Meeting Virginia Woolf at the Strand
by Ilona Kimberly Nagy
When I officially became a writer and editor, formalizing the fact of my vocation on my business card, I kind of stopped writing. Of course, on the surface, my most cherished dream began to materialize all around me… I’d worked in the publishing world for over ten years, but now I was writing for a living.
I sculpted blurb copy, researched and composed feature articles, translated dense land-use policy and encyclopedic entries, ghostwrote business books, organized marketing and publicity plans, white papers and other specialty publications and countless other projects, all of which expanded my skill-base, which I took increasing pride in. But from the second I gave notice at my day job and pursued a freelance life, I hardly allowed myself to “write” so much as one innocent stanza of one measly poem, let alone freestyle prose.
Maybe because I knew that one line was enough to leave me staring all too intensely at a non-income-generating screen for days.
Dangerous! And I had a point to prove, success to demonstrate. I wanted to make a living “by my wits and my words” and as Virginia Woolf pointed out in A Room of One’s Own, “money dignifies what is frivolous if unpaid for.”
But on a deliciously silent night, unpaid frivolity called me back, and I began to break my creative fast. In a hot blur, phrases, stories and words swooshed up and down my spine and billowed smoke-like into the six tiny layers of my cerebral cortex. I was…Back.
But dang it, if the creative force isn’t/wasn’t/ in my case, will always be: messy.
Beyond the subterranean portal of my computer and my journal, books everywhere and scattered notes, words filtered into my dreams, forced me to pull over while I was driving, distracted me while I was cooking, walking, talking, working out at the gym.
I began to write after my daughter went to bed to give myself the time to spread out; but after midnight, after my time was “up”, my practical and annoyingly earnest self (ever at odds with my inner sexy heathen) would lash out a sensible litany of warnings that went something like the following:
One o’clock: You do remember that your toddler will need your wakeful attention at around 6 am? (Yes, yes, just a couple more minutes and I’ll go to bed.)
Two o’clock: How many deadlines do you need to nail tomorrow? (Sheesh, just let me finish this one sentence.)
Three o’clock: Ummmm. Don’t you have a meeting with a prospective client on Thursday (…Just this one line…it’s almost there.)
Five o’clock, eyes drooping closed:..Research has shown that sleep and productivity… (Please. Shut. Up.)
I mean, how could I sleep?
A couple days earlier an editor who I greatly admired sent me an email that read: “Love this! Can you get me a final draft by Monday?”
So there I was, reunited with my not so practical but nevertheless fully alive “self.” Thoughts buzzing and bumping into one another like crossed wires in an old-fashioned telegraph board. If I didn’t connect long lost families of thoughts and their children, they would be lost to one another (and me!) forever.
I was not writing academic blurb copy. Not marketing boilerplate or a corporate press release or a non-profit white paper, all of which have fully engaged and paid the bills, but not in the least indelibly marked what might be termed my literary “voice”.
From the door of my office, I might appear to be crouched over my computer, but my dear readers, the water is rising fast. With each tap of the keyboard, another gush around my feet, with each synaptic connection, a warm flush behind my eyes, an urgency to dive one layer deeper into the shape-shifting beneath, until I feel the physical room blur into the swim. To leave these waters, once they claim me, is to cease to breathe.
It’s true that the ancient Vedic river goddess, Saraswati (named after the Sarasvati River in Northwestern India) offers no material abundance should you approach her alter with candles and flowers. But the sacred protector of libraries, research and artists, creator of the Sanskrit language, which holds every utterable human sound, provides something of (arguably) far greater importance. Her very name, an endless gateway, means “in the flow.”
But I’m experienced enough to know that her hard-won peripatetic fever, like all of its predecessors and followers, is not built to last. In fact, before and after the ecstasy of the swollen river, there is a bright, terrifying, jungle to navigate.
Impossible rules must be followed in the stark light of day, brain-wracking connections forged, without the benefit or buzz of the fever. No concept, analogy or metaphor will earn its keep if it lacks the breath to fly out of the flea-like territory of my life, a tiny blip on the larger temporal horizon.
Which means, I must hold down the DELETE key at various intervals and toggle diligently toward reference materials surrounding me at every angle with their pages crammed open.
And in the case of my furnace-raising, first-ever column with an editor who totally gets and pushes me (yes!); what suddenly feels like a complete freakin’ rewrite. Can I survive the artist’s deadly buzz kills? Delete. Outtake. Delete.
I swear I will.
The word jungle, by the way, can be traced back to the Sanskrit word, jangala, that at best means uncultivated land, and at worst, wasteland. A concept that rings painfully true for my tongue-leafed, snake-infested rainforest with nary a predictable crop for the commodities floor.
Which begs the question I’m not alone in asking, “Is my story (song, photo, mural, play, dance, film, sculpture, poem, insert genre here) important?”
In short, so damn what?
How can a force so invisible, so lacking in protein and caloric substance, so inconsequential to doctor’s appointments, weekly meal planning, sustainable agriculture, the gross national product, paying the babysitter, the Dow Jones index or even reducing our carbon footprint, fill our cells with such wild nourishment? Soothe us with emotional truth. Regale and enchant us. Make us think. Remind us we have souls (and that others do too). Let us tap our feet and roll our hips. Laugh. Help us cry when we really need to. Sing out loud. &Etc.
…And for most of it, it still doesn’t pay the bills.
So, in my hunger to untangle the roots of tradition and socioeconomic belief, in my struggle to legitimize many a creative furnace in both women and men, I located one reflection of the divine feminine force of creativity in the works of the genre-defining novelist, brilliant literary critic and activist, who lived from 1882-1941, Virginia Woolf.
Meeting Virginia Woolf
“He who robs us of our dreams, robs us of life.” —Virginia Woolf
I met Virginia Woolf on a near 100-degree day in New York City in June of 2012.
The setting: A workshop cram-packed with students, lawyers, radio hosts, cancer researchers, social workers and shamans at New York’s Open Center, the Big Apple’s leading hotspot for holistic learning and world culture. I was there to interview Robert Moss, famous pioneer in the field of Active Dreaming.
My initial assignment: Intrigued with active dreaming for twenty years, I was interested in Moss and the connections between the dreaming subconscious mind and my favorite subject—the unseen force of creativity.
My “surprise” assignment: I happened to be reading a biography of Virginia Woolf by Lyndall Gordon, so when Moss directed us to pay a mental visit to the Strand Bookstore and meet our “dream author,” my imagination loped off into the horizon without one glance back.
I know cell phones continued to buzz and bleep underneath skyrises and billboards. I’m sure millions of texts engrossed many a downturned nose in the blistering heat, but I was long gone, floating new age style through the city with my eyes gently closed.
As though a starting gun went off, decades began to rush backwards, concrete buildings flipped as though a deck of cards, hard pink-neon signs and towering billboards softened to brown, yellow and black—from baseball to fedora hats in the streets and store windows.
When I finally slid into the foray of the iconic bookstore on “Book Row,” (The Strand is now relocated on Broadway and Twelfth Street) I soon found myself dwarfed by stacks of books twice the size of my five-foot frame and the same dusty redolence that provokes many a satisfying sneeze.
Through dimmed lights and musty air, I moved toward the center of the first floor, to a set of narrow steps that led to the basement. A chandelier flickered out, signaling the end of the store’s hours. The year is/was 1932. As usual, I felt like I was late.
At the prospect of meeting such an esteemed literary heroine as Virginia Woolf, I felt dizzy. About her essays and novels, countless thoughts about creativity (dangerous, liberating, essential, undervalued, eviscerating and/or exhausting) had been constructed and deconstructed, shelved and unshelved, depending on the day/ week/ year of my life.
Where to begin? What would I ask of her, and, in turn, exactly what would I be asked? Worse than showing up naked (that old dream chestnut), I had forgotten my notes. Clack, clack, clack, I heard my own footsteps, stair by crickety stair. Anticipation is itself an unpredictable emotion, and I was surprised to feel my stomach clench in cold dread, the likes of which I hadn’t experienced since my comprehensive oral exams in graduate school.
At the bottom of the stairs, slim corridors loomed ahead of me, the walls entirely obscured by bookshelves. I walked through a cloud of cigarette smoke combined with the smell of old wet newspapers as the shadow of her shape in the corner of the room became clearer.
There she was, all stooped spine, head tucked, the suggestion of a frown, tussled bun at the nape of her neck bent over a sparse table. She didn’t bother to look up.
Come, come, she motioned towards me with long arms and outstretched fingers. In an impatient but not unkind voice, she commanded, “I’ve been waiting. You have twenty minutes.”
I paused, wondering about her periodic bouts of despair. How does one talk to the grief-stricken gently, helpfully, wisely…(at all)?
For the cellular force of melancholy, the knowledge of another’s loss(es), exudes a weighted air of command, which can leave the most talkative of us utterly speechless.
And let us remember that Woolf not only suffered from a disorder we now classify as bipolar but also lived during two World Wars, to which she lost her friends and relatives. In fact her publishing headquarters, Hogarth Press (founded with husband Leonard Woolf; imprint of Sigmund Freud and Gertrude Stein, Katherine Mansfield and Robert Graves as well as Virginia Woolf herself) was destroyed by the “Blitz” in World War II.
But before the grief of war amplified Woolf’s cycles of despair and mentally disabling voices, we must also acknowledge a catalog of early loss: Mother, Julia Stephen, died when she was only thirteen, followed two years later by a much-looked-up-to step sister, Stella Duckworth, pregnant at the time of her death. And seven years after Stella’s death, Woolf’s adored but complicated father, “the gentleman in the library” who couldn’t bring himself to send his child prodigy (a girl, after all) to university but did arrange for his daughter’s exhaustive literary education at home, died of stomach cancer in 1904.
During the summer of 1905, Woolf suffered her second utterly consuming mental breakdown or, as biographer Clive Bell puts it, “a nightmare period…of frantic intensity.” But that same year, the 23-year-old Wolf began contributing to the London Times Literary Supplement and teaching.
For if there were numerous tragic events and profound struggles with voices and visions to which the majority can’t relate, there were soon also daily walks, treasured friends, liberating conversations and an unflinching ability to take life by the throat and swallow it whole in her writing.
Back in the bookstore, Woolf lifts an amused gaze to my nervous eyes, and I melt. “I really just love your books. How did you?” I ask, all gooey-faced. “Write so…I mean, craft layers upon layers of thoughts into a tangle of deep and yet honest messy complexity, I mean…”
For, as much as I love the twist of Woolf’s long, somewhat impudent sentences, the clarity of emotion, detail and insight, and sculpted satire, what I love most, is her ability to encapsulate the raw ache of living on multiple plains of consciousness—sensual, intellectual, philosophical and, in Orlando, in which the same character changes sex (“Whose is the greater ecstasy? The man’s or the woman’s?)—and spans the course of four centuries—temporal.
Would a thinker of such literary magnitude allow me one inane question of the “How’d you do it?” variety?
To my relief, Woolf nodded. “Great writing awakens universal sympathies…I like being Virginia but only when I’m scattered and various and gregarious.”
The Girl and the Inkpot:
“A novelist’s chief desire is to be as unconscious as possible.” —Virginia Woolf
“So, your writing process begins where?” I ask, suddenly and with more confidence (I mean, how badly could I really mess up a dream interview?)
“Well, I once told Vita Sackville West that a sign, an emotion creates this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it.”
“So, the instinct to create,” I interject, ”what does it feel like for you?”
She moved her gaze toward the ceiling of the bookstore. “Well, imagine me writing a novel in a state of trance. I want you to figure… a girl sitting with a pen in her hand, which for minutes, and, indeed, for hours, she never dips into the inkpot.”
I see the girl fully absorbed, entranced, yes, but can’t help but wonder if the girl ever worries about her daily word count? Would she have, if possible, checked her email for a publication announcement or article lead? How might one protect the trance from such guilty distractions? Aloud, I simply say, “Please go on…”
Woolf continued. “The image that comes to my mind when I think of this girl is the image of a fisherman lying sunk in dreams on the verge of a deep lake with a rod held out over the water.”
The lake image erases all of my distractions. I picture the girl lying upon a grassy bank in shorts and sandals, rod in hand, a few ants crawling up her shins, arms reaching toward the soft sunlight, waiting for the tug that might feed her slow varied hunger. I nod again, my gaze fixed on Woolf’s gray eyes.
“She was letting her imagination sweep unchecked round every rock and cranny of the world that lies submerged in the depths of our unconscious being. Now, came the experience, the experience I believe to be far commoner with women writers than with men.”
“More common with women…?”
“Yes, the line raced through the girl’s fingers. Her imagination had rushed away. It had sought the pools, the depths, the dark places where the largest fist slumber. And then there was a smash. There was an explosion. There was foam and confusion. The imagination had dashed itself against something hard. She was roused from her dream…the truth about her passions had roused her from her artist’s state of unconsciousness.”
No, I thought, grieving the loss of the wet grassy banks, the girl’s radiant line tangled upon a glossy lake in illegible scraps. An exquisitely tugged fishing pole tossed aside and abandoned.
But just as Woolf described the girl’s broken trance, the floor collapsed before our eyes. Books, papers and furniture bobbed into foam and water. No longer a serene lake, but a rough ocean. I stared at the choppy water as letters and words of every shape, size and syllable formed in crystal drops before me, moving so quickly I could not determine their meaning.
Have you ever dreamed of letters and words as though they were oil or perhaps fish? Watched them float apart like the remains of a fractured ship or plane? These images fill my recurring dreams. Dreams which elicit one of two emotions: euphoria and/or panic.
But no wild happiness could emerge after the neglect of the girl’s thought-rich fishing expedition. And panic seemed such a disappointing and unfitting choice after I had landed this interview so unconventionally. I wasn’t about to give up.
Why not simply ask for instructions? Whose dream was this, anyway?
I turned to Woolf’s eyes. “You mentioned an explosion? Confusion?” I heard myself inquire in the tone of a hotel guest requesting an extra room key.
Help came, as it sometimes does, with baffling obfuscation. Because when I looked down, planning to elaborate on my question, four words lined up as though I had landed on a Ouija/Scrabble board:
Incorrigible. Luscious. Free. Real.
Instantly, we were both back into our chairs and now, on camera. The water disappeared and books lined back up on their shelves. The interview was back on and I wasted no time.
Me: Mrs. Woolf, the creative trance…was completely lost. What did the girl bang up against?
Woolf: She had thought of something, something about the body, about the passions which it was unfitting for her as a woman to say. Men, her reason told her, would be shocked.
Me: Her male contemporaries would be shocked?
Woolf: Yes, the consciousness of what men will say of a woman who speaks the truth about her passions had roused her from her artist’s state of unconsciousness. She could write no more.”
Me: It might also be argued that all writers’ and artists (regardless of sex) struggle with freedom of expression at the hands of their potential readers and critics.
So, I think it’s important to point out that female writers, at the time, faced some formidable barriers and what some scholars call “metaphorical paralysis” in their quest to be taken seriously and write with the same frankness as their male counterparts.
For example, in 1931, acclaimed author William Gerhardi wrote that he would never commit “the serious error of looking on women writers as serious fellow artists….” Rather, Gerhardi looked toward women as “spiritual helpers” there to “soothe and cool our brow while we [male writers] bleed…”
Woolf: It is probable…that both in life and in art the values of a woman are not the values of a man. Thus, when a woman comes to write a novel, she will find that she is perpetually wishing to alter the established values—to make serious what appears insignificant to a man, and trivial what is to him important. And for that, of course, she will be criticized; for the critic of the opposite sex will be genuinely puzzled and surprised by an attempt to alter the current scale of values, and will not see in it merely a different view, but a view that is weak, or trivial, or sentimental, because it differs from his own.
Me: During the year of the aforementioned Gerhardi quote, you warned women against an influence you called, “The Angel in the House” after the famous Coventry Patmore poem.
When did you first meet your Angel and how would you describe her?
Woolf: You who come of a younger and happier generation may not have heard of her. Her purity was supposed to be her chief beauty. She sacrificed herself daily…It was she who used to come between me and my paper when I was writing reviews. It was she who bothered me and wasted my time…
Me: You’ve described “the angel” as “immensely charming,” “utterly unselfish;” and one “who excelled in the difficult arts of family life.” How could such a generous spirit prove a menace to the creative arts?
Clearly, from Woolf’s look, the answer was simple.
Woolf: She never had a mind or a wish of her own but preferred to sympathize with the minds and wishes of others.
Me: And you thwarted her considerable influence…. how?
Woolf (laughs): The credit rightly belongs to some excellent ancestors of mine who left me a certain sum of money… so it was not necessary for me to depend solely on charm for my living.
Me: In the end, you thrust your inkpot at the “Angel.” Please tell our readers why.
Woolf: “You cannot review even a novel without having a mind of your own, without expressing what you think to be the truth about human relations…. Had I not killed her, she would have killed me. She would have plucked the heart out of my writing.”
Luscious Talk/ Wedges of Solitude
“Without someone warm and breathing on the other side of the page, letters are worthless.” —Virginia Woolf
Me: “I wonder, then, Mrs. Woolf, not even a century later, how do we preserve creative space (not of course to be a writer of your stature) but to at least feel ourselves raw and vital in a society that moves so fast? (For who, man or woman, has the time and space to be incorrigible and luscious in the twenty-first century, let alone free and real, right?)
Woolf: Here she gave me only two, slowly enunciated words, as though I were a child of three: Speak…and…Listen.
Woolf added: Talk was the medicine she trusted to, talk about everything, talk that was free, unguarded.
On many occasions, particularly in the 1920s [Virgnia] Woolf relished talking until two or three in the morning in what she called “shabby crony talk…fortified by whiskey, buns and cocoa…” and “without the rarefied atmosphere of self-conscious brilliance…”
For all the fame and privileged backgrounds of London’s Bloomsbury Group, including such prominent members as E.M. Forster, Lytton Stratchey and Virginia’s sister Vanessa, a painter, the literary clan bragged one code above all others: “to speak the truth” a code that included emotional truth and invited the full commentary of its female participants. Though, Virginia sometimes criticized members of the Bloomsbury Group, during these all-nighters, she clearly appreciated the “relief of honesty” and the literary stimulant of really talking.
Woolf: Never have I listened so intently to each step and half-step in an argument. She shrugged her shoulders toward me, of course, hearing my thoughts.
Me: All filters off. “Yes, I see your point, creative exchange is key, but it seems solitude is equally important. I mean, how should one best move between the creative and ‘real’ practical worlds? I find it so awkward, hard,” I admitted as though I were on Oprah.
She began rifling through her papers and reached for a cigarette. I could have sworn she rolled her eyes.
Finally, she spoke faintly, as if to herself:
Woolf: “To be silent; to be alone. All the being and the doing, expansive, glittering, vocal, evaporated; and one shrunk, with a sense of solemnity, to being oneself, a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others… and this self having shed its attachments was free for the strangest adventures.”
Me: After a long pause, during which I surveyed the inch-thick dust in the basement, I whispered my final question: “Mrs. Woolf, is the pursuit of art still important?” (I held my breath, waiting…)
I expected something pithy like: ““The very stone one kicks with ones boots will outlast Shakespeare,” but silence filled the musty bookstore.
In Praise of Literary Excavation and Common Ground
“For it would seem—her case proved it—that we write, not with the fingers, but with the whole person. The nerve which controls the pen winds itself about every fibre of our being, threads the heart, pierces the liver.” —Virginia Woolf
From the vantage point of history, it’s a terrible but predictable moment when our heroes and heroines disappoint us. And yet, it’s true that we must let both fully disappoint. Gaze into the full exposure left by the improved, if hardly perfected, moral standards of time, lest we examine lives and works without what Woolf herself called “integrity,” “the most essential quality” of “a work of art.”
For all of her ferocious intellect and deep-seeking prose, for all of her recognition of a feminine lineage of creators and incisive validations of creativity akin to the unseen value of meal planners and potato scrubbers in the kitchen not to mention her outrage over the shockingly low-paid contributions of soldiers on the front. For all of her crystalline writing, which arguably surpassed even her aim to “give the feel of running water,” Woolf, who suffered numerous breakdowns but also vacationed with her husband in the French Riviera, succumbs to profound human imperfection. There are no shortage of mean outbursts, snobbiness and jealous petty comments and far worse.
Unforgivably, with all her talk of justice, Woolf, like many of her contemporaries, wrote deeply offensive and racist comments, insulting “those of the lower classes,” Jewish peoples, Germans, those of Asian and African descent, and those she described in her journals as “drab mediocre women” among others. Liberator? That her husband, Leonard Woolf was Jewish did not prevent her from anti-Semitic remarks.
Take the 20-year–old starry-eyed Ph.D. Ruth Gruber, the youngest Ph.D. student of her era, who wrote “The Will To Create as a Woman” about Virginia Woolf in 1932. The young journalist requested and, to her delight, was granted a brief interview with her idol in London.
Decades later, when researching Woolf’s letters, she learned from Nigel Nicolson (Vita Sackville West’s son) that though Woolf was flattered by her dissertation, she had also written derogatory comments about the author, calling Gruber an “importunate and unfortunate Gerwoman” and “German Jewess” (Gruber was born in Brooklyn) and in another letter, referring to her as a “pure have yer”—a Cockney term that Gruber learned from The Partridge Dictionary of Slang, might be loosely translated into pure (“cow dung”) and have (“deception or swindle.”) as well as a chore that “had” to be done.
Gruber described the “thin flame of anger rising in [her] throat” as she read the letters. In an updated introduction to her dissertation, now a published book, Virginia Woolf: The Will to Create as a Woman she wrote, “Theirs was a British society rife with racism—racism against minorities, racism against people of color, and pointedly against Jews.”
Virginia Woolf’s great-grandfather, Sir James Stephen (1758-1832) the well-known abolitionist, once said, “to be conscious of the force of prejudice in ourselves…to know how to change places internally with our antagonists…and still be unshaken, still to adhere with fidelity to the standard we have chosen—this is a triumph.”
Seventy years after publishing her famous dissertation on Virginia Woolf, Gruber wrote in reflection, “I realized that [Woolf] had lived her entire life with a will to create as a woman. That was the most important lesson she had taught me.”
When I think of Woolf, when I savor the aesthetic thrill of her writing, despite its contradictions, I remember that my “will to create” opens a vital window of free will that, once cracked, invites more and more space.
Maybe I’ll hit the gold mine for my creative work one day. Maybe not. Either way, my will to create as a woman is non-negotiable. When the urge rises, if I can manage to organize dinner and pay the bills, a few angels might fall and by the time I make it to my keyboard, yes, I feel like a leopard starved for blood. Nothing can ever replace that flush of total expressive freedom combined with the longing for deeper nuance and meaning, step by half-step…into the clarity of voice.
Perhaps the deepest wellspring of creativity is a place where we can’t help but tap into our whole selves, a labyrinthine domain where for many centuries the voices of women in so many nations (along with a shameful list of “othered” peoples) were excluded and tragically lost, far down the fishing hole, teeming with abundant life and shocking possibility, the most dangerous realm of all.
“Literature is no one’s private ground: literature is common ground. It is not cut up into nations; there are no wars there. Let us trespass freely and fearlessly and find our own way for ourselves.” —Virginia Woolf