Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Virginia Woolf

The imagination of form

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In his new book The Shadow in The Garden, James Atlas—the acclaimed author of biographies of Delmore Schwartz and Saul Bellow—quotes Leon Edel, the legendary biographer of Henry James: “A writer of lives is allowed the imagination of form but not of fact.” The line appears in the introductory “manifesto” to Edel’s Principia Biographica, in which he also states:

In a sense all lives are clutter composed as the poet said of “the butt-ends of my days and ways.” If biography reproduces this it reproduces habitual disorder. Robert Louis Stevenson once wrote: “Life is monstrous, infinite, illogical, abrupt, and poignant; a work of art, in comparison, is neat, finite, self-contained, rational, flowing, emasculate. Life imposes by brute energy, like inarticulate thunder; art catches the ear among the far louder noises of experience like an air artificially made by a discreet musician.” If we apply these words to biography we can see that a writer of lives must extract individuals from their chaos yet create an illusion that they are in the midst of life—in the way that a painter arrives at an approximation of a familiar visage on a canvas. The biographer who is unable to do this creates a waxworks, a dummy, a papier-mâché, and often a caricature.

And he concludes with a daunting challenge to biographers of all kinds: “The biographer truly succeeds if a distinct literary form can be found for the particular life.”

For the last two years, I’ve been thinking a lot about these issues, as I try to put together a literary biography that cuts between the stories of four complicated major figures and the important people in their lives, along with a huge amount of cultural background about the history of science fiction. The arrangement is basically chronological, but within that framework, there’s room for an infinite number of permutations. It’s difficult enough to figure out how to move between the four major players, who had periods of intense collaboration in which their careers overlapped, but also spent decades in different parts of the country. Knowing where to put the transitions has been the most obvious structural challenge that Astounding has presented, but even within each section, there are countless problems to solve. For the sake of clarity, I’ve often had to arrange the material according to theme, without doing violence to the timeline, which is a tricky balancing act in itself. To engage the reader, I’ll often start a chapter with a striking incident, then backtrack, which requires a certain finesse. And this doesn’t even get at the bane of the biographer’s existence, which is how to decide what to include or exclude. Atlas’s description of himself while writing his biography of Schwartz sounds a lot like I feel right now:

I was drowning in documentation. Manuscripts, clippings, transcriptions of interviews, and Xeroxed articles lay strewn about the floor. I crawled around amid the notecards laid out as if for some immense game of solitaire until I developed rug burns on my knees…My original fear that I wouldn’t have enough documentation soon gave way to despair about how I would get it all in.

So what exactly do biographers do? The secret, I think, is to realize that concerns about form aren’t just a courtesy to the reader, to whom structure provides a conceptual scaffolding, but to the author. When you hit on the right shape, it turns into a machine for making choices, just as the internal logic of the narrative does for a novelist. Writing of Edel’s distinction between “form” and “fact,” Atlas writes:

The “fact” part I got (though I would come to question the whole notion that there was such a thing as fact). It had never occurred to me that the “form” could be so elastic—that, in effect, you could construct a biography however you liked. Richard Holmes had a useful term form this method: “nonfiction storytelling,” biography that has “a protagonist, a time-sequence, a plot, and a dramatic pattern of human cause and effect.” Nonfiction storytelling: that’s what I was after.

You could argue that a person’s life doesn’t naturally fall into such neat stages, any more than our everyday existence follows the conventions of a plot, and that it’s just a short step from this approach to the clumsy shoehorning of true events into a stock screenplay formula that we see in so many biopics. But some kind of storytelling is required to convey information in a way that the reader can understand and absorb, and it’s no more artificial than the “convention” that books should consist of signatures of folded paper sewn together into a binding. Structure is a delivery system for facts and ideas, just as the physical book delivers the text to our eyes and brain, and any artifice that it imposes seems trivial compared to the costs of doing without it altogether.

The best way for a biographer to figure this out, of course, is to learn from the works of others. Writing of his experience in reading Edel’s biography of Henry James, Atlas captures the way in which even small choices can take on an outsized significance when you’re working in the same genre as a master: “I also liked the way Edel broke up the chapters into manageable size, then broke them up into still smaller bits separated by roman numerals; it didn’t make you feel, as so many biographies did, that you were traversing an arid desert of type. The narrative was well paced; clearly a lot of thought had gone into the beginnings and endings of sections.” Atlas also benefited from a piece of valuable advice from the critic Dwight Macdonald, Schwartz’s literary executor, who told him: “Omission, generalization, intensification: that’s your clue.” But like any extended work of art, a biography ultimately reflects the personality of its creator, which can’t be hidden, although it also shouldn’t go out of its way to draw attention to itself. As Edel writes:

A biographer who works as an artist becomes the biography. An “impersonal” biography is tasteless and without character, force, or authority. “The thing that is necessarily overlooked,” said Wallace Stevens, “is the presence of the determining personality.” Why “necessarily?” A good and useful life must be fashioned by a “determining personality.” The biographer unable to select and arrange significant detail is like a painter who smudges his canvas.

This is sound, sensible advice—maybe a little too sound and sensible. When you’re dealing with what Joyce Carol Oates calls the “small infinity” of materials at hand, it can be hard to keep it in mind. But I take comfort in the fact that Edel ends his manifesto, not with an Olympian detachment, but with a line from Virginia Woolf that sums up the whole messy business: “Yes, writing lives is the devil!”

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October 13, 2017 at 8:58 am

Quote of the Day

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Why should the final test of plot, character, story, and the other ingredients of a novel lie in their power to imitate life? Why should a real chair be better than an imaginary elephant?

Virginia Woolf, The Essays of Virginia Woolf: 1925-1928

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March 29, 2017 at 7:30 am

The biographer’s donkeywork

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Nancy Milford

To be a biographer is a somewhat peculiar endeavor. It seems to me it requires not only the tact, patience, and thoroughness of a scholar but the stamina of a horse. Virginia Woolf called it “donkeywork”—for who but a domesticated ass would harness herself to what is recoverable of the past and call it A Life? Isn’t there something curious, not to say questionable, about this appetite for other people’s mail, called Letters? What does it mean to be mulish in pursuit of someone else’s life, to be charmed, beguiled even, by the past, if not held fast to it? It isn’t true that it provides insulation from the present. On the contrary, it impinges upon it, for while it is from the terrain of my own life that I work and mine hers, biography is the true story of someone else’s life, and not my own.

Nancy Milford, Savage Beauty

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January 29, 2017 at 7:30 am

A little string in the green wave

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Virginia Woolf

“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.

The Common Reader

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.

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September 29, 2016 at 8:51 am

Quote of the Day

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Virginia Woolf

I believe that the main thing in beginning a novel is to feel, not that you can write it, but that it exists on the far side of a gulf, which words can’t cross; that it’s to be pulled through only in a breathless anguish. Now when I sit down to write an article, I have a net of words which will come down on the idea certainly in an hour or so. But a novel, as I say, to be good, should seem, before one writes it, something unwritable, but only visible; so that for nine months one lives in despair, and only when one has forgotten what one meant, does the book seem tolerable. I assure you, all my novels were first rate before they were written.

Virginia Woolf, in a letter to Vita Sackville-West

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December 18, 2015 at 7:21 am

What’s the point of the novel?

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Virginia Woolf

Why do we write novels? I’m not talking here about a defense of the form itself—when a novel is good, that’s all the justification it needs. Rather, I’ve always been interested in the question of why so many young writers, whose strongest gifts might lie in other kinds of expression, are instinctively drawn to the novel as a sort of testing ground. Susan Sontag, for instance, was manifestly born to be a cultural critic, but she made her debut with the novels The Benefactor and Death Kit, neither of which exactly set the world on fire. Norman Mailer made a bigger splash with The Naked and the Dead, but its success turned out to be an outlier: he struggled to recapture that initial magic throughout his career, and he achieved his most lasting fame as a journalist and rogue public intellectual. The novel, it seems, is a ceremony of initiation for aspiring talents, a medium of tremendous complexity and difficulty that establishes a writer’s credentials, even if he or she seems likely to move on to other battlefields. And this is despite the fact that the novel itself is an increasingly hard sell for publishers and readers, at least compared to more marketable genres like memoirs and creative nonfiction.

That said, even if it no longer stands at the center of our culture, there’s no question that a novel still carries a certain cachet. And you could even argue that as the novel becomes marginalized, it grows more useful as a test of talent: to break through in fiction these days requires a writer of exceptional skill and determination. Yet I sometimes wonder if there might not be better alternatives. From the outside, it seems that writing a novel would train you to do just about anything else. Certainly other forms feel easier, or marginally less backbreaking, once you’ve willed three hundred pages of story into existence. Sooner or later, though, you find that the novel has peculiar requirements of its own, and doing it well demands that the author develop skills that may not have any application elsewhere. When I was younger, I wanted to work in every form and genre—I saw myself moving with ease from novels to short stories to essays to criticism, like the man of letters I dreamed of being. Over time, however, I’ve learned to be content with being mediocre in everything except being a good father and novelist. The novel, if you’re doing it right, sucks up everything you have, leaving little else for hobbies or side projects. And if I really wanted to be a critic or journalist, it would have made more sense to focus on that, rather than diverting my energies on a form that asked for everything I could possibly give it.


Yet I can’t shake the sense that the novel can also teach transferable skills that can’t be acquired in any other way. That isn’t a good reason to write a novel if it isn’t what you already want, but if you end up there anyway and survive the experience, you’ve learned a few things that you wouldn’t have known otherwise. To take an example from the very highest levels, here’s what Virginia Woolf once wrote to a young poet:

Can you doubt that the reason Shakespeare knew every sound and syllable in the language and could do exactly what he liked with grammar and syntax, was that Hamlet, Falstaff, and Cleopatra rushed him into this knowledge; that the lords, officers, dependents, and murders and common soldiers of the plays insisted that he should say exactly what they felt in words expressing their feelings? It was they who taught him to write, not the begetter of the sonnets.

Woolf is talking about drama, not the novel, but her underlying point—that a genre that deliberately creates a multiplicity of imaginary voices will push the writer into making new discoveries more reliably than any other—rings particularly true for novelists. (You could argue that a series of short stories could produce the same effect, but even if the writer tackled a wide range of character types, there’s something to be said for a single narrative in which everyone is forced to jostle together in surprising combinations.) The novel, which compels the writer to keep a diverse body of material under control to the breaking point, still feels like the form most likely to generate unique talents, even, or especially, if they move on. So it’s possible that writers who tackle the novel first, even if they end up elsewhere, are exactly where they need to be. But Woolf deserves the last word:

So that if you want to satisfy all those senses that rise in a swarm whenever we drop a poem among them—the reason, the imagination, the eyes, the ears, the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet, not to mention a million more that the psychologists have yet to name, you will do well to embark upon a long poem in which people as unlike yourself as possible talk at the tops of their voices. And for heaven’s sake, publish nothing before you are thirty.

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June 8, 2015 at 10:12 am

The lost art of the commonplace book

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The author's commonplace book

Over the last few days, I’ve had occasion to mention W.H. Auden’s A Certain World, which I picked up on Friday at the Newberry Library Book Fair, but I don’t think I’ve fully explained the charms of this wonderful book. For those who haven’t heard of it, it’s Auden’s commonplace book—that is, an annotated personal anthology of quotations, excerpts from interesting works of fiction or nonfiction, and short notes and observations on subjects ranging from “Bands, Brass” to “Kilns” to “World, End of the.” In short, it’s like the best blog in the world in hardcover form, and it’s impossible to browse through it for more than a minute without having one’s eye caught by some new marvel. Here, for instance, is a quote from G.K. Chesterton:

A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door. Boys like romantic tales; but babies like realistic tales—because they find them romantic. In fact, a baby is about the only person, I should think, to whom a modern realistic novel could be read without boring him.

I’ve always been drawn to commonplace books, which provide both a valuable autobiographical portrait of the author and a mine of fascinating material—assuming, of course, that the compiler is someone with interesting tastes. In college, along with Auden’s collection, I browsed happily through the commonplace book of E.M. Forster and the marginalia of Samuel Coleridge, and one of my favorite bedside books is Hodgepodge by J. Bryan III. Bryan is an intriguing figure in his own right: he was a freelance author, journalist, and peripheral member of the Algonquin Round Table who published his own commonplace book in his eighties. It’s chattier and fluffier than Auden’s version, studded with amusing quotations and haphazardly verified facts (“The eggshells of all members of the hawk family are green inside”), and it’s probably the most charming book of its kind I know. I read it over again, in bits and pieces, every year or two, and if you’re the kind of person drawn to the oddments of a lifetime’s reading, you might want to pick up a used copy—it’s widely available online.

The author's commonplace book

Not surprisingly, I was inspired at an early age to put together a commonplace book of my own. My most ambitious effort, maintained throughout most of my freshman year in college, was an ordinary black sketchbook in which I copied down quotes from the books I was reading at the time, from the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius to Boswell’s Life of Johnson, along with short journal entries. In the end, like most books of its kind, it met the same fate as the one described by Virginia Woolf:

Most of the pages are blank, it is true; but at the beginning we shall find a certain number very beautifully covered with a strikingly legible hand-writing. Here we have written down the names of great writers in their order of merit; here we have copied out fine passages from the classics; here are lists of books to be read; and here, most interesting of all, lists of books that have actually been read, as the reader testifies with some youthful vanity by a dash of red ink.

Every now and then, though, I’ll leaf through it, and I’m as much struck by the idealism and curiosity it expresses as for the quotations themselves. And although my Quotes of the Day here have served much of the same purpose, I can’t help feeling that such discoveries would live more happily in the pages of a physical journal.

Because in the end, a commonplace book is most valuable for the quality of mind it encourages. When you’re always on the lookout for interesting material, you read books with a collector’s eye, knowing that a passage that attracts your attention now may acquire additional meaning when set apart on its own or juxtaposed with something else. The best commonplace books generate a kind of collage effect, of the sort that we see in the works of Montaigne, Thomas Browne, or Robert Burton, in which the excerpts and commentary create a synergy that none of the individual pieces would possess. It’s no accident that these books are often the liveliest in print: they come very close to capturing how our minds really work, with chunks of memories and scraps of culture bound together with a thin tissue of personal reflection. For a writer or poet, it’s an essential tool, a way of preserving impressions and striking fragments that would otherwise be forgotten. It absorbs material from the world around you and makes it your own, in the most pleasurable way imaginable. Why not start one today?

Written by nevalalee

July 30, 2013 at 8:52 am

Virginia Woolf on the spider’s web of fiction

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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.

Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

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October 22, 2011 at 7:30 am

Quote of the Day

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Why should the final test of plot, character, story, and the other ingredients of a novel lie in their power to imitate life? Why should a real chair be better than an imaginary elephant?

—Virginia Woolf

Written by nevalalee

December 4, 2010 at 2:12 am

Posted in Quote of the Day, Writing

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