Discovering Virginia Woolf
Several winters ago on a frigid January morning, I was at my lowest writing ebb. By habit, I sat in front of my computer screen staring at a blank document. I could not think of anything to write, not even a word. Where had my muses gone?
I got out of the study, put on my coat, muffler and gloves and left home in search of my lost creativity. I tried to imagine June blossoms in January-a spring scene superimposed on the uncreative winter landscape-and felt dislocated, ending up at the local library. A book sale was on.
The first book that caught my attention was A Room of My Own by Virginia Woolf (1882-1941). I wondered what the book was about. The name of the author was familiar because I had watched the movie “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” in New Delhi during the early seventies. (It was only later that I found out that the movie had not much to do with the renowned author herself.) I selected a few other books and went home. Back in my study, I did not leave the room until I had finished 114 pages of A Room of One’s Own (1929).
“Women write better and more variously,” Woolf wrote, “when they have a room of their own, when they have leisure and money – the two things that have been denied to them for so long.” (I already had the leisure to write and a room of my own.) What I loved was the conviction of Virginia’s ideas. Her voice was a symphony of wit, logic, and imagination. Motivated by the book, I read Women and Writing, a collection of her essays.
Women and Writing is a remarkable collection of thoughtful essays about the writing lives of women. Woolf’s reflections are ahead of her time. She writes about the absurdities and injustices of patriarchy and domestic tyranny. She is concerned with the social and familial positions of women, their education, profession and economic independence. She believes that higher education releases women from ignorance and the tyranny of the family. After I finished reading this book, ideas started to percolate and I felt my passions energized. I purchased whatever book I could find written by or about my newly discovered literary ideal. Julia Briggs’ Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life supplied me with almost everything about her.
I plunged deeper into Woolf’s feminine consciousness when I read thirteen abridged volumes of her diaries. Despite debilitating attacks of severe headaches and depression, she wrote almost every day. She wrote in spurts: between breakfast and lunch, between lunch and evening tea and, at times, even later. Ideas teemed in her mind when she talked with people or sat in solitude. She selected a few ideas for shorter pieces. In between writing novels she wrote essays and stories. Thus she worked on fiction and non-fiction simultaneously.
Woolf said that she observed her own creative process. When she was alone or just sitting at her desk or walking, spurts of thoughts inspired her. When in the thick of writing, millions of new ideas came crowding into her head. During such fertile periods she wanted solitude and avoided parties and people. She believed that “the imaginary people cannot come to life in the company of real-life people. It is hard to separate life from art.”
Woolf wrote that a writer’s life is full of ups and downs. A creative mind is filled with ideas one day and a mere blank the next-you feel you are nothing. You have no talent, no imagination and will never amount to anything. That a writer of Virginia’s caliber could feel this way gave me courage to go back to writing. Earlier, I had wondered if perhaps my mind had become blank because my life lacked emotional exploits and adventure. But her writings assured me that the “activities of writing and imagination come when our lives run so smoothly…. (Writing and imagination) depend on established routines and a degree of inner calm.”
I searched for Woolf’s ideas about reading. She believed that the processes of reading and writing were inextricably intertwined. “Reading leads back to writing. One must read actively because, “A passive reader cannot delight in art. An active reader flouts writer’s preconceptions and questions her principles, and splits her into two parts” and that “thinking should be brought to literature.”
Out of Woolf’s nine novels, I read five: The Voyage Out (1915), Mrs. Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), The Waves (1931) and The Years (1937). Reading the rough drafts of some of these novels, Virginia felt dissatisfied. So she rewrote them “in entirety, three or four times.” For me, however, the epitome of her writing process was the fact that she rewrote her first novel, The Voyage Out, five times. She slashed what was to be its “final” version and rewrote the entire manuscript. I had never read anything like this before! I reread it aloud-several times. What courage! What self-confidence! Ultimately, I found it to be a lesson in patience, persistence, and perseverance.
Some of Woolf’s revised manuscripts corresponded closely to the earlier drafts in structure and sequence but the actual words themselves were substantially different. So she took pains to delete, revise and tighten at top speed until all her multihued characters “were woven together into a tapestry.” She ground down her 150,000-word novel to 120,000 words. In her novels and short stories, she is in the heads of all her characters, giving the fictional dream a dimension that was, until her times, unlike the writings of any other novelist.
Woolf’s interest in art and aesthetics influenced both her critical thinking and writing. “Writing is not an easy art…. Thoughts runs hither and thither when one tries to write them down. Sometimes when no thought comes or a thought comes and I cannot write I feel like a snail’s empty shell.”
In the process of writing, she said, we write, stop, step back to take a break, and return to find a smooth flow of words. This process is repeated innumerable times. All scenes must be dramatized and dominated with one interest, and a few scenes generalized. A kind of swing and rhythm must be kept through them all. Then fiction flows like “a water bottle turned upside down.” She advised, “Let every scene shape fully and easily in your hands before you move on to the next one, even if it has to wait a whole year. You need your work to simmer before sending it out.” Thus patience and perseverance pays off.
After reading Woolf for months, I found myself simultaneously revising an essay, “Awakening the Goddesses Within,” (that I had abandoned some years back) and a short story, “Uma.” I dramatized the story and dominated the essay with just one interest. I eliminated entire scenes, deleted words, revised and tightened. I tried to leave “no sentence stunted, no paragraph stilted.”
If, like me, literary figures and their writing lives excite you, revisit your favorite author. Reread everything he or she has written. In addition read good literature written about them. If you do so, your creative consciousness will become energized and shower you with ideas.
It takes just one emotional situation, one exotic travel or one literary mentor, dead or alive, to stimulate our creative cauldron. For me, Virginia’s work impacted my writing process like no literary figure has done before.