Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Book Review: The Virginia Woolf Writers' Workshop

The blurb on the back of The Virginia Woolf Writers' Workshop: Seven Lessons to Inspire Great Writing reads, "Imagine what it might be like if Virginia Woolf were teaching a writers' workshop. What would she say? What elements of her own experience would writers today find valuable?"

I couldn't help but feel a little turned off by the concept of this book, especially when I thumbed through it and saw that it is exactly how the author imagined the answer to those questions: Virginia Woolf is teaching a writing workshop. The scholar in me cringed slightly. I'm a little bit obsessed with Woolf these days. I live next to and go to school in the building she lived in on Gordon Square in London, I like to take walks where she took walks, and any spare moment I find is usually devoted to her novels, her essays, her letters. I honestly was hoping this book would be a well researched, well documented scholarly collection of things Woolf said about writing, much like Virginia Woolf On Women and Writing: Her Essays, Assessments, and Arguments, a book I am currently reading. But no, Danell Jones imagines Virginia herself, in front of a classroom, answering questions and giving writing tips.

As these things go, I was too quick to judge the book by its cover and blurb. In a sense the book is certainly not scholarly, but my worries over its content and research quality were unwarranted. Jones is not making light of Woolf and her accomplishments or her genius, but instead offering a helpful way to engage with Woolf and her writings on writing. As Jones states in the introduction, the purpose of the book is to present in "a playful way" some of Woolf's "ideas about writing, and at the same time, convey something of her life and her personality." Jones is also careful to use direct quotations from Virginia Woolf's diaries, letters and essay, while maintaining a narrative flow in the imagined conversation. She also provides clear bibliographical information in the notes section, where each quote is reprinted alongside its original source.

Jones also makes apt use of the reminiscences left by Virginia Woolf's family and friends in order to develop her as a living character. She also recognizes her limitations of placing Woolf in the position of leading a writers' workshop. Ok fine, the scholar in me is satisfied. But is what Jones presents helpful to an aspiring writer?

I'm going to have to say yes. Jones pulls out the best from Virginia Woolf's life and writings. She breaks the short book into seven lessons, seven elements of writing that Woolf indeed found important, and what is in fact relevant to all writers: practicing, working, creating, walking, reading, publishing and doubting.

In "Practicing" we learn we must make time for our writing and write every day. Woolf was jealous of her writing time and organized her day so that her mornings were left uninterrupted. We must stick religiously to a writing schedule, even if it means making difficult sacrifices. We must keep a diary, a private place for our private thoughts and experiments, a place to complain and to have a laugh.

The chapter, "Working" doesn't provide as many clear tips, but does describe the various forms of work Woolf did in her lifetime, and the importance of having your own quiet space to work. In "Creating" our imaginary Virginia Woolf encourages us to break from conventions and constraints, to recognize that there is not one formula for writing good fiction. However, she reminds us, it is important to be aware of those conventions and to be well read in order to learn from other writers, to "improve your craft by learning from great writers, both living and dead."

The chapter "Walking" emphasizes the need for both regular exercise and interaction and observation of the world, while "Reading" pushes the truth that a good writer must also be a good reader. "Publishing" gives profound advise about what to do and how to look at your work after it is finished, after you have sent it to others. "Publish nothing before you are thirty" Woolf has said, because "you will write for others when you ought only to write for yourself." The final lesson "Doubting" explains that we must be committed as writers, whether or not we are certain of our words or where they will take us, but that we must also always be working to improve our words and style.

At the end of each lesson is a list of five or six suggestions for warm ups, writing exercises and tips, and at the end of the book Jones provides suggested further reading as well as fiction, nonfiction and poetry writing "sparks", writing exercises based on Woolf's own words about writing.

Overall The Virginia Woolf Writer's Workshop is worth looking at, especially if you admire Woolf and you're looking for some extra help and motivation to start writing your own masterpieces. I would hope, however, that instead of being the end of your experience with Virginia Woolf, that it will be a spring board into Woolf's essays, such as "A Room of One's Own," "Street Haunting," and "Three Guineas." I would even go so far as to suggest the book I mentioned above, Virginia Woolf On Women and Writing, which is full of excerpts from essays, letters and personal writings. As useful as it is to have this fictionalized account of Woolf teaching a writers' workshop, it is no replacement for the power, beauty and wit of Virginia's own words.

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