A little string in the green wave
“Happiness is to have a little string onto which things will attach themselves,” Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary on April 20, 1925. She continues:
For example, going to my dressmaker in Judd Street, or rather thinking of a dress I could get her to make, and imagining it made—that is the string, which as if it dipped loosely into a wave of treasure brings up pearls sticking to it. Poor Murphy [her secretary] is in the glumps, owing to Leonard’s fiery harshness—each of which epithets he would most certainly deny. She has no string dipping into the green wave: things don’t connect for her, and add up into those entrancing bundles which are happiness. And my days are likely to be strung with them.
If Woolf thought that her moments in the upcoming days were likely to connect into “the entrancing bundles” that make happiness, it’s in part because she was entering an eventful period in her career: The Common Reader was published shortly after she wrote those words, followed a month later by Mrs. Dalloway. And most writers can relate to the kind of anticipation that she describes in the same entry: “What will happen is some intensities of pleasure, some profound plunges of good. Bad reviews, being ignored, and then some delicious clap of compliment.”
What Woolf is really describing here, I think, is the way in which a writer’s awareness of a work in progress can heighten and bring out the meaning of the everyday. This kind of matrix, which allows mundane events to arrange themselves into a larger pattern, isn’t unique to writers, of course, and we all feel the same sort of cognitive charge whenever we’re engaged in a project of personal importance. For a writer, though, the sense of a hidden structure that gives a shape to the disconnected routines of daily life can be particularly intense, especially at peak points in the creative process. You see connections that weren’t there before, and isolated details seem to fit into the story that you’re telling, while also telling you stories about themselves. Woolf’s wry attentiveness turns something as ordinary as going to the dressmaker into a narrative with a beginning, middle, and end—which I suspect is one reason why many of us go shopping for things we don’t need. It provides the tiny dose of structure that we crave, and if we can purchase it cheaply enough, it turns into a reliable source of consolation that has nothing to do with the object of desire itself. The act of buying alone can’t give more than a momentary satisfaction, but when we treat it as part of a longer string, it can be as valid a building block toward happiness as any other. In the passage above, Woolf goes on to write: “But really what I should like would be to have £3 to buy a pair of rubber-soled boots, and go for country walks.” She’s making fun of herself a little, but she’s also getting at something very real.
In Woolf’s diary, the “little string” is a fishing line that plunges into the green wave of the sea, and she often returned to similar images to describe a writer’s relationship with the world. In a letter to Vita Sackville-West, she described composing an essay as preparing “a net of words” that will come down on the idea in an hour or so of work. And in A Room of One’s Own, she wrote:
Fiction is like a spider’s web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners. Often the attachment is scarcely perceptible; Shakespeare’s plays, for instance, seem to hang there complete by themselves. But when the web is pulled askew, hooked up at the edge, torn in the middle, one remembers that these webs are not spun in midair by incorporeal creatures, but are the work of suffering human beings, and are attached to the grossly material things, like health and money and the houses we live in.
This passage feels like the flip side of the diary entry with which I began. Instead of pearls on a string, health and money and houses are “grossly material things” made by human beings who suffer as they spin their webs. The attachment to life is still there, but it grows tragic when seen in a different light. And while you could say that Woolf saw these attachments one way or another depending on her mood, both points of view are basically correct. A writer’s connection to the world is a source of both happiness and frustration—and especially, as Woolf noted, for women.
All we can do, then, is play out that length of string and watch it get tangled up, for better or for worse. After you’ve been writing for a few years, you feel as if you’ve experienced every possible interaction between life and work: you can use one to escape from the other, or pursue both with a clear head, or feel them vibrate together as one. When I’m deeply absorbed in a writing project, I’ll sometimes look up and feel surprised by facts that I’ve temporarily forgotten—that I’m a husband and father, that I have a body, that I need to attend to the many small obligations that are the lot of a suburban American. (If I were a certain kind of realistic novelist, I’d spin these things directly into fiction, but as it stands, they sometimes feel like they have nothing to do with me, when they’re really all I am.) On rough days, I feel lucky that I have plenty of work to keep me busy; on good days, I feel much the same way. When I look back, I’m often surprised to realize that I was working diligently on one project or another at some of the lowest points of my life, and how easy it can be to compartmentalize it. But as Woolf implies, that’s an illusion, too. Whether we like it or not, work seeps into life, and vice versa, and they both take on a larger meaning that they wouldn’t have in isolation. It’s probably best when we aren’t conscious of this, and we go about our business as artists and rational actors without worrying about what each half has to do with the other. We make the string; we can’t control what sticks to it. Woolf knew this, too. But she also understood that we have no choice but to live in the green wave.