Virginia Woolf On Autobiography And Not Writing ‘Directly About The Soul’

In Inspiration and Obsession in Life and Literature, (New York Review of Books, 13 August, 2015), Joyce Carol Oates writes:

[Virginia] Woolf suggests the power of a different sort of inspiration, the sheerly autobiographical—the work created out of intimacy with one’s own life and experience….What is required, beyond memory, is a perspective on one’s own past that is both a child’s and an adult’s, constituting an entirely new perspective. So the writer of autobiographical fiction is a time traveler in his or her life and the writing is often, as Woolf noted, “fertile” and “fluent”:

I am now writing as fast & freely as I have written in the whole of my life; more so—20 times more so—than any novel yet. I think this is the proof that I was on the right path; & that what fruit hangs in my soul is to be reached there…. The truth is, one can’t write directly about the soul. Looked at, it vanishes: but look [elsewhere] & the soul slips in. [link added above]

I will freely confess to being obsessed by autobiography and memoir. Three planned book projects of mine, each in varying stages of early drafting and note-taking, are autobiographical, even as I can see more similar ventures in the offing; another book, Shapeshifter: The Evolution of a Cricket Fan, currently contracted to Temple University Press, is a memoir; yet another book Eye on Cricket, has many autobiographical passages; and of course, I often write quasi-autobiographical, memoirish posts on this blog all the time. In many ways, my reasons for finding myself most comfortable in this genre echo those of Woolf’s: I find my writing within its confines to be at its most ‘fertile’ and ‘fluent’–if at all, it ever approaches those marks; I write ‘fast’ and ‘freely’ when I write about recollections and lessons learned therein; I find that combining my past sensations and memories with present and accumulated judgments and experiences results in a fascinating, more-than-stereoscopic perspective that I often find to be genuinely illuminating and revealing. (Writing memoirs is tricky business, as all who write them know. No man is an island and all that, and so our memoirs implicate the lives of others as they must; those lives might not appreciate their inclusion in our imperfect, incomplete, slanted, agenda-driven, literary recounting of them. Still, it is a risk many are willing to take.)

Most importantly, writing here, or elsewhere, on autobiographical subjects creates a ‘couch’ and a ‘clinic’ of sorts; I am the patient and I am the therapist; as I write, the therapeutic recounting and analysis and story-retelling kicks off; the end of a writing session has at its best moments, brought with it moments of clarity and insight about myself to the most important of quarters: moi. More than anything else, this therapeutic function of autobiographical writing confirms yet another of Woolf’s claims: that “one can’t write directly about the soul. Looked at, it vanishes.” Sometimes, one must look at the blank page, and hope to find the soul take shape there instead.


Writing And Therapy

Writing can be therapeutic. Not just autobiography and memoir, the obvious venues of this particular kind of clinic; letters, novels, short stories, poems, screenplays, can all enable a ‘working through‘ because they call upon a kind of ‘remembering,’ a dynamic ‘free association,’ unprompted and unbidden, that trawls through the various levels and layers of our consciousness. Writing is a form of communion with oneself, so it is not surprising that self-discovery and its partner, self-construction, take place at the writing desk, on the writing pad, on the word processor screen, through the pen and the cursor. To find ourselves returning to the same themes again and again in our writing is to learn a great deal about ourselves; the avoidance of particular topics can also serve a similar function. (Unsurprisingly, writers are often finicky about where and when they choose to write; patients and therapists often are. Peter Gay‘s description of Freud’s clinic in In Freud, Jews and Other Germans: Master and Victims in Modernist Culture [Oxford University Press, New York, 1978] is instructive and revealing.)

Therapy is a kind of story-telling with two authors engaged in the co-construction of a narrative that works for both: the patient emerges with a ‘new’ tale trailing out behind, and slowly taking shape in front; the therapist’s tale of healing receives a new twist, even as it sets the healer on a new path. Writers take this dual task on themselves; as a ‘story’ emerges–whether ‘fiction’ or ‘nonfiction’–they engage in forms of ‘transference‘ and ‘countertransference‘ with themselves, letting a new self emerge.

Full disclosure: I write here, on this blog, because in addition to serving as a scratchpad for test driving thoughts that sometimes find their way into other writings–academic and nonacademic–of mine, I intend this activity to serve as a therapeutic exercise. Unsurprisingly, many of my posts are self-indulgent reminiscences, unapologetic exercises in nostalgia mongering, tales of times and people long gone. But they have often provided a great deal of understanding to me, enabling me to view the past through many different perspectives, often helping to dredge up dormant memories and making associations and forming conclusions that would have otherwise remained inaccessible to me–and my family, which now includes my daughter. Among the many writing projects that await completion by me, three are memoirs of one sort or the other; I look forward to working on them and completing them not just because I will have completed a writing task, but because I expected to be transformed by the experience.

Note: Writing and art as an ‘official,’ institutionally recognized form of therapeutic modality–for PTSD, for instance–has a fairly distinguished history. In my remarks above, I’d wanted to indicate that all those who write are engaging in–whether they know it or not–a similar activity. We all need–whether we know it or not–some kind of therapy. We just get it in different ways. That is why, among other reasons, that human creativity takes so many different forms.