Leave it to the BBC to store bits of Virginia Woolf’s psyche for us mere mortals to sift through on a whim. The broadcast of Woolf’s essay, “Craftsmanship,” was first heard on April 20, 1937. Five years later, it was published in a book called “The Death of the Moth, and other essays,” the year after she walked into the Ouse River with rocks in her pockets.
In “Craftsmanship,” Woolf insists that “words never make anything useful” and “tell nothing but the truth,” contradicting both meanings of “craft” in the dictionary. She says that words “hate being useful, that it is their nature not to express one simple statement but a thousand possibilities…”
Further into the essay, she says that “a useful statement is a statement that can mean only one thing. And it is the nature of words to mean many things.” Hence, words combined into statements cannot be useful. Writing is not useful.
Should I just end my life now?
Well! Now that I am a bit bloodied, Woolf turns her attention to the teaching of writing: “Think what it would mean if you could teach, if you could learn, the art of writing. Why, every book, every newspaper would tell the truth, would create beauty. But there is, it would appear, some obstacle in the way…For though at this moment at least a hundred professors are lecturing upon the literature of the past, at least a thousand critics are reviewing literature of the present, and hundreds upon hundreds of young men and women are passing examinations in literature with the utmost credit, still—do we write better, do we read better than we read and wrote four hundred years ago…”
And so she places the blame not on writers, but on words. The dagger seeks its victim elsewhere! I am relieved that my many failures are not my fault.
“Of course, you can catch them and sort them and place them in alphabetical order in dictionaries. But words do not live in dictionaries; they live in the mind. If you want proof of this, consider how often in moments of emotion when we most need words we find none…”
I have lived several decades of this proof.
“All we can say about them, as we peer at them over the edge of that deep, dark and only fitfully illuminated cavern in which they live–the mind–all we can say about them is that they seem to like people to think and to feel before they use them, but to think and to feel not about them, but about something different. They are highly sensitive, easily made self-conscious.”
How I continue to struggle with this, looking for a particular word or phrase. But that only sends the words I am looking for deeper into the morose and morbid shrubbery.
She is telling me to focus on the “thing” itself, to feel, and the words will order themselves on the page. Oh yes, what genius!
But if I start to think that Woolf sat in her room of one’s own, in a trance, placing word after word in correct order upon the page, I should think again. According to her husband, she revised and retyped even her shortest pieces extensively. Her genius kindled to flame through legion revisions.
Once I digest this, Woolf’s stream of consciousness runs off in another direction, saying: “Perhaps that is their [words] most striking peculiarity–their need of change. It is because the truth they try to catch is many-sided, and they convey it by being themselves many-sided, flashing this way, then that. Thus they mean one thing to one person, and another thing to another person…Perhaps then one reason why we have no great poet, novelist or critic writing today is that we refuse words their liberty.”
I would argue that she’s being a little hard on the writers of her generation, including herself.
She continues: “We pin them [words] down to one meaning, their useful meaning, the meaning which makes us catch the train, the meaning which makes us pass the examination. And when words are pinned down they fold their wings and die.”
I breathe and pause to let this image sit for a moment. How often have I felt this way?
The essay continues, giving additional insight into her writing process: she says it’s critical to include a pause while writing, a caesura, where we “become unconscious. Our unconscious is their [words] privacy; our darkness is their light…That pause was made, that veil of darkness was dropped, to tempt words to come together in one of those swift marriages which are perfect images and create everlasting beauty.”
Am I taking the time to pause, to create a shadowy zeitgeist of words?
For some writers, this pause may mean meditation, for others a walk or dreamtime. We must impede our forward progress for a moment or a month–to internalize the essence of what it is we’re trying to communicate. And must do so unconsciously.
I am thinking that Woolf is correct, writing cannot be taught through words, yet another disconnect or degree of separation.
Perhaps it can only be intuited, through physical practice, through time, the gloss** and erasure of words upon the page.
I highly recommend reading “Craftsmanship.” You can find and listen to a partial recording (Woolf’s voice from the BBC) of it at: http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/woolf/virginia/w91d/chapter24.html
Among other highlights, she also presents a humorous account of how “signs” are replacing words, using examples from the Michelin guide and others—forerunners of Amazon and GoodReads stars. She discusses how words have strange and diabolical power, how “royal” words “mate with commoners,” how they range and go “a-roving, a-roving fair maid.” This woman, so often debilitated by depression, had a wicked funny bone.
Leonard Woolf was correct in thinking these essays were “worth publishing.” Look for “The Death of the Moth and Other Essays” at your library or have your bookstore order it for you. And yes, if you must, buy it on Amazon.
**discover the varied meanings of “gloss” in your dictionary and apply them to the sentence