The Angelic Spy

Jayne Anne Phillips, in her essay in The Washington Post Book World’s collection, The Writing Life (2003), calls the writer an “angelic spy.” Writers are entrusted with the secrets we spend our lives discerning and attempting to reveal as truth on paper. The tricky thing is to do so without betraying the trust of those whose secrets we carry.

I once wrote an essay about my then step-daughter and it was published before she even knew that I had written it. I didn’t reveal a big secret; it was about a gift she gave me. But even so, she was upset that I had written and submitted it without telling her first. I contended that it happened to me, so it was fair game (although I said it a bit more diplomatically). I defended myself more vigorously when my sister-in-law criticized me for using someone else’s life to further my craft. But if we don’t write about others–or what happens to us in our relationships to others–what do we have to write about? Every encounter has an element of secrecy to it. Everyone assumes that what they say and do is going to be kept sacrosanct by any witness. That’s not realistic. We talk–and write–about each other as a way of telling stories. Call it gossip if you will. It sounds better to call writers angelic spies, but it amounts to the same thing.

But there is a difference. Gossip implies a certain maliciousness. Most (but not all) writers carry no malice when they write. We are attempting to tease the truth out of what happens in life and reveal that truth through our use of language. But others may see us as outlaws, living outside the boundaries of accepted behavior: we tell on people. We spy on them and then reveal what we discover to the world.

Our defense is that we do it for “angelic” reasons. We do not seek to hurt, but to heal. Secrets can be poisonous, festering in the minds and souls of those who keep them. The sensitive writer is not trying to “out” her subjects. She just wants to help the reader make sense of his behavior. Perhaps the reader has had the same thing happen to him. Perhaps he has done the same thing to others. Reading about these “secrets” can be cathartic. It gives the reader a chance to look into the souls of those who have tried to keep them and to learn the lessons they learned–or should have learned.

Saying that what writers do is angelic implies that we are above the world, seeing all and carrying messages from God. Isn’t that exactly what writers do? There is a spiritual aspect to all writing, whether or not we are religious. There is a higher power of some kind at work as we seek to delve beneath the surface of a person’s soul. I have used the word “soul” three times in the above sentences. That’s not because I can’t think of another word; I just can’t think of a better one. Emotions, actions, thoughts, personalities all add up to the soul, that deeper entity that defies facile descriptions. That’s why writers spend their lives trying to unravel the secrets others, and we ourselves, carry. We know that no life is fully described without revealing at least some of its secrets.

And so we spy. We witness and we record. And we attempt to explain, either directly or indirectly through the use of parable, analogy, simile and metaphor. We have come to earth to speak to the hearts of ourselves and others. You could even say that we have a divine imperative to do so.

It’s not easy to be a revealer of secrets. It requires a certain sensitivity and discretion. We need to speak the truth in love. That is what angels do.