Virginia Woolf on Writing and the Fullness of Life

Between April 1939 and November 1940, a few months before her death, Virginia Woolf wrote the autobiographical essay A Sketch of the Past, following, as she says at the beginning, her sister's advice: "Nessa said that if I did not start writing my memoirs I should soon be too old. (...) Perhaps I will spend two or three mornings making a sketch." The outcome of those "two or three mornings" is this book in which we find Virginia Woolf's most intimate and warm tone of voice, and some of the most indelible definitions of what it is to be a writer.

She recalls fragments of memories and small scenes of happiness at the family summer house in Saint Ives. In addition to these and other experiences from her childhood, Woolf reflects on how her desire to write unfolded over time and what makes her a writer:
It is only by putting [an experience] 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.

Recalling her childhood and her making as a writer, Woolf explains how memories are built in her mind, sometimes from insignificant details.
But of course as an account of my life they are misleading, because the things one does not remember are as important; perhaps they are more important. If I could remember one whole day I should be able to describe superficially at least, what life was like as a child. Unfortunately, one only remembers what is exceptional. And there seems to be no reason why one thing is exceptional and another not. Why have I forgotten so many things that must have been, one would have thought, more memorable than what I do remember?

All of this takes us to what she calls "the fullness of life", which is closely related to the capacity of describing the world and, by doing so, of coming to a kind of revelation which "is a token of some real thing behind appearances." The writer makes things real by putting them into words. But, as she adds,
to feel the present sliding over the depths of the past, peace is necessary. The present must be smooth, habitual. For this reason - that it destroys the fullness of life - any break - like that of house moving - causes me extreme distress; it breaks; it shallows; it turns the depth into hard thin splinters.

Thus, past and present meet in Woolf's conception of writing and, through it, of fullness:
The past only comes back when the present runs so smoothly that it is like the sliding surface of a deep river. Then one sees through the surface to the depths. In those moments I find one of my greatest satisfactions, not that I am thinking of the past; but that it is then that I am living most fully in the present.

I wholeheartedly recommend the reading of A Sketch of the Past, both to admirers of Virginia Woolf's novels and to those who want to introduce themselves in her work. You can find it included in Moments of Being. A Collection of Autobiographical Writing.

You can read my related articles: Best Tips and Tools for Writing a Novel, and Margaret Atwood's Letter to Aspiring Writers.

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