Virginia Woolf: Creative Writing Teacher
Virginia’s writing lodge, Rodmell, East Sussex, UK. Author’s photo taken October 2013.
I recently spent many months inside Virginia Woolf’s head. OK, maybe not literally inside her head, but I did dig deep into her diaries, novels, and essays in an attempt to figure out what made this literary genius a literary genius. As you may imagine, my time there was intense, complex, and enlightening. I now know more about her creative process and the methods that she employed to become one of the most significant literary figures of the 20th century. While my writing is still nowhere near as eloquent and psychologically perceptive as Woolf’s, I did glean some beneficial insight into her mode of creativity that I try to bring to my own creative life now. This is but a small sampling of what I discovered.
- Find Your Pack.
Although creativity is an intensely personal and individual endeavor, the creative process is enhanced by a group. In Virginia’s case, this group was largely the Bloomsbury Group. The Bloomsberries, as they were also known, were a tightly knit, albeit loosely connected, group of friends and relatives that surrounded her throughout her life. From her teen years until the end of her days, Woolf had companions who were interested in a myriad of subjects: science, mythology, Freudian psychology, painting, art criticism, and writing. She was able to use her friends’ expertise to enhance her writing. She also bounced her writing ideas off her friends through letters and long conversations. She listened and took their suggestions seriously, although she always had the final say in her work.
Find your writing group, literary famiglia, or poetry pack! Whatever you want to call it, find kindred spirits who will help you along the way by listening, giving constructive criticism, providing encouragement, and celebrating your successes. The creative process is not a safe, easy, linear path; it is a circuitous prowling down a dark and dangerous back alley at 3 a.m. You best have a few loyal fellow travelers who will have your back.
Some Bloomsbury members: Virginia’s pack http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:SomeBloomsburymembers.jpg
- Read. Read A Lot.
Reading is essential if one is to become a successful and innovative writer, and Virginia strived intensely to be both. As a young girl, she assigned herself strenuous reading lists and borrowed books from the extensive library of her father, the distinguished literary critic and author, Sir Leslie Stephen. As an adult she performed similar literary experiments on accomplished authors in much the same way that I did with her writing. She dissected the author’s writing process to discover what exactly made that particular book work so perfectly. After reading Proust, she writes to fellow Bloomsbury Group member, Roger Fry:
But Proust so titillates my own desire for expression that I can hardly set out the sentence. Oh if I could write like that! I cry…I feel I can write like that, and seize my pen and then I can’t write like that…it becomes an obsession.
In a letter to her good friend, Ethel Smyth, Virginia wrote, “Sometimes I think heaven must be one continuous unexhausted reading.” She kept detailed journals filled with reading notes, newspaper clippings, and scraps of paper that she had jotted on when she did not have her notebook handy.
Read, read, and read! Read broadly from all genres. Also, keep a reading notebook and take detailed notes as you read. Note interesting passages, page numbers, and anything that catches your eye and makes you think. Did I mention Read?
A few of my books on one of my favorite subjects–Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsberries.
3. Get outside and walk in nature.
Walking in nature stirs the creative juices. Virginia was known to walk many hours a day on the downs near her home in Sussex. Her niece, Henrietta Garnett, said Virginia walked in the cold, rain, and snow. Walking in nature was an impetus to her writing; it cleared her mind and allowed space for her stories to grow and evolve. She, like her father, would speak aloud stories that came to mind during her forays. She found nature not only in the country, but also right in London. She wrote about her park wanderings in her thought-provoking short story, “Kew Gardens.” Nature is a common theme running through Virginia’s writings—from the seashore to parks to orchards, she brings the natural world into her writing. Being in nature was very important to her and her Bloomsbury Group friends. (This little piece of information transformed into my Master’s thesis. I visited Lewes, Cambridge, and London to perform research in October 2013.*)
Go for walks to bring some fresh air into your body and your writing. It is easy to get stuck in a writing rut and not be able to dig your way out. That is when you need a change of scenery. Take walks on community greenways or in city parks. Arboretums are perfect havens of nature that are tucked away into city squares, usually near universities. When time permits, take longer hikes through county, state, and national parks. Nothing stirs the soul like a radiant crimson sunset, a rollicking river, or a multicolored, autumnal, leaf-strewn path. A stirred soul leads to stirred senses, which leads to stirred creativity. Voila!
The road that I walked on from Monk’s House to the Ouse River, October 2013. Author’s photo.
- Write. Write a lot.
And lastly, but unquestionably most important, to become a writer, one must actually write—a lot. Virginia and her husband, Leonard, were known to spend hours every morning writing, without exception. She was not one to welcome distractions from her writing, even visits from family and friends. She was also intensely interested in innovative writing. She experimented freely with different writing styles: stream-of-consciousness, mood pieces resembling post-impressionistic paintings, fake biographies, satire, and more. Virginia did not play it safe, she was constantly testing out new ideas. In one well-known quote, she speaks out against conforming. Certainly this applies to writing as well; to create one must step out, risk failure, and break the chains on creative conformity. Writing in The Common Reader, she advises:
Once conform, once do what other people do because they do it, and a lethargy steals over all the finer nerves and faculties of the soul. She becomes all outer show and inward emptiness; dull, callous, and indifferent.
Virginia Woolf was anything but a conformist, especially when it came to writing. She was a multifaceted individual who knew what she wanted to do and did it. She wanted to write, so she wrote.
To be a writer, one must write. Every day. Even on days that you are too tired, too sick, too hopeless. If you want to write, you have to sit down with your computer or notebook and pen. There are many methods to create stories, novels, or essays, but they all involve putting fingers to keys or pen to paper. There is no getting around this one. A writing instructor once told me that the only people who should be writing are the ones who cannot help but do so. Writers write because they have to. Do you have to write? Yes? Do it!
Virginia’s writing desk, Monk’s House, Rodmell, East Sussex. Author’s photo.
*On an unseasonably warm October morning while I was in Rodmell near Woolf’s English country home, Monk’s House, I read a passage from Orlando in which Virginia perfectly describes the arduous task of writing:
Anyone moderately familiar with the rigours of composition will not need to be told the rest of the story in detail; how he wrote it and it seemed good; read it and it seemed vile; corrected and tore up; cut out; put in; was in ecstasy; in despair; had his good nights and bad mornings; snatched at ideas and lost them; saw his book plain before him and it vanished; acted his people’s parts as he ate; mouthed them as he walked; now cried; now laughed; vacillated between this style and that; now preferred the heroic and pompous; next the plain and simple; now the vales of Tempe; then the fields of Kent or Cornwall; and could not decide whether he was the divinest genius or the greatest fool in the world.
Later that evening as I retraced Virginia Woolf’s final steps along the River Ouse, I recalled the passage. I stopped as it suddenly dawned on me: my literary heroine, the writer I had placed on a marble pedestal, was a mere human. She struggled with self-doubt, obsessed over creating nothing less than perfection, and had her share of critics, of whom she herself was the most brutal. And yet she created her work—her breathtaking, heart-stopping, ear-pleasing work. Her writing was not only her work; it was her life. She produced classics that have stood the test of time, because she was dedicated to her craft. She wrote because she was a writer.
Virginia filled her pockets full of heavy stones and walked down into the River Ouse, near Monk’s House, Rodmell. Author’s photo.
And so I try to incorporate Woolf’s creative methods into my life. I read (way too much), walk (very often), write (too little, but much more regularly since I started this blog), and am constantly looking for my pack (and trying to embrace my vulnerability so that I will share my writing with others). Overall, I’m getting there, wherever there is. I’m making my way and trying to enjoy the journey—this journey of my life, my creative life. Thank you, Virginia Woolf, for being my teacher.
Virginia Woolf: Literary genius, political activist, proto-feminist, and all around badass. This photo was sent to me by a friend. I am sorry, I do not know the source.
Cheryl Traylor is a word lover and reading addict who lives life as a perpetual spiritual journey. Her body lives with her best friends in a too-big city on a too-tiny urban plot, but her spirit dwells among the oaks and wild blackberries. On the best of days, she puts pen to paper and attempts to create a world with more love and less mediocrity. Other days, she surfs the net and plays on Facebook.
This essay was previously published, without photographs, in the book, The Atelier Project: Conversations About Creativity, Molly Miltenberger Murray, editor, 2015. Available on www.amazon.com.
Garnett, Henrietta. Personal Interview. 29 Oct. 2013.
Woolf, Virginia. Orlando. Read Books Ltd., 2012. Print.
Woolf, Virginia. The Letters of Virginia Woolf. Ed. Nigel Nicolson and Joanne Trautmann. Vol. 2. New York: Harvest-HBJ, 1976. 525. Print.
Woolf, Virginia. The Letters of Virginia Woolf. Ed. Nigel Nicolson and Joanne Trautmann. Vol. 5. New York: Harvest-HBJ, 1979. 319. Print.
Woolf, Virginia. The Common Reader. Orlando: Harvest-Harcourt. 1984. Print.