Deb: On Transcendence

“I’m in love,” says Reagan Arthur, editor of the eponymous
imprint at Little Brown Books. “I can’t wait to see what happens next.”
That’s how Arthur describes her response to exceptional books.
Editors, agents, and readers often speak of books this way, with passion. Can this
sort of book love be pinned down, described, analyzed?
Consider Anne Lamott’s enthusiastic endorsement of Kathleen
Winter’s debut novel Anabel. “It reads with such caring,” Lamott says. “It’s such
a gift.”  How we got here, who we are,
what we do now, how we awaken if in fact we do – the novel delves into all of
these questions, Lamott says.
Transcendence. That’s what literary agent Noah Lukeman calls a book
that addresses such questions.  Of
course, not everyone agrees on what transcendence means or where it applies.
Winter’s book, for instance, garnered no starred reviews; in fact, a Publishers
Weekly review calls its delivery “heavy-handed,” and its Amazon ranking is
nothing to get excited about. Still, who wouldn’t be thrilled if even one
writer with the chops of Lamott were to rave about the transcendence of our work,
saying in essence that the world needs this book, Amazon rankings be damned.
Timing is everything when it comes to transcendence – not
the timing of the project, though it is possible that what’s unappreciated in
one era may transcend to another – but the writer’s timing in weighing the
value of her work. Too much early concern about transcendence can kill a
project before it ever gets off the ground. Too much early conviction regarding
its importance breeds grandiosity, leading writers to invest large chunks of
time into stuff no one wants to read, at which point the writers typically
throw their hands in the air and complain that the world simply doesn’t get their
particular manifestation of genius.
In The Plot Thickens, Lukeman warns that there are no
formulas for genuine transcendence, but he does point to some of its common
elements. Though not vague, transcendent works are open to interpretation. “The
more levels, the more there is to work with,” Lukeman says. Transcendent
writing also features multidimensional characters and circumstances. And
transcendent work feels timeless. Regardless of era, readers will deeply
identify with it. In reading, they’ll feel they’ve learned something,
especially about themselves. 
“Works that leave lasting impressions are usually greater
than the sum of their parts,” Lukeman says. “The greatness lies not in any
individual character, or setting, or story twist, but in the coming together of
these elements.” The ideal work, he adds, takes the audience through four
stages, from curiosity to interest to need and, in rare instances, to action.
Though aiming for transcendence can be counterproductive, we
can at least shoot for an awareness of what we mean to achieve. Lukeman
suggests checking in with ourselves, at the deepest level, to discover what
prompts us to write. If we write from defensiveness or insecurity, we’ll likely
come off as aggressive. If we write out of pride, to prove how smart we are,
our work becomes a showcase for high language and affected speech.  If at the root of our writing there’s fear,
we wind up overstating. Revenge, control, deception – there are any number of
poor motives that will show through in our work. 
“It is your job to clear the slate, to create a sacred space
in your mind just for the writing, free from all your neuroses as a person. The
writing must be about the art as much as possible,” Lukeman says. “No matter
what your goal or motivation, you should strive to write from a place of truth
and love.”  
When it comes to transcendence, try not to try too hard.
Pushing for profundity, writing with an agenda, preaching a moral (or two or
three or ten): don’t be fooled by any of these self-important pursuits.
Humility, vulnerability – these are among the most transcendent perspectives in
writing, because they open a work to its emotional core.
Try This: Lukeman suggests asking yourself and five other
readers these questions: Does my work inspire curiosity, interest, need, or
action? Why or why not? On a scale of 1 to 10, how inspirational is it in each
of these areas? Where it’s lacking, how can it change?
Check This Out: In The Plot Thickens, literary agent Noah
Lukeman has a gift for cutting to the chase without coming off as harsh or judgmental.
He covers eight aspects of narrative, that deserve our attention, including
transcendence. In addition to straightforward explanations, he includes
practical exercises.
Deb’s posts are archived at
Scroll to Top