Angela Kelsey

Tell the Story

book 15 of 24 books in 28 days: moments of being

Filed in Books, Writing :: February 26, 2010

Moments My methodology, if you can call it that, for writing these posts is to read a book, underlining as I go, and then reread the underlined sections, making little stars or asterisks in the margins, and then, as some theme or focus begins to take shape in my mind, go back through the book one more time with Post-it notes or flags and mark the pages with the stars that back up my theme. 

With Virginia Woolf's Moments of Being, my system broke down.  I read the collection of five essays ("Reminiscences," "A Sketch of the Past," "22 Hyde Park Gate," "Old Bloomsbury," and "Am I a Snob?"), marking them liberally, and then, because the five pieces touch on roughly the same topics, on the second time through, more sentences begged to be underlined, more lines made me say, oh, I see. 

So I'm only going to focus on the difficulties of memoir she writes about in "A Sketch of the Past."  She knows the difficulties because she pursues writing by practice, trying it this way, reading more of what other people do (her mother kept De Quincey's Opium Eater by her bed, and Woolf mentions reading Boswell), writing pieces over and over, from another angle, for another reader, writing, writing, writing.  The last three essays in this book were written for the Memoir Club, a group that must have been extraordinary.  They met to read, write, and discuss memoir, and one of the problem is that the memoirs "must turn that beam inwards and describe ourselves."

She writes of memoir in general, "There are several difficulties.  In the first place, the enormous number of things I can remember; in the second, the number of different ways in which memoirs can be written.  As a great memoir reader, I know many different ways."

She makes herself begin writing anyway (usually a good idea) but soon enough she interrupts herself: "Here I come to one of the memoir writer's difficulties–one of the reasons why, though I read so many, so many are failures.  They leave out the person to whom things happened. . . .  I do not know how far I differ from other people.  That is another memoir writer's difficulty.  Yet to describe oneself truly one must have some standard of comparison; was I clever, stupid, good looking, ugly, passionate, cold–?"

Part of the trouble, she realizes, is shame, first shame upon looking in a mirror–"I thus detect another element in the shame which I had in being caught looking at myself in the glass in the hall.  I must have been ashamed or afraid of my own body"–and then, the shame that comes from looking into the mirror of the memoir.  "Witness," she writes, "the incident of the looking-glass.  Though I have done my best to explain why I was ashamed of looking at my own face I have only been able to discover some possible reasons; there may be others; I do not suppose that I have got at the truth; yet this is a simple incident; and it happened to me personally; and I have no motive for lying about it.  In spite of all this, people write what they call 'lives' of other people; that is, they collect a number of events, and leave the person to whom it happened unknown."

But in spite of the risk of shame, she perseveres because writing will give her power over events and also because it gives her great pleasure.  ". . . I make [a shocking event] real by putting it into words.  It is only by putting it 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."

Reading these essays, I resolve to continue my apprenticeship, reading, reading, reading, and writing, writing, writing, long after the end of 28 days, all the while, looking in the mirror, banishing shame, creating pleasure.

Filed in Books, Writing