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”?