I revere Virginia Woolf. She was quite mad, yes. And she is an exhausting undertaking for sure. But I adore her.
I don’t remember who it was that tried to sort authors into one of two categories, being: Great Writers or Great Thinkers, and said that they couldn’t find a modern example of their intersection. I don’t have the qualifications to evaluate the claim but one could find some supporting examples. J.R.R. Tolkien, Kurt Vonnegut, George Orwell, or Isaac Asimov, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, for instance, they’re on one side: geniuses in stories and the telling, with almost prophetic insights about human nature, and capable of imagining fantastically complex worlds. While on the other side folks like David Foster Wallace, Vladimir Nabokov, J.D. Salinger, Cormac McCarthy, Arundhati Roy, even, come to mind: whose prose just sings, whose writing is vivid with emotion, and whose wild creative impulses of style clear a path entirely of their own.
But one could also find some counterexamples. I’ve spent hours reading and I’m on page 73 of 110 pages. I don’t know another author that I read quite as slowly as I do Virginia Woolf. On the first pass I always get nothing. Maybe the general hum of the words, the shape of the narrative, at most. Then I double back for meaning and her writing is dense with it- so there are more visits and more til I am able finally to appreciate the rich language of a passage as well. And that has led me to attribute my glacial reading pace to Woolf’s place, at least for me, squarely in that narrow intersection of style and thought. (I would put Steinbeck there as well)
She had a lot to say about the creative process, and making utterly un-self-conscious art. I wanted to share a particular thing.
The context is women in fiction, and speaking almost a century ago to a female-only audience the place of women in literature then was more or less the place of women in science today. Not long ago had women been ridiculed for even dreaming to write. And still the debate raged over the mental faculties of the woman. Yet, she had begun to move in droves into the profession, despite the living prejudice, despite a lack of legacy, and being the overwhelming minority.
Anger, or fear, and self-consciousness was throughout their work, however. Here and there the writer’s personal weaknesses, grievances, intruded. She wrote stubbornly, antagonistically, as if addressing the objections of her audience. Woolf looked around her and saw “pockmarked” novels.
Her books will be deformed and twisted. She will write in a rage where she should write calmly. She will write foolishly where she should write wisely. She will write of herself where she should write of her characters.
The shedding of the self. For a piece of work to have lasting value the self somehow must be shed. The self is petty, muddied, small. It reflects the world like a funhouse mirror, exaggerating here and reducing there, it confuses what is universal with what is provincial, and when confronted it justifies, it denies, it clings.
Queenie tells me in her first creative drawing lesson they drew with their eyes closed. One hand felt the contours of an object while the other hand in the darkness touched pen to paper. The lesson, perhaps, is disengagement. The edits, the criticisms, that will come later. The act of creation needs to be judgment-free.
From this angle it’s easy to see the obstacle faced by a minority in a traditional field. Often they are creative fields: like literature. Such as music composition. Or science. For her, judgment intrudes too early too often. She trains under its gaze; she labors in its shadow. There is a toxic interest in her undertakings by ill- and well-meaning people both. This burden when she is trying to shed the self. This burden when boldness is what breaks new ground, when freedom makes opportunity and creativity falls from a clear blue sky.
The analogy Virginia Woolf uses is that of running a race. Her author is at the starting block, eyeing the course ahead.
As I watched her lengthening out for the test, I saw, but hoped that she did not see, the bishops and the deans,the doctors and the professors, the patriarchs and the pedagogues all at her shouting warning and advice. You can’t do this and you shan’t do that! Fellows and scholars only allowed on the grass! Ladies not admitted without a letter of introduction! Aspiring and graceful female novelists this way! So they kept at her like the crowd at a fence on the race-course, and it was her trial to take her fence without looking to right or left. If you stop to curse you are lost, I said to her; equally, if you stop to laugh. Hesitate or fumble and you are done for. Think only of the jump, I implored her, as if I had put the whole of my money on her back; and she went over it like a bird. But there was a fence beyond that and a fence beyond that…
For you, if you are running this race. The best piece of advice I’ve ever heard, that I will borrow from Virginia Woolf for years to come:
Think only of the jump.