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No. 86 The Big, Bad, Brilliant Virginia Woolf

"Only the fire sets me dreaming - of all the things I mean to write"

Painted by Roger Fry

I’m reading Virginia Woolf’s diaries. Though I’ve read all of her fiction, and much of her non- fiction, I’d never gotten around to the diaries, which she kept from 1915 until four days before her suicide in 1941.

I’m looking to other writers for influence and, not surprisingly, I’ve found it in her diaries.

I am writing plays and because of VW’s diaries I am writing ABOUT my plays. Something I’d only done on the odd scrap of paper now and then.

My most recent journal entry:

She (my play’s protagonist) is Emily Dickinson in "Because I Could Not Stop for Death".

Death is the gentleman caller. Her brother is Death, here to escort her troubled soul.

The booth of the radio station is the carriage.

He: I’ve come to pick you up.

She: I’ve got a show to do.

He: Just put the album on and let it run.

She: Who’s gonna flip it?

He: Oh, alright. One last show. Then we go.

She: You kindly stopped for me. Now you will be my guest. We will talk on the air between songs.

None of that would have come to me if I hadn’t been free to write ABOUT it rather than write the thing. Writing about my writing is opening a door to my writing.

Further, Woolf talks about the four dimensions of writing - I, Not I, Outer, Inner. I being her own voice, Not I being the characters, Outer being the setting and characters as they appear on the surface and Inner being, obviously, the interior world of the character -- her most famous perspective. Yummy guideposts for a writer to consider.

Additional insights from VW's diaries:

"I think writing, my writing is a species of mediumship. I become a person.”

“I dig out beautiful caves behind my characters: I think that gives exactly what I want: humanity, humor, depth. The idea is that the caves shall connect and each comes to daylight at the perfect moment.”

“It took me years groping to discover what I call my tunneling process, by which I tell the past by installments, as I have need of it. But you cannot do this sort of thing consciously.”

Woolf talks again and again about needing to let her subconscious take over. I’m not comparing myself to Woolf when I concur but I do find that there is a subtle shift and sometimes seemingly nonsense thought that walks in the door and takes over my writing. Those are my best and most inexplicable moments as a playwright.

How can you teach that kind of stuff?

In this article - A Series of Selves | The New Republic - about a book that reexamines Woolf’s diaries and the diaries she read. The author gives further insight into her movement between the conscious and the unconscious.

“These concurrent diaries, each started at a different place, each with a different aim and purpose, suggest just one of the many ways in which Woolf used the diary form to try out new voices and formal constraints, developing her voice through “a diary more structurally experimental than any of the diaries she read”—and, in the process, creating a masterpiece of interiority.”

On a side note, if you are a writer who worries about what others think and you fret about reviews, you cannot match Woolf’s obsession with feedback. He fear of others opinions is, at times, debilitating. Your insecure self will find her diaries comforting as well as inspiring.

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