A Writer’s Notebook – Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf on Art

Every flower seems to burn by itself, softly, purely in the misty beds; and how she loved the grey-white moths spinning in and out, over the cherry pie, over the evening primroses.

On Jacob’s Room from journal entry of January 26, 1920 on “some idea of a new form of a new novel”:

I figure that the approach will be entirely different this time: no scaffolding; scarcely a brick to be seen; all crepuscular, but the heart, the passion, humour, everything as bright as fire in the mist. Then I’ll find room for so much – a gaiety—an inconsequence – a light spirited stepping at my sweet will.

Woolf used the phrase “Moments of Being” in an essay in THE COMMON READER: SECOND SERIES (1932).  She describes a “moment of being” in “A Sketch of the Past”:

How fresh like frilled linen clean from a laundry laid in wicker trays the roses looked; and dark and prim the red carnations, holding their heads up; and all the sweet peas spreading in their bowls, tinged violet, snow white, pale – as if it were the evening and girls in muslin frocks came out to pick sweet peas and roses after the superb summer’s day, with its almost blue-black sky, its delphiniums, its carnations its arum lilies was over; and it was the moment between six and seven when every flower—roses, carnations, irises, lilac – glows; white, violet, red, deep orange; every flower seems to burn by itself, softly, purely in the misty beds . . . .

From ‘Modern Fiction’ :

Look within and life, it seems, is very far from being “like this”. Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad impressions-trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms; and as they fall, as they shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday, the accent falls differently from of old; the moment of importance came not here but there; so that, if a writer were a free man and not a slave, if he could write what he chose, not what he must, if he could base his work upon his own feeling and not upon convention, there would be no plot, no comedy, no tragedy, no love interest or catastrophe in the accepted style, and perhaps not a single button sewn on as the Bond Street tailors would have it. Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end. Is it not the task of the novelist to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit, whatever aberration or complexity it may display, with as little mixture of the alien and external as possible? We are not pleading merely for courage and sincerity; we are suggesting that the proper stuff of fiction is a little other than custom would have us believe it.  Let us record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall, let us trace the pattern, however disconnected and incoherent in appearance, which each sight or incident scores upon the consciousness.  Let us not take it for granted that life exists more in what is commonly thought big than in what is commonly thought small. . . .

Woolf’s Diary,  November 28, 1928 :

The idea has come to me that what I want now to do is to saturate every atom.  I mean to eliminate all waste, deadness, superfluity: to give the moment whole; whatever it includes.  Say that the moment is a combination of thought; sensation; the void of the sea.  Waste, deadness, come from the inclusion of things that don’t belong to the moment; this appalling narrative business of the realist:  getting on from lunch to dinner:  it is false, unreal, merely conventional.  Why admit anything to literature that is not poetry – by which I mean saturated?  I that nothing?  The poets succeeding by simplifying: practically everything is left out.  I want to put practically everything in:  yet to saturate.

Lucy Swithin experiencing a “moment of being” in Between the Acts:

Something moved in the water; her favorite fantail. The golden orfe followed. Then she had a glimpse of silver – the great carp himself, who came to the surface so very seldom. They slid on, in and out between the stalks, silver; pink; gold; splashed; streaked; pied.   Ourselves,” she murmured. And retrieving some glint of faith from the grey waters, hopefully, without much help from reason, she followed the fish; the speckled, streaked, and blotched; seeing in that vision beauty, power, and glory in ourselves.

Mrs. Ramsay’s “moment of being” in To the Lighthouse:

Everything seemed possible. Everything seemed right. Just now (but this cannot last, she thought, dissociating herself from the moment while they were talking about boots) just now she had reached security; she hovered like a hawk suspended; like a flag floated in an element of pure joy which filled every nerve of her body fully and sweetly, not noisily, solemnly rather, for it arose . . . like a fume rising upwards, holding them safe together. Nothing need be said; nothing could be said. There it was all around them. . . . Of such moments, she thought, the thing is made that endures. (104-5)

Woolf on Modern Poetry from ‘Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown’ (1924) :

Grammar is violated; syntax disintegrated; as a boy staying with an aunt for the week-end rolls in the geranium bed out of sheer desperation as the solemnities of the sabbath wear on. The more adult writers do not, of course, indulge in such wanton exhibitions of spleen. Their sincerity is desperate, and their courage tremendous; it is only that they do not know which to use, a fork or their fingers. Thus, if you read Mr. Joyce and Mr. Eliot you will be struck by the indecency of the one, and the obscurity of the others. . . . Again, with the obscurity of Mr. Eliot. I think that Mr. Eliot has written some of the loveliest single lines in modern poetry. But how intolerant he is of the old usages and politenesses of society–respect for the weak, consideration for the dull! As I sun myself upon the intense and ravishing beauty of one of his lines, and reflect that I must make a dizzy and dangerous leap to the next, and so on from line to line, like an acrobat flying precariously from bar to bar, I cry out, I confess, for the old decorums, and envy the indolence of my ancestors who, instead of spinning madly through mid-air, dreamt quietly in the shade with a book. For these reasons, then, we must reconcile ourselves to a season of failure and fragments. We must reflect that where so much strength is spent on finding a way of telling the truth, the truth itself is bound to reach us in rather an exhausted and chaotic condition.

Wonderful!

I read somewhere that a writer should read anything and everything, that’s fine if you are castaway on an island and have limited reading material. I don’t agree. By reading you learn to write.  Read the best in the genre you write in. Of course ‘the best’ varies from person to person and the main thing is to enjoy what you read.

Good writing,

Cheers, Elise

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