What, she writes on the board, are the conditions necessary to produce a work of art?
Up shoots the hand of a young woman in an Ani DiFranco T-shirt. “A room of her own and five hundred a year?”
True, she says, amazed how the words she wrote all those years ago seem to have sprouted wings and ascended on a flight of their own. But, she continues, trying to explain the idea behind the phrase, that is because a writer “wants life to proceed with the utmost quiet and regularity. He wants,” she says, laying deliberate stress on each repetition, “to see the same faces, to read the same books, to do the same things day after day, month after month.” The class rustles nervously. This sounds nothing like the glamorous life of a famous writer.
“So that nothing may disturb or disquiet,” she continues, her voice growing low and musical, “the mysterious nosings about, feelings round, darts, dashes and sudden discoveries of that very shy and illusive spirit, the imagination.” She pauses dramatically. Let that one sink in a bit, she decides.
“I hope I am not giving away professional secrets,” she says provocatively, “if I say that a novelist’s chief desire is to be as unconscious as possible.”
“Unconscious?” a very tall young man asks with surprise.
“Imagine me,” she instructs, “writing a novel in a state of trance.” Think, she tells them, of the image of a “fisherman lying sunk in dreams on the verge of a deep lake with a rod held out over the water.” As writers, we must try to clear our minds and let our “imagination sweep unchecked round every rock and cranny of the world that lies submerged in the depths of our unconscious being.” She settles back in her seat and watches their faces. They are all so different: young, old; women, men; every race, color, and creed one could imagine. Not so long ago in England, she muses, writers tended to be men from well-to-do families educated at certain expensive universities. And now? Now these ordinary people—these commoners and outsiders—sit before her, eager to write. What exciting stories they will tell, she thinks.
The students are eager to learn more about her life, so she tells them that in fact she herself did the same thing day after day, month after month: she wrote. Typically, she explains, she worked every morning—seven days a week—from about nine-thirty to lunchtime. She smiles, remembering herself hunched down in a wicker chair sporting tattered overalls and steel-rimmed glasses, a writing board stretched across her lap, smoking home-rolled cigarettes and drafting out novels in purple ink. In those days, it seemed as if she perpetually wore a blossom of purple over her fingers.
She always jealously guarded her writing time, she tells them, carefully organizing her day so that her mornings were completely uninterrupted. No appointments, no visitors, no manuscript reviewing—just writing. She wants to show these students that they can produce a surprising amount of work if they carve out a time for writing each day and commit to it. It is amazing what you can get done, she says. She knows she has her strict schedule to thank for her own steady production. What did it add up to in the end? Some ten novels, dozens of short stories, hundreds of essays. The letters alone were in the thousands. And all those stacks of diaries and reading notes? More than sixty volumes, wasn’t it? Oh, if she’s honest with herself, she has to admit that the novels didn’t come spilling out every day. Sometimes she felt no power of phrase making and would merely take notes or write little sketches to amuse herself. Still, they must be diligent, she tells them. Keep at it; you’ll amaze yourself.
Yet writing, she warns them gravely, could be the easiest part of the task. Sticking to the routine when every force in the world will try to steal it—or try to make you feel excruciatingly guilty about wanting to write—can be much tougher. She must encourage them to resist the fierce emotional traps that will try to get in the way of their creative life. They must, especially if they are women, she warns, be prepared for a fight. They must even be prepared, she adds in a slow, solemn tone, to kill.
“Kill?” a plump woman asks, her anxious expression suggesting that she didn’t expect murder to be a part of a writing program.
Yes, Woolf tells her. You must be prepared to kill a cruel, destructive creature named the Angel in the House. That selfless, giving caretaker, she explains, who always puts everyone else’s needs ahead of her own; who thinks her own work is not important. Woolf admits that she had to kill her own Angel in the House.
“Had I not killed her,” she warns them, “she would have killed me. She would have plucked the heart out of my writing.” Several women in the class nod knowingly. But killing her, Woolf tells them, will not be easy.
“She died hard,” Woolf says with all seriousness, and “she was always creeping back when I thought I had despatched her.” Then she cocks her head slightly, a mischievous look stealing over her face and adds, of course, “her fictitious nature was of great assistance to her.” She pauses slightly and declares killing her is essential if you are serious about protecting your time. Even then, she cautions, it can be a daily battle that you don’t always win. “Such a good morning’s writing I’d planned,” she admits to them with a sigh, and then next thing I would know I’d “wasted the cream of my brain on the telephone.”
“And you didn’t even have cell phones back then,” a student observes half incredulously.
This new millennium certainly has more than its share of diversions, Woolf reckons. But still, what a thrilling time to live. No wonder they all want to be writers. Yet given so many distractions, it becomes all the more necessary to remind them to preserve something just for themselves; their own private creative outlet. They each must, she tells them earnestly, keep a diary, a journal.
In the back of the room, a smartly dressed woman nervously raises her hand.
“But what are we supposed to do with it exactly? Do we write down how we feel about everything? Or is it some kind of record about what happens? I’m just not sure what you mean.”
Use it as a writer, she advises. I often used my diary, she explains, to practice my scales and to experiment with creating different effects.
“What do you mean ‘practice your scales’?” a young man sporting a crew cut asks.
I mean, she says her voice rising with enthusiasm, just write. Write “nonsense by the ream. Be silly, be sentimental, imitate Shelley; give the rein to every impulse; commit every fault of style, grammar, taste, and syntax; pour out; tumble over; loose anger, love, satire, in whatever words you can catch, coerce or create, in whatever metre, prose, poetry, or gibberish that comes to hand. Thus you will learn to write.”
She goes on to tell them how she used her diary to practice specific skills. In it she rehearsed description, dialogue, even character development.
“The habit of writing thus for my own eye only,” she says, was “good practice.” She tells them how she used to sketch out scenes drawn from an actual experience—for instance, having tea with Thomas Hardy—in which she would try to capture the tone, the mood, and the setting of the afternoon as well as the charming idiosyncrasy of the aging novelist. These scales, she tells them, are a great way to limber up the mind and keep the eye sharp.
She also acknowledges that when she wasn’t writing well—and sometimes even when she was—she would turn to her diary to complain, to scold, or to have a laugh—sometimes at other people’s expense, she admits sheepishly, remembering some of her more wicked entries. It is a place she liked to use to doodle around, to be lazy, or crabby. In your journal, she emphasizes, let yourself play, free from the burden of the perfect sentence or the perfect idea.
“And you kept it every single day, religiously?” the smartly dressed woman asks.
Follow your own sensibility, she advises. Write regularly, but as it suits you. You can write in it every day if you like, or do as I did, and just write consistently, every day or two. I would have a burst of entries in a row, she explains, and then a gap of several days and then another burst. That suited my creativity. Find your own rhythm and follow it.
Especially when you are learning, she cautions, try not to take writing too seriously. The conviction that every word has to be perfect more often produces paralysis than good writing. She tells them that playing around with a few sketches—doing their scales—lets them try something new when there’s nothing at stake. Don’t censor your work, she says gently; just write even if you struggle here and stumble there. And it doesn’t matter in the least whether a journal entry ever leads to anything. Its purpose is simply to sharpen the eye and ear or to warm up the mind for writing.