Virginia Woolf is one of my favorite writers of all time. Notice I didn't say "woman" writers... just "writers." I don't make the distinction, and it annoys me whenever I see it.* As if we aren't all humans writing about humans (or humans writing about dogs). But never mind that, for now. I'm curiously cranky today, it being Monday, and it raining when I wanted to run, and there being no school for the second Monday in a row...etc.
In the essay, "A Sketch of the Past," Woolf considers the problem of writing about what she calls "non-being" as opposed to "being":
Often when I have been writing one of my so-called novels I have been baffled by...how to describe what I call..."non-being." Every day includes much more non-being than being....A great part of every day is not lived consciously. One walks, eats, sees things, deals with what has to be done; the broken vacuum cleaner; ordering dinner; writing orders to Mabel; washing; cooking dinner; bookbinding. When it is a bad day the proportion of non-being is much larger.
Although I'm grateful not to have "bookbinding" as one of my concerns, I wonder what Virginia Woolf would have done with the internet and social media to contend with. Probably she would've left them alone. If time spent on Twitter is not "non-being," I don't know what is.
Woolf has her (well-documented) moments of severe self-doubt: "The real novelist can somehow convey both sorts of being...I have never been able to do both." She names Jane Austen as a fine example of one who can. But in my opinion one of the qualities that defines Woolf is that she writes primarily about these crystallizing moments and leaves the rest to others. Yet she didn't see herself as a "real" novelist. And I don't think she only meant that in the stylistic sense.
I've always thought I had the opposite problem: How to eliminate the "non-being" and cut to what's most critical, what's most deeply felt in a piece of work. Sometimes it means I cut ten pages and keep one. For the sake of verisimilitude, maybe we include both kinds of moments. But by its inclusion, each one becomes meaningful, doesn't it? If it's not, we take it out, right? Or if we don't, we should. So, do we create these moments of "being" by giving them weight?
It leads me to wonder, though, how much "being" can one person handle? Isn't it potentially overwhelming to be hyper-aware? Still, we could all probably do a little more of it. So, in honor of Woolf's birthday, I'm going to try for a day more of "being" than of "non-being," both in work and outside of it.
I'll keep you posted...
on Facebook...and Twitter...
*If only it were so simple, saying "writer" vs. "woman writer" and making it so... This leaves aside what also annoys me--the small number of writers who happen to be women who get nominated for and win awards... And yet, see the Book Critics Circle Award nominees
--we are guardedly pleased.