Thursday, October 24, 2019

Virginia Woolf writes

There is the art of writing, and then there is the act of writing. From one springs the other....though not always (ask any writer how many artless words she moves to the trash bin during the revision process when every sentence is weighed and balanced and sometimes found wanting).

When writers write about writing, both the act and the art, the intersection of the two can dance a beautiful waltz on the page. Take Michael Cunningham’s triptych of a novel The Hours, for instance. Skillfully weaving the separate stories of one day in the lives of three women, two fictional and one very realClarissa Vaughn, an editor in the late twentieth century; Laura Brown, a housewife in 1949; and author Virginia Woolf in 1923Cunningham connects his characters in a style that bears distinct and purposeful echoes of Woolf’s own novel Mrs. Dalloway.

The Hours sat on my shelf for many years, unread. Finally, this summer, spurred in large part by James Mustich’s 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die, I opened it and dove into the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.

Reader, I loved it.

I have a lot to say about why I think it works so brilliantly, but what I want to focus on today and share with the rest of you is one particular passage from one of the Virginia Woolf sections which captures the art/act of writing so perfectly. This comes from an early chapter in Cunningham’s novel and, to put it in context for those who have yet to read The Hours, mentions Virginia’s husband Leonard Woolf and the household cook Nelly. The most important character in this scene is, of course, Virginia herself and her wrestling match with the pen as she struggles to find a good opening sentence for the manuscript she was working on in 1923: the novel which eventually became Mrs. Dalloway. Cunningham perfectly describes how hard it is to push the art of words through the mind’s frequently “clogged pipes.” Reading this scene, I found my inner writer’s voice humming yes yes yes:

She gets to her study, quietly closes the door. Safe. She opens the curtains. Outside, beyond the glass, Richmond continues in its decent, peaceful dream of itself. Flowers and hedges are attended to; shutters are repainted before they require it. The neighbors, whom she does not know, do whatever it is they do behind the blinds and shutters of their red brick villa. She can only think of dim rooms and a listless, overcooked smell. She turns from the window. If she can remain strong and clear, if she can keep on weighing at least nine and a half stone, Leonard will be persuaded to move back to London. The rest cure, these years among the delphinium beds and the red suburban villas, will be pronounced a success, and she will be deemed fit for the city again. Lunch, yes; she will have lunch. She should have breakfast but she can’t bear the interruption it would entail, the contact with Nelly’s mood. She will write for an hour or so, then eat something. Not eating is a vice, a drug of sorts—with her stomach empty she feels quick and clean, clearheaded, ready for a fight. She sips her coffee, sets it down, stretches her arms. This is one of the most singular experiences, waking on what feels like a good day, preparing to work but not yet actually embarked. At this moment there are infinite possibilities, whole hours ahead. Her mind hums. This morning she may penetrate the obfuscation, the clogged pipes, to reach the gold. She can feel it inside her, an all but indescribable second self, or rather a parallel, purer self. If she were religious, she would call it the soul. It is more than the sum of her intellect and her emotions, more than the sum of her experiences, though it runs like veins of brilliant metal through all three. It is an inner faculty that recognizes the animating mysteries of the world because it is made of the same substance, and when she is very fortunate she is able to write directly through that faculty. Writing in that state is the most profound satisfaction she knows, but her access to it comes and goes without warning. She may pick up her pen and follow it with her hand as it moves across the paper; she may pick up her pen and find that she’s merely herself, a woman in a housecoat holding a pen, afraid and uncertain, only mildly competent, with no idea about where to begin or what to write.

She picks up her pen.

Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.

1 comment: