Has this ever happened to you? You read something and it really moves you. When you search for the sparking passage again, though, it eludes you.
Emerson writes about this frustration:
“I suppose every old scholar has had the experience of reading something in a book which was significant to him, but which he could never find again. Sure he is that he read it there; but no one else ever read it, nor can he find it again, though he buy the book and ransack every page.” (Penguin Classics The Portable Emerson).
I have this experience a lot. As I type this, there are a stack of books behind the laptop screen in which I’ve been looking for a revelation I had before. When this happens, I have the revelation, I write the page number from the book in my outline and figure I’ve stored up an epiphany. I’ll return to it when I get back to that section of the manuscript. When that time comes, deflation. I try and try, but I can’t scrape together enough of the underlined passages to make a snowball.
My theory: the revelation happened in the space between the writer’s art and the reader. It’s that space I’ve been writing about here, here and here. It is magic, but it’s not a magic trick that can easily be repeated. You’re left with the strong memory, but you can’t get back to the exact moment on the porch where it happened. (There’s a John Prine angle to this too).