Detecting the Gleam of Light:
Thoughts for the Aspiring Creative Writer
“A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Detecting the Gleam of Light, as its title suggests, is as much about Emerson as it is about creative writing. According to its author, Christine Mary McGinley, Emerson is much more than an originator of “creative writing.” He is everything a creative writer needs. Read Emerson, she says, and you will find your own way as a creative writer.
What is “Emersonian creative writing?” McGinley puts forward both the term and her understanding of it. “It is writing that possesses its own intrinsic value. First, to the writer, through the process of writing it, and then as a contribution to the world of ideas.” It is an entirely different approach to writing, an entirely different understanding of what creative writing can be, not just as an art form but as a life course.
To Emerson, she explains, true creative writing is the expression of the soul. Trust in the soul, he insisted, and you will do the work that is yours to do. You will even be compelled to create “world making verse,” for this is the ultimate aim of the soul’s creativity, to contribute to the making of a better world. This above all, in McGinley’s view, is what distinguishes “Emersonian creative writing.” Far more important than its literary merit is the upward direction in which it points. “If we write in the Emersonian tradition,” she says, “our writing will be filled with hope.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson, America’s first philosopher-poet, was both an exemplar of and a passionate advocate for a strong inner life. And as McGinley stresses, the real work of writing is what happens inside the writer. In addition to exploring all of the internal processing of the writer ― the fear and doubt, the freeing of oneself from external influences, the challenge of finding one’s voice ― she guides the reader through Emerson’s thoughts on “the gleam of light” and on trusting the soul as the true source of creativity.
She even devotes a chapter to “Reading Emerson,” which serves as a kind of primer for the challenge of reading Emerson’s Essays ― one of which she points to as essential reading for every aspiring writer. In her chapter on this essay, “Self-Reliance,” she emphasizes that the most fundamental work of the creative writer is the work of fully grasping Emerson’s central dictum: If a man would be anything he must be himself.
Emerson continues to be both celebrated and studied as a towering figure in American literature and in the American consciousness. Detecting the Gleam of Light focuses on what many writers have viewed as his greatest legacy ̶̶ the life and force he brings to his own conviction that “the highest effect of art is to make new artists.”