Tag Archives: Virginia Woolf

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

The Book List

Some books here are waiting to be read.

Some books here are waiting to be read.

The other day, a friend challenged me on Facebook to name the top ten books that had most influenced me in life. It was one of those things where you give your list, and then challenge your other friends.

So far so good.

But how the hell do you choose, especially as the challenge specifies you do it off the top of the head, without thinking too hard, as fast as possible. How do you choose only ten books out of all the great novels and stories you have read over a lifetime?

My list was visceral, and based largely on what I read when I was younger. I thought about the books that had made me happiest, that I have gone back to over and over again in the course of my life. And it was interesting just to reflect on my criteria for choosing, as much as anything.

So here is my list (verbatim):

“1. Finn Family Moomintroll by Tove Jansson
2. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
3. Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
4. Lake Wobegon Days by Garrison Keillor
5. Virginia Woolf by Hermione Lee
(gosh this is hard)
5. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas (kept me sane in the run-up to my wedding)
7. Antrobus Complete by Laurence Durrell
8. Persuasion by Jane Austen
9. Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman
10. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (obvious)”

I ended up with about 15 that didn’t quite make the grade, and if I think too hard about it, I would definitely shift a few from one list to the other.  I mean, how do you choose which Terry Pratchett?  The above was my original choice, and I think I’ll stand by it.

And then I challenged other friends. And like Japanese knotweed, lists of novels and non-fiction books blossomed out all over. Everyone had a fascinating new combination of books they raved about. Many, like Sebastian Faulkes’ ‘Birdsong’ and Camus’s ‘The Plague’, were held in common. Lots of lists were biased towards ‘we did that one at school’ books. I marvelled at the wide range of stories that had influenced my friends.

And I felt like I had barely read anything worth reading since I left college.

I suppose this is understandable. When you see a list of books, you always look for the familiar ones. And if the ones you have read are in the minority, you feel like a fool for not having read the others. Especially the significant ones. On the other hand, who the hell has read the whole of Proust’s ‘Remembrance of Things Past’, or ‘War and Peace’? (I have to say I was impressed by the number of people who had read Dostoyevsky’s ‘Crime and Punishment’. Kudos!

There are woeful gaps in my reading, despite what friends who always see me with a book might think. This is especially true these days, when I am so addicted to the quick highs offered by every morning’s new crop of fanfics. I have not read many European novels, or the Russians. I don’t know Kazuo Ishiguro or Graham Greene, Iris Murdoch or GK Chesterton. Or Kerouac, despite having a degree in American Studies. I read one book from last year’s Man Booker shortlist (Ruth Ozeki, ‘A Tale for the Time Being’), and that was because it looked like the easiest. (It was fantastic.)

Writers must read.

It is one of the basic pillars of the Craft. And you have to read the good stuff as well as the commercial, otherwise you never improve. Making this list made me realise how little decent fiction I have read in recent months. Time to get back to it.

“I mean to read myself blue in the nose.”

Virginia Woolf.

When I began my Diploma in Creative writing, we were given a list of novels and volumes of short stories to plough through as precedents, much as art students must analyse the works of the Masters, sitting in galleries for hours on end, studying Goya or Rembrandt. I found an old bookmark from those days, a list of novels scrawled on it, each title with a line scored through it as I completed it. (A couple of loose ones at the end remained unread.)

I need to do the same again.

This morning I found myself in a bookshop, gazing longingly at table after table of lovely crisp new novels. (It’s the time of year that provokes me – September draws me into bookshops still, an echo of student days of joyful bookbuying with a free conscience!) But I was good. I left the books uncaressed. I have piles of unread novels at home, you see, amongst them ‘Birdsong’, along with Tim O’Brien’s ‘The Things They Carried’, Jonothan Franzen’s ‘The Corrections’, and dozens of others, all highly recommended as quality fiction for the budding writer, and all gathering dust on the shelf. No point in buying new ones until I have ploughed through the old ones.

So I will cut a strip of paper and write a list of the books in my pile on it. And then I will begin. And each time I close the back cover a book and sigh with completion, I shall draw a careful line through the title and pick up the next.

Happy Creating,

EF

 

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

Inspiration Monday: Whats Inspiring Me Right Now

VW desktopFor today’s post, I thought I would bring you a little window into my creative mind.  Here are some of the things that are really getting my brain going at the moment.

This post from Kate Courageous really is causing a revolution inside my skull.  Imagine – learning to accept Nigel instead of kicking him?

Not practising enough?  Susan Piver has some interesting things to say about beating yourself up that are relevant whether you are talking about your meditation or your creative practise.

Found this lovely old post by Holly Becker on Decor8 about visual journals.  I really like this one about creating a lookbook too.

The New York Times on why handwriting matters.  Don’t say I didn’t tell you so.

The Handmade Home geniuses have their new 2015 planner out!  And yes, I am a total planner geek.  See also the fact that I have just discovered how Pinterest can feed my addiction!

I love Brainpickings.

I love iHanna’s blog, but I especially like this post – ‘Glue book where I collect happiness.’  Isn’t that a brilliant idea?  Collecting happiness between the pages of a journal.  Count me in.

This book.  I’ve lost count of how many times I have read this biography of Virginia Woolf, but right now, every time I pick it up, I am filled with a new rush of ideas, inspiration, and fixes for my novel.

I’m loving this book as well.

Well, that should keep us all going for a while.  Hope you have an inspired and creative week,

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

Inspiration Monday: Commuting

I’ve written already about the wisdom of walking for the creative life.

No reason why I shouldn’t repeat myself, of course.  Especially now we are in a new year, with new Intentions and new opportunities.  I have promised myself I will walk more this year.  Sometimes, this is not an easy promise to fulfil.  There are appointments to be met, after all; there is the filthy English weather (and believe me, filthy is what it is at present), and then there are my physical limitations.

Yet, in spite of the mud and the commitments and my low energy levels, I am trying to get out most days.

And there are so many things to see.  Some of the best walks I’ve ever had have been the repetitive ones to and from work, or school, the continual plodding on the pavements that sets up a meditative rhythm.  This time of year, walking home in twilight is especially evocative.  Not only can you see into other people’s houses as you pass, because many people don’t draw their curtains too early, but the landscape changes when industrial lights are switched on.

As a teenager, my walk home from our nearest bus stop was a route that skirted fields and woods.  Behind those woods, though, lay a huge industrial area, lit by massive floodlights in the dark hours.  The entire night sky glowed with this statement of manmade power over the environment.  To me, it looked uncannily like one of those landing pads on strange planets from the Star Wars films, and it fuelled my imagination continually.

Walking is not the only way to travel home from work, of course.  Sitting on a bus is great for inspiration too.  You can see so much more from the height of a bus seat, and not just into people’s windows, and thus into little vignettes of their lives.  Tableaux of office workers frozen in time as you pass their workplaces will catch your eye: someone handing over a file as the recipient reaches out to take it over a low  desk partition;  a group of besuited workers sitting around a conference table working out details of a deal; a pile of files teetering in an in-tray.  What are they talking about, these people who are so busy?  Whose lives will be changed by the outcome of that meeting, for better or worse?  What details, sinister or otherwise, are contained in those files – the potential for a fraud conviction, or the much-cherished hope of an adopted baby?

On a train, disparate people gather together and ignore one another.  They listen to hissing music on iPods and phones, tap at laptops or iPads, read books and newspapers, stare out of the window or fall asleep.  Each one has a story.  Can you be Sherlock Holmes and deduce their tale?

Viriginia Woolf, my heroine of writers, snatched up just such an opportunity in her short story, ‘An Unwritten Novel’, in which the narrator sits on a train and tries to guess the tale of a woman sitting in her compartment.  If you have never read it, I enthusiastically recommend it, not only as an example of how you can take a moment from your everyday life and make a work of art from it, but also for its fine stream-of-consciousness style and its sheer wit.  People’s occupations on trains may have changed since it was written, but the way we react to them, I should hazard, probably has not.

Creative Exercise:

How do you travel to your daily occupation?  Do you take the bus, train or Tube?  Do you cycle or walk?  Whichever you do, you may view it as a necessary evil, a time to catch up on your email, or some extra sleep.

What about reframing that view?

What if your daily commute to work, college or school became a special time set aside for creativity?

You could take a sketchbook and a biro and draw portraits of your fellow commuters.  This might develop into a whole series of painted portraits that depict your daily travels and those who accompany you on your journey.

You could compose a story about them in your head, and use it as the basis of a short story or novel, as Woolf did.

You could even go all ‘Brief Encounter’ and come up with a passionate love story between two of your fellow travellers!

(Probably best not to do this so much if you drive.  A vehicle is a life-threatening weapon, so you need to be alert and aware when you are in charge of it.  But maybe at traffic lights, you could look into other people’s cars and see what they are up to – applying mascara, fiddling with the radio, texting or picking their noses!)

What do you see as you travel?  What landscapes or buildings do you pass?  What could be going on inside that floodlit brick bunker that looks like a government establishment?  What story is being lived out on each floor of that block of flats you stomp past every morning? (I recommend Alaa Al Aswany’s superb novel, The Yakoubian Building’, for an example of this.)

Take your writers notebook and make notes of the ideas that come to you.  Make this time a time for your imagination to be unleashed.  Make a chore, a daily misery, into the highlight of your working life.

Happy creating,

EF

Inspiration Monday: Heroes

Iain Banks

Iain Banks

Life is what happens when you are making other plans.  Today I am once again deviating from my plan because something momentous happened yesterday.  The Scottish novelist, Iain Banks died, aged 59.  He was the author of ‘The Wasp Factory’, voted one of the Great Novels of the Twentieth Century, as well as ‘The Crow Road’, a book which begins with the immortal line:

“It was the day my grandmother exploded.”

Iain Banks, The Crow Road, Scribners 1992.

Surely, this is the greatest first line of any novel since Jane Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’, and Orwell’s ‘1984’.

Regular readers will know that Banksie was a hero of mine.  I went to see him speak several times, as he was a regular visitor to Norwich, near where I live.  He was best described in three words, in my experience:

Angry.  Talented.  Funny.

He introduced me to a Scotland that I fell in love with, and to a way of writing that is spare, funny and insightful.  He was extraordinarily productive and his work covered a wide range of subjects, genres and styles.  When you opened a new Banksie novel, you never knew quite what you were going to get next.

If you want to read the best of Banks’s literary fiction, I recommend ‘The Wasp Factory’, ‘The Crow Road’, and ‘Complicity’.  I can’t comment on his science fiction, for which he was also justly famous, because I never managed to get through one.  Space operas aren’t really my thing.  But as I have said before,  his ‘Raw Spirit’, a book about whisky, driving, Scotland and being a writer, is one of the most charming I have read.

It is sad that a writer so talented and prolific has been taken from us so young, but why am I writing about this?  Because Banksie was a writing hero of mine, that’s why.  A writer I admired and wanted to emulate.  Like Virginia Woolf, his photograph hangs in my study to inspire me.  He taught me that protagonists don’t have to be likeable, and that little memories from growing up can serve as icons of our internal psychology.  He taught me that you should keep at it, and write what you love.  And that it’s okay to be funny, and a bit geeky.

Creative Exercise:

Who are the people that inspire you?  Whose work do you seek to emulate, or admire?  Whose biography have you read for a better understanding of the creative process?  Who are your artistic heroes?

These people are your creative ancestors, and you must always acknowledge where you come from.  Take time in your notebook to name the people who inspire you, whether it is their life struggle from which you take courage, as I do with Woolf and Frida Kahlo, or their creative process which fascinates you.  Perhaps it is their politics, or religious faith you admire, or their down-to-earth attitude.  Perhaps it is simply the creative work they produced.  Whether your hero is Steven Spielberg, Gandhi, Maya Angelou or Picasso, explore what they mean to you, what their example says about where you want to take your art.

Happy Creating,

EF