Hi. I'm Jenna McGuiggan.
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Monday
Jan252016

Words & Moments of Being with Virginia Woolf

Words, English words, are full of echoes, of memories, of associations — naturally. They have been out and about, on people’s lips, in their houses, in the streets, in the fields, for so many centuries. And that is one of the chief difficulties in writing them today — that they are so stored with meanings, with memories, that they have contracted so many famous marriages. The splendid word "incarnadine," for example — who can use it without remembering also “multitudinous seas”? (Virginia Woolf, "Craftsmanship")

In this, the only known recording of Virginia Woolf's voice, Woolf reads from her essay "Craftsmanship," which she delivered on a BBC radio show called "Words Fail Me" in April 1937. (You can read the transcript here and learn more about this recording on the Virginia Woolf Society website.) 


Virginia Woolf was born this day in 1882. I first encountered Woolf in college when I read To the Lighthouse, which has lodged itself inside of me as very few books have. I always say that it's a novel one must read either very quickly or very slowly in order to make sense of it. Woolf moves so deeply and yet so quickly between the exterior, physical world and the interior worlds of her characters, that the only way to imbibe it all and allow the meaning to soak into you is to do one of two things: 1) read at breakneck speed, letting the waves (of details and ideas and thoughts and emotions) wash over you so they leave a general impression upon your psyche; or 2) read slowly and deliberatley, picking your way phrase-by-phrase among the heaps of details, ideas, thoughts, and emotions, so that you can carefully examine each one and place it in your psychic pocket.

When I first read To the Lighthouse, I had to read it fast. I couldn't make sense of it any other way. I had to just keep going, pushing myself through the pages—or rather, letting the pages pull me through the story. Years later I read it more slowly, which I suppose helped me to understand it better. But honestly, nothing compared to that first encounter with the book, even though I didn't realize how exciting and pivotal it was at the time of my first reading. I just knew that Woolf seemed to give language to moments and impressions that I'd assumed to be beyond language. 

More than a decade later, I discovered that Woolf had a name for these kinds of encounters: "moments of being" or "shocks." I wrote about this phenomenon in the critical thesis I wrote in graduate school.

Here's an excerpt from that thesis, "Spinning a Web of Wonder: Capturing and Conveying Awe on the Page." It gets to the heart of how Woolf uses words to give shape to seemingly ineffable experiences.  

Virginia Woolf believed that we encounter awe—during what she called "moments of being"—throughout our days. In her essay "A Sketch of the Past," she describes a Tuesday in April that contained more than the average number of moments of being. She mentions the contentment she experienced in writing the first few pages of the essay, in taking a walk, and in reading Chaucer with pleasure and the memoirs of Madame de la Fayette with interest. She also notices that the countryside "was coloured and shaded as I like—there were the willows, I remember, all plumy and soft green and purple against the blue."[i] These may seem like small, insignificant moments to a casual observer, but Woolf was attuned to their beauty. Still, she viewed these kinds of moments—in which we are acutely aware of our surroundings and experiences—as the exception, not the rule, in everyday life. In the same paragraph she writes: "These separate moments of being were however embedded in many more moments of non-being. I have already forgotten what Leonard and I talked about at lunch; and at tea; although it was a good day the goodness was embedded in a kind of nondescript cotton wool. This is always so. A great part of every day is not lived consciously."[ii]

The moments of being that Woolf described above are the more mundane sort: simple moments of awareness, pleasure, or beauty. She makes no claim to experience wonder within them, although I think she probably did, especially in that willow tree "all plumy and soft green and purple against the blue." But Woolf has also described another kind of moment, which she called a "shock."

To begin to understand what Woolf meant by the term, let's look at a shock that occurred during her childhood: "I was looking at the flower bed by the front door; 'That is the whole', I said. I was looking at a plant with a spread of leaves; and it seemed suddenly plain that the flower itself was a part of the earth; that a ring enclosed what was the flower; and that was the real flower; part earth; part flower. It was a thought I put away as being likely to be very useful to me later."[iii] Not all of Woolf's shocks were as benign or pleasant as this, but experiencing them eventually led her to reach the philosophy "that behind the cotton wool is a pattern; that we—I mean all human beings—are connected with this; that the whole world is a work of art; that we are parts of the work of art."[iv]

I consider shocks to be a subset of moments of being, and the kind that are closer to my idea of an epiphany or moment of awe. I interpret Woolf's two terms as being different in degree, not quality, so for the purposes of this paper I’ll use the two terms interchangeably.

The experience of reading Woolf for the first time in college was a shock for me. Before that, I'd experienced plenty of moments of being, instances when the curtain of everyday life lifted to reveal some larger truth. There were occasions when my state of mind and my environment aligned to create a sort of harmony; moments when a particular slant of light or the sound of distant church bells altered my mood or sense of self so profoundly that I felt simultaneously in the moment and beyond it. I'd lived such moments, but I had no name for them. I didn't even realize that other people experienced anything similar.

But then I read Woolf's To the Lighthouse and felt a sensation that was the opposite of having the wind knocked out of me. I experienced a breathgiving infilling as I read Woolf's descriptions of apparently random, fleeting moments of thought or sensory input and their profound effects upon her characters. I recognized these moments of being immediately, but it would be many more years until I learned that she had a name for them.

At the beginning of To the Lighthouse, six-year-old James Ramsay sits on the floor of his family's seaside vacation home. As he cuts out pictures from the illustrated Army and Navy Stores catalogue, his mother promises him that they will finally go to the lighthouse the next day if the weather is fine. Upon hearing this good news, James "endowed the picture of a refrigerator…with heavenly bliss. It was fringed with joy."[v] In an instant, Mrs. Ramsay's promise, James's emotions, and the picture of the refrigerator fuse into one glorious moment of delight.

Woolf describes James as belonging "to that great clan which cannot keep this feeling separate from that, but must let future prospects, with their joys and sorrows, cloud what is actually at hand, since to such people even in earliest childhood any turn in the wheel of sensation has the power to crystallise and transfix the moment upon which its gloom or radiance rests."[vi] James Ramsay’s happy moment of being was a shocking revelation for me. Not only did I vicariously experience his joy, I had my own moment of clarity when I realized that I wasn’t alone in this way of being in the world.

 


[i]           Virginia Woolf, "A Sketch of the Past," in Moments of Being, 2nd ed., ed. Jeanne Schulkind (San Diego: Harcourt, Inc., 1985), 70.

[ii]           Ibid.

[iii]          Ibid., 71.

[iv]          Ibid., 72.

[v]           Woolf, To the Lighthouse (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1955), 9.

[vi]          Ibid.

Wednesday
Dec232015

Come to Your Senses: Writing Sensory Details

Do you write with your body, mind, heart, or soul? In other words: When you write, are you focused on the external or internal world?

Some writers tend to focus on the internal world of thoughts, ideas, and emotions.

Others pay more attention to the external world of sensory details, actions, and descriptions.

Neither approach is wrong, but too much of either can lead to lopsided writing. One way to enrich your writing is to combine the inner and outer worlds so that you have a balance between them.

I used to write almost exclusively from my head and heart, with a strong focus on thoughts and feelings. There might have been some action, but there was little description. For example, my essays could have been summed up like this:

First this happened, and then this other thing happened. This made me feel certain things, but then someone said something, and I felt this other way. Next, I said something and this other thing happened, which made me think more deeply about it, and my feelings changed.

An essay like that, coming only from the head and heart, can lack texture. As a result, readers probably won’t resonate with the story, especially if they don’t already know me and care what I think and feel. Yes, it’s possible to write a compelling piece without the five senses, but it’s much harder to draw readers into the world of your story without those senses.

To create the world of a story (or essay or poem) on the page, you need to bring in the rest of your body.

You need the five senses: taste, touch, sight, smell, and sound. You need concrete, physical details and descriptions.

Writing that lacks sensory details usually feels flat and lifeless. You can enliven your work (and give it depth and texture) by learning to pay attention to the tangible, physical world — and by bringing those concrete, sensory details into your work. This will help you to create a written world where meaning can take root.


If you'd like to learn much more about using the five senses to add texture and vibrancy to your writing, please join me in The Word Cellar Writers Guild. Each month I present a different writing module (like a mini e-course). December's theme is Come to Your Senses, and it includes tips on how to slant and shade sensory details to create meaning, metaphors, and connection with readers. Learn more and join The Writers Guild here.

Tuesday
Nov172015

You're Invited: The Word Cellar Writers Guild

 

When I was deciding whether or not to go to grad school for writing, I knew I was looking for three things in my writing life: more creativity, a deeper understanding of the craft of writing, and a writing community. In other words, I wanted more connection. I wanted to connect with other writers, with what was happening in the world of writing and publishing, and with my own internal well of words. 

I knew that academia wasn't the only place to find those things. I knew I could find each element elsewhere and cobble together what I needed. But truth be told, I didn't want to cobble things together. I knew I could do it, but I felt tired just thinking about this patchwork approach. 

What I really wanted was one place where I could find the connection I so longed for. And so I went to grad school. And despite my student loans, I'm really glad that I did. 

But. (You knew the "but" was coming, right?) As much as I loved grad school, I still don't believe you have to turn to academia for these things. 

And so. (Of course there's an "and so," yes?) 

And so: I created The Word Cellar Writers Guild to bring writers together to foster creativity, to hone the craft of writing, and to thrive in a community of other writers. 

As I say in the video above, The Writers Guild is an online community for writers devoted to this thing we love. 

It's a place to geek out (or freak out) about words, books, and the highs and the lows of being a writer. 

Social media is great for staying connected to people. But sometimes it feels like a huge, noisy party where hundreds of conversations are happening at high volume, with everyone is shouting about what matters to them.

That's not necessarily a bad thing, but sometimes you just want to sneak away to a quiet corner with a few people who really get you, have something nice to drink, and talk about this thing that matters so much to each of you: writing.

These kinds of conversations and friendships are some of the best things that came out of my experience in graduate school. I founded The Writers Guild to bring more of us together in a dedicated space for writing. 

I created The Writers Guild so we can connect and create. So we can commisserate and celebrate. So we can geek out and freak out about all things writerly. 

Membership to The Writers Guild is currently open. You're invite to join us. You can choose a monthly or an annual membership. (There's even a deluxe annual membership option that gives you four writer care packages delivered to your door. They're pretty sweet.) 

All of the details are available here. We'd love to have you. 

Monday
Nov092015

A New Online Community for Writers

Let's get this party started! The Word Cellar Writers Guild is now open. 

We've been working magic behind the scenes. Please come over and check out the brand new website that we've built for you. (This website here is also sticking around.)

The Writers Guild is focused on three key aspects of the writing life: Creativity, Craft, and Community. The website is already bursting with good things, and it's just going to get better and better.


This month's Writing Module is called Story Gathering, all about the art (and pain) of figuring out what to write -- and getting started. The Resource Library is stocked with inspiring author interviews, a plethora of writing prompts, and more. The Community Forums are waiting for your discussions. 

You can choose from Monthly and Annual Membership options, including a Deluxe Annual Membership that includes four writers care packages. These beautifully curated packages will arrive by postal mail and will be filled with writerly goodies. (I'm kind of ridiculously excited about them.) 

Oh, and if you choose an annual membership before the end of the year, you'll get a free one-on-one coaching session with me.

Okay, I could tell you so much more, but I really hope you'll check it out for yourself. It's a big day here in The Word Cellar, and it won't be the same without you! 

Monday
Nov022015

The Writers Guild opens November 9

 

Time flies when you're having fun. It also flies when you're deep in the throes of launching a new project that you've been dreaming about for years. In my last post, I announced that The Word Cellar Writers Guild was coming soon. And now "soon" is almost here! The virtual doors open one week from today on Monday, November 9. (Which, let me tell you, feels oh-so-very-soon when I look at the final items on my to do list.) 

The Word Cellar Writers Guild is an online membership site that focuses on three key aspects of the writing life: creativity, craft, and community.

Here are some of the ways we'll do that: 

Writing Modules

Each month we'll explore a specific writing-related theme with a learning module. Monthly themes will be related to a writing craft issue, a specific genre of writing, or an aspect of living the writing life. Think of the modules as monthly e-courses, or mini-master classes. You'll be free to work through these modules at your own pace, and once a module is published on the site, it will always be available. 

Resource Library

The Resource Library will hold oodles of good things, such as writing prompts, book recommendations, author interviews, and other bits & bobs to inspire you. The library is already stocked with some great interviews, including conversations with Brené Brown, Marianne Elliott, Sue William Silverman, and others. We'll be adding interviews with writers and other creatives as we go, and I'd love to hear who you'd like me to interview. Leave a comment below or email me {jennifer[at]thewordcellar[dot]com} and let me know if you have a favorite writer/maker/artist that you'd like to hear from.

Community Forums

The Guild has its own private Community Forums where we can get to know each other, ask question, share answers, and generally geek out over all things writing. When I envisioned this community, I knew I wanted to be able to have conversations and connections in a beautiful, password-protected space, without the need to turn to social media. (Goodness knows I love me some social media as much as the next person. But I wanted to create an online space dedicated to writing, without the distractions of online quizzes and adorable kitten videos. Because, really, who can resist those quizzes or kittens?)

Other Goodies

>There will be so many other great things happening in The Guild. I'll be hosting regular live, virtual events, such as small group chats, author readings, craft Q&As, and shared writing studio time.

>We'll also have a book club/book read-along every few months. Stay tuned for the announcement of the first book selection. (I'm also open to suggestions for this, so send me a note if there's something you'd like to read, and I'll add it to the list of possibilities.)

>And then there's this, which I'm so very happy about: real, live writer care packages delivered by postal mail! When you register, you'll have the option to add four beautifully-curated care packages to your membership. (Think: Books, writing goodies, and treats to delight and inspire you. I’m personally selecting each item in these packages, and I’m ridiculously excited to send them to you.) 

I can't wait to throw open the virtual doors and invite you in. If you'd like to receive a special reminder email when The Writers Guild opens on November 9, please add your name over here.