Roaming and Writing

February 20, 2010

I’m teaching Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room now.  And because I’m interested in how works of art come into being, in the relation of the work to the lived life, to the writing life, I’m reading the second volume of Virginia Woolf’s published diary, with entries from 1920-24, in which she often describes her composition of the novel.  But what is as – perhaps even more – fascinating is Woolf’s description of her life: the people she meets, the books she reads, the ideas she has, the articles she’s writing, the bread and cake she’s baking, the household chores she’s undertaking (including distempering her walls, and cleaning the Earth Closet, which, she says, dyed her yellow).

I read the original manuscript of Virginia Woolf’s diary at the Berg Collection of The New York Public Library years and years ago.  I was a young scholar, writing about the composition of Virginia Woolf’s first novel, The Voyage Out.  My mentor, Mitchell A. Leaska, with whom I worked, would not let me write a word until I read everything Virginia Woolf had written.  That’s right.  Everything.  And so I would take myself to the Berg, claim whatever manuscript I was reading, and work away.  The first time I was handed a hand bound diary of Woolf’s, the first time I saw her handwriting, the first time I smelled the dust of time of its pages, I burst into tears.  I wasn’t exactly what you would call an objective scholar.  The other denizens of the Berg looked at me askance.  All except the railroad man I came to know a bit; he was reading Kerouac’s manuscripts; he understood.  Here I was, a working class young woman doing what I’d never dreamed I’d do: hold the manuscript of such a luminary in my very own hands.

I was at the age when I didn’t realize what reading everything Woolf ever wrote meant, so I agreed to my mentor’s terms.  I wanted a large, even grand, project, and so I said, yes, I’d read everything, and he took me on as an advisee for my dissertation.

At first I thought he was mad.  Why couldn’t I just confine myself to the matter at hand?  The composition of The Voyage Out?  The first novel?  Everything written up until the first novel was published?  But it wasn’t too long before I realized the wisdom of his advice.  He was an old school scholar, one for whom insights evolve gradually over time.  You came at the work open, not without a preconceived notion of what, say, a so-called modernist novel was supposed to look like.  You didn’t apply your or someone else’s theory about a work, short circuiting the slow, deliberate process he insisted upon.    Instead, you worked hard, kept yourself open to what was on the page, didn’t make judgments until you’d absorbed an enormous amount of material.

Your job was to simply notice things, and because you were coming at the work without an a priori notion of what it would reveal, he said, you’d noticed things that others hadn’t, you’d toss aside in a paragraph someone else’s preconceived notion of her work, and therein lay the power of his method.  After you read everything, noted what you observed, then and only then did you dig in, start assembling your insights, start writing, start seeing where your writing took you, for in the writing, he believed, you’d learn even more.

From start to finish, that dissertation took me ten years.  It became my first book, Virginia Woolf’s First Voyage, and my second book, and edition of an earlier version of and earlier draft of that novel, Melymbrosia, and it paved the way for my biography of Virginia Woolf.  Those years of discovery were the most splendid of my intellectual life.

And now to taking time for some fresh air in our writing days, which I learned from reading Woolf’s diary.

As I was reading – actually rereading for the umpteenth time – Woolf’s diary yesterday, I came across a diary entry in which she laments the fact that she has come to a standstill with her work on Jacob’s Room because she’s been bedridden and hasn’t been able to go outside for her daily bout of exercise on the Sussex South Downs near her country house in Rodmell.  Here, although it appears she speaks of riding her bicycle, an earlier entry makes clear she’s talking about walking.

No one in the whole of Sussex, she writes, is so miserable as I am….The sun streams (no: never streams floods rather) down upon all the yellow fields & the long low barns; & what wouldn’t I give to be coming through Firle woods, dusty & hot, with my nose turned home, every muscle tired, & the brain laid up in sweet lavender, so sane & cool, & ripe for the morrows task.  How I should notice everything – the phrase for it coming the moment after & fitting like a glove; & then on the dusty road, as I ground my pedals, so my story would begin telling itself…. (Virginia Woolf, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Volume Two: 1920-1924, edited by Anne Olivier Bell, NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978, p. 133).

Woolf knew herself very well, made a habit of writing out her fidgets, as she called them in this diary.  She knew what she needed to do to practice her craft.  And what she needed to do daily, around four in the afternoon, was go outside for a long stretch of time.  In writing Jacob’s Room, she knew she was doing something that had never been done before in fiction, that she was “writing against the current” – the diary attests to this.  She understood, that to accomplish this task, she needed to be in “fighting shape” and that required clearing her head, lifting her spirits, by changing her perspective and going outdoors.  For the writing, was, indeed, a battle – breaking through convention to find a new form is always a battle.  I know.  I’ve tried it do this more than once with the memoir form.

All too often, though, some of the writers I talk to think that when you’re a writer, all you should do is stay at your desk and write, write, write, work, work, work, read, read, read.  (And, for some, afterwards, party, party, party.)  It’s as if a moment away from the desk spent outside will render sentences of glorious prose unwritten.  And so there they sit, bent over their desks, tapping away, instead of taking a break, going outside.

I’ve maintained, since I first began writing, that writing requires a very high level of physicality, that writing requires a great deal of “seeing” – and I don’t mean looking at a screen.  Many of the writers whose works I admire – Henry Miller, Virginia Woolf, Christoph Keller – took/take time to go outdoors.  They understood/understand that you often get your best insights into a work when you’re away from it, doing something rhythmic, expanding your vision.  So much of a writer’s work is close work; it’s necessary to change our point of view, to look at life from a distance.

Henry Miller, for example, when he was in Paris, walked the city.  All of it.  And he kept a notebook about what he saw.  He used his notes in his works about Paris.  Pick up Tropic of Cancer and you’ll see the artistic pay-off of his long, long walks around Paris.  His walks, too, kept him alert enough to keep at the writing.  His walks, he knew, helped him concentrate.  He wanted to be a writer over the long haul, and so he knew that to do so he had to keep walking (or, later in his life, swimming, when he lived in California).

You can see the evidence of Virginia Woolf’s outdoor roaming in her work.  The walks that Jacob takes in Jacob’s Room – one with his friend Bonamy – replicates a walk Virginia Woolf herself took though London.  Mrs. Dalloway’s famous walk in the novel of the same name is another instance of Woolf writing her walks into her work.  And there is, too, that essay of hers called “Street Haunting.”  Woolf’s descriptions of London, of Sussex, of Cornwall that appear in her novels are based upon years of noticing what she saw as she walked.  She developed a love affair with these places because she walked them.  And from this love grew her ability to describe them, to condense years of noticing what she saw into the descriptions of these places in her work.

What can we describe with such vividness if we stay in our writing rooms, emerging bleary eyed for a bit, only to return to them again?  Julia Cameron’s Walking in the World: The Practical Art of Creativity makes getting outside a necessary part of her program.  I like Cameron.  Whenever I’m stuck, I take up one or another of her books, read a chunk, do what she says, and it seems to help.

My friend, the writer Christoph Keller, writes about what it takes him to get outside in his memoir The Best Dancer (Portland, Oregon: Ooligan Press, 2008, 2009, translated by Alison Gallup).  Keller uses a wheelchair, and getting it down the steps into the street from his and his wife, the poet, Jan Heller Levi’s apartment takes enormous coordination between the two of them.  Keller routinely roams New York City.  When I’m out and about in this city, he writes, I am amazed simply because everywhere you look there is something to be amazed at (254).  Keller shows us the city; he shows us the people who interact with him (and he sketches them brilliantly, as Woolf does in her mini-portraits); he shows us what he sees; and he shows us the impediments to his getting around and about and the pleasure of an intense love affair with place.  Like Woolf, like Miller, Keller’s street haunting shows up in his work.  (Keller is also a brilliant photographer and so he often leaves his apartment, camera in tow, taking photographs of the city that, like his writing, makes you look at the city in a far different way.)

Thinking about Woolf walking, about Miller walking, about Keller rolling, and how they use roaming through the outside world, I think about not only how it enables them to write as much as they do and as well as they do, but also how they use these forays into the world as material in their art.

I’m stuck, I sometimes complain to my husband.  Don’t just sit there; get out, he replies.

What I’m saying is that writing a life is intense work, it’s hard work.  Work we need to take a break from each day to clear our heads, to broaden our perspective, to take care of the self.  If we don’t take the time to do this, I think our writing suffers.  We have cases of the fidgets.  We ruminate.  We don’t know what to write.  We stare at the screen.  We cogitate endlessly.  And our work will feel as if it’s hermetically sealed like we have been inside our stuffy rooms.

Thinking about how necessary this outside life was/is to Woolf, to Miller, to Keller reminds me that the ability to be outside alone, freely, fearlessly, cannot be taken for granted.  Read Keller’s The Best Dancer, a brilliant examination of the thoughtless impediments to going wherever you want that our society puts in the way of those of us using wheelchairs as our only means of locomotion.  I think of all those who can’t roam freely, who couldn’t – the women who couldn’t go about unattended in Victorian England, say, the ones who can’t go about alone, now; of all those who now cannot go outside without terror for their safety in strife-torn areas.  I think of Woolf, for years taking for granted that she could open her door, walk out onto the Downs, and dream her books, and then, one day, during World War II, when the Luftwaffe was bombing England during the Blitz, not being able to roam her beloved downs for fear of a hidden bomb, a strafing airplane.  That’s in her diary, too.  What it was like not to be able to roam outside.


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