The Woolf Pack and Mentor

I once had the pleasure of listening to Dan Lazar, of The Writers House Agency, present his impression of writing and writers. He said one thing that has stuck with me ever since: “Great writers write in packs.”

Maybe it’s because I just got back from one of my own pack meetings, but I believe that Lazar is spot on with that observation. Groups do so much more than critique or provide feedback. The members become your friends, your inspirations. They become your challengers, your champions, and they offer understanding in a job where there is very little opportunity for socializing. Because, in the end, it’s just you and your keyboard. It’s nice to know you’re not alone.

Virginia Woolf was a part of probably the most famous Pack ever. The Bloomsbury Group. Including writers, intellectuals, philosophers, artists, and political commentators, Bloomsbury helped solidify the arts and crafts movement, the development of Modern Fiction, and protested violence (a la WWI and WWII). They goofed off together, raised political hell together, and created together – each inspiring and pushing the others to greater artistic and intellectual development.

In the best sense, this is what packs do – push their member to excel in their chosen profession.

But I’ve noticed another interesting phenomenon regarding the great writers. Even if they are not part of a collective like the Bloomsbury Group (maybe once in a generation will you get a gathering like that together), great writers will find like-minded people – either as mentors or contemporaries.

There was one passage in Virginia Woolf’s diary that struck me, and it’s so simplistic on the surface:

“Also Mrs. Hardy said to me ‘Do you know Aldous Huxley?’ I said I did. They had been reading his book, which she thought ‘very clever.’”
~Virginia Woolf, A Writer’s Diary

Mrs. Hardy is the wife of Thomas Hardy (Tess of the D’urbervilles, Far From the Madding Crowd). This passage comes from Woolf’s description of a visit to the great writer’s house. Aldous Huxley is the author of Brave New World. And Virginia Woolf (who should need no introduction at this point) wrote this sentence in her diary as if it were a side note.*

So, basically, the authors of my college reading list had all spoken to one another at some point or another. Enough to be put in a casual sentence together.

That’s like me saying that at dinner with Stephen King, he mentioned he was reading J.K. Rowling, to whom I’d just shot an email, and thought her a promising talent. (Assuming, of course, that I’m an equally super writer. And we are.)

How dizzying is that?

*I should mention here that this was not a casual visit to the Hardys’ home. By this time Hardy, an eminent Victorian author, had retired from writing novels and Woolf wanted to meet him. During their meeting he did not speak about writing as much as Woolf would have liked (“The whole thing—literature, novels, etc., all seemed to him an amusement, far away too, scarcely to be taken seriously. Yet he had sympathy and pity for those still engaged in it.” ~ V.W. A Writer’s Diary) – having suffered some severe critical receptions of his novel Jude the Obscure, which was the last novel he wrote.

Random Post of Accountability!

Here’s what I have done so far for the month of January:

  • Finished rough draft of one short story — and I’m almost done with the rewrite for my writers groups
  • Almost done with a second short story — just need to add the end, which requires some shifting at the beginning. Then I’ll jump into the edit for that one and it’ll be ready for the CWC group (they get two stories!)
  • Picked out the keeps for the Bundy portion of Up From the Basement (my serial killer poetry book) and started rewrites on the keeps
  • Wrote three new poems for Bundy section
  • Outlined Top Secret Project (which is really exciting because I got to use my new big ol’ white board! Go office supplies!)
  • Did Round Story chapter for the UGWP project
  • Finished UGWP critiques

Whew! Happy productivity. Doesn’t look too bad for a month’s work, does it?

I’m also spoiled because I get to stay home with the kiddos. My word count productivity has doubled now that I’m not wallowing in Retail Hell. First month of being a Writer Mom? I’d call it a success.

How are you guys hanging in there?

Google Your Name Much?

“Reflection: It is presumably a bad thing to look through articles, reviews, etc. to find one’s own name. Yet I often do.”
~Virginia Woolf, A Writer’s Diary

While reading through Woolf’s diary, it’s easy to conclude: It’s good Virginia Woolf did not live in the time of Google or Amazon Reviews.

Because, holy moly! The girl was pretty obsessed with reading her own reviews. There’s a distinct pattern that emerges in her diary that goes something like this:

  1. Write book. (In this stage she gives her progress reports, seems perky, debates difficulties that appear in the piece)
  2. Finishes draft. (In this stage she gives a big sigh of relief, doubts start cropping up, she makes plans for revision.)
  3. Revision. (Much more debate about pros and cons of piece, doubt, doubt, doubt, then she thinks it’s not as bad as she thought, reassures herself that she is writing solely for herself and doesn’t care what other people think, gives lowball number of expected sales.)
  4. Goes to Leonard, her husband. (Much nail biting.)
  5. Leonard sounds off, usually positively (Rejoicing!)
  6. The book comes out. (More nail biting. More assurances that she writes for herself and knows her own mind. She starts tracking sales numbers)
  7. Reviews come out. (Generally much rejoicing because she’s a super-genius, person A was positive, person B was colder, there’s no writing during this time, she freezes and reads and reads and reads all about what people say about her…eventually she falls into a funk, sometimes talks herself out with sales numbers)
  8. After much self-talk she gets it back in gear and works on her next book…back to step 1.

And if she was struggling with a book? Multiply all of those emotional reactions times ten. Yeah, I think it’s best that she wrote when she did. Google and Amazon would not do her any favors. And Goodreads? Where the whole point is that everyone sounds off on what they read? She’d never be off the internet!

Birthday Facts Anyone?

Just found this wonderful run-down via the Huffington Post:

59 Things You Didn’t Know About Virginia Woolf

The list was put together in honor of Woolf’s birthday. Didn’t know she took longer than average to form coherent sentences? Well, I’d say she made up for it.


Your Form is Showing, or Is It?

Deciding to plunge forward on a frustrating piece is one of the most difficult, and most common, decisions a writer must make. If a character isn’t cooperating, if a POV isn’t functioning, if there’s that intangible something telling you that the piece is suffering, it can be hard to convince yourself to press on. After all, no one’s read the thing – no one necessarily knows you’re working on it (with the exception of your writers group, or your MFA crew). So why should you press on?

Because sometimes the story is there. It might just need a different form. (No one said this stuff was easy.)

Recently I ‘tabled’ a novel that I was working on. My group had read the book, commented on it, and put in a lot of time and work to make sure that I was on the right track. I wasn’t. The piece needed some hefty reevaluation. A lot of soul searching and struggling and thinking went into my decision: it’s not tabled, it’s just getting a new form: a short story.

Then I had my group read a bunch of older short stories that I wanted to ‘make work’. (See how hard I work them?) Mary said one of the stories would work better as a long poem. I hadn’t thought of it myself – but it made perfect sense when I pondered for a bit. It solved a bunch of my issues.

So imagine my happiness when I discovered that Woolf suffered from similar doubts/problems/reevaluations of form:

“But how to pull it together, how to comport it – press it into one – I do not know; nor can I guess the end – it might be a gigantic conversation. The interludes are very difficult, yet I think essential; so as to bridge and also to give a background – the sea, insensitive nature – I don’t know.”
~Virginia Woolf, from A Writer’s Diary, struggling to create the form for The Waves.

The book that Woolf is referring to in that passage, The Waves, is a novel (so she knew that accurately right off), but it is a novel on crack.

I don’t mean this in a bad way at all. In fact, I think that it’s one of the most brilliant books I’ve ever read. The story is told entirely in alternating dialogues (though it’s probably more accurate to call them monologues) that undulate like the waves of the ocean. The interludes Woolf refers to in her diary are represented in the final product. But note that, at this point in the creation of the piece, she mentions that it “might be a gigantic conversation.”

A gigantic conversation is what it turned into…

meaning that it didn’t start that way.

Meaning that she worked her way into the form. It took her a couple years to finish this book.

A lot of times writers talk about ‘revision’ as ‘editing’. NO NO NO! Editing is adjusting commas and periods. Revision means that (sometimes) you have to rethink the way the Whole Thing is designed. Maybe the great novel is a short story, maybe the short story is a poem, maybe the novel isn’t a narrative – maybe it’s a conversation. Which means that you might have to start over from the beginning. (No one said this stuff was easy.)

Like I said, The Waves is one of the most brilliant books I’ve ever read. It’s gorgeous. It’s difficult.

But it’s soooo worth the work that Woolf put in. It’s beautiful.

Writing Schedules!

We all do it, and now we can count Virginia Woolf among the ranks of “Writers Who Obsessively Plan About When To Get Stuff Done!”

Take for example: “But my mind is full of The Hours [Mrs. Dalloway]. I am now saying that I will write at it for 4 months, June, July, August and September, and then it will be done, and I shall put it away for three months, during which I shall finish my essays; and then that will be–October, November, December–January; and I shall revise it January February March April, and in April my essays will come out, and in May my novel. Such is my programme.” (V.W. A Writer’s Diary)

There’s actually a bunch of stuff to digest about the above the excerpt (like Waiting Before Revision–note that the great V.W. plans on waiting at least three months before getting back to The Hours, which is really Mrs. Dalloway). But what I’d like to look at is her schedule.

I don’t know about you guys, but when I’m setting my writing goals, it looks very much like V.W.’s list. “I’ll work X over here, and then I’ll work on Y before I revise. Then Z will need some attention. And here’s the time-block that I’ll give to it.”

My method has become more advanced after getting to know myself. For example, I acknowledge that I sometimes don’t have the time that I think I do. So I have a desk calendar and all my goals are now kept in pencil.

Example: the block of time allotted for today includes: outlining my upcoming Top Secret Project (check), getting to 4,000 words on my current short story (check). So today is great. However, yesterday I missed my “blog entry” allotted time and so I’m writing today instead of yesterday (most of my blogs are done a little ahead of time). All I did was take my handy-dandy pencil, erase the goal from yesterday and put it at the top of queue for today. So I’m not too far behind. Blog entry? Check.

Come on, guys, ‘fess up. What’re your schedules like?

Dangers of the Diary

Virginia Woolf kept a diary. In 1954, her husband, Leonard Woolf released the portions of her diary that involved her writing and her process. This meant that he had to wade through — wait for it — 26 book-length volumes of a loosely kept diary in order to find all those nuggets.

Now, I know many of you are familiar with Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages philosophy (For those of you who are not: you write down three pages, every morning, to get all the gunk out of your brain –it’s supposed to free you up creatively). Basically, these diaries are Woolf’s Morning Pages, even though she wrote them whenever.

I’ve done Morning Pages and, let me tell you, the gunk in my brain is downright hurtful. If my husband or friends read the stuff I’d written (I don’t keep Morning Pages anymore) they would’ve been less than forgiving. And judging from the pieces that Leonard Woolf pulled out, if these are the ones fit for public consumption, then there’s probably some painful stuff in the rest of the diaries.

But L.W. was a mature gentleman who understood his wife. “At the best and even unexpurgated, diaries give a distorted or one-sided portrait of the writer, becasue, as Virginia Woolf herself remarks somewhere in these diaries, on gets into the habit of recording one particular kind of mood–irritation or misery, say–and of not writing one’s diary when one is feeling the opposite. The portrait is therefore from the start unbalanced, and, if someone then deliberately removes another characteristic, it may well become a mere caricature.” (L. Woolf from the Preface of A Writer’s Diary)

So I picture L.W. going through V.’s diaries, reading unflattering things about himself and their friends, and understanding–maybe sometimes understanding too much–that what he’s seeing is one-sided and not judging what he finds.

But, if diaries and Morning Pages and journals (blogs?) are things that writers do–and knowing that these things could be possibly hurtful–why do writers write them?

My mother once said that I should never write down something that I did not want people to read. Because people eavesdrop. And it is inevitable: the people you do not want reading your diary wind up doing so.

Well, Virginia Woolf answers that too. She says (in her diary) that her diary “loosens the ligaments.” I read that as “getting the gunk out” and “practice.” Both of which a writer needs to do. So, I think that these diary-things (or journals or blogs or whatever you randomly jot stuff down in) are a necessary evil in a writer’s life.

Perhaps we should just preface our diaries/journals with something like:
Don’t take the shit I write down here personally. I was probably in a bad mood. Remember: I love you, I do like the pets, and I tolerate your mother.

Okay, maybe not that last bit. =)

Do you guys keep diaries/journals? Are they helpful? Do you find your “ligaments loosened”?

Random Post of Accountability!


1 short story

Halfway through another one.

Where are you guys at? What’re you working on?

A Word on Martin Luther King Jr. and the Attempted Assassination in Arizona

Today is the day we celebrate a man who spoke his mind and his heart; who changed the way America functioned; paved the way for an America where we can have a President Obama; showed us that we can live together in peace.

Martin Luther King Jr. was a minister, a position of influence and respect. If he had been just some schmoe off the street, he would not have had the same impact. He would not have had the skill to communicate his Dream to anyone without this practice or this position. He is remembered especially for his speeches and his political demonstrations.

And his speeches and actions were rhetorically loaded–designed to make people respond, ie.:

Civil Disobedience.

It means that when you’re hauled off to jail for sitting in the white person’s side of the restaurant, you go with the cops…but you sit there again the next time you go in.

It means to keep moving while fire hoses are shot in your face.

It is non-violent protest.

For this, for upsetting the world so completely, for winning the Nobel Peace Prize…he was shot.

Because here’s the truth: people in positions of power, who speak out, put themselves at risk.

On January 8 of this year, a gunman shot and wounded United States Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, killed six, and injured another twelve people. There’s been a lot of shouting about the political rhetoric in the U.S. being a contributing factor. One side yells “Yes! It’s the politician’s fault because they’ve created unrest!” The other side yells “No! Politician’s have no cupability in this crime!” (See global reactions here.)

Like Martin Luther King Jr., whatever a politician says implicitly carries more weight than a heavy metal music lyric or a movie script. Why? Because they are policy makers. One swipe of a pen and Obama can tell us that, yes, universal healthcare is in effect. One well-argued debate in the Senate can mean that NASA no longer gets funding. One dumb mistake in the House can jack-up education for decades.

So when the people hear the shouting and the posturing, the politicians may think that they’re only playing for a vote or to score that one, last point…but it’s worth so much more.

I would hope, that when it comes down to it, leaders would speak their hearts and minds because, in the end, that’s the only thing that brings real, substantial change. And it’s the only thing worth risking your life over–and make no mistake, when leaders speak, they do risk their lives.

What is being said today cannot be coming from our leader’s hearts. I just can’t believe that: “It’s the Right’s fault because they use violent rhetoric” and “the Left is looking for someone Blame so they’re villifying us instead of looking at their own problems” is what needs to be said right now. This shouldn’t even be a remotely divisive issue.

An asshole (who is definitely not-right-in-the-head) just shot a bunch of innocent people. This should be a time of mourning. A time of unity.

Especially for politicians.

Shouldn’t they be standing together saying: “Our sister was shot today”?

Shouldn’t they be looking at the nine-year-old who died and say:
“There was a little girl who wanted to learn about what we do; she is our daughter; and she was killed today”?

Art Imitating Life Before I Even Knew It

Reading To The Lighthouse imitates life in a few ways. First off, Woolf apparently wrote it because she was haunted by the spectre of her own mother, who died when she was thirteen. To make a long story short, before Woolf wrote it, she struggled to come to terms with her mother…and after she finished, she stopped seeing her mother in everything.

Woolf must’ve done a good job, not just for herself, but also for her sister Vanessa who wrote in a letter to Virginia: “you have given a portait of mother which is more like her to me than anything I could ever have conceived of as possible. It is almost painful to have her so raised from the dead.”

To the Lighthouse was published in 1927, and is contemporary for that time–meaning that the shift from Victorian to Modern had just occured and that a lot of the ‘old-fashioned’ thought still lingered. Namely the concept of the “Angel in the House.”
The Angel is what we know today as Supermom!!

The Supermom!! in Lighthouse is Mrs. Ramsay. She’s super in some very notable ways: she loves her children, but she knows them. They can’t hide their flaws. She wants to be viewed as charitable, concientious, and beautiful. She is, to put it simply, the mom who would have Kool-Aid ready (if Kool-Aid had existed then) and lived for her family.

For this to reflect in my own life: fast-foward to the age of Facebook.

I never knew my great-grandmother (or my great-grandfather). Everyone called her Memere, and she was apparently French in some form or another (either she came to the U.S. from France or her parents did). But, lo and behold, my uncle has old photos of her and her family…which he posted on Facebook.
These photos have to have been shot in either the early 1930s or the late 1920s–putting these right at the time of Woolf’s novel. FREAKY!

And thus I was confronted with the real Angel of the House. I could not have painted my image of Mrs. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse any more perfectly. Slightly rounded from giving birth to numerous children (eight in the fictional Mrs. Ramsay’s case, somewhere around 11-12 for my great-grandmother…I lose count of the children in the photos. There are eight boys alone, the girls I’m more shady on….) I picture a bright smile. Supportive laughter.

This discovery has made Lighthouse more poignant for me. It gives me a picture of what my great-grandmother may have been like (by all accounts, a frightfully cheerful woman) and what she may have struggled with.
My family still adores this woman, Memere, even decades afterward–or, at least, their image of her. She was a loving mother. A laughing friend. Surely someone who would read fairy tales to the kids.
Someone who shrieks in a motherly fashion: “Turn right here!”
And her husband turns right.
And she continues, “No, turn left, not right!”
He says “You said turn right!”
She answers, “No, I said turn right here, in this intersection. But you turn left right here!”
(Story provided by my own mother.)

In her photos, her smile lights up the frame. I smile too (she makes me think of Mrs. Claus). The family photos are below, you can check them at your leisure.

But you know the problem with this Angel? Do you want to know what my biggest, hugest problem is? (My problem is illustrated in To the Lighthouse. I can tell you who Virginia Woolf is because she focused on her art–she is the Lily Briscoe, the artist of the novel. But Mrs. Ramsay is the Angel–I don’t know her first name.)
My great-grandmother was an Angel too. This woman, who gave so much love and joy to her family–so much that I can hear stories of her almost 100 years later…

And I can’t tell you her name.
But here are photos:
These are the boys. Great-grandfather is center with the vest. My grandfather is one of the boys…one of the younger ones I think.
These are the ladies–Great-grandmother is left-center with the dark jacket. I’m not sure if there are more girls than this. So total child count = 11 according to the photos.
This is my Great-grandmother (right) with her daughter-in-law (my grandmother, Wenona Maloney; I’m almost 100% sure but it just goes to prove: LABEL YOUR PHOTOS!)

And my Great-grandfather and Great-grandmother.