Monday, June 05, 2006

On Virginia Woolf

In the comments to my previous post, people got to wondering what they reveal about themselves in their blogging – not when they are writing about themselves but precisely when they aren’t. It’s impossible to know what you are communicating when you write anything, which strikes me as the scary thing about writing for the public and the thing that makes it worthwhile.

The best you can do is to read your writing after a lapse of time – then it’s a little like reading the work of a stranger, and you get a better sense of the quality of what you’ve written. I tell my students to write their papers enough ahead of time so that they can set them aside for a while and look at them fresh. I don’t think they listen to me though. Reading your writing after letting time go by can be painful. Here’s Virginia Woolf writing in her diary about re-reading it:

I got out this diary, & read as one always does read one’s own writing, with a kind of guilty intensity. I confess that the rough & random style of it, often so ungrammatical, & crying for a word altered, afflicted me somewhat. I am trying to tell whichever self it is that reads this hereafter that I can write very much better; & take no time over this; & forbid her to let the eye of man behold it. And now I may add my little compliment to the effect that it has a slapdash & vigour, & sometimes hits an unexpected bulls eye.

I like the way she describes the future Virginia Woolf who will read the diary once again as a different self – when returning to an old diary, who exactly are you reading? She goes on to discuss the value of diary writing:

But what is more to the point is my belief that the habit of writing thus for my own eyes only is good practice. It loosens the ligaments. Never mind the misses & the stumbles. Going at such a pace as I do I must make the most direct & instant shots at my objects, & thus have to lay hands on words, choose them, & shoot them with no more pause than is needed to put my pen in the ink. I believe that during the past year I can trace some increase of ease in my professional writing which I attribute to my casual half hours after tea.

I wonder about this myself – how diary writing, or for me, blog writing, will affect other kinds of writing I do. I think the daily practice is invaluable. I’m curious – for those of you who write other things besides blogs, what is the relationship between the kinds of writing you do? Does one affect the other? Then Woolf asks:

What sort of diary should I like mine to be? Something loose knit, & yet not slovenly, so elastic that it will embrace any thing, solemn, slight or beautiful that comes into my mind. I should like it to resemble some deep old desk, or capacious hold-all, in which one flings a mass of odds and ends without looking them through. I should like to come back, after a year or two, & find that the collection had sorted itself & refined itself & coalesced, as such deposits so mysteriously do, into a mould, transparent enough to reflect the light of our life, & yet steady, tranquil composed with the aloofness of a work of art.

Sigh. Do you see why Woolf is one of my favorite writers? I love the idea that what she writes will take on meaning over time, even though when she first wrote, she was writing only what mattered in the moment. But what seems disconnected, disjointed, fragmentary at first, over time can come to seem connected, can begin to form a coherent story.

Is there anything more one can hope for from one’s daily writing?

Perhaps she contradicts herself here: what was at first a contemplation of the changing self becomes a hope that the self will, over time, begin to cohere. But perhaps she is merely playing with the tension between the disconnected events of life, the shifting self, and the desire to see wholeness.