I’m pleased to have a guest post today at Daisy Hickman’s Sunny Room Studio on the spiritual insights and strength I’ve drawn from a number of thinkers, especially Eckhart Tolle, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Virginia Woolf. They’ve given me “fragments to shore against my ruins,” as T.S. Eliot put it in his poem “The Waste Land.”
Tag Archives: Virginia Woolf
Spirituality, authenticity & Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet.
A work of art is good if it has grown out of necessity. In this manner of its origin lies its true estimate: there is no other.
— Letters to a Young Poet
As a broody kid, growing up in a Florida beach town and grieving my family’s exodus from our farm in Georgia, I found a library book by a guy about his hobby farm. I loved it, probably sensing how both my father’s and my own loss might be redeemed. I shared it with Dad. When I asked him what he thought he said, “I think he wanted to write a book.” Nothing else—Dad was always as concise as a telegram—but I grasped the devastating judgment in his unsparing remark.
Writers trying to wrest from their guts that necessary, handmade, human thing called art, which involves (among other things) seeking to see more clearly their lives and those of their fellow humans, might enjoy Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke. It’s a slender book, some forty pages, with many admirers and much resonance. Rilke was only twenty-seven, already becoming famous in Germany as a lyric poet, when in 1903 a boy in a military school wrote to him for advice. Rilke had spent five miserable years himself in the same school. His precepts, delivered over an eight-year period, float free of whatever experience or thought process produced them. Yet his judgments feel no less true for lacking explanation.
That’s for you to fill in—you with your private inner inquiry into gender, artistic authenticity, human nature, spirituality, and the concept and definition of what might be termed God.
A key Rilke passage:
Perhaps there is over everything a great motherhood, as a common longing. The loveliness of the virgin . . . is motherhood foreboding and preparing itself, uneasy and yearning. And the mother’s beauty is serving motherhood, and in the old woman there is a great memory. And in the man too there is motherhood, it seems to me, physical and spiritual; his begetting is also a kind of birth-giving, and it is birth-giving when he creates out of his innermost fullness. And perhaps the sexes are more akin than we suppose, and the great renewal of the world will perhaps consist in this, that man and maiden, freed from all false feelings and perversions, will seek each other not as opposites but as brother and sister, as neighbors, and will unite as human beings to bear in common, simply, seriously and patiently, the heavy sex that has been laid upon them.
This is strikingly reminiscent to me of Virginia Woolf’s notion of artistic androgyny with which she concludes A Room of One’s Own, and Rilke’s ideas elsewhere mirror her concept in her essay “Moments of Being” of authentic presence. Everywhere he confirms, completes, and foreshadows manifold later spiritual insights. It appears, for instance, that another German mystic, Eckhart Tolle, owes Rilke a great debt, especially in Tolle’s profound spiritual synthesis A New Earth.
Like Tolle, Rilke advises inner communion instead of identification with ego and form: “What is needed is, in the end, simply this: solitude. Going into yourself and meeting no one for hours on end,—that is what you must be able to attain. To be alone, as you were alone in childhood, when the grown-ups were going about, involved with things which seemed important and great, because the great ones looked so busy and because you grasped nothing of their business.”
Unlike Tolle, he refers directly to God, though only twice and in a most contemporary and Tolle-like way. For Rilke, God appears to arise not from knowledge or even from faith but from intimations from the lost realm of childhood:
And if it dismays and torments you to think of childhood and the simplicity and stillness that goes with it, because you can no longer believe in God who is to be met with everywhere there, ask yourself . . . whether you have after all really lost God? Is it not much rather the case that you have never yet possessed him?
Rilke touches upon the adult task of defining God for yourself:
As bees collect honey, so we take what is sweetest out of everything and build Him.
Of course Rilke wrote to a presumed believer in a time of presumed belief. The important ideas of Charles Darwin and Sigmund Freud were afoot but hadn’t yet crushed humans’ self-confidence. Nor had we yet put ourselves through two world wars and the Holocaust. After all that, unbelief and hostility to God and religion—and a pervasive doubt about our own species’ worth—became understandable. I have friends and family members across the spectrum, from those who become enraged at the mere mention of “God” or “religion” to those who dispense Jesus’ name like iodized salt. Just more evidence of humans’ long struggle against their own riven nature: a violent simian substrate; a gentler group mind from a long and at times Edenic evolution among extinct human-like ancestors; and greedy individual egos that arrived with the emergence of our shiny, anxious, hypersexual new species only 200,000 years ago.
Humanity’s puzzle and core dilemma—What does it mean to be human?—Rilke touches upon directly or by implication everywhere in Letters to a Young Poet as he works out for himself and for his acolyte his answers. This is all we can ask of any writer, his sincere testimony, expression seemingly driven by some personal necessity—for Rilke, necessity being art’s acid test. We crave the authenticity concentrated in the fruit of someone’s honest emergency. Oh, the struggle by writers to make something authentic from the necessity that impels them!
And the world’s listeners still draw near to lovely songs, like Rilke’s, that seem true.
Austin Kleon has an excellent blog post about the more writerly aspects of Letters to a Young Poet.
Bonus: Jake Adam York offers a fine minute of writing advice.
We’re living in the golden age of essays, proclaims a February 18 essay by Adam Kirsch in New Republic. In “The New Essayists, or the Decline of a Form? The Essay as Reality Television,” Kirsch immediately invokes as an example John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead, which in another day, with its roots in magazine pieces and celebrity profiles, might have been labeled journalism—but which, as an exciting hybrid of reportage and personal musing, can fairly be claimed by essayists.
And then Kirsch seems to backpedal from his opening pronouncement:
But all is not as it seems. You do not have to read very far in the work of the new essayists to realize that the resurrection of the essay is in large measure a mirage. For while the work of writers such as David Sedaris, Sloane Crosley, John Jeremiah Sullivan, and Davy Rothbart are described as essays—My Heart Is an Idiot: Essays, is the title of Rothbart’s new book—they have little in common with what was once meant by that term. The new essay, like the old essay, is a prose composition of medium length; but beyond that the differences are more salient than the resemblances.
So which is it, golden age or mirage? Well it seems to be more like a new wave, to help Kirsch mix his metaphors further. The self was always at the heart of the essay, he says, but the new essay is exclusively about the self. (Making me wonder whether Joan Didion ever wrote about anything but herself, in the end, and so how new is this new phenomenon?) The popularity of comedic essayists, who bare the world’s supposed assault on their egos, is Kirsch’s prime example: “What we now call an essayist used to be called a humorist.” Hmmm. If you say so. You don’t have to agree with him to find his essay interesting, albeit not very humorous despite his focus is on comedic essayists. He has some interesting things to say about the fictionalized personas they create to achieve their effects.
The most exciting thing about Kirsch’s piece is the way he posits the knowing collaboration between an obviously exaggerating author and his audience. Raising the question as to whether only humor gets a pass or if something else indeed might be brewing, the blurring of genres that David Shields has predicted and celebrated.
• • •
Flavorwire has recently posted “17 Essays by Female Writers that Everyone Should Read,” a varied selection of work by grizzled matriarchs and fresh-faced up-and-comers. The selection, made by the editors of Creative Nonfiction, includes live links to a dozen of the essays. Classics like Virginia Woolf’s short “Street Haunting,” Adrienne Rich’s powerful “Split at the Root,” and Didion’s ambitious “Slouching Toward Bethlehem” appear with Jo Ann Beard’s contemporary classic “The Fourth State of Matter” and Cheryl Strayed’s more recent “Heroin/e.”
I haven’t followed all the available links, but of those I’ve read or re-read I’ve gotten the biggest kick out of Joyce Carol Oates’s “Against Nature.” No Thoreau, she. Oates’s beef with nature is refreshing because of the assumed pieties of nature writers; at least, a pitfall of nature writing seems to be that it can so easily come off as smarmy. In any case it’s hard to argue with Oates when she points out, making a deliciously personal and curmudgeonly indictment that also seems true, that nature lacks a sense of humor.
Narrative craft & spirituality in a classic feminist essay.
Intellectual freedom depends upon material things. Poetry depends upon intellectual freedom. And women have always been poor, not for two hundred years merely, but from the beginning of time.—A Room of One’s Own
A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf. Harcourt, 112 pp.
Like last year when I was at the beach, where I’ve been for the past few weeks, I remember I should have brought Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, what with the Atlantic surf hissing and breaking outside. Sometimes I feel almost frightened by what a ghost I feel here, so much time alone for memories to flood in of the boy I was and of my past friends, some dead or disabled and most scattered. A few people whom I’ve lost touch with are living quietly here where we grew up, and in my mind’s eye they are still eighteen. I wouldn’t know them if I saw them, yet part of me thinks I’d still be eighteen had I stayed here too. At the same time, the beach is magic—it’s the air, so mild, and the ceaseless murmur of the waves and the sun on the living and moving water. Perfect, really, for reading Woolf, that most retrospective of writers, who wrote often of the sea and of water. And so I reread A Room of One’s Own, which I did bring, and marveled anew at her foresight, her courage, her humor, and her artistry.
One might assume that this extended essay, six chapters that make a short book, would be didactic. But I’d noticed before how much Woolf unfolds her essay in scene. For instance, there’s always the track of her mind in a physical place—as she roams a public library or ponders a bookshelf in her home—and there are a series of sexist indignities she suffers while researching the book, which is famous for its dictum that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” This time I noticed Woolf’s caveat about her scenic narrative approach, her “making use of all the liberties and licenses of a novelist” to show her audience how her topic consumed her and how she “made it work in and out of my daily life.” Great novelists are highly sensitive to the murky nature of memory and to the porous border between fiction and nonfiction; Nabokov and Updike made similar statements in their memoirs. In any case, a great move there on Woolf’s part, flagging her method and making her audience complicit in her imaginative approach. And there was at the start of A Room of One’s Own a very specific audience: two women’s colleges at Cambridge University, where Woolf delivered her book in a series of lectures in October 1928.
Having been asked to speak on “Women and Fiction,” Woolf tells the story of her process, beginning with being flummoxed by what in the world that topic meant and what to say about something so nebulous and vast. Soon we have her brilliant imagining of Judith Shakespeare, the genius sister she creates for William, and her fate. Which isn’t pretty. Indeed the midsection of A Room of One’s Own makes for uneasy reading by a man, despite Woolf’s ever-present tart humor. For we know those opening incidents might well have happened to her—the world’s great lyrical novelist and avatar of modernism chased off the grass at “Oxbridge” by the Beadle (women had to stay on the paths), then barred from the library (being unaccompanied and without a letter), and then too timid to risk entering the institution’s chapel. Thus she gives us experience along with then-radical ideas regarding the equality of women. And of course this resonates too because we know that Woolf herself wasn’t granted a formal university education by her philosopher father, who instead squandered higher education on her cretinous half brothers. Who’d bullied and molested her.
So it’s tough, this little book. But its transcendent reward comes in the final chapter, where Woolf argues that at base gender differences are a fiction of and for the small-minded. Quite simply, Woolf says, beyond that it is natural for the sexes to cooperate, artists must be conversant with their inner opposite sex. The creating mind must indeed be androgynous. Only those with this dual mind, those who partake in this “marriage of opposites,” she says, have a shot at writing with “suggestive power,” at making writing that has “the secret of perpetual life.” The book’s spiritual dimension soars here, so reminiscent of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet with its insistence on the sexes’ deep commonality, their inner union. Woolf: “The normal and comfortable state of being is that when the two live in harmony together, spiritually co-operating.” For in the end, for anyone of either gender involved in creation, Woolf observes, “There must be freedom and there must be peace.”
I previously reviewed Woolf’s memoir A Sketch of the Past.
I was reading the late novelist’s short story “Redemption,” based on the accidental death of his younger brother in a horrifying farming accident, and found its sentences beautifully crafted. John Gardner, at eleven, was driving a tractor when his brother fell under its towed cultipacker, a pair of giant rolling pins for mashing the clods in harrowed soil that weighed two tons. In the story, grief almost destroys the father, like Gardner’s father a dairyman, orator, and lay preacher; the surviving brother is tortured almost to madness by guilt.
This sentence is about the wife and mother—Gardner’s was an English teacher:
Because she had, at thirty-four, considerable strength of character—except that, these days, she was always eating—and because, also, she was a woman of strong religious faith, a woman who, in her years of church work and teaching at the high school, had made scores of close, for the most part equally religious, friends, with whom she regularly corresponded, her letters, then theirs, half filling the mailbox at the foot of the hill and cluttering every table, desk, and niche in the large old house—friends who now frequently visited or phoned—she was able to move step by step past disaster and in the end keep her family from wreck.
That’s 112 words. Virginia Woolf wrote longer ones, 140 words and more, but what Gardener kept aloft—the construction of his sentence and its clarity and beauty—and those double parenthetical dashes—amaze me. ‘‘Redemption” was published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1977, and Gardner later included it in his collection The Art of Living in 1981; the complete story is available on line.
There’s a famous quote by Gardner that seems to apply to this story:
By the time you’ve run your mind through it a hundred times, relentlessly worked out every tic of terror, it’s lost its power over you . . . [Soon it's] a story on a page or, more precisely, everybody’s story on a page.
In the 1970s his novel The Sunlight Dialogues was everywhere I looked, but I didn’t read it, nor have I read what’s considered his masterpiece, the novel Grendel. I did enjoy as they appeared his books on writing—On Moral Fiction, On Becoming a Novelist, and The Art of Fiction—and later read two novels I much admired, October Light and Mickelsson’s Ghosts.
[The essay] should lay us under a spell with its first word, and we should only wake, refreshed, with its last word. In the interval we may pass through the most various experiences of amusement, surprise, interest, indignation; we may soar to the heights of fantasy with Lamb or plunge to the depths of wisdom with Bacon, but we must never be roused. The essay must lap us about and draw its curtain across the world. . . . What can the essayist use in these short lengths of prose to sting us awake and fix us in a trance which is not sleep but rather an intensification of life—a basking, with every faculty alert, in the sun of pleasure? He must know—that is the first essential—how to write. His learning may be so profound as Mark Pattison’s, but in an essay it must be so fused by the magic of writing that not a fact juts out, not a dogma tears the surface of the texture. . . . [and] if the voice of the scold should never be heard in this narrow plot, there is another voice which is as a plague of locusts—the voice of a man stumbling drowsily among loose words, clutching aimlessly at vague ideas . . . the essay must be pure—pure like water or pure like wine, but pure from dullness, deadness, and deposits of extraneous matter.—Virginia Woolf, “The Modern Essay,” from Collected Essays Vol. 2, p. 41
At the same time that the power of voice alone has been dwindling, an age of mass culture paradoxically much influenced by modernism has emerged on a scale unparalleled in history, and today millions of people consider themselves possessed of the right to assert a serious life. A serious life, by definition, is a life one reflects on, a life one tries to make sense of and bear witness to. The age is characterized by a need to testify. Everywhere in the world women and men are rising up to tell their stories out of the now commonly held belief that one’s own life signifies. . . .
But memoir is neither testament nor fable nor analytic transcription. A memoir is a work of sustained narrative prose controlled by the idea of the self under obligation to lift from the raw material of life a tale that will shape experience, transform event, deliver wisdom. Truth in a memoir is achieved not through a recital of actual events; it is achieved when the reader comes to believe that the writer is working hard to engage with the experience at hand. What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened. For that the power of a writing imagination is required. As V.S. Pritchett once said of the genre, “It’s all in the art. You get no credit for living.”—Vivian Gornick, The Situation and the Story, p. 90-91
The past only comes back when the present runs so smoothly that it is like the sliding surface of a deep river. Then one sees through the surface to the depths. In those moments I find one of my greatest satisfactions, not that I am thinking of the past; but it is then that I am living most fully in the present.—“A Sketch of the Past”
Virginia Woolf begins her “Sketch” by describing her earliest, joyous memories in infancy, those associated with her family’s beach house, St. Ives. She writes, “I feel that strong emotion must leave its trace; and it is only a question of how we can get ourselves again attached to it, so that we shall be able to live our lives through from the start. But the peculiarity of these two strong memories was that each was very simple. I am hardly aware of myself, but only of the sensation. I am only the container of the feeling of ecstasy, of the feeling of rapture.”
Woolf calls the forgotten rush of everyday life “non-being,” and contrasts this unconscious state with memorable moments—the hum of bees as she walked to the beach as a girl—that are often mysterious for being so ordinary and yet remembered. In these flashes of time she was conscious of being conscious, instead of “embedded in a kind of nondescript cotton wool” in which human days typically pass.
I mentioned in my last post the resonant hints of spirituality I find in Woolf’s concept. Here is an excerpt that shows what I mean:
As a child, then, my days, just as they do now, contained a large proportion of this cotton wool, this non-being. Week after week passed at St. Ives and nothing made any dint upon me. Then, for no reason that I know about, there was a sudden violent shock; something happened so violently that I have remembered it all my life. I will give a few instances. The first: I was fighting with Thoby on the lawn. We were pommelling each other with our fists. Just as I raised my fist to hit him, I felt: why hurt another person? I dropped my hand instantly, and stood there, and let him beat me. I remember the feeling. It was a feeling of hopeless sadness. It was as if I became aware of something terrible; and of my own powerlessness. I slunk off alone, feeling horribly depressed. The second instance was also in the garden at St. Ives. I was looking at the flower bed by the front door; “That is the whole”, I said. I was looking at a plant with a spread of leaves; and it seemed suddenly plain that the flower itself was a part of the earth; that a ring enclosed what was the flower; and that was the real flower; part earth; part flower. It was a thought I put away as being likely to be very useful to me later.
The sensitivity with which Woolf experienced life seems excruciating, as the passage underscores as it continues with the third example, of overhearing her parents discuss the suicide of a neighbor. Walking in the garden later, she stood before an apple tree, unable to pass it, “looking at the grey-green creases of the bark—it was a moonlit night—in a trance of horror.” This connecting an innocent tree with a man’s death, of being “dragged down, hopelessly, into some pit of absolute despair,” shows her torture as a person better than anything I’ve read.
“All her life,” writes Hermione Lee in her introduction to the Paris Press edition of Woolf’s On Being Ill, “she had to do battle with tormenting, terrifying mental states, agonising and debilitating physical symptoms, and infuriating restrictions.”
How she suffered for her sensitivity. But Woolf writes in “A Sketch” that “the shock-receiving capacity is what makes me a writer.” Indeed, she says that when she wrote about the three above incidents, she realized for the first time consciously that one, the flower insight, ended in satisfaction. Even as a girl she felt she had made an important discovery with the flower, one she could return to, “turn over and explore.” And as an adult, even the blows that seemed to come from an enemy hidden in the cotton wool appeared to her a revelation of some sort, “a token of some real thing behind appearances.”
Perhaps this is the strongest pleasure known to me. It is the rapture I get when in writing I seem to be discovering what belongs to what; making a scene come right; making a character come together. From this I reach what I might call a philosophy; at any rate it is a constant idea of mine; that behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern; that we—I mean all human beings—are connected with this; that the whole world is a work of art; that we are part of the work of art.
To me this is spiritual, even as Woolf goes on to say emphatically that in these moments “there is no God”—nor Shakespeare nor Beethoven either—and she has also expressed what I see as the religious impulse—connection—and comes close to defining where I place God, inside humans as an evolutionary force impelling their search for goodness, truth, and justice. This is a very personal reading, of course, my receiving a thrilling hint, as when I read Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, of someone else working out the same problems that preoccupy me and arriving at the numinous.
Or, as Woolf says better: “. . . we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself . . . It proves that one’s life is not confined to one’s body and what one says and does; one is living all the time in relation to certain background rods or conceptions. Mine is that there is a pattern hid behind the cotton wool. And this conception affects me every day.”
Woolf succumbed to mental illness and killed herself before she was able to put in “the horrid labour” she felt was necessary to make of her “Sketch” a work of art. I found an excellent short essay online by Nicole L. Urquhart, “Moments of Being in Virginia Woolf’s Fiction,” which discusses how Woolf tried to portray moments of being—episodes in which characters are conscious of being conscious—in her novels Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse and Between the Acts.
From it all I gathered one obstinate and enduring conception. That nothing is to be so much dreaded as egotism. Nothing so cruelly hurts the person himself; nothing so wounds those who are forced into contact with it.—Virginia Woolf, writing about her relationship with her father in “A Sketch of the Past”
Having posted so much lately on scenic narrative, I do penance by featuring Virginia Woolf, a most reflective writer. Toward her I feel a kinship, which for some time struck me as odd. Then I realized that, in her deep art, her delicate nature, and her spiritual sensibility, she had replaced my boyhood idol Ernest Hemingway. What bookends to have as literary heroes! He, killed by his egotism and his rage, she killed by her sensitivity and her pain.
I admire his courage and his artistry as a young writer; I lament the shameful boor he became. I write that feeling like a son striking against his father, because when I was a lonely and pained adolescent his stoic myth gave me hope and his stories artistic delight. As a teen I read everything I could by and about him, and first saw the link between outlook and art. As an adult I feel that his efforts to grow as an artist, and perhaps to deepen his tragic view of life, were doomed by the prison of image he’d constructed.
Barely having dipped into Woolf to the same extent, I nonetheless find the depth of her artistry breathtaking, and am in awe of the resonant hints of spirituality I find in her work, especially in her concept of “moments of being” that she discusses in “A Sketch of the Past,” collected in Moments of Being. Ever since I read that long, unfinished essay I’ve been thinking about it—how dominated she was by her father, how she lost her mother so young, how she was molested and bullied by her cretinous stepbrothers, how her account still feels modern. In it Woolf makes her famous statement that although she reads many memoirs, most are failures because they are mere narratives of events and “leave out the person to whom things happened.”
Here she is on her parents’ dysfunction:
Every afternoon we ‘went for a walk’. Later these walks became a penance. Father must have one of us go out with him, Mother insisted. Too much obsessed with his health, with his pleasures, she was too willing, as I think now, to sacrifice us to him. It was thus that she left us the legacy of his dependence, which after her death became so harsh an imposition. It would have [been] better for our relationship if she had left him to fend for himself. But for many years she made a fetish of his health; and so—leaving the effect on us out of the reckoning—she wore herself out and died at forty-nine; while he lived on, and found it very difficult, so healthy was he, to die of cancer at the age of seventy-two. But, though I slip in, still venting an old grievance, that parenthesis, St. Ives gave us all that same ‘pure delight’ which is before my eyes at this very moment. The lemon-colored leaves on the elm tree; the apples in the orchard; the murmur and rustle of the leaves makes me pause here, and think how many other than human forces are always at work on us. While I write this the light glows; an apple becomes a vivid green; I respond all through me; but how? Then a little owl chatters under my window. Again, I respond.
Here she writes on the early blows of losing her mother and then a sister to death:
My mother’s death had been a latent sorrow—at thirteen one could not master it, envisage it, deal with it. But Stella’s death two years later fell on a different substance; a mind . . . extraordinarily unprotected, unformed, unshielded, apprehensive, receptive, anticipatory. That must always hold good of minds and bodies at fifteen. But beneath the surface of this particular mind and body lay sunk the other death. Even if I were not fully conscious of what my mother’s death meant, I had for two years been unconsciously absorbing it through Stella’s silent grief; through my father’s demonstrative grief; again through all the things that changed and stopped; the ending of society; of gaiety; of the giving up of St. Ives; the black clothes; the suppressions; the locked door of her bedroom. All this had toned my mind and made it apprehensive; made it I suppose unnaturally responsive to Stella’s happiness, and the promise it held for her and for us of escape from that gloom; when once more unbelievably—incredibly—as if one had been violently cheated of some promise; more than that, brutally told not to be such a fool as to hope for things; I remember saying to myself after she died: ‘But this is impossible; things aren’t, can’t be, like this—the blow, the second blow of death, stuck on me; tremulous, filmy eyed as I was, with my wings still creased, sitting there on the edge of my broken chrysalis.
On how she gained insight into foreign pleasures and strangers:
Once, after we had hung about, tacking, and hauling in gunard after gunard, dab after dab, father said to me: ‘Next time if you are going to fish I shan’t come; I don’t like to see fish caught but you can go if you like.’ It was a perfect lesson. It was not a rebuke; not forbidding; simply a statement of his own feeling, about which I could think and decide for myself. Though my passion for the thrill and the tug had been perhaps the most acute I then knew, his words slowly extinguished it; leaving no grudge, I ceased to wish to catch fish. But from the memory of my own passion I am still able to construct an idea of the sporting passion. It is one of those invaluable seeds, from which, since it is impossible to have every experience fully, one can grow something that represents other people’s experiences. Often one has to make do with seeds; the germs of what might have been, had one’s life been different. I pigeonhole ‘fishing’ thus with other momentary glimpses; like those rapid glances, for example, that I cast into basements when I walk in London streets.
On how fiction and memoir feed upon and devour memories:
Further, just as I rubbed out a good deal of the force of my mother’s memory by writing about her in To the Lighthouse, so I rubbed out much of [my father’s] memory there too. Yet he obsessed me for years. Until I wrote it out, I would find my lips moving; I would be arguing with him; raging against him; saying to myself all that I never said to him; how deep they drove themselves into me, the things it was impossible to say aloud. They are still some of them sayable; when [Woolf’s sister] Nessa for instance revives the memory of Wednesday and its weekly [bank account] books, I still feel come over me that old frustrated fury.
But in me, though not in her, rage alternated with love. . . . ‘You must think me,’ he said to me after one of these rages—I think the word he used was ‘foolish’. I was silent. I did not think him foolish. I thought him brutal. . . .
Woolf died by her own hand before she made of this memoir a literary work equal to her fiction. It feels like a draft still searching for its structure, and ends abruptly. But what a memoir, and the very model for those who believe memoir must, as they say, “interrogate memory.” “A Sketch of the Past” is better for my money than another classic memoir, the gorgeously written Speak, Memory, since, lamentably, I find Vladimir Nabokov’s cold-fish persona in it repulsive. Woolf, in contrast to the guys, seemingly stands naked before her readers, a wounded creature working to understand her life, and life itself, with true courage and great artistry.
Next: Woolf’s concept of “moments of being” from “A Sketch of the Past.”
There are quotes about writing on my desktop. Actually, they’re in a Word file, at the top of a journal I’ve kept for the last year as I produced a fourth version of my memoir. I don’t make journal entries every day, usually when things go really badly or really well. Or when I notice something I want to remember—like the fact that I won’t be able to remember or recreate or explain how I interwove narrative threads over the course of an entire 500-page manuscript. Such notes to my future self are intended to lessen consternation by that future, unknown self.
I know they won’t help. Even the ones that say: Hey Dummy, You did it like this. Because:
“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few. . . . This is also the real secret of the arts: always be a beginner. Be very very careful about this point.”— Suzuki Roshi, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind
Check. Anyway, I seldom look at my journal—or my inspiring quotes. But they are there when I need them. Of course I’ve internalized other thoughts, such as Annie Dillard’s famous statement:
“There’s a common notion that self-discipline is a freakish peculiarity of writers—that writers differ from other people by possessing enormous and equal portions of talent and willpower. They grit their powerful teeth and go into their little rooms. I think that’s a bad misunderstanding of what impels the writer. What impels the writer is a deep love for and respect for language, for literary forms, for books. It’s a privilege to muck about in sentences all morning. It’s a challenge to bring off a powerful effect, or to tell the truth about something. You don’t do it from willpower; you do it from an abiding passion for the field.
As she says, “Willpower is a weak idea; love is strong.” I believe it, and believe Dillard meant it. But I’ve also read her despairing comments about writing’s difficulty.
Here’s my top “working” quotes.
“The realest, most honest part of anyone is the part that suffers.”—John V. Wylie
John, my brother in law, told me that one day when I was concerned about going deeply into a painful incident in my memoir. Retired from his huge Washington, D.C., psychiatric practice, John is a key member of my writer’s posse. He’s a sunny guy, so I was afraid that my darkest chapter, about when I got seriously hurt on my farm, would upset him. My injury was agonizing, and it made me despair. But in his old day job, John had heard worse.
So when John said the problem with “your chapter is it’s not dark enough,” I listened. He added, “I think it’s the writer’s duty to be honest about such things. People can relate.” I hold to that philosophy myself, and was so stunned by his reaction I couldn’t speak.
He’s helped me come far with this iteration of my memoir. And I have tried to help him with his magnum opus. Explaining its theories would involve summarizing more than thirty years, which is how long John’s been talking to me about evolutionary psychology, his passion, in his effort to understand human emotion and the nature of God. We’ve each had a hard, creative year. I wish I were smarter, so I could help him more—much of what he writes is over my head.
But just as I have inoculated him with the creative nonfiction bug, and unwittingly increased his confidence to tell me when what I write is flawed, he’s brought me along, with help from his buddies Darwin, Freud, and Kierkegaard. To paraphrase the detestable but quotable Rummy: “We must go to the keyboard with the reader we have.” Maybe in time you grow the reader you need, or deserve.
“Talent is a process, not a thing. Failure is not proof of an innate limit but rather is an indication of a skill we haven’t yet developed.” —David Shenk
I’ll never forget talking to an accomplished writer once at a conference. He was a “mid-list writer,” someone who has produced a string of books over the years, not bestsellers but good, diverse books, mostly memoir and nonfiction narratives, but also a couple books on writing. Suddenly he said to me, out of the blue, “I’m just a craftsman. Sometimes I get lucky.”
Maybe I was looking too star-struck. Having now spent almost six years writing a book, I understand better what he meant. Writing is rewarding, of course, but can seem so hard. And it’s a field full of geniuses, so it’s humbling. But I also remember something Brenda Ueland said in her classic If You Want to Write: We call “geniuses” by that one word, but we all possess genius. “Geniuses” just are people who act. They plug away. They may be smarter and more talented than most, and seemingly always “on,” but it is an illusion that work is easy for them. Virginia Woolf suffered terribly, from family baggage and bipolar disorder, yet she wrote—and she rewrote—endlessly.
Shenk is the author of The Genius in All of Us and made the comments above to a newspaper reporter when he was in speaking in here in Columbus.
Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail better.—Samuel Beckett
In the same vein, more poetically expressed. Many writers mention this quote. Again, it’s the idea that creating involves constant failure but that’s no reason to quit. And there’s a flaw in every work of art. Art cannot be flawless, if only because each recipient sees something different in it, and perhaps something lacking.
Books do not have to be great. They can be good enough.—Heather Sellers
This is from her fine book about writing a book, Chapter After Chapter, which I’ve mentioned occasionally here. The day I added it to the list I probably needed to lower my standards to get some work done. But the statement occurs within the context of her rather paradoxical philosophy that you only accept the best you can do as good enough.
It’s carpentry.—Noam Shpancer, novelist, commenting on his writing.
This is another lower-your-standards quote, obviously. And I know Noam, an Otterbein colleague, tries very hard to make it more than just carpentry. But there’s a lot to that analogy nonetheless.
It takes stamina and self mastery and faith. It demands those things of you, then gives them back with a little extra, a surprise to keep you coming.—Tobias Wolff, In Pharaoh’s Army: Memories of the Lost War
I love this memoir; I love this quote. I believe it is true about writing. It is true in my experience. The little breakthroughs amaze me. I can beat my head against the wall trying to solve a problem, to figure out how to do something, and suddenly the solution’s there—I think it’s the subconscious kicking in. Strangely, when a breakthrough is happening it doesn’t feel as big as it really is. It’s only later that I realize how much my ass was saved, again, because I showed up and didn’t quit.
Set aside time to write, even if it’s only an hour or two a day, and think of the time as the requirement. So you just have to be there, and it doesn’t matter what you finish. I think it takes the pressure off the individual story or chapter, and you’ll end up working on the ideas that seem most promising. I start many, many stories and abandon most of them, but eventually some pay off.—Maile Malloy, novelist and short story writer
I read Malloy’s 2009 short story collection, Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It, and was amazed. The first story is about a lonely, crippled young Montana ranch hand who stumbles accidentally into the world of a pretty, striving attorney, a few years older than he, and falls in love with her. It can’t end happily, and doesn’t, but ends with a poignant, understated truth. The rest of the stories astonished and surprised me, too, and her writing is beautiful in its spare simplicity. Her sentences seem perfect in their punctuation, detail, and apt summary.
I read a few interviews with her on the web, and came across that quote in a Q&A on her web site. Malloy says she writes in some kind of a reclining “astronaut chair,” with a desk that comes across her lap to write upon.
For me, time spent writing indeed is probably more important than number of words of pages, because I think a quota could make my writing more mechanical. At least that happened to me once, as I recall, long ago. And, as it happens, I’d already abandoned my desk to write during the last year reclined in my leather La-Z-Boy with my laptop in, well, my lap.
“Amazing what power there is in surrender to suffering.”—Mary Karr (from her Paris Review interview)
I admire the heck out of Mary Karr, as my review of her third memoir, Lit, should have made obvious. The Paris Review interview, which I learned about from Shirley Showalter’s blog 100 Memoirs, is a gold mine. I can’t wait to read the book Karr’s working on about writing memoir. In her own work, she always unites a powerful narrative with a strong voice and a larger awareness of herself.
This particular quote inspires me deeply—I think it’s a truth recognized by all great religions. I first encountered the overt notion of, well, yielding about seventeen years ago in my study of Buddhism, which has tools that seemed, and seem, much more codified and therefore generally helpful with less struggle than Christianity’s.
But having dissed my own tradition, I know that Christianity contains multitudes; it’s just that in my early practice I was too obtuse a supplicant to notice that it’s also about surrender and forgiveness. And of course community—working with and helping others. Like all religion, I suppose, it’s designed for adults who have experienced grief and who struggle with loss. Surely that group includes all writers, for loss is their stock in trade.