Now is the eleventh hour for my submission for the group’s meeting (January 22, 2015), and I regret that I have not implemented the advice in all the writing books I have been reading, to press pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, a little bit every day.
One seemingly unbridgeable gap lies between the daily practice of good writing habits and the production of WORKS: How do the painstaking scribbles add up to a finished piece of writing? Perhaps they do not. Perhaps one does these exercises and simultaneously lays aside material for something more substantial from the start.
Then arises the specter of the inspired author from whom writing rolls as if effortlessly. This is the image we all want to project, while at the same time paying lip service to the dearly held orthodoxies, among them that hard work every day will advance novice writers to their goal of becoming ex-novice writers. There is a process that occurs amid the gesticulations, but I am skeptical that it conforms to the tale we are told as aspirant adult practitioners. On the other hand, I was given advice by someone I admire to start writing by writing 100 words a day, a modest and attainable goal. I have the sense that if I had continued on that course, I'd be much further along than I am. Intentions without follow through don't go very far. The flesh is weak. "Never too late," of course!
Consider Virginia Woolf, a writer I have admired since doing a report as a junior in high school on "stream-of-consciousness" as a literary technique. A few details about her have stuck with me over the years of formal education and informally reading her works on my own. Woolf notoriously referred to herself as "uneducated", though her lack of formal training did not prevent her from contributing immensely to the field of humane letters. She set aside time each morning (or tried to), free of distractions, in order to write. This worked for her for many years and enabled her to compile an impressive collection of works.
Woolf has been caricatured and derided in public opinion, and I realize this fact is incidental to what she is primarily remembered for (in Academia) today: her genius. Those who are reluctant to read her books can chatter about her love life and her episodes of madness to no avail, as a sideshow, because they are inured to her art.
My acquaintance with Woolf started as research, but then I read Jacob's Room, and then the engaging A Room of One's Own, followed by The Waves, To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway, then some of the Common Reader essays, then the fabulously figured Orlando, and most recently A Writer's Diary. I have also read Michael Cunningham's brilliant The Hours, which includes Virginia Woolf as one of its lovingly crafted characters, and also uses one of her characters, Mrs. Dalloway, and a sprinkling of other lyrical figures. Cunningham's tribute to Woolf is of a piece with her own work.
I have also just read The Virginia Woolf Writers' Workshop, an imaginative recasting of many of Woolf's disparately scattered pieces of advice and observations about writing into an imaginary workshop taught by Woolf herself. This book comprises a creative reorganization and survey of Woolf's diaries, letters, essays and novels. It is a gateway to Woolf's expansive oeuvre, an homage to a great writer who left plenty of indications of how she might have taught a creative writing class, had she been more propitiously placed for such occupation.
Woolf did not write poetry per se, but her writing is often taught as a form of poetry (for there is music to it), and her opinions concerning poetry are extremely perceptive. (In a word… brilliant.) Woolf is also a compelling figure because she suffered for her sensitivity and her art. Her sanity was fragile, lost on a few occasions, culminating in her suicide during the cold winter of 1941.
The Virginia Woolf Writers' Workshop, as a guide to writing, is not intended to cultivate the epigone; indeed, the book discourages strict mimicry in favor of advice to develop good habits of pen in people who wonder how to begin writing. The book has, in common with other introductory texts, the figure of the writer as someone who practices his/her craft a little bit every day, or just about every day. Doing this is harder than it seems, for witness the many days when dedication flags. The book is a gentle reminder to keep at it, whereas one of Woolf's novels, swallowed in one piece, might overwhelm the novice, as a more or less finished product; the polished, published book hides the vestiges of its origin as the result of thought and artifice and toil.
The imitations we perform in emulation of writers we esteem eventually become our own individual voices. We may start out hoping to sound like Virginia Woolf (or any of those in the vast pantheon of past and present writers) and find ourselves sounding remarkably like ourselves. The self-expression we covet manifests itself down to the letters we sincerely commit to the page.
In essence, we can't outrun ourselves; the blank page is a mirror and we writers without words are without reflection. We force the moment, but even if that force is weak, we can push the pen a little farther than we might have had we merely waited for the right moment to begin. We perform the pantomime of writing and convince ourselves that real writing is happening, and we invite our Muse to come dwell with us. And she does, because real writing resembles the phony stuff to a remarkable degree, until what starts as the fake or merely formal gesture becomes the real thing. Or so we hope.
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