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.


Flannery O’Connor On Free Will And Integrity

In the ‘Author’s Note to the Second Edition’ in Wise Blood, Flannery O’Connor writes:

Does one’s integrity ever lie in what he is not able to do? I think that usually it does, for free will does not mean one will, but many wills conflicting in one man.

Unsurprisingly, here we find a provocative intervention in a philosophical debate by a novelist. We define integrity as “the state of being whole or undivided” or as “the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles; moral uprightness.” The latter definition related integrity to honesty and morality, and thus presumably to actions taken and choices made; we acted ‘appropriately,’ we chose ‘correctly.’ It is our integrity that makes us capable of doing so. (There is a relationship visible here between the two definitions of integrity in that the person with integrity can be seen as unitary in moral resolve, and not incoherently torn between conflicting moral impulses, unable to choose and act.) So how could integrity consist in not being able to do something? If you are unable to do something, then where is the choice, so crucial to moral action?

O’Connor suggests that this conundrum may be resolved in Nietzschean fashion: we imagine that we have one will, one moral drive of sorts, but this is a mistake. We have many drives, each rudderless, each competing with the other in some shape or fashion; the effect of a drive may be tempered, attenuated, or amplified by others. The net resultant effect, the vector sum of a kind, is the ‘personality,’ or the ‘character’ of the moral agent. We are this resultant sum. Those who think they have ‘free will’ say so not because they experience a unitary drive that directs their choices, but rather, because they experience themselves as a location for an ongoing conflict, an irreducible dissonance, on the occasions of decision-making. This psychic disturbance, this evidence of distant battles between our various drives, waged in various subterranean locations of our subconscious and unconscious is what we call ‘free will’: acting in the presence of conflict, or perceived choices.

Now we can understand what O’Connor means when she says that perhaps our integrity may lie in what we are not able to do. We–some of us perhaps, whose drives add up in particular, distinctive, idiosyncratic ways–do not strike the helpless, the old, the infirm, we do not refuse water to the thirsty, not because we want to do so, but because we cannot; the drive that would make us do so has been combated by another one–or by a combination of others, and it has been bested. The social hosannas heaped on us for our action–or inaction–may suggest to us the pleasing ‘fiction’ that we have ‘chosen correctly’ and that we have ‘acted rightly’; it perpetuates the notion of a unitary free will, which reaches into the various choices available to the agent and picks out one. And leads to further puzzles like those of self-destructive behavior.

O’Connor is not the first to suggest our selves are a dynamic multiplicity, of course, but the indication of morality as a kind of ‘inability’ is certainly noteworthy.

Men Writing As Women, And Vice-Versa

A few days ago, I excerpted a passage from James Baldwin‘s If Beale Street Could Talk (Bantam, New York, 1974)  in which the central character, a young woman named Tish, describes her–and her boyfriend, Fonny’s–perceptions of Bell, the policeman who has sent Fonny to jail.


But I was beginning to learn something about the blankness of [Bell’s] eyes. What I was learning was beginning to frighten me to death.


When their paths crossed, and I was there, Fonny looked straight at Bell, Bell looked straight ahead. I’m going to fuck you, boy, Bell’s eyes said.

My annotation concluded:

Only Baldwin, I think, could have captured–in quite this way–the aura the black man feels radiating out at him from a policeman: the resentment, the sense of being marked as a target, the implicit and explicit violence, the desire to destroy whatever it is that makes him into a man who can hold his head high. The policed see and experience the police very differently; they know they are looked at through a different lens.

Except that in the passage I noted, Fonny’s perceptions–that of a black man–of Bell are actually those of Tish–a black woman–for she is the narrator of the story. Baldwin, a male writer, has written a novel in first-person where the gender of the narrator is not his. This, as might be imagined, is not a task that novelists often attempt. Our own interiority is hard enough to ‘capture’; the description of another kind of subjectivity is particularly intractable task. Third-person descriptions of another gender are a little easier than first-person perspectives, even if only marginally. (As Meg Toth noted in the discussion I make note of below, “Inhabiting a different perspective is not the same as writing well about it in the third person….So many authors write sensitively and insightfully about main characters of the opposite sex, but using first person to do so is rare.” Baldwin even provides us an explicit description of Fonny and Tish’s love-making; it is a remarkable scene, powerful and sensitive.)

What makes Baldwin’s novel particularly interesting is that our pre-encounter-with-the-text expectation is that we will read Baldwin as one of the most vivid male articulators of a distinctive ‘literary black rage.’ (Richard Wright would be yet another.) But instead, Baldwin turns his attention elsewhere. In the case of my reading of If Beale Street Could Talk, considerable anonymity preceded it: I had never heard of it, a sad commentary on my knowledge of Baldwin’s work; I found it a battered paperback copy on a stoop in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and intrigued, brought it back home with me; when I opened it to read, I had not even read the jacket description; this made the little shock I experienced on finding out that Tish was the narrator especially distinctive and pleasurable. There is something to be said for skipping reviews.

Note: After reading Beale Street, I made the following query on Facebook:

Favorite novel written in first-person where the author’s gender is not the same as the central character’s?

The response to this quest was gratifying; I will post the list that emerged–including novels that are actually written in third-person–anon. It is very rich; I’m looking forward to the reading that lies in store.

Hermione Lee On Wasting Nothing

The Art of Biography series of interviews at The Paris Review includes the following exchange between Hermione Lee and Louisa Thomas in No. 4:


This is something you consistently look at—the ways in which a period that is commonly considered a dead period in a writer’s life feeds into their work. I’m thinking especially of Cather and her journalism, and Wharton and the marriage years before she writes.


There’s a wonderful quotation from Proust, which that great Anglo-Irish novelist Elizabeth Bowen uses. She puts it in her preface to The Last September. “It is those periods of existence which are lived through carelessly, unwillingly, or in boredom, that most often fructify into art.” Isn’t it excellent that that can be the case. My friend Victoria Glendinning has a motto she uses, which I sometimes steal—“Nothing is wasted.” It’s a very reassuring and consoling idea, even if it isn’t always true. Think of those terrible phases in your life when you’re just grinding along, or you’re missing your way, or everything seems arid and disappointing. It helps if you can say to yourself, But something will come out of this. Penelope Fitzgerald wrote a note to herself that I take to heart—“Experiences aren’t given to us to be ‘got over,’ otherwise they would hardly be experiences.” [links added.]

This is very encouraging, I must admit, for someone quite used to ‘grinding along’ and ‘missing [my] way’ all the while thinking that ‘everything seems arid and disappointing.’ Perhaps that ‘experience’ itself will form the basis of what I write in the future as indeed, my terrible distraction and attention-deficit, which keeps me from writing and reading as well or as often as I would like to, has served as subject for several posts on that topic.

There is a more fundamental point at play in Lee’s remarks. As the friends and families of writers ruefully note, everything serves as raw material for writing. If the dramatic, the astonishing, the spectacular, and the curious can be so pressed into service, then why not the boring, the mundane, the tedious, the weekday? They too make us and our lives into what they are.

As for material being ‘wasted,’ every book project of mine generates, besides a manuscript file, a ‘bit bucket‘ file, a space where I keep all that I excised from the book: sterile notes, irrelevant asides and digressions, redundancies, orphans of truncated chains of thought. This collection can grow alarmingly large; my current ‘bit bucket,’ for a book whose notes–I will not dignify that misshapen mass with the appellation ‘draft’–run to about eighty thousand words, is almost seven thousand words and twenty-three pages long.  These buckets have, over the years, not been pressed into service; the material collected in them has not found its way into other writings of mine. But neither have I deleted them. I have not given up on them. Here, I’m a hoarder; driven by the same spirit that animates Lee remarks, I persist in hoping that they will ‘fructify’, if not into ‘art’ then at least into the passably readable.