Monday, February 28, 2011

Ending Virginia Woolf

This writing thing is an interesting process--learning to do it, learning to do it better, figuring out what to say. A lot of times it takes hearing the same thing from dozens of sources before it sinks in, before the learning writer internalizes the lesson. Part of the reason I'm working on this blog is so I can think and internalize the lessons presented.

Here's the biggie that I think I got out of studying Virginia Woolf:

The form reflects the content.

Normally this is a poet-y type of thought process. But Woolf, as evidenced in her diary, and again in her work, thought long and hard about playing with form first, and let the message come from it. Mrs. Dalloway--the story of one day and all the emotion/thought that goes into the most trivial of moments is told in a stream of concious where each of those thoughts are weighed, measured, and presented against the most trivial of details. ("Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.") The form makes the content that much more defined.

And The Waves. It's a frickin' masterpiece of form and content working with each other. It's framed like a wave--both in the large and small sense. The "chapters" are waves of time and life experience. Then, in the narrative portions, everyone talks over everyone else, a wave of dialogue surging one over the other. The whole thing undulates--and the reader can drown just as easily as the characters.

And ya know the other thing that I've internalized about this lesson?

I need a lot more practice to ever play at that level. I realize that I'll probably not write a Waves-indepth piece, but I do understand that the form of a novel, and the forms presented within the novel, play a rhetorical part in the telling of the story. It's something that I'll be concious of.

I end this exploration of Virginia Woolf with a great sense of appreciation and my head dizzy in admiration. I hope that this section has been helpful to blog readers, likewise.

Now we move on to P.G. Wodehouse. Should anyone like to sound off on what we've talked about with Woolf or if anyone has something that they'd like me to look at as we move forward with Wodehouse, please do so!

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Writers, Virginia Woolf, and Suicide

We can't talk about Woolf without talking about her final act in the world: leaving it.

Here's what happened:

In March 1941, with WWII having gone on for two years for England, she went to a river about three or four miles from her home, filled her pockets with stones, went in, and never came out again. It took ten days to find her.

During a class where we discussed Mrs. Dalloway and Michael Cunningham's The Hours (he describes the suicide at the opening) our professor told us about the time when she'd visited Woolf's house. Apparently, you can walk the same route that Woolf used to get to the river. One comment that my prof made has always stuck with me. "That's a long walk. Three miles and there's nothing to do but think about what she was going to do. Woolf had to mean it."

(Prof also said that the river was less than impressive nowadays. Apparently you'd have to bury yourself in the river bank in order to drown today. But for Woolf there was a lot of rain fall that year and the river was more than full.)

When the prof said that Woolf had to mean it -- well, yeah. That's the awful part of suicidal thought. When your brain is tuning into the wrong thing (like killing yourself) it will hone in on it. You will mean it. That's what makes it so dangerous.

Recently, went to a reading. The author read beautiful poems and a great essay on his experience in the Middle East. During the Q&A session he talked about his writing sessions. He mentioned one thing that makes the little hairs on the back of my head stand up: the word catharsis. He laughingly apologized for the depressing bits in his work...saying that he wrote as a kind of catharsis.

In and of itself, that is no big deal. But I'm afraid that so many writers use the writing as a kind of therapy. And again, that's not a huge deal. However, there is also a thought-process in some writers that the writing will fix things. No. Writing doesn't fix. It helps. It sometimes helps a lot.

But, if there is thinking that involves walking three miles, filling pockets with stones, and letting the river take it all away (meaning it)--no amount of writing will take that away. No amount of people telling you to SNAP OUT OF IT! will work--that kind of attitude will make it worse. It's time to call for help.

Woolf didn't have the opportunities available that we do today. Psychology and psychiatry have come light years. There are lots of avenues for help. If you're thinking of doing anything harmful to yourself, it's not okay. Please call your family doctor, your therapist if you already have one, or your local mental health services line (it should be in the government section of the phone book--or you can google it). There is no shame in asking for help.

And if writing is your biggest goal...well, you'll do a lot more of it if you're in the right frame of mind and alive.

There's a lot of talk in creative circles pointing to the high incidents of suicide among writers and creative people in general. I think these rumors are greatly exaggerated. Sure, we can all name them: Plath, Hemingway, Woolf, and on. But there are many, many more that we can name who did not:

Wodehouse, Christie, Shakespeare, Dickens, the Brontes, Austen, Dante, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Orwell, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley, Keats, Byron, James, Hardy, Joyce, Conrad, Chopin, Cather, Wharton, Kafka, Vonnegut, Crane, Madox Ford, Trollope, DeFoe, Milton, Johnson, Chaucer, George Eliot, T.S. Eliot, Poe, Melville, Hawthorne....

and on....

Friday, February 25, 2011

Happy Birthday to Bronwen!

Yes, the littlest one is three years old today! And I feel old.


P.S. Apologies to those of you who visited during my technical difficulties. We'll be talking Writing, Virginia Woolf, and Suicide tomorrow, not today.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Believing the "Truth" of Your Own Words: The Enemy of Revision

"I love tremendous and sonorous words. But his words are too hearty to be true. Yet he is by this time convinced of their truth." ~V.W. The Waves; the character of Bernard describing the Headmaster and his speeches

Have you ever found yourself, whether verbally or silently, responding to a critique/workshop/mentor in a manner similar to this: "But I want it that way! I meant to do it that way!"

Because I have. There was this one particular instance where I described a car in my piece and my group went--why is this car here? What does it represent? There is no point to this car that we can reasonably see.

My response?

I want it that way. I meant to do it that way. It will have a very symbolic point.

And it's true. I do still want it that way. I do mean to do it that way. I am "by this time convinced of their [the car/my words] truth." Since I told myself, over and over, the car would have an impact, I believed it would. That's the hearty of the above quote--if I say it loud enough, long enough, it will be true.

But we have to recognize when we argue a little too loudly. (Defensive much? Hmm? Pay attention.)

When you argue, you stimy your revision process. The longer it takes you to stop being defensive, and right, the longer it takes to work on the parts that need to be worked on. Guess what? Sometimes you'll be right. Sometimes your first readers might be tired, or grumpy, or trying to sell their house.

Your words are not the Truth. They are words. They can be switched around to greater effect. The words that describe a car ad nauseum can be deleted. It's that Backspace key.

If you need to believe in the "truth" at first, in order to get to the good stuff, then by all means write whatever strikes that note. Just remember, these words aren't set in stone and sometimes there are better, cleaner ways to put things.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Sketching

I was tromping through my library, knowing that I had found everything of Virginia Woolf's that they could offer--when lo! There: a teeny-tiny book in the literary crticism section that had Woolf's name on the spine. Immediately I grabbed it.

It's called Carlyle's House. It's a book of sketches. As Doris Lessing says in the Foreword: "These pieces are like five finger exercises for future excellence." Excercise, exercise, exercise.

To give you a taste of the scope of Woolf's subject matter in her sketching, here are the titles for the sketches: "Carlyle's House," "Miss Reeves," "Cambridge," "Hampstead," "A Modern Salon," "Jews," and "Divorce Courts." Basically, it covers places and people. (And it has to be said that it is not all complementary, not at all. Prejudices, biases--she left it all on the pages that weren't supposed to read.)

I don't 'journal' per se. My blank books and whatnot are reserved for sketching like what Woolf has done here. Sometimes I'll go off on a piece that I'm working on, and use a lot of curse words. Mostly though, it's all about trying to improve or see something better.

In the interest of complete disclosure and exposure, I have below a very early sketch of my own. I pulled the notebook off of a dusty shelf, sorted through the crumbly yellowed pages, and found something that wouldn't be too embarassing. (Though, trust me, the beginner-ness of these early sketches are embarassing enough...and nothing like Woolf's early work. I am now insanely jealous.) I invite you to share a sketch in the comment section, or tell me about how you do your 'five finger exercises.'

Child in Schoolyard
The drive took her past the drugstore, the gas station, and continued along the winding road to Baker Elementary. It was a smooth ride and she passed the schoolyard with half an eye out as she drove. That was when she saw him. A small eight or nine year old sitting under a tree with a pen and paper in his hand. All of his concentration was on that sheet of paper. The focus of his attention and the deep penetrating furrow of his young forehead stood out in comparison to the running, laughing peers beyond him. Swings moved to and fro, kids played tag and kickball, and this little boy jumped to her eye from his very stillness.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Give Me the Deets

"He unfastens his sock suspenders (let us be trivial, let us be intimate). Then with a characteristic gesture (it is difficult to avoid these ready-made phrases, and they are, in his case, somehow appropriate)...." ~V.W.--the character Bernard, describing the Headmaster in The Waves

This passage struck me as something to discuss for a couple reasons:

1. It's pretty meta, meaning that it's self-referential. Woolf talks about telling details even as she gives us telling details. His 'characteristic gesture' is told with a cliched phrase--but, as Woolf points out, it's appropriate for this character because he's cliche. (I just thought that was cool and wanted to point it out.)

2. It reveals something about details in a story: details should be appropriate, details should be character-specific, and details can appear trivial.

Appropriateness, as I'm using it here, refers to the genre of the piece. The quoted passage above is incredibly appropriate in Woolf's book because The Waves is a story told entirely through reflective soliliquies. It's whole style calls attention to itself, so a meta-like presentation of details is appropriate. This might not work so swell in a sci-fi novel or a cozy mystery. But in an experimental, literary piece it comes off masterful.

The character specificity of details is a little trickier to wrap your head around at first. In the quoted example, as I've already pointed out, you can use cliche phrases to describe a cliche character. Another example: A friend of mine is very into Eastern religions and he'd written a metaphor describing a character in Shiva-esque terms. Which is fine. Except that the Eastern motif didn't carry through the story. The character was some kind of recluse, if I remember correctly. So the descriptive metaphor didn't work at all within the context of the character...or, in this case, the context of the whole story.

Now, why are trivial details important (and, thus, not trivial)? Why on earth should we care about how this headmaster takes off his sock suspenders? Woolf points out the answer to that as well: it's intimate. Intimate moments tell more than anything else.

Intimate details are about revealing the character at their most vulnerable. The headmaster's socks are off (a 'trivial' detail, yes?)--he's surrounded by a bunch of adolescent boys--if the door opened, he'd be completely exposed, undignified. Bernard, the character telling the reader about the headmaster, chooses not to expose the headmaster, "But stories that follow people into their private rooms are difficult. I cannot go on with this story." But only after Woolf, the author, already exposed him. We now have the picture in our heads. All because of something that appeared trivial: socks.

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Transition Between Periods

In her exploration of Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf made this observation:

"Let us take Persuasion, the last completed novel, and look by its light at the books she might have written had she lived. There is a peculiar beauty and a peculiar dullness in Persuasion. The dullness is that which so often marks the transition stage between two different periods. The writer is a little bored. She has grown too familiar with the ways of her world; she no longer notes them freshly."
~V.W. "Jane Austen," The Common Reader

It's hard to think about Jane Austen--The Jane Austen--'growing' more as a writer, but Virginia Woolf is definitely one to recognize that writers create differently as they develop (considering Woolf's focus on Time)--and a writer should always be developing. We should always 'be working on it.'

Now, I don't know about youse guys, but I certainly notice when I have hit a new stride, or have practiced with a skill enough to use it with some confidence. The stories that result from these insights I call benchmark stories...maybe they're not great, but they are noticeably better than what I've done before.

Woolf continues to make the argument that, in Persuasion, Austen is "trying to do something which she has never yet attempted." So, while the book is not as strong as the ones in the past, it could be a gateway to new, greater novels.

So, maybe the next time you're struggling to do a piece--and it just ain't working out--just think: you're probably in a transition between periods. I'm still waiting for that transition between Beginner and Less Beginner.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Criticism and the Writer

Let's face it: Stephenie Meyer, author of the Twilight saga, has taken some serious knocks from other writers. Yes, some of those writers may be jealous of Meyer's success. Some of those writers may legitimately think that Meyer is successful beyond reason for no reason.

When is it okay to criticize a writer, and how should one go about it?

Woolf was on both sides of this coin--the critic and the criticized. As she grew older, Woolf became far more cerebral about criticism but still reacted rather passionately to it. She debated about how to act toward the writers leveling crits at her:

"What should be my attitude--clearly Arnold Bennett and Wells took the criticism of their youngers the wrong way. The right way is not to resent; not to be longsuffering and Christian and submissive either." ~V.W. A Writer's Diary

I think that there is a balance to strike. As a writer, a public figure, you are open to criticism, differences of opinion, and outright insult. If something is unfair or unbalanced, I think that writers can and should address it--but sometimes, ya just don't have to. Stephenie Meyer doesn't have to respond to her critics anymore than Stephen King or J.K. Rowling; numbers speak for themselves. Plus, there's enough coverage on all sides that Meyer, King, and Rowling only have to write, not respond.

But writers, I think, are inherently critical of one another. And I think that there is a place for it. The rules? Behave professionally. Critique thoroughly.

Woolf was a critic too. Several of her best known books are critical. A Room of One's Own is a book-length send up of then-current understandings of women and literature. (Go read it. Right now.)

In The Common Reader she levels criticism at Jane Austen, the Brontes, Dante, Chaucer, and Joseph Conrad. Woolf is even-handed in her criticism, gearing it more toward understanding the authors, their process, and how their storytelling developed. (In my opinion, this is more the type of criticism that should be leveled at Meyer--not "she sucks" but "what works and how it works")

Following is an example of a critique of Jane Austen. Woolf states earlier in the essay that to understand Austen's great work, a reader must look at her 'second rate' works (juvenalia, incomplete manuscripts, etc. as a contrast to the pieces that were complete, edited, and 'pretty.')

"...we should never have guessed what pages of preliminary drudgery Jane Austen forced her pen to go through. [If we just had her completed, perfect novels] Here [in the incomplete, imperfect pieces] we perceive that she was no conjuror after all. Like other writers, she had to create the atmosphere in which her own peculiar genius could bear fruit." ~V.W. The Common Reader

As writers, when we criticize, it should be for edification purposes. It should not be to tear down another writer. If we have something negative to say it should be in the form of "This did not work because XYZ." NOT: "This sucks, and she's a crappy writer, and I can't believe that this shit was published."

Have you been the recipient of unfair or harsh criticism? How did you deal with it? Should writers criticize other writers at all?

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Love Letters: Inner Critic Trickery

A buddy of mine was recently having issues with the Inner Critic. The beast has hunted writers throughout history. I've heard various bits of advice in handling this creature--writing letters to the Critic (Heckler, as my friend Deb calls him/her), writing fast (outpace him/her), etc.

But, in the end, how a writer handles this demon is as individual as the writer.

I figured out how to handle him for me. In the interest of being helpful to my fellows, here is what I do--

First! I had to figure out how I was being criticized. Turns out it was the "You're no good and never will be" attack. (And this is the most common attack from my understanding...though there's also the "You're too old to be trying this, You haven't learned enough to do this, or You aren't smart enough to pull this off")

The big, telling word, for me, was "You." The critic attacks You, not your work. It seems like it's attacking your work. But it's really going after You.

You must get out of the line of fire.

So my solution was to aim for other people. I write scenes, stories, poems, etc. and direct them to people that I know. I doubt that my targets would recognize themselves very easily (though things like occupations and names sometimes pop up and it's not that hard). If something a friend or loved one said or did inspires me, I put it in. I have my target person clear in my head.

It's important that I think of the stories/scenes as love letters too. The Inner Critic is a negative bastard. I write to people I love and admire--and miss. Missing them helps a lot because I feel like I still need to tell them something, whether or not they hear it.

When you're writing to people you love, it's really, really hard for someone to criticize you.

This has been super-effective for me. And it works for big pieces too. One scene of a novel could be directed towards my husband, another towards my mother, and guess what? It could all be the same character. Doesn't matter. When I'm writing in the moment I can switch up who I'm writing to. The end novel could be an extended love letter to one person, or it could be a series of love letters to everyone I know.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Recurring Themes and You

We like to think that we're saying something unique and original Every Single Time We Write...or at least, I do.

Such is not always the case. Our lives are limited to, well, our lives. Our passions are limited to (you guessed it) our passions. In general, these things don't radically change. Patterns emerge and repeat.

Well, it's nice to know that Virginia Woolf is no exception. You wanna know what her recurring theme is?

Time, and how it goes on by.

She could probably put it much more succinctly, and often does, in her writing. If you just take a peek at her titles, you can see the theme repeating:

Now and Then
The Years
Night and Day
Monday or Tuesday
"The Moment" (essay)
"Time Passes" (section in To the Lighthouse)
The Hours (original title of Mrs. Dalloway)

I could go on, but I think the point is illustrated. It shows up in her diary over and over again too--she is constantly wondering how much time she has left. It's probably no quirk of fate that, when it came down to it, she chose her own time to leave.

We write about what's important to us. What's important to you? Does it show up in your writing?

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Why I Hate Weather

Because it stops my critique group from meeting!

Again! (This is the third--count it! 1-2-3!--time since December.)

The whole reason all these blizzards are going on around the country has nothing at all to do with high or low fronts, jet streams, or whatever else might cause weather to go around.

Nope. It's all because my critique group meets on the weekends. It's all because we want to talk writing face-to-face.

The weather gods are evil.

Friday, February 4, 2011

The Place on the Shelf

For the last ten years, I worked for Barnes and Noble. Recently, I had the opportunity to finish school and go after my own writing career, which I'm happily pursuing at the moment--and that meant that I had to leave this wonderful place of business.

A business that, I'm sure you won't be surprised, works very hard to place books on the shelves in an organized, efficient way. Fiction is alphabetized. Biography is arranged by the subject. Etc. The organization is not as elaborate as a library, but everything has a place.

Sometimes the question of book placement is more problematic than it should be. For example, after that whole James Frey debacle (you remember--the author who was one of Oprah's picks and it turned out that he'd basically made up his entire memoir), there was some question of where to put the book. Then Jeanette Walls came out with Half-Broke Horses, labeled as a 'true novel.' What the --? Biography? Fiction? Make up a whole new section?
(Both of these are enjoyable books, by the way. No besmirching here.)

Turns out, this dilemma is nothing new.

The full title of Virginia Woolf's Orlando is Orlando: A Biography. When it came out there was much confusion. "But it is called biography on the title page, they say. It will have to go to the Biography shelf." ~V.W. A Writer's Diary

Virginia Woolf was concerned that the book-buying public wouldn't be able to find her book. Unable to find book = no sales. No way to "make expenses," as she puts it.

This is a legitimate beef. And I don't think that there is any real answer to this dilemma, which still haunts us writerly folk today. Probably the best answer:

  1. write your book however you want to
  2. sometime during the process, figure out exactly what the book is
  3. explore the bookstore/library and figure out what the categories are
  4. communicate what the book is in query letters, phone calls, emails to agents and editors who may want your book
  5. after that, honestly, your on the marketing team's good graces--so be nice to them =)

Is anyone working on a half/half genre that could be confusing? How do you plan to handle it?

***ANOTHER SUPER IMPORTANT SHELVING POINT--made by The Rejectionist (and if you're not following her blog right now, I don't know how to help you)

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

We All Need a Lytton

Keeping in the line of writers groups and mentors and honest critiquers, I'd like to point out a conversation that Woolf recorded in her diary between herself and Lytton Strachey (author of Eminent Victorians and fellow member of the Bloomsbury Group).

First off, Lytton says to Virginia that he doesn't like Mrs. Dalloway -- he finds the structure (stream of conciousness, creative) not in balance with the subject matter (boring, everyday stuff). And he tells Woolf so. She doesn't seem to take it too badly: "I like him all the better for saying so, and don't much mind." ~V.W. A Writer's Diary

This illustrates something very important, I think: When you are the person being critiqued, you must understand that it is not you who is being critiqued. You must 'not much mind' when someone is talking about your work with only the work's best interest in mind. And you shouldn't be offended if someone's personal opinion prevents them from 'getting your genius.' Again, it's not you. Though it is personal.

I think that your personal feelings towards the critiquer also influence your reaction to criticism. Virginia greatly respected Lytton and appreciated his insights. A good thing too. Because if she had behaved all crazed and emotional she would have missed this:

"Perhaps, he said, you have not yet mastered your method. You should take something wilder and more fantastic, a framework that admits of anything, like Tristram Shandy. But then I should lose touch with emotions, I said. Yes, he agreed, there must be reality for you to start from. Heaven knows how you're to do it. But he thought me at the beginning, not at the end."
~V.W. A Writer's Diary

Based on his advice and encouragement, Virginia then developed Orlando. A fantastical story set with a basis in reality, and in keeping with emotion. And Lytton's advice was based on a complementary foundation. He didn't say "You suck, Virginia. You should throw out all your pens and take up gardening." He didn't even say that Mrs. Dalloway was horrible, just that it wasn't her masterpiece. She still needed to develop; she still needed to grow--and he had faith that she would. (And she did! Mrs. Dalloway is a definite classic, but the later works are really brilliant.)

I think that we all need a Lytton. I know that I have more than one! (I'm so lucky.) Do you have someone who encourages you, but doesn't pull back when you need to hear the truth? How do you react to criticism?

P.S. Happy Groundhog's Day! Come on spring, come on!