Ending Virginia Woolf

This writing thing is an interesting process–learning to do it, learning to do it better, figuring out what to say. A lot of times it takes hearing the same thing from dozens of sources before it sinks in, before the learning writer internalizes the lesson. Part of the reason I’m working on this blog is so I can think and internalize the lessons presented.

Here’s the biggie that I think I got out of studying Virginia Woolf:

The form reflects the content.

Normally this is a poet-y type of thought process. But Woolf, as evidenced in her diary, and again in her work, thought long and hard about playing with form first, and let the message come from it. Mrs. Dalloway–the story of one day and all the emotion/thought that goes into the most trivial of moments is told in a stream of concious where each of those thoughts are weighed, measured, and presented against the most trivial of details. (“Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.”) The form makes the content that much more defined.

And The Waves. It’s a frickin’ masterpiece of form and content working with each other. It’s framed like a wave–both in the large and small sense. The “chapters” are waves of time and life experience. Then, in the narrative portions, everyone talks over everyone else, a wave of dialogue surging one over the other. The whole thing undulates–and the reader can drown just as easily as the characters.

And ya know the other thing that I’ve internalized about this lesson?

I need a lot more practice to ever play at that level. I realize that I’ll probably not write a Waves-indepth piece, but I do understand that the form of a novel, and the forms presented within the novel, play a rhetorical part in the telling of the story. It’s something that I’ll be concious of.

I end this exploration of Virginia Woolf with a great sense of appreciation and my head dizzy in admiration. I hope that this section has been helpful to blog readers, likewise.

Now we move on to P.G. Wodehouse. Should anyone like to sound off on what we’ve talked about with Woolf or if anyone has something that they’d like me to look at as we move forward with Wodehouse, please do so!

Writers, Virginia Woolf, and Suicide

We can’t talk about Woolf without talking about her final act in the world: leaving it.

Here’s what happened:

In March 1941, with WWII having gone on for two years for England, she went to a river about three or four miles from her home, filled her pockets with stones, went in, and never came out again. It took ten days to find her.

During a class where we discussed Mrs. Dalloway and Michael Cunningham’s The Hours (he describes the suicide at the opening) our professor told us about the time when she’d visited Woolf’s house. Apparently, you can walk the same route that Woolf used to get to the river. One comment that my prof made has always stuck with me. “That’s a long walk. Three miles and there’s nothing to do but think about what she was going to do. Woolf had to mean it.”

(Prof also said that the river was less than impressive nowadays. Apparently you’d have to bury yourself in the river bank in order to drown today. But for Woolf there was a lot of rain fall that year and the river was more than full.)

When the prof said that Woolf had to mean it — well, yeah. That’s the awful part of suicidal thought. When your brain is tuning into the wrong thing (like killing yourself) it will hone in on it. You will mean it. That’s what makes it so dangerous.

Recently, went to a reading. The author read beautiful poems and a great essay on his experience in the Middle East. During the Q&A session he talked about his writing sessions. He mentioned one thing that makes the little hairs on the back of my head stand up: the word catharsis. He laughingly apologized for the depressing bits in his work…saying that he wrote as a kind of catharsis.

In and of itself, that is no big deal. But I’m afraid that so many writers use the writing as a kind of therapy. And again, that’s not a huge deal. However, there is also a thought-process in some writers that the writing will fix things. No. Writing doesn’t fix. It helps. It sometimes helps a lot.

But, if there is thinking that involves walking three miles, filling pockets with stones, and letting the river take it all away (meaning it)–no amount of writing will take that away. No amount of people telling you to SNAP OUT OF IT! will work–that kind of attitude will make it worse. It’s time to call for help.

Woolf didn’t have the opportunities available that we do today. Psychology and psychiatry have come light years. There are lots of avenues for help. If you’re thinking of doing anything harmful to yourself, it’s not okay. Please call your family doctor, your therapist if you already have one, or your local mental health services line (it should be in the government section of the phone book–or you can google it). There is no shame in asking for help.

And if writing is your biggest goal…well, you’ll do a lot more of it if you’re in the right frame of mind and alive.

There’s a lot of talk in creative circles pointing to the high incidents of suicide among writers and creative people in general. I think these rumors are greatly exaggerated. Sure, we can all name them: Plath, Hemingway, Woolf, and on. But there are many, many more that we can name who did not:

Wodehouse, Christie, Shakespeare, Dickens, the Brontes, Austen, Dante, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Orwell, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley, Keats, Byron, James, Hardy, Joyce, Conrad, Chopin, Cather, Wharton, Kafka, Vonnegut, Crane, Madox Ford, Trollope, DeFoe, Milton, Johnson, Chaucer, George Eliot, T.S. Eliot, Poe, Melville, Hawthorne….

and on….

Happy Birthday to Bronwen!

Yes, the littlest one is three years old today! And I feel old.

P.S. Apologies to those of you who visited during my technical difficulties. We’ll be talking Writing, Virginia Woolf, and Suicide tomorrow, not today.

Believing the "Truth" of Your Own Words: The Enemy of Revision

I love tremendous and sonorous words. But his words are too hearty to be true. Yet he is by this time convinced of their truth.” ~V.W. The Waves; the character of Bernard describing the Headmaster and his speeches

Have you ever found yourself, whether verbally or silently, responding to a critique/workshop/mentor in a manner similar to this: “But I want it that way! I meant to do it that way!”

Because I have. There was this one particular instance where I described a car in my piece and my group went–why is this car here? What does it represent? There is no point to this car that we can reasonably see.

My response?

I want it that way. I meant to do it that way. It will have a very symbolic point.

And it’s true. I do still want it that way. I do mean to do it that way. I am “by this time convinced of their [the car/my words] truth.” Since I told myself, over and over, the car would have an impact, I believed it would. That’s the hearty of the above quote–if I say it loud enough, long enough, it will be true.

But we have to recognize when we argue a little too loudly. (Defensive much? Hmm? Pay attention.)

When you argue, you stimy your revision process. The longer it takes you to stop being defensive, and right, the longer it takes to work on the parts that need to be worked on. Guess what? Sometimes you’ll be right. Sometimes your first readers might be tired, or grumpy, or trying to sell their house.

Your words are not the Truth. They are words. They can be switched around to greater effect. The words that describe a car ad nauseum can be deleted. It’s that Backspace key.

If you need to believe in the “truth” at first, in order to get to the good stuff, then by all means write whatever strikes that note. Just remember, these words aren’t set in stone and sometimes there are better, cleaner ways to put things.


I was tromping through my library, knowing that I had found everything of Virginia Woolf’s that they could offer–when lo! There: a teeny-tiny book in the literary crticism section that had Woolf’s name on the spine. Immediately I grabbed it.

It’s called Carlyle’s House. It’s a book of sketches. As Doris Lessing says in the Foreword: “These pieces are like five finger exercises for future excellence.” Excercise, exercise, exercise.

To give you a taste of the scope of Woolf’s subject matter in her sketching, here are the titles for the sketches: “Carlyle’s House,” “Miss Reeves,” “Cambridge,” “Hampstead,” “A Modern Salon,” “Jews,” and “Divorce Courts.” Basically, it covers places and people. (And it has to be said that it is not all complementary, not at all. Prejudices, biases–she left it all on the pages that weren’t supposed to read.)

I don’t ‘journal’ per se. My blank books and whatnot are reserved for sketching like what Woolf has done here. Sometimes I’ll go off on a piece that I’m working on, and use a lot of curse words. Mostly though, it’s all about trying to improve or see something better.

In the interest of complete disclosure and exposure, I have below a very early sketch of my own. I pulled the notebook off of a dusty shelf, sorted through the crumbly yellowed pages, and found something that wouldn’t be too embarassing. (Though, trust me, the beginner-ness of these early sketches are embarassing enough…and nothing like Woolf’s early work. I am now insanely jealous.) I invite you to share a sketch in the comment section, or tell me about how you do your ‘five finger exercises.’

Child in Schoolyard
The drive took her past the drugstore, the gas station, and continued along the winding road to Baker Elementary. It was a smooth ride and she passed the schoolyard with half an eye out as she drove. That was when she saw him. A small eight or nine year old sitting under a tree with a pen and paper in his hand. All of his concentration was on that sheet of paper. The focus of his attention and the deep penetrating furrow of his young forehead stood out in comparison to the running, laughing peers beyond him. Swings moved to and fro, kids played tag and kickball, and this little boy jumped to her eye from his very stillness.

Give Me the Deets

“He unfastens his sock suspenders (let us be trivial, let us be intimate). Then with a characteristic gesture (it is difficult to avoid these ready-made phrases, and they are, in his case, somehow appropriate)….” ~V.W.–the character Bernard, describing the Headmaster in The Waves

This passage struck me as something to discuss for a couple reasons:

1. It’s pretty meta, meaning that it’s self-referential. Woolf talks about telling details even as she gives us telling details. His ‘characteristic gesture’ is told with a cliched phrase–but, as Woolf points out, it’s appropriate for this character because he’s cliche. (I just thought that was cool and wanted to point it out.)

2. It reveals something about details in a story: details should be appropriate, details should be character-specific, and details can appear trivial.

Appropriateness, as I’m using it here, refers to the genre of the piece. The quoted passage above is incredibly appropriate in Woolf’s book because The Waves is a story told entirely through reflective soliliquies. It’s whole style calls attention to itself, so a meta-like presentation of details is appropriate. This might not work so swell in a sci-fi novel or a cozy mystery. But in an experimental, literary piece it comes off masterful.

The character specificity of details is a little trickier to wrap your head around at first. In the quoted example, as I’ve already pointed out, you can use cliche phrases to describe a cliche character. Another example: A friend of mine is very into Eastern religions and he’d written a metaphor describing a character in Shiva-esque terms. Which is fine. Except that the Eastern motif didn’t carry through the story. The character was some kind of recluse, if I remember correctly. So the descriptive metaphor didn’t work at all within the context of the character…or, in this case, the context of the whole story.

Now, why are trivial details important (and, thus, not trivial)? Why on earth should we care about how this headmaster takes off his sock suspenders? Woolf points out the answer to that as well: it’s intimate. Intimate moments tell more than anything else.

Intimate details are about revealing the character at their most vulnerable. The headmaster’s socks are off (a ‘trivial’ detail, yes?)–he’s surrounded by a bunch of adolescent boys–if the door opened, he’d be completely exposed, undignified. Bernard, the character telling the reader about the headmaster, chooses not to expose the headmaster, “But stories that follow people into their private rooms are difficult. I cannot go on with this story.” But only after Woolf, the author, already exposed him. We now have the picture in our heads. All because of something that appeared trivial: socks.

The Transition Between Periods

In her exploration of Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf made this observation:

“Let us take Persuasion, the last completed novel, and look by its light at the books she might have written had she lived. There is a peculiar beauty and a peculiar dullness in Persuasion. The dullness is that which so often marks the transition stage between two different periods. The writer is a little bored. She has grown too familiar with the ways of her world; she no longer notes them freshly.”
~V.W. “Jane Austen,” The Common Reader

It’s hard to think about Jane Austen–The Jane Austen–‘growing’ more as a writer, but Virginia Woolf is definitely one to recognize that writers create differently as they develop (considering Woolf’s focus on Time)–and a writer should always be developing. We should always ‘be working on it.’

Now, I don’t know about youse guys, but I certainly notice when I have hit a new stride, or have practiced with a skill enough to use it with some confidence. The stories that result from these insights I call benchmark stories…maybe they’re not great, but they are noticeably better than what I’ve done before.

Woolf continues to make the argument that, in Persuasion, Austen is “trying to do something which she has never yet attempted.” So, while the book is not as strong as the ones in the past, it could be a gateway to new, greater novels.

So, maybe the next time you’re struggling to do a piece–and it just ain’t working out–just think: you’re probably in a transition between periods. I’m still waiting for that transition between Beginner and Less Beginner.