To Read Is to Fly

“To read is to fly: it is to soar to a point of vantage which gives a view over wide terrains of history, human variety, ideas, shared experience and the fruits of many inquiries.” 
― Alberto Manguel


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A Writer's Diary - Virginia Woolf image
Virginia Woolf

On January 1, 1953, Leonard Woolf completed his Preface to [b:A Writer's Diary|14948|A Writer's Diary|Virginia Woolf||568491], a compilation of extracts from the 26 volumes of diaries that Virginia Woolf wrote from 1915 until 1941, with the last entry written just four days before her death. This book was published before the five-volume set of Woolf's diaries that is still in print today. Leonard Woolf makes it clear that, especially since so many of the people whom Woolf wrote about were still alive at the point, it was important for him to avoid publishing the more personal diary entries. Instead, Leonard Woolf selected excerpts that focused especially on Virginia Woolf's writing about writing, fiction as well as criticism. There's something very powerful about reading through Woolf's characterizations of her writing process in one volume, covering decades of her development as a novelist and a critic. As such, this volume is an ideal book to read if you are fascinated by Woolf's creative process, if you are a writer looking for inspiration, or if you are interested in Woolf's diaries, but want a taste of her writing before you make the commitment to read the more complete published editions of her diaries (which I plan to read through this summer).

There are some strong themes and topics that emerge from [b:A Writer's Diary|14948|A Writer's Diary|Virginia Woolf||568491]. One is Woolf's strong commitment to writing and revising, even in the face of poor health. She describes the highs and lows she experienced at every stage of the writing process, from her initial conceptualization of a new novel or essay (often while she was completing another project), to her struggles to pinpoint her vision for her novels and to realize it in prose, to her commitment to re-writing and revising, always looking to condense her writing, to cut away any extraneous words or passages, to realize the heart of her vision for each novel or essay or biography.

Woolf struggled to find a rhythm to her writing and reading that would sustain her through the very difficult periods when she had just completed a long work, and when she was waiting to learn what its reception would be among friends and critics alike. She describes having at least two writing projects going at one time, along with some very ambitious reading projects, sometimes tied to her critical essays, and sometimes part of her development as a writer, to learn from others.

As I mentioned above, Woolf writes at length about her unease over the critical reception of her own books. Over time, and with more accolades behind her, this becomes a slightly less difficult struggle, but she never completely shook off her concern over how others, friends, family, critics, and the reading public, thought of her work and of her place in literature. How best to handle reviews of her work? To what extent should she write for external approval? How could she judge how good her writings were when her own assessments of them could shift by the hour?

All of the topics I mention above would be fascinating enough, but for me the true joy comes in reading Woolf's beautiful prose. I couldn't resist posting something like 15 excerpts in updates when I was reading this book, and that was a result of my being selective. Here are some of my favorite passages:

Woolf writes about her approach to writing a diary: "What sort of diary should I like mine to be? Something loose knit and yet not slovenly, so elastic that it will embrace anything, solemn, slight or beautiful that comes into my mind. I should like it to resemble some deep old desk, or capacious hold-all, in which one flings a mass of odds and ends without looking them through."

Woolf's aspirations for her writing: "Anyhow, nature obligingly supplies me with the illusion that I am about to write something good; something rich and deep and fluent, and hard as nails, while bright as diamonds."

Woolf's description of the relationship she seeks between her writing and the substance of life: "So the days pass and I ask myself sometimes whether one is not hypnotised, as a child by a silver globe, by life; and whether this is living. It's very quick, bright, exciting. But superficial perhaps. I should like to take the globe in my hands and feel it quietly, round, smooth, heavy, and so hold it, day after day. I will read Proust I think. I will go backwards and forwards."

The dual nature of life--solid and fleeting: "Now is life very solid or very shifting? I am haunted by the two contradictions. This has gone on for ever; will last for ever; goes down to the bottom of the world—this moment I stand on. Also it is transitory, flying, diaphanous. I shall pass like a cloud on the waves. Perhaps it may be that though we change, one flying after another, so quick, so quick, yet we are somehow successive and continuous we human beings, and show the light through. But what is the light? I am impressed by the transitoriness of human life to such an extent that I am often saying a farewell—after dining with Roger for instance; or reckoning how many more times I shall see Nessa."

The importance of revision: "At Rodmell I read through The Common Reader; & this is very important—I must learn to write more succinctly. Especially in the general idea essays like the last, "How it strikes a Contemporary," I am horrified by my own looseness. This is partly that I don't think things out first; partly that I stretch my style to take in crumbs of meaning. But the result is a wobble & diffusity and breathlessness which I detest."

Reading and discovery: "Now, with this load despatched, I am free to begin reading Elizabethans—the little unknown writers, whom I, so ignorant am I, have never heard of, Pullenham, Webb, Harvey.
"This thought fills me with joy—no overstatement. To begin reading with a pen in my hand, discovering, pouncing, thinking of phrases, when the ground is new, remains one of my great excitements."

The efforts to pin down ideas when writing: "It is all very well, saying one will write notes, but writing is a very difficult art. That is one has always to select: and I am too sleepy and hence merely run sand through my fingers. Writing is not in the least an easy art. Thinking what to write, it seems easy; but the thought evaporates, runs hither and thither. Here we are in the noise of Siena—the vast tunnelled arched stone town, swarmed over by chattering shrieking children."

Her thoughts of what she wants to achieve and develop in The Waves (referred to here by its early title The Moths): "Orlando has done very well. Now I could go on writing like that—the tug and suck are at me to do it. People say this was so spontaneous, so natural. And I would like to keep those qualities if I could without losing the others. But those qualities were largely the result of ignoring the others. They came of writing exteriorly; and if I dig, must I not lose them? And what is my own position towards the inner and the outer? I think a kind of ease and dash are good;—yes: I think even externality is good; some combination of them ought to be possible. The idea has come to me that what I want now to do is to saturate every atom. I mean to eliminate all waste, deadness, superfluity: to give the moment whole; whatever it includes. Say that the moment is a combination of thought; sensation; the voice of the sea. Waste, deadness, come from the inclusion of things that don't belong to the moment; this appalling narrative business of the realist: getting on from lunch to dinner: it is false, unreal, merely conventional. Why admit anything to literature that is not poetry—by which I mean saturated? Is that not my grudge against novelists? that they select nothing? The poets succeeding by simplifying: practically everything is left out. I want to put practically everything in: yet to saturate. That is what I want to do in The Moths. It must include nonsense, fact, sordidity: but made transparent."

And one last inspirational quote, which captures the magic, the beauty, the sadness, and the wonder of this volume: "Then (as I was walking through Russell Square last night) I see the mountains in the sky: the great clouds; and the moon which is risen over Persia; I have a great and astonishing sense of something there, which is "it." It is not exactly beauty that I mean. It is that the thing is in itself enough: satisfactory; achieved. A sense of my own strangeness, walking on the earth is there too: of the infinite oddity of the human position; trotting along Russell Square with the moon up there and those mountain clouds. Who am I, what am I, and so on: these questions are always floating about in me: and then I bump against some exact fact—a letter, a person, and come to them again with a great sense of freshness. And so it goes on. But on this showing, which is true, I think, I do fairly frequently come upon this "it"; and then feel quite at rest."

Virginia Woolf

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