reading Virginia Woolf on a grey Saturday morning in August

a writer's diary

Last night I had to force myself to stay in bed when I woke after midnight, wondering about the work I have in progress. The night is often such a wide and generous space for thinking and writing but I forced myself to stay in bed because I have a bit of a cold, a rough throat, and two weeks from today I will be in Kyiv and want to be healthy for that. Instead of getting up and coming down to my desk, I thought about the way the story I am writing is unfolding. It’s not as I imagined it. I thought it would be more of a piece somehow. Instead, there are sections told in the first person, there are sections that are simply calls and responses, there are overheard conversations, and there are lists. This may change of course. Right now I’m trying not to second-guess myself but simply to write. Later I can figure out if there’s a better way to arrange the sections, to tell the story and all its backstories. Its understories. At the chamber music festival last weekend, I was particularly intrigued by Timothy Corlis’s “Raven and the First Men”, a tone poem based on the Bill Reid sculpture of the same name. It’s a series of brief movements. The composer writes that, “The shortest movements titled “Bird Sanctuary I-III” are like the post-and-beam structure of the piece.” And yes, they served as structural shelters almost, where we could sit and hear rain, the waves, the sound of birds. In my work-in-progress, I think the equivalent structural element is the table. If it is to work as I hope it does, then linear time won’t be as important as what happens around it. Yes, the story will move forward but it will also linger around the table, hover over place-settings, ask a person to lean to their companion and ask for something to be passed. Meanwhile, the sun sets, the moon rises, and (this is becoming an ominous note in the story), the owls begin to call.

Speaking of companions, it is lovely to have A Writer’s Diary at hand. When I opened it this morning, to August 20th, 1930, I find this:

The Waves is I think resolving itself (I am at page 100) into a series of dramatic soliloquies. The thing is to keep them running homogeneously in and out, in the rhythm of the waves. Can they be read consecutively? I know nothing about that. I think this is the greatest opportunity I have yet been able to give myself; therefore I suppose the most complete failure. Yet I respect myself for writing this book—yes—even though it exhibits my congenital faults.

It gives me solace to read Virginia Woolf’s thoughts on her work. Lately I’ve heard young writers talk about their frustration with the “industry” they find themselves in and I’m glad to remember that it doesn’t need to be that. It can be that, of course, if people choose that. Lord knows there’s little enough money in the way I’ve chosen to do things! But for a little while yet, there’s room for other books and writers in the cultural conversation. We don’t need to write for markets, we don’t need to be guided by trends and fashions. Of course we probably won’t find ourselves popular fixtures on the reading circuits, on the bestseller lists, or in demand in a host of other ways. There’s still a place, a quiet place, for the books that don’t aspire to Big.

2 thoughts on “reading Virginia Woolf on a grey Saturday morning in August”

  1. I love her diary too, reading how insecure she sounds about her work – Virginia #$#@ Woolf! Reassuring for us mortals. And yes – the books that don’t aspire to Big – been there, done that. Get well for Kyiv, Theresa – I’m so glad your trip is back on track and can’t wait to hear about it.

    1. Reading the diaries, you’re right, Beth, so reassuring. I don’t ask for her extremes but the excitement, the thrill of finding the way through material, and the doubt, the questioning: those feel very familiar and somehow congenial too. I do love the Big books too but want a world in which all kinds are valued and promoted and given space. Reading The Five now, a book about the Jack the Ripper’s victims. An extraordinary and compassionate re-evaluation of those women and the society that allowed them to be so vulnerable. Amazing.

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