happiness.

Thoreau also had a great reverence for trees, seeing them as blessings on being itself and as wordless prayers.

... alone in distant woods or fields, in unpretending sprout lands or pastures tracked by rabbits, even on a black and, to most, cheerless day, ... I come to myself, I once more feel myself grandly related... I suppose that this value, in my case, is equivalent to what others get by churchgoing and prayer. I come to my solitary woodland walk as the homesick go home… It is as if I always met in those places some grand, serene, immortal, infinitely encouraging, though invisible, companion, and walked with him.

Awe as responsibility

Awe connects us to all things and also gives us a home, a sanctuary not in knowing it all and pride, but in the wide mystery of life where we ask the biggest questions, knowing that often we will have to go on living with those questions.

The best writers ask enormous questions and stay with them. In the poetry collection A Responsibility to Awe, Rebecca Elson asks the profound question of how we face suffering and our own finitude. A gifted astronomer and post-doctoral researcher into dark matter at Cambridge University, Elson lived with cancer for several years before dying at the age of 39 in 1999. Her extraordinary collection, collated after her death, not only contains her poetry but a selection of journal entries on her writing process and on life.

She asks huge questionsabout meaning, about why, about the randomness of early death and the enormity of mortality itself. This, for example, from October 9, 1998.

And how in all this glory

Can it be a gene gone wrong

And why

And didn't my body know I needed it for longer

That I haven't finished yet

And won't in six months

Or even years

Is there ever a time you're ready

To lay it down

To stop all the singing and dancing

To pass into what?

The only thing she objects to questioning is the value of our lives. And we see this absolute commitment to the value of life and to the place of awe even in the face of death throughout the poetry. Pieces like 'Let there always be light' that yearns

To bring us all so close that we ignite

Becoming a different story

Thank you for reading — sign up to my email list and I’ll send you a free PDF on writing and the writing life. While you’re there, download my free course, Giving yourself time to become a different story.

Written by

Editor, author, feminist & part-time nomad. Helping others develop their writing life and practice. Blog @ https://janfortune.com/

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