We had a rare opportunity recently to talk with Virginia Woolf, and so I had my staff look into her personal history. My God! It’s a wonder the woman could write at all. We were advised by her latest agent to go easy on that in conversation, but she proved as open as anyone we’ve talked to in this series. We knocked on the door of her now famous London home thinking this would be a conversation on writing technique. It was anything but. She served tea and chocolate brownies that left me a bit woozy. But that put both of us in perfect fettle for the ensuing conversation.
GF – Ms. Woolf, I’d like to begin by asking you about your personal life, if I may…
VW – You may, dear boy, but only in the context of my work. I hardly want to be associated with those – what are they called? Gossip rags?
GF – Yes, we don’t want that for a writer of your stature.
VW – I have posed nude, did you know that?
GF – No. Actually, I’d like to talk to you about your use of the stream of consciousness style of writing –
VW – (Laughing) But don’t you see? How am I to swab the dross from my personal history, as you call it? I can’t preordain what I have to say in my literary work. I have to let it flow – most passionately, I might add – from that deep trough of painful adventure within. (She motioned for me to light her cigarette, and I complied.)
GF – You mean the sexual violations, the domination by men –
VW – Attempted domination, yes.
GF – And you call such experiences painful adventure?
VW – Certainly, young man. Pain must be the source of creativity, and devising a manner of writing that will let it flow onto the page is essential. That’s the thing James calls stream of consciousness.
GF – James Joyce? But some called it self indulgence, even in your day.
VW – You mean Hemingway, don’t you? I loved that boy dearly, but he was hardly one to speak of self indulgence.
GF – Today we consider him a groundbreaking writer.
VW – He considered himself a groundbreaking modernist, but he was a charlatan. He had no vision, really. Just those gruesome war stories and his bragging about shooting helpless animals.
GF – (I bit my lip, trying not to smile at the critique of indulgence that followed. I asked for more tea. The brownies were making me thirsty. Returning with a fresh, pungent plate of brownies to accompany the tea, she looked at me oddly.)
VW – What is that in your lap? Some new typewriter?
GF – A laptop computer, Ms. Woolf. It’s a handy writer’s tool.
She had me bring the device to her dining table, lit a lamp, and had me explain its workings. We talked on and on about many things, but even now I can make little sense of my notes. At one point she tilted my screen to a favorable position for her viewing and called what I’d written stream of consciousness. I knew she was teasing, and we had many fine laughs about it.
Visit our website here, where you’ll find more on books and media. There’s also a Facebook fan page if you can find it. On both you’ll discover more on ideas and events that matter to us — and possibly to you.