Virginia Woolf

From Virginia Woolf's “Moments of Being” (and thanks to Marilyn Bousquin for delving into this book and reminding me of its beauty):

“And so I go on to suppose that the shock-receiving capacity is what makes me a writer. I hazard the explanation that a shock is at once in my case followed by the desire to explain it. I feel that I have had a blow; but it is not, as I thought as a child, simply a blow from an enemy hidden behind the cotton wool of daily life; it is or will become a revelation of some order; it is a token of some real thing behind appearances; and I make it real by putting it into words. It is only by putting it into words that I make it whole; this wholeness means that it has lost its power to hurt me; it gives me, perhaps because by doing so I take away the pain, a great delight to put the severed parts together. Perhaps this is the strongest pleasure known to me. It is the rapture I get when in writing I seem to be discovering what belongs to what; making a scene come right; making a character come together. From this I reach what I might call a philosophy; at any rate it is a constant idea of mine; that behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern; that we—I mean all human beings—are connected with this; that the whole world is a work of art; that we are parts of the work of art.” (72)


Tom Larson on Memoir

These are a few selections from a wonderful new book from Ohio University Press, Thomas Larson's The Memoir and the Memoirist:

“Only by lingering on something outside the self, with which he has had intimate experience, can the author disclose himself. Memoir is a relational form.” (22)

“[T]he subject of a memoir is often the self in search of an earlier or later self, who is found in the person the book gives birth to and whose awareness of past and present, in turn, becomes the focus.” (66)

“What is it about you now that's so interested in whatever stage you choose? Pressure from the now may help unearth the best phase to explore, especially the unfinished ones that haunt us the most.” (67)

“[T]he memoirist is she who sticks with the form long enough to undergo changes in how she sees the past. The act of memoir writing and its river of recollections has made her different from the person she would have been had she not traversed the rapids. The act has also changed and deepened those predictably indulged and semitrue stories she's been telling herself and others, no doubt, for years.” (113)

“Once we realize that the here and now has the greatest control over the personal narrative, we are saying, in effect, that the core self can never be found. It can only be activated now and in the succession of now's memoir writing activates.” (131) (Cool, very Buddhist!)

“Unlike the sum-happy autobiography or the sin-absolving confession, memoir allows a reanimation of, and a relational bout with, one's authenticity.” (135)


Creativity and Death from Ruth Ozeki

“I think there's a powerful link between creativity and death. We make things because we lose things: memories, people we love, and ultimately our very selves. Our acts of creation are ways of grappling with death: we imagine it, struggle to make sense of it, forestall or defeat it. When I sat down to write this essay, I realized that all my work–in film or on the page–has ultimately been about dying, and I know I'm not alone. These media are, quite literally, mediums, the means of traveling to the other shore. They are our imaginative transport to the land of the dead. We learn things there, and then return what we learn to the living. This journey is undertaken by anyone who has ever told stories, from Homer, to Dante, to Elizabeth Bishop. To tell stories is to practice of the art of losing.”– from “The Art of Losing: On Writing, Dying, & Mom” by Ruth Ozeki in Shambhala Sun March 2008 p. 73


Floyd Skloot

Floyd Skloot, author of many books of poetry, four novels, and excellent works of nonfiction including the new “The Wink of the Zenith” and “In the Shadow of Memory” (from University of Nebraska Press), gave a moving craft talk at Ashland University in 2008. This is the only talk on the craft of writing that's brought me to tears.

Skloot talked about the writing process for putting together his essay, “Kismet,” which dealt with the death of his brother. Twenty years ago, Skloot suffered a virus attack that resulted in brain lesions that damaged large sections of his memory and hindered his ability to process information. Despite this major obstacle he has continued a productive writing career. He spoke in this craft talk about the organic structure of the essay, a piece of seven sections that explore interlocking themes. One of his major points was the organic structure that resulted from the essay's subject matter. He traced the evolution of the essay by guiding the audience through the insights and emotions that occurred after his brother's death; since he had lost access to much of his childhood memories, he had to pay careful attention to any emotional triggers signaling a buried memory or association about his brother. Although most of us don't suffer brain damage, we confront the desire to overstructure our emotions, reactions, and memories, fitting them into a form that seems to us to make “sense.” Some of the most beautiful quotes shared by Skloot concerned his gratitude at having the process of writing nonfiction as a framework for reconstructing his sense of self: “You get to say in the essay what you never say to others, what you never say to yourself.” He also described writing as a “spiritual practice”: “You open yourself up and slow yourself down. Once you lose control and surrender to the material, you open the vents and other material can stream in. This requires a looser and more exploratory mode of working. It requires time and patience, a willingness to explore tangents, a willingness to be ruthless with the tangents.


Quotes on Writing

Vivian Gornick, The Situation and the Story: “I began to read the greats in essay writing–and it wasn't their confessing voices I was responding to, it was their truth-speaking personae. By which I mean that organic wholeness of being in a narrator that the reader experiences as reliable; the one we can trust will take us on a journey, make the piece arrive, bring us out into a clearing where the sense of things is larger than it was before.” (p.24) “These writers might not 'know' themselves–that is, have no more self-knowledge than the rest of us–but in each case–and this is crucial–they know who they are at the moment of writing.” (p. 30) “Above all, it is the narrator who must complicate in order that the subject be given life. In fiction, a cast of characters is put to work that will cover all the bases….In nonfiction, the writer has only the singular self to work with. So it is the other in oneself that the writer must seek and find to create movement, achieve a dynamic. Inevitably, the piece builds only when the narrator is involved not in confession but in this kind of self-investigation, the kind that means to provide motion, purpose, and dramatic tension. Here, it is self-implication that is required. To see one's own part in the situation–that is, one's own frightened or cowardly or self-deceived part–is to create the dynamic.” (p. 35-36)

From Daniel Mendelsohn's The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million “I told her that I, too, was interested in facts, of course, that we had started out on this long series of journeys because we wanted to find the facts. But I said that because of what we'd heard on our trips, I'd also become extremely interested in stories, in the way that the stories multiplied and gave birth to other stories, and that even if these stories weren't true, they were interesting because of what they revealed about the people who told them. What they revealed about the people who told them, I said, was also part of the facts, the historical record.” (p. 411) “I did and do believe that if you project yourself into the mass of things, if you look for things, if you search, you will, by the very act of searching, make something happen that would not otherwise have happened, you will find something, even something small, something that will certainly be more than if you hadn't gone looking in the first place, if you hadn't asked your grandfather anything at all. I had finally learned the lesson taught me, years after they'd died, by Minnie Spieler and Herman the Barber. There are no miracles, no magical coincidences. There is only looking, and finally seeing, what was always there.” (p. 486) The book is incredible. Read it.


Dagoberto Gilb on Writing Essays

On writing essays: “I assure you, every one of them has given me such pleasure and satisfaction, the same kind I had when I used to cut wood with my skilsaw and drive nails and build…. Each word is a rock I’ve placed personally into a wall–five go in and I pick through a pile and find another, shift them all around until it’s right. I’ve chipped and nicked at most so they look to me like good sentences, good paragraphs. If I don’t think of myself as the smartest, I do feel a strength in my working of the craft, so that every time I finish something, I’m maybe too proud of myself, can hardly believe that I did it, that I could. The words are beyond my own physical self or nature, because I was not born to be a writer, I’ve just done it anyway. Often this work is outright fun, almost as fun as a good construction job where we were all muscles sweating and laughing and building shit and getting paid at the same time–living and working–except writing work is alone, only an imaginary crew.” (Introduction, xiv)