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Wednesday, March 5, 2008 10:29 pm

The joy of writing

Channeling Virginia Woolf for seven enduring lessons

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The Virginia Woolf Writers’ Workshop: Seven Lessons to Inspire Great Writing By Danell Jones, Bantam, 2007, 176 pages, $24
Untitled Document Central Illinois has many writers’ groups — I can easily name six in Springfield. Some have died: Women Writes waxed awhile, and so did the Snotty Little Writers Group. Some are lying fallow; surely some, like gas clouds in a star nursery, are forming as I write. Add all of the unorganized who say they want to write or already have half a memoir or a secret stash of poems, and I think we’d count half the population. Well, do I have a book for you: Virginia Woolf herself, this famous and sympathetic author, giving a writers’ workshop. It’s an ingenious idea. Danell Jones, a Woolf scholar, author, and writing teacher, has gathered into seven workshop sessions what Woolf, in her voluminous diaries, essays, and letters, has to say about writing. Woolf’s actual words — a remarkable lot of them — are given in quotes, with semi-imagined bridges of her thoughts as she speaks to her class, to us. She starts with “Practicing.” You have to kill a destructive creature called the Angel in the House, who puts everyone else’s needs before her own, thinks her own work unimportant. “Mine died hard,” says Woolf. On “Working” she explains what she really means by a room of one’s own and 500 a year: “The habit of freedom and the courage to write exactly what we think . . . it stands for the power to contemplate, that lock on the door means the power to think for oneself.” Then Creating,” next “Walking”: “It feeds me, rests me, satisfies me . . . It gives you space to spread your mind out.” “Reading”: “The only advice one person can give another is take no advice . . . follow your instincts . . . each of us has an appetite that must find for itself the food that nourishes it.” “Publishing” and “Doubting” finish the sessions. After each class are “Writing Sparks” — Woolf’s term — things to do, think about, write, suggested by the topic. These are imaginative, stimulating, and fun. The workshop fills half the book; you leave Woolf inspired but with regret. What follows, however, after a bit on suggested further reading, is a whole fireworks display of sparks: exercises to get you and keep you going. These are divided into genres: fiction, biography, memoir, poetry. The fiction is subdivided into beginnings, structure, scenes, conflict, and more, and all are filled with Woolfian examples and references. There’s also a bibliography, notes on where to find Woolf’s quotes, and index. Nowhere is a mention of grades, syllabi, just what it is you want, how long it should be, when it is due. Nowhere to be found are the bugaboos that turn the creators we basically are into writing-haters, from the destructive elementary-school five-paragraph essays right through most college classes I know of, which are mostly more of the devastating prescriptive writing. What Woolf offers is the joy — and the joy of the work. What Jones adds are myriad Woolfish ideas to get one’s juices flowing. It’s a winning combination. 

Jacqueline Jackson, books and poetry editor of Illinois Times, is a professor emerita of English at the University of Illinois at Springfield.
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