Virginia Woolf on writing memoirs

Virginia Woolf on writing memoirs

Today is Virginia Wolf’s birthday and did you know that she was a big fan of memoirs!

“Letters and memoirs are my delight—how much better than novels!”, she claimed one time in one of her numerous letters that have been a goldmine for us to look into the mind of this complex and prolific writer. “I think one day I may brew a tiny ingot out of it—in my memoirs, ” she said in another.

But the most homiletic and revealing of her thoughts on the art of writing memoirs comes from one of her essays of Moments of Being. The illuminating monologue was written at a time when she was herself writing the biography of Roger Fry.

Virginia with sisters, Vannessa and Stella

Expressing doubt over her ability to write one of her own because of the enormity of her memories, she starts with the difficulties in mastering the craft of telling ‘lives’.

“The number of different ways in which memoirs can be written. As a great memoir reader, I know many different ways. But if I begin to go through them and to analyse them and their merits and faults, the mornings—I cannot take more than two or three at most—will be gone.”

She then decides to stick to the most conventional way: the first memory. For her, it was the red and purple flower on her mother’s black dress as she sat on her lap.

“In fact it is the most important of all my memories. If life has a base that it stands upon, if it is a bowl that one fills and fills and fills—then my bowl without a doubt stands upon this memory.”

Dwelling on, she goes digging in the heart of memoir writing with her sharp analysis.

“Here I come to one of the memoir writer’s difficulties—one of the reasons why, though I read so many, so many are failures. They leave out the person to whom things happened. The reason is that it is so difficult to describe any human being. So they say: “This is what happened”; but they do not say what the person was like to whom it happened. And the events mean very little unless we know first to whom they happened. I do not know how far I differ from other people. That is another memoir writer’s difficulty. Yet to describe oneself truly one must have some standard of comparison.”

Virginia with her father, Sir Leslie Stephen.

The insights that she left for us all were not without her own wonderment. Talking about how clearly she could watch things happening as they drove down the beach road without even making an effort, she begins to question the existence of the things that we fail to remember.

“In certain favourable moods, memories—what one has forgotten—come to the top. Now if this is so, is it not possible—I often wonder—that things we have felt with great intensity have an existence independent of our minds; are in fact still in existence? And if so, will it not be possible, in time, that some device will be invented by which we can tap them? I see it—the past—as an avenue lying behind; a long ribbon of scenes, emotions.

A young Virginia Woolf

With a metaphor of a radio, which she ‘shall turn up to the 1890’, she tells us how can we walk back in the woods of our lives and find those branches our mind still hangs too.

“I feel that strong emotion must leave its trace; and it is only a question of discovering how we can get ourselves again attached to it, so that we shall be able to live our lives through from the start.”

And that is why, she then explains, the childhood memories are often the most undiluted.

“I am only the container of the feeling of ecstasy, of the feeling of rapture. Perhaps this is characteristic of all childhood memories; perhaps it accounts for their strength. Later we add to feelings much that makes them more complex; and therefore less strong; or if not less strong, less isolated, less complete.

Coming back to the question of narrating someone else’s life, she says,

“Why it is so difficult to give any account of the person to whom things happen. The person is evidently immensely complicated. People write what they call ‘lives’ of other people; that is, they collect a number of events, and leave the person to whom it happened unknown”

Virginia and Leonard Woolf

As the essay nears the end, Virginia Woolf once again gets drawn into the power of our subconscious mind.

“The things one does not remember are as important; perhaps they are more important. ”

Finally, separating what we remember and what we don’t into ‘being and non-being’, she says.

“How to describe what I call in my private shorthand ‘non-being’. Every day includes much more ‘non-being’ than ‘being’. These separate moments of being were however embedded in many more moments of non-being. This is always so. 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.”

Apart from the excerpts of this essay, which is called ‘sketches of past’, ‘moments of being’ is filled with many thoughtful insights from the mind of one of the greatest writer and feminist of the modern era. Unfortunately, it was her illness and suicide has often clouded other parts of her life, leaving obscure some quirky and fascinating things about Virginia Woolf unknown.

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