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Ideas to Woolf Down

london. 2016.

“Is the time coming when I can endure to read my own writing in print without blushing — shivering and wishing to take cover?”

Born in 1882, Virginia Woolf was a definitively ‘Modernist’ writer. Above all else, her writing was concerned with capturing the excitement, pain, and beauty of what she described as the ‘Modern Age.’ 

Woolf's innovative novels are extensively debated in academic circles, and her trailblazing feminism has earned her a distinguished position in women's studies programs nationwide.

However, this acclaim carries the risk of limiting Woolf to being perceived solely as a 'women's writer' and her works as objects of scholarly analysis rather than sources of enjoyment.

Yet, within her prose, Woolf emerges as a master of delight in modern literature, her allure surpassing gender boundaries. They go deep into the heart of life. Woolf looked out across the society she found herself a part of —  at the time defined by developments across all factions of family life, urbanism, capitalism, and technology — and knew that it needed a new kind of writer. One unlike any that came before and who would capture these developments through relentless creativity and a deep consciousness for pursuing new literary forms.

It’s this relentlessness that sees her writing continually reissued, revisited, and revived — it’s still incredibly relevant. Her ability to convey the thrill and drama of the 20th century holds nostalgia for her time and key lessons we can apply today as writers.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve found myself returning to her work. Reading and re-reading the ways she depicts and describes her life and everything around her.

There is so much beauty to be found in her writing, and I’ve found myself enraptured by the ways I might be able to bring a little bit of Woolf into my own work.

Three writing lessons I’ve learned from Virginia Woolf

1. Notice everything - and nothing.

“The possibilities of pleasure seemed that morning so enormous and so various that to have only a moth’s part in life, and a day moth’s at that, appeared a hard fate, and his zest in enjoying his meagre opportunities to the full, pathetic. He flew vigorously to one corner of his compartment, and, after waiting there a second, flew across to the other. What remained for him but to fly to a third corner and then to a fourth? That was all he could do, in spite of the width of the sky, the far-off smoke of houses, and the romantic voice, now and then, of a steamer out at sea.”

The above is an extract from Woolf’s ‘The Death of a Moth,’ a short essay about her observations of a moth in her study. The essay has become one of my favorites for the amount of thought and insight that such a seemingly small observation might be able to extract.

For Woolf, there was no such thing as a 'benign observation'.

Through her writing, Woolf aimed to use what she saw around her to create works that define who we really are; our joys, vulnerabilities, confusions, and sensations. She used everything she saw and everything that happened to her to do this.

As writers, everything we observe is food for our writing table. Even the smallest of interactions or details can be used to spin our next pieces of fiction or essays. This lesson has taught me always to keep a notebook handy and to jot down ideas, thoughts, and observations as they arise. I keep that notebook handy when I’m ready to pillage it for my next piece of prose.

Woolf’s moth essay inspired a short piece of fiction of my own that went on to be awarded Highly Commended in the National Flash Fiction Day Micro Prize, 2019.

2. Accept your reality.

“The moralists point the finger of scorn at Oxford street… it reflects, they say, the levity, the ostentation, the haste and the irresponsibility of our age. Yet perhaps they are as much out in their scorn as we should be if we asked of the lily that it should be cast in bronze, or of the daisy that it should have petals of imperishable enamel. The charm of modern London is that it is not built to last; it is built to pass.”

Consumerism was just taking hold in Woolf’s society, but instead of turning away from it, she embraced it. Woolf wanted to document every part of the world emerging around her — even some more trivial aspects.

In her essay, ‘Oxford Street Tide’ (excerpt above), through observing the triviality of shopping, she provides profound insight: “The charm of modern London is that it is not built to last; it is built to pass.”

Accepting our reality as writers is a crucial lesson, whether accepting rejection, accepting writer’s block, or accepting that we simply don’t feel like writing. 

It’s also more than that. A lot is happening in our world right now. Like Woolf we’re on the precipice of huge change.

Accepting — and writing — about our reality is a challenge we must be prepared to embrace.

3. Write your truth.

“It is fatal to be a man or woman pure and simple; one must be woman-manly or man-womanly.”

A Room of One’s Own is without question one of Woolf’s standout essays. She was deeply aware of the strict gender roles men and women fit themselves into across society and how these forced out critical parts of their personalities.

According to Woolf, to move past this, we should seek experiences that blurred the rigid boundaries between men and women and create a truth of our own. 

As writer’s, truth needs to be at the heart of our writing. Writing our truths is the only way to do our experiences and lives justice. It’s also the key way we'll connect with readers. Truth doesn’t have to be total, it can (and should) be blurred, but it needs to always be there in some form or other.

This has been one of the most important lessons for me as a writer, as I seek to get closer to the truth of who I am, how I feel, and what I want to say about it through my writing.

A Heartbreaking End

Woolf was plagued by mental illness and depression for most of her life. In March 1941, she drowned herself in the River Ouse, leaving behind a heartbreaking letter to her husband, Leonard, explaining her decision (don't read this without having some tissues nearby).

Woolf had an impeccable knack for writing about and describing the human condition; our minds, lives, thoughts, emotions, and reactions. All without relying on or referring to the jargon of emerging psychology thought growing during her era. 

As a trainee psychologist and a writer, her works both invite and encourage me always to seek more, and to push for more in my writing, beyond the typical boundaries that surround me.


A version of this article was first published with Write or Die Magazine.


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