Sunday, October 16, 2011

If Virginia Woolf Taught a Writing Class

We all know I’m the worst English major ever. My lack of reading the literary greats as well as my disdain for most of these novels is horrifying, I agree, but sometimes I find I remember more than I think. It’s funny how you’ll be reading a modern romance that’s thick with sexual tension and suspense and think of Jane Eyre, or how a writing space always makes you think of Virginia Woolf. I think perhaps my Women’s Studies course in my freshman year was probably the most useful and memorable course I took my whole program.


I must have been in a nostalgic mood. I picked up The Virginia Woolf Writing Course book from my local library. I don’t remember her books, only that I was quite certain that her kind of writing and mine were too different than to even term them both as writing. I do remember we studied some of her articles about writing though, and I loved how relevant her words were then as they are now. (I guess this goes to prove there are no new ways to write a novel; just new to you.)


It’s a short book (which I find is in its favor as far as writing books go) and engaging to read (a must!) with “Sparks” at the end of each chapter to spark you own writing with techniques that Woolf suggested in her own writing.


There are seven sections: practicing, working, creating, walking, reading, publishing, and doubting.


With practicing, she reminded me of Anne Lamont’s Bird by Bird advice. Giving yourself permission to write shit. (Not that that was the word Woolf used. Though I think her friend used it for her—something about, “Even if what you’re writing is as bad as what comes out of the backend of a horse.” Not a whole lot of leeway what she means, unless the horse suddenly pops out a foal, which is still a bit of a mess and requires cleanup before it looks like the foal.) And the most important part: you must kill the Angel of the House. (I loved that article! I think every woman writer must love that article.) It’s that sing-song voiced critic within you that tries to guilt and manipulate you into doing anything but writing. Things you should be doing, like cleaning, cooking, taking care of or paying attention to your kids or husband, volunteering at your church, visiting your parents, or any of the Shoulds that would make you a better and more productive member of society than writing crappy little novels that won’t change anything, even if you do manage the miracle of being published. She said not to be surprised that the woman reminds you of your mother. That’s common. But whatever she looks like, she must be killed off and often, because you’ll never write if you don’t give yourself permission to.


Working was a very practical session. About how you need to have a day job so you can write—something must pay the bills while you’re creating your art. You can’t create if you’re worried. And how your job may surprise you and teach you something about writing that can be useful to you. For her, she wrote articles for magazines and newspapers. It taught her concise writing…and writing to deadline. It also taught her how to be a better reader, which is also essential to better writing.


Creating re-emphasized having the space to write. You need a sacred space designated for writing and then you must use it—which I suppose is your way of treating it in a sacred way. No use building a church if you’re not going to worship there. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy—it seemed she liked to write in chaos—but I am a person that needs to write where there is not clutter to disturb my line of sight. Clutter stresses me out and makes me tired. I can’t sit and write, at least not well.


Those should be enough to keep me busy this week—what tricks and techniques do you use in your writing? Woolf liked to keep journals of free-writing, where she gave permission to write anything. Do you pre-write? Do you have a sacred space to write? Have you killed your Angel of the House? (And if you have, how did you do it? Was it messy or did she go quietly?) How has your job that pays the bill taught you how to be a better writer? Who is your favorite literary writer's writing advice? (No Nicholas Sparks quotes please!)


2nd Chance said...

Well, the kraken takes care of my house angel...every incarnation. ;-)

My sacred space? Goddess bless the Lady Starbucks and her many locations. And my bed. So much of my visions come from the morning dreams... It's where Almost Human came from and The Alien Library and a new one I'm toying with... (One good aspect of my lack of deep sleeping...all that surface dreaming. Even if the body is missing the deeper levels...)

I do dream of a real writer space at home, where I want to write at home...but I need a staff first to clear the house. And you know...I think anymore the house is where I do the other things. Sewing projects...costume things...promotional items...convention bits and pieces...

I don't think I have favorite literary writer advice... Every now and then, someone posts something of FB that appeals, but the specifics don't stick with me... Sorry!

Quantum said...

Chance: I don’t think I have favourite literary writer advice
Me neither!

I am fairly well educated and fairly well read, at least in areas that interest me, so I reckon I should be able to write tolerably well without instruction.

I doubt that I could ever be a great writer so my only chance for fame in fiction is to be uniquely creative both in style and content.

No manual will tell me how to achieve this so I simply ignore the writing advice, unless I feel like a bit of fun reading, and let the inspiration speak if it will.

I actually read Woolf's 'Orlando' as a student and rather enjoyed it, though it needed concentration ..... not an author to pass the time with on a rail journey.

I have no sacred space for writing fiction. I just sit close to the drinks cabinet and do what comes naturally LOL

Very erudite start to the week Helli. *smile*
I feel dizzy!

Hellion said...

2nd, as Bull Durham once said, Never f*ck with a winning streak. If you write at Starbuck's, by God, continue to write at Starbuck's. Besides, my favorite author ever (the incomparable J.K. Rowling) wrote at a coffeehouse (I don't think it was Starbuck's) for at least her first novel; and when she had to finish the last novel, she locked herself in a hotel room and wrote for two weeks or something to get the darned thing done. By this time, the woman had a huge ass house. I mean, surely she could have found an empty bedroom if writing at home was lucrative for her, but it's been proved many times, just getting away sometimes is the best way to be productive. It's probably like the difference between writing your paper at your kitchen table vs writing it at the library. The library just seems to work better, even if the kitchen comes with free oreos.

You'd think you'd be a proponent of Stephen King who said, "Don't listen to writing books. They're full of crap." (His writing book is still one of the best I've ever, ever read.)

(I'm rather depressed for you that you don't get deep sleep. I could swear I heard that deep sleep is needed for hormones to control your eating...)

Hellion said...

Quantam, I don't think a science book could teach a scientist how to be a genius or discover or invent something new and original. However, you read those books nonetheless to learn what has been done before. What has been done before, what isn't working now, and perhaps be inspired to do something completely different. I read writing books to be inspired. To think of things in a new way. To fall in love with writing again, when my own writing is not something to fall in love with. I'm not as easily impressed with my writing as I used to be, even though I'm certain I'm a better writer than I was before.

All I know is that 20 years ago, I had far more confidence in my writing than I seem to now, and believe me, I've read what I wrote then and I'm flummoxed WHY I thought I was. *LOL*

Writing is about having faith even in the midst of doubt. Faith in the process, faith in the story, faith in yourself--and sometimes the best places to find faith is in the words of other writers who have been there before you.

You're right--reading writing books won't make you a better writer if you don't write; however, to say they can't help at all--that's not right either.

Marnee Bailey said...

Killing the House Angel. I have no difficulty with this. Maybe because my mother voice might not be like everyone else's. My mom was the first woman to say, "Go read something" and "I really think you should spend more time writing." In fact, now when I'm not writing, she's the first person to be like, "FIND SOME TIME SOMEWHERE!"

The woman wasn't much of a housekeeper. My momma had two spices: salt and pepper. But she was an artist in her own way. She sewed amazing outfits, even made a few of my prom/formal dresses. She's a painter and a musician (plays all the winds, the piano, and all the horns). So she was the first to set aside housework when the muse called to her.

She's a great example for us. If anything else, I should listen to her example, if she's my "House Angel." LOL!

As to best writing quote, I think it's from LaNora. "You can't fix a blank page." My perfectionist doesn't listen some times.

Bosun said...

This sounds like a book I should find. (Along with the King one. I know. I know.) I'm with Marn on the writing advice. And Woolf, apparently. I couldn't write anything if I didn't convince myself it was okay to throw donkey doo on the page. Getting the story out has to come first. Making it pretty just has to wait.

My house angel could be my mother, actually. Because instead of telling me to clean or cook, she tells me to plop my lard ass on the couch on turn on the television. Which is my mother all over. I love her, but if she could spend her life in front of the tele never moving, she would.

Last weekend the words weren't coming and I NEEDED the words. I'd been moving this mass of clutter around in my room for at least a week. Once I stopped and cleaned up the clutter, the words flowed. Great lesson learned there. My desk (which is in my bedroom) is not perfect, but the general space around me has to be clean or it's no writing for me.

Hellion said...

Marn, your mother deserves an extra big vase of flowers in Thank You for being such a great influence. :)

My mom was not a great housekeeper either. In fact, that's pretty much the family joke. *LOL* I'm beginning to think my Dad married her because she was cute because she wasn't a great housekeeper and she wasn't that great of a cook either. *LOL*

LaNora is right; and I'm sure she'd agree with Quantam that writing books are for the birds. *LOL* Inspiration comes from within...or something. *LOL* Blah, blah, blah. I draw my inspiration from books. I always have.

Hellion said...

Bo'sun, I found the King book to be the most readable. It's a quick read; and probably one of the few I've read beginning to end.

Writing donkey doo is rather a hard concept to accept, you know? *LOL* I think secretly--or not so secretly--I want to write Pulitzer Prize first drafts. *LOL*

Clutter disturbs me too. I don't think I realized how much it really does disturb me. Messes with my Chi or whatever they call it.

Bosun said...

Chi sounds right to me. Or maybe it blocks our chakra? (That's a word, right? Maybe?)

So where is your writing space?

Demi Spawn said...

Who is your favorite literary writer’s writing advice?

Substitute "damn" every time you're inclined to write "very"; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.
Mark Twain

Donna said...

I used to consume writing books, but I don't have time to devote to them anymore. Plus I realized I was using that "research" to put off actually writing, because I felt like I had to learn everything first. Finally I just jumped in and started writing, which is actually great on-the-job training, and then when there's something I can't quite figure out, I go searching for the solution. And it's great to have so many experts on blogs, so I don't have to go far to find great advice!

Clutter doesn't bother me, probably because it's always been part of my scenery. LOL (I remember a comedian saying "110% of men are clutter-blind", and I'm thinking I can be included in that stat when I'm absorbed in my writing.)

Demi Spawn said...

“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed. “
Ernest Hemingway

“When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature.”
Ernest Hemingway

“Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.”
Benjamin Franklin

The full quote puts an interesting spin on things . it goes …
“If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead, either write something worth reading or do things worth writing.”

"No, it's not a very good story - its author was too busy listening to other voices to listen as closely as he should have to the one coming from inside."
Stephen King

"There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you."
Maya Angelou

Demi Spawn said...

Wise enough IMO to be Literary:

"In Hollywood the woods are full of people that learned to write but evidently can't read. If they could read their stuff, they'd stop writing."
Will Rogers

"The real joy is in constructing a sentence. But I see myself as an actor first because writing is what you do when you are ready and acting is what you do when someone else is ready."
Steve Martin

Demi Spawn said...

Someone once told me that I couldn’t write with out an agenda.
My response was “I’ve never ever used a personal planner or written any thing down in an agenda in my life. I’m too busy making a point, to waste time writing out what point I should be making!”

That being said …

May I present My Opinion on...

The Way I write:

“My passions were all gathered together like fingers that made a fist. Drive is considered aggression today; I knew it then as purpose. “

“When a man gives his opinion he's a man. When a woman gives her opinion she's a bitch.”

Bette Davis

The way I feel about my writing:

“I make no claim to be an authority on writing or illustrating for children. “
Hugh Lofting

“The fact that I have been successful merely means that I can write and illustrate in my own way. “
Hugh Lofting

“Better the rudest work that tells a story or records a fact, than the richest without meaning. “
John Ruskin

"It is our choices that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities." - J. K. Rowling

"I am writing my life to laugh at myself, and I am succeeding."
-Giacomo Casanova

And finally? The way I Think about writing:

“The test of literature is, I suppose, whether we ourselves live more intensely for the reading of it.”
Elizabeth Drew

hal said...

I'm loving those quotes Demi!

Hellie, I adore this blog (lover of writing advice and books that I am). I haven't seen Virgina Woolf's writing book before, but I am now determined to find myself a copy of it (and get a copy for the little sis for Christmas). I did find a speech of hers on the House Angel, and am loving the concept. I have a cluttered home, that I don't clean as often as I should, and I unfortunately have friends who manage to maintain a spotless home even with young children. So then I start comparing, and start frantically cleaning, and then criticizing myself, and then . . . , well you get the idea. None of this leads to writing.

I'm coming to the realization (and this blog and the VW speech are big influences here) that I can either be Domestic Goddess with the spit-shined house, folded laundry, homemade organic baby food, and cookies-for-the-neighbors; OR, I can be a Writing Goddess with a wild imagination and fingers that fly over the keyboard.

Hmm. I think I'll take the later. And put like that, it's a pretty easy decision :)

Bosun said...

Hal - Even if I wasn't writing, I'd never be a Domestic Goddess. I came to terms with that years ago. LOL!

hal said...

haha. I'm still coming to terms with it!

Hellion said...

Demi, I love Mark Twain! The man is a genius...and there is his funny stuff about Adam and Eve, how can I not love him?

Hellion said...

Lord, what the hell am I smoking at my desk? I re-read my response to Bo'sun at my desk and was like, "Did I really use the word Chi? I don't even know what the word Chi means." Holy crap.

Chakra is a real word. I don't know what it means either; I know we have about 8 of them though. *LOL* And they're different colors.

I don't really have a writing space, which is why I enjoyed that aspect of the book so much because it placed such emphasis on writing space, having a specific place for it (like if you're an insomniac, you have a specific place to sleep) and making it your place just to write. Right now my laptop is on a red ottoman that is next to the couch. This only works if I turn off the TV. If I write in another room, I have no internet, which causes a bit of a breakdown for me. *LOL*

Hellion said...

Donna, that is so true: writing is the best on-the-job training there is. This book was also talking about the importance of reading--and even reading in the type of stuff you want to write. Read everything, read all the time. I can practically hear a bunch of you screaming right now. *LOL*

Good for you for ignoring clutter! I swear if more of us thought "like men" we'd get so much more done. *LOL*

Hellion said...

“No, it’s not a very good story – its author was too busy listening to other voices to listen as closely as he should have to the one coming from inside.”
Stephen King

OOOOOhhhhh! Very good!!

Hellion said...

“It is our choices that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” – J. K. Rowling

I want to do one of those wall decal things with this as the quote. I love this quote.

Hellion said...

I haven’t seen Virgina Woolf’s writing book before, but I am now determined to find myself a copy of it (and get a copy for the little sis for Christmas).

It was a great little book--and the sparks were a lot of fun. (Of course, I don't know about you, but I rarely do the writing exercises, but still, I thought they were a lot of fun to read!)

Your little sister writes too??

hal said...

it's my husband's sister, really, but she lived with us until recently, and is finishing up undergrad in creative writing and poetry. She loves to write, especially poetry, but of course, there are even fewer paying jobs for poetry than there are for romance writers. She loves the classics and Virginia Woolf, so I thought she'd love it. It's funny - we're both writers, but on such different ends of the writing spectrum that it's hard to relate sometimes :)

Quantum said...

Helli: I don’t think a science book could teach a scientist how to be a genius or discover or invent something new and original. However, you read those books nonetheless to learn what has been done before

True, but that is the learning phase which is the undergraduate level of education. For the research level, the text books are for reference or for learning a technique that is new to one. The latest knowledge comes from papers published in research journals.

When I started as a research student my supervisor gave me a problem and suggested that group theory was the only hope for solving it. He then left me to it, throwing me in at the deep end so to speak, with a belief that young minds will cope.

He was right in that I did solve the problem, using one book for some theorems on groups and huge piles of reprints of published papers!

The analogy works for novel writing I think. Your undergraduate English (using UK terminology) taught you grammar and syntax; with book reading teaching you how to put it all together; and essay writing giving practice in application.

To write a novel you just jump in the deep end and swim. If you sink then maybe you're not destined to be a writer.

I'm not saying you shouldn't spend time reading writing books, but I doubt that they will help much if the fire and drive is not already there.

As Terri said, you can pretty it up later if you need to. When the book is the best you can write, you will know from reading it. If there are things that need improving you will find ways to improve, drawing on your experience of reading great novels, or simply inventing a solution for yourself, as I had to do with my science.

I actually have the feeling that you have already written a superb book and are just lacking a little confidence .... Why not let uncle Q take a peek?

Once you get something published, I reckon there will be no holding you.

End of today's pep talk.

Unless you start arguing! *grin*

hal said...

yeah, and I never do the writing prompts either. I read them, think, "wow, that's so cool," and then set down the book. lol.

2nd Chance said...

I get the idea of reading writing books for inspiration. It's like being a clothing designer and strolling about, looking at store windows. Or a chef eating out. As long as it doesn't become the 'excuse' used to not write, or sew, or cook!

Yeah, sleep has been fleeting for me lately...not a great place to be... Don't know if it's causing me to eat more...but I did spend half of yesterday with my snap-down-the-front shirt on inside out before I realized it. And I went out and about that way...

Hels! Qster is offering ta read yer book!

Janga said...

I think books on the craft of writing can be useful. They can inspire, advise, caution, console, and make us feel less alone. But they can also be used as just another way to avoid writing. I have also discovered that reading them when I'm writing can have a paralyzing effect since my process is never exactly like the expert is telling me it should be. And sometimes the experts disagree.

I do follow Woolf's advice about reading. I read every day, and I read many things--poetry, romance, mystery, literary fiction, memoirs, scripture, devotional matrial, blogs, email . . . I believe the best writing textbooks are the best of whatever genre we want to write.

Anne Lamott's Word by Word is hands down my favorite book about writing, although I have learned from books by Annie Dillard, Stephen King, Donals Maass, Robert McKee, Janet Burroway, Natalie Goldberg, Alicia Rasley, Elizabeth Benedict. But it's Lamott who says what I most need to hear.

My three favorite writing quotes by her are:

“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won't have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren't even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they're doing it.”

“I heard a preacher say recently that hope is a revolutionary patience; let me add that so is being a writer. Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work: you don't give up.”

“Don't look at your feet to see if you are doing it right. Just dance.”

I also keep a quote from E.L. Doctorow where I can always see it when I'm writing:

"Planning to write is not writing. Outlining . . . researching . . . talking to people about what you're doing, none of that is writing. Writing is writing."

And this response is rambling enough to convince everyone who reads it that I know nothing about good prose.

Hellion said...

Hal, the book has Woolf talking about poetry. *LOL* I think it will be a very apt book for your sister. :)

Hellion said...

Then I consider my "book reading" more of the "article reading" variety. The books I prefer to read are more of the pep talk variety than the particular issue variety. I mean, I own my fair share of them; I love them--but yes, books can't really teach you how to write a complex character or a riveting plot. They can offer tips, but the books themselves usually tend to be more demoralizing than helpful. Sometimes I think I read books so I don't have to do the work of daydreaming. Reading the books feels more productive because in school reading books were part of the curriculum. Daydreaming was generally frowned up and not considered work.

Now if I could get my daydreaming and writing to tie itself together....

Hellion said...

Yes, 2nd, I realize that, but it's much like when an agent offers to read my stuff: PANIC. Gee, I'm sure they'll want to read more than the 20 pages I have.

Now if I quit deleting and getting a new idea to do something else...which I've done about 10 times with this book. That's a modest guess of the number of times I've changed the direction of this book.

I should just set it on fire. It's annoying me this week.

Hellion said...

Janga, I just stop reading the ones that paralyze me. *LOL* Clearly those are the wrong books. I figure any book that makes me return to the keyboard is a good book. That's all. I'm not in a position to listen to myself when I say return to the keyboard. I'm nobody. *LOL* But if VIRGINIA WOOLF says so, well, that's different.

That first quote about "you have to die anyway" is probably spot on for me. *LOL* Damn.

2nd Chance said...

Hey, when my therapist convinced me that rejection was nothing after almost life as a writer really began.

Death isn't so much a threat as a simple reality...

Though it certainly scared me to ... uh...submitting!

AJ said...

Ahhh, thank you for this! I haven't picked up Woolf in ages and I love her. The reminder is timely, as I'm trying to get back in gear after a six year gap since my last book was published (that single parenthood stuff really sucks your brain's taken me until he hit 2nd grade to get the writing back together) and there ARE no sacred spaces in my house right now. But I think I'd be better off with one, so a nudge to work on that is good for me. My Angel of the House was strangled at birth, although having a deadline from an editor is still the best way to ensure that my bathroom gets a deep cleaning! My favorite writing books (after Natalie Goldberg & Anne Lamott, the Queens of Awesomesauce) tend to be those by "genre" writers actually. I find their voice much more engaging usually. Rita Mae Brown, Lawrence Block, Elizabeth George, Jane Yolen, have all written books that I dip into when I need a kickstart. Excellent post, thanks again!

Hellion said...

Hi AJ! Thanks for coming by the ship! I've had 6 year gaps in writing and nothing as cool as a kid to explain why! :) Welcome back to the Dark Side. *grins*

I remember Natalie Goldberg from college too, and I loved her as well. I still have her Writing Down the Bones book. As for the others listed, I hadn't had a chance to read their advice books--so thanks for the recommendations!

Happy Writing!!

Demi Spawn said...

Late I know but this quote best refflects my personal approach to writing:

Do you have a sacred space to write?

No, as ...

“My ideas usually come not at my desk writing but in the midst of living.”
Anais Nin

Demi Spawn said...

And I left you something on FB ... a dedication of sorts I suppose.

Try not to cringe too much at the "," and the grammmerrrr ... and ...