Category Archives: Famous Diarists

Losing myself amongst the ‘Woolves’

Virginia Woolf as a young woman.  I keep a copy of this portrait on my desk.

Virginia Woolf as a young woman. I keep a copy of this portrait on my desk.

So I spent Monday in London, escorted by my wonderful fangrrrl niece Amelia, at the ‘Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision’ exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery.  And it was wonderful.

We saw innumerable portraits and photographs, but I think the personal papers were the most moving.  There were pages from her diary describing the bombing of Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Tavistock Square home in October 1940, the original manuscript of ‘A Room of One’s Own’, love letters from Leonard written before their marriage,  and most moving of all, the little note she left for him when she set out to drown herself in the River Ouse in 1941.

One of the things that particularly struck me was that Woolf bound all her own notebooks and manuscripts, having taken bookbinding lessons in her teenage years as some kind of therapy for her mental illness.  The result was that she could make the perfect notebook for her own needs – which is, for a stationery addict like me, absolute nirvana.  Her books are big, too, slightly larger than A4, leaving plenty of space for her to explore her ideas.

Another interesting detail for me was that the page from her diary about the bombing had no crossings out on it at all.  My diary is a veritable Somme of scribblings-out, but she wrote a stream of consciousness with a self-assurance that seems absolute.  She had no doubts about what she was trying to convey.

The original copies of her books, published by the Hogarth Press, which she ran with her husband, still with their book jackets designed by her sister Vanessa Bell, look crisp and radical even now.  Amelia (a bookseller) and I both commented on the fact that the many editions of the novels for sale in the gallery shop had an assortment of different covers, none of which were so attractive, expressive, and frankly Modern-looking, as the originals.

Woolf is my writing hero for so many reasons.  She battled mental and physical illness, misogyny, and childhood sexual abuse to become one of the greatest novelists of the 20th century, reinventing the novel form in a way that would be emulated and built upon in succeeding decades.  She was self-educated, too, and could read Greek and Latin, despite the fact that her parents refused to send her to school as they did her brothers, a fact she railed against.

She is often criticised for being classist and racist, but I would argue that she was a product of her time, and it is to her credit that she did so much to counteract the snobbery and distrust of the working classes, which she inherited from her social millieu, through her political work.

Virginia Woolf was a great writer and feminist, a patron of the visual and applied arts, and a creative giant,  as well as a truly great human being who overcame enormous adversity to achieve what she did.  If you cannot get on with her novels, I wouldn’t judge you, but I urge you to dip into her enlightening and often witty diaries for inspiration on how to live a creative life despite so many difficulties.

Happy Creating,

EF

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Finding the Right Place to Write

Roald Dahl in his writing hut.  From the CBBC website.

Roald Dahl in his writing hut. From the CBBC website.

As regular readers will know, me and my study have a kinda love-hate relationship. In recent months, I’ve been trying to do it up a bit, make it a nice place for me to work, somewhere that reflects who I am and what I want. Somewhere I want to inhabit. Because I really do think that it is important to have ‘A Room of One’s Own’.

The problem is that it doesn’t seem to work for me in practise.

I do most of my writing sitting in my comfy armchair in the living room, with my laptop in my lap (strangely enough!), or writing in notebooks resting on a brilliant drawingboard that I bought from The Art Trading Company. And seriously peeps, this drawingboard is brilliant, and I’m going to get another one for my bedroom so I can be comfortable when I write in bed, because I also write there a lot, especially in my journal.

Now, it has lately occurred to me that this habit was set in stone when I was just a little kid. When I was small, I had a tiny bedroom only just big enough for a not-quite-full-size single bed, and certainly not large enough to include something as luxurious as a table. As I got older, and siblings moved out, I moved into their (larger) bedrooms, but there was never really enough room for a table or desk.

Aha! But I had my trusty piece of board!

Yes, I said ‘board’. It was a thin bit of old chip board, about A3 size, and I used it for hours, sitting on my bed, for drawing and writing, as a working surface for sewing and painting and plasticine and homework, as a play area, and for all kinds of other activities. That board was a miracle. I could have it on my lap when I was snuggled up amidst the sheets, and it kept the ink from getting on the cotton as well as giving me a firm surface to work on. I loved it, and I was never without it until I left home. After that, I think my mother threw it away. But who knows, it might still be in her house, under the spare bed, along with my ‘A’ level art portfolio!

The other day, I was thinking about my lovely old piece of board as I sat in my armchair with my lovely new drawingboard on my lap, and I remembered seeing photographs of Roald Dahl’s writing hut, where he sat in an old armchair with a board on his lap, and wrote the great classic of my childhood, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. (My husband actually knew the Dahl family and played in that hut at one time, the lucky hound!)

Nicole Kidson as Virginia Woolf inthe film 'The Hours'.

Nicole Kidson as Virginia Woolf inthe film ‘The Hours’.

Then I remembered a scene from the film, ‘The Hours’, in which my heroine, Virginia Woolf, played by Nicole Kidman, sits in an armchair by the window at Hogarth House, with a baize-covered board on her lap, and scratches out the first few lines of ‘Mrs Dalloway’ with her new pen nib. Woolf was actually more inclined to write at a high table, standing up, but the image is potent for me.

It is very nice to have a desk and a study, and sometimes, that is exactly what I need. But I am also fortunate in that I spend a great deal of time having the run of the house to myself, which means that I can write pretty much anywhere I have a suitable work surface, enough light, and where I can get comfortable. I’m not ungrateful to finally have the luxury of my own study, believe me, but having it as made me realise that really, it wasn’t necessary. I was always saying I couldn’t be a proper writer until I had a study of my own, but that just wasn’t true. I have written far more words in my armchair or my bed.

The lesson I have come upon, and the one I wish to communicate to you, Dear Reader, is that actually, once you find the place that suits you, you can write anywhere. You don’t need a study. And if you have one, as I am lucky enough to, you may not end up using it. Don’t beat yourself up about not doing so. Take Woolf’s exhortation to find ‘A Room of One’s Own’ as a wider license to find space of your own. The local Costa Coffee may be your perfect place to write. Or, as for my husband, the comfy chair by the roaring fire of your favourite pub may be just the place. Or you may indeed have your own study and revel in it. The important thing is to get comfortable and have a firm surface to write or type on, so that you are not distracted. It doesn’t matter if its in a caravan or a lorry cab, so long as your imagination can take flight. Because once it flies away to your story world, it doesn’t matter where you are.

Happy Creating,

EF

Journal Friday: Using Memories

Virginia Woolf as a young woman.  I keep a copy of this portrait on my desk.

Virginia Woolf as a young woman. I keep a copy of this portrait on my desk.

I’ve been reflecting on using memories in my journal lately. This is not something I tend to do readily. I don’t like remembering, mainly because I have a lot of painful memories that I don’t like to revisit. Some people had happy childhoods that they like to relive. I didn’t. I’m always put off when writers encourage their students to draw on their childhoods for material:

“Start with your childhood, I tell them. Plug your nose and jump in, and write down all your memories as truthfully as you can. Flannery O’Connor said that anyone who survived childhood has enough material to write for the rest of his or her life. Maybe your childhood was grim and horrible, but grim and horrible is Okay if it is well done. Don’t worry about doing it well yet, though. Just start getting it down.”

Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird, p4.

That’s all very well, but what if you are not in a mental place where you can face your grim and horrible childhood? And yes, I know I am always ranting on about how creativity heals, but you need to be ready to make that leap, and I’m just not there yet.

What to do?

Well, I’ve been reading a brilliant biography of Virginia Woolf lately, (rereading actually) and its discussion of her reading methods prompted me to think about my own education. And remember.

Musing in my diary, I found memories I felt I could allow myself to revisit. I recalled how I set out to ‘spend three years reading’ – somewhat as Woolf intended to ‘read myself blue in the nose’ – when I embarked on my English and American Studies degree. I wanted the world of literature to open up to me. I wanted to bask in all its wondrous variety, from Spencer’s ‘Faerie Queen’, Alexander Pope’s satire, through the invention of the novel, to the Modernism of Woolf, Joyce and Eliot. I wanted to gulp down Byron and wallow in Shelly. I wanted to lose myself in Fitzgerald, Whitman, Hemingway, the Brontës and George Eliot. I wanted to read The Greats. In short, I wanted a ‘proper’ literary education.

What I got was an itinerary of a book per week for each course, three courses running over three eight week terms per year, for three years. And to about 70% of these books, a 50 minute seminar was allotted.

(Perhaps I was naive.  No, scratch that.  I was definitely naive!)

I remembered not the luxury of three years reading, when I looked back, nor even any real reflections on the books I actually read. It was on this course that I first read Woolf for example, her ground-breaking novel ‘The Waves’ in fact, but I don’t remember what I thought about it. I don’t remember if it moved me, or if I found it difficult. I remember no opinion of it from that time at all. I was too fixated on ploughing through every volume on the booklist, and how I could bluff my way through the seminar if I hadn’t managed to finish each.

I’m not a fast reader either. This scorching schedule of novel after novel, of play after poetry collection after essay collection, left me reeling. I could barely keep up, let alone reflect and absorb. Mainly my memories of this time comprise of the tyranny of the seminar programme, of grinding through every book, and hating the labour instead of loving the words and stories and imagery.

For me as a writer, this memory, or rather the understanding of an absence of memory, is an important one to explore. I was fortunate enough to have an education, but somehow, I kind of blinked and missed it. The lesson I drew as I wrote of my disappointment in my diary is that I will take the memory into the future with me, and use it to inform my future reading. I will never finish a book again without forming my own clear opinion of it – and writing it down. By finding my way back to a memory, I can change my reading practise in the future. And that change will inform my writing. Which is a good reason for reaching back to find this memory.

Using memories in your diary doesn’t have to be a process of self-flagellation. Or at least, not if you don’t want it to be.

You don’t have to write pages in your own blood. You can write down your happiest memories, or the most instructive ones, or you can choose not to use memories at all. Exploring the past can be a useful exercise. It can be a healing exercise, but tacking painful times should only be done when you are ready, and not before. Don’t force yourself.

Instead, write about memories as they occur to you, and explore why they have come up at that particular moment. Yes, record them as vividly as you can, if you can. Find instruction in them. And if the time is right, exorcise your ghosts. But not every entry has to be a process of emotional flaying.

Happy journaling,

EF

Journal Friday: Derek Jarman’s Sketchbooks

jarman diariesIt’s been a very busy week, and I’ve been diving into all kinds of exciting new and inspirational activities, including the UEA Literary Festival.  I’ve also been submerged in the magical world of Derek Jarman’s Sketchbooks, edited by Stephen Farthing and Ed Webb-Ingall, and I want to share the inspiration I’ve found in them with you.

derek_jarmanIn case you have never heard of Derek Jarman, he was a fabulously talented artist, film-maker, designer, writer, gardener and Gay Rights activist whose career was tragically cut short by AIDS in 1994, aged 52.  He directed music videos for the Pet Shop Boys and designed the sets for Ken Russell’s landmark 1971 film, ‘The Devils’.  At his home in Dungeness, he created one of the most haunting modern gardens in Britain, one that I am deeply in love with.

I first became aware of Jarman when I saw his film, Caravaggio (1986), starring Nigel Terry, Sean Bean, and Tilda Swinton in her first film role.  Later, in 1991, I wept my way through his heart-breaking ‘Edward II’, an adaptation of Marlowe’s play that spoke of Jarman’s outrage at homophobia in Thatcherite Britain.  These are not easy and accessible films.  They are, however, fabulous to look at, and very moving.

When I came across this edition of the sketchbooks in the library the other day, quite by chance, I had no idea that Jarman was a committed visual diarist.  The sketchbooks themselves are large – family photo album sized – and each cover is decorated in black and gold, making a slightly varied but pleasing continuity.  Inside them, Jarman uses ephemera, calligraphy, drawing and painting, poetry, pages of film scripts, actors’ head shots from casting sessions, clippings from newspapers, reviews, photographs of friends and colleagues, bits of feathers and pressed flowers to document his life and each of his projects.  The sketchbooks contain his thoughts on everything from his garden (there is a carefully drawn planting plan), to his illness, to sex, history and death.

Jarman made a series of paintings, the ‘GBH’ series, of black on gold abstracts, inspired by Goya’s Black paintings, and a film called ‘Imagining October’, which arose from finding Sergei Eisenstein’s own copy of ‘Ten Days that Shook the World’, the famous book on the Russian Revolition, and on which Eisenstein had based his ground-breaking film, ‘Battleship Potemkin’.  Jarman had been shocked to discover how much of the book had been redacted with blacked-out text by the Communist authorities.  Both of these concepts are reflected in the sketchbooks, where you can see Jarman working on the idea of black bars with gold writing, seen on the cover of the volume.  Jarman’s anger at the political situation for Gays in the UK shines through these blackened pages.

One of the things that particularly strikes me is the simplicity of the layouts he uses.  Even when he is writing pages of text, making notes or journalling, there is a sense of space.  Nothing is cramped.  He spreads out, not denying himself room to work, enjoying the clarity of white space around his words and images.  This is something I will definitely take away. My diaries always feel cramped.  I always feel that every inch of space must be used, because materials are scarce.  This denial of room to grow is cramping my creativity, something I need to break out of.

I want to draw inspiration from the sheer range of activities Jarman undertook, too.  For him, there is no line in his sketchbooks between diary, writer’s notebook, sketchbook, planner or scrapbook, anymore than there were boundaries between the creative areas he worked in.  Although he was primarily a film-maker, he was so many other things as well.  Jarman teaches me that I don’t just have to stick to writing.  I can follow where ever my Muse leads me.

There are no limits to what we can create, only the ones we impose on ourselves.

Things to try:

  • See if you can get hold of a copy of Jarman’s sketchbooks.  It isn’t cheap – £28 – so maybe you can order it from your library.  You may not like his style of modernist art, but you can appreciate how he puts every aspect of his life into these visual journals to make a record of his thinking.
  • Use your own sketchbook or diary as a kind of studio to record everything you do and think about a particular project.
  • Collect clips, postcards, photos, anything relevant to stick in – Jarman even stuck a ten pound note into his!
  • Luxuriate in space.  Allow each of your drawings, paragraphs, or collaged pieces to bask in a frame of white space, so that they can shine out, and be seen for what they are.  Don’t fall into my scarcity trap – there will always be more paper.
  • Decorate the covers of your sketchbooks or journals in a similar way, as Jarman did, each one slightly different, but using the same colours or materials.  Maybe you could do ‘series’ of notebooks, with matching covers, for different projects.  Don’t be precious about them, however.  Jarman once stuck a heavy bronze seal on the front of one of his books, but it was too heavy to carry and got in the way, so he ended up prizing it off.  The scarred gold cover is even more interesting as a result.

Happy journalling,

EF

Journal Friday: Motivations

Grandmas 80th

Family memories: Who are you leaving a legacy for? (That isn’t me, incidentally, its my own Grandma, and my nephew and two nieces, all grown up now.)

I became a Great Auntie for the third time yesterday.  Actually, saying that makes me sound old, and I’m not, really I’m not.  I became an aunt for the first time when I was 14, and since then my siblings have surrounded me with a reasonably sized and very rewarding family.  A big family event like this, or even just a friend having a baby, always raises a question for me, since I don’t have children of my own.

When I am gone, who will remember I was here?

I think that is one of the reasons I have stuck so dilligently to the diary-keeping habit.  The need to leave a mark,  To leave something of myself for posterity.  My diary is a record of my brain as much as anything, its change and development;  the ideas and interests I have had; the things I believe in; the problems i have struggled with and the solutions I have found.  And yes, it records my loves and losses too.

Every time I write, there is a part of me, something in the back of my mind, that is aware that one day, some beloved relative will find these notebooks and start to read them.  I don’t censor myself because of that.  Far from it, because I want them to know, fifty years down the line, who I really was, and what my daily struggles and joys actually were.

Some women keep a diary throughout their pregnancies, talking to their unborn child through the pages.  Others record their terminal illnesses so as to leave a message for their children to remember them by in later years.

Writing a diary can also be a more direct conversation with another person.  Anne Frank wrote her famous diary to her imaginary friend Kitty, perhaps so that she would not feel so alone in her wretched circumstances.  I doubt she ever thought she was leaving a legacy that would inspire people all over the world for decades to come.  For Frank, Kitty was a friend and confidante, a person to whom she could confide things she would never be able to say to anyone else.

For the most part, people write diaries and journals for and to themselves.  They may have little thought of recording ‘interesting times’, unless they are self-seeking politicians such as Alan Clark.  They write because they need to, because it helps them work things out, or simply because they enjoy it.

None of these reasons is wrong.  There are no wrong reasons.  You might think it self-important to want to leave a mark on the world, but it doesn’t make it a reprehensible motivation.   We all have our motivations for doing what may seem an apparently narcissistic activity, at least on the surface.

What are yours?

Journal Exercise:

Take out your journal and spend a few pages musing on why you write it, and whether you write to or for someone.  Journals are not meant to be read by anyone except their writer, at least not without permission, but sometimes we write with someone specific in mind.  Do you write for someone else, to someone else, or just to yourself?  Do you mean to use your writing as a prompt for other forms of creativity, painting for instance?  Or do you want to record a difficult stage in your life so that you can learn from it?  Do you want to write things down so you will remember them in years to come, or do you want to leave a record for posterity and your great-grandchildren?

If you have something to say to a specific person that you cannot say to their face, write them a letter in your diary, letting it all out.  You never have to send it, but it can help to say those things in some private, safe way.  That is what your diary is for.

If you are interested in historical diaries, you might look at The Great Diary Project for inspiration.  Other people’s published diaries can be an endless source of inspiration, and I will be writing about notable ones in future posts.  In the meantime, why not pop out to your local library or bookshop and see what you can pick up.

Happy journalling!