Monday, January 9, 2012

The Diary of Virginia Woolf and the blogosphere

Tuesday 3 January 1922
 It is a good resolution that sends me to this page so early--only came back from Rodmell [the Woolf's country home] last night--but it is parsimony--a gloomy forecast that makes me use the odd leaves at the end of poor dear Jacob [the notebook in which she wrote her first experimental novel, Jacob's Room].  Blank leaves grow at the end of my diaries.

Home, as I say, last night, after 10 or 11 days at Monks House--days when the wind blew from every quarter at the top of its voice, & great spurts of rain came with it, & hail spat in our fire, & the lawn was strewn with little branches, & there were fiery sunsets over the downs, & one evening of the curled feathers that are so intense that one's eyes see nothing for 10 seconds afterwards.  Mr Shanks had the double pneumonia & was prayed for in Church, as indeed I thought advisable when I saw Dr. Vallance's face at the window.  We drank tea at the Rectory, & I was knocked over by the blast of crude emotions which that festival always releases.  In the morning I wrote with steady stoicism my posthumous article upon Hardy....Leonard planted, pruned, sprayed, though the cold & the wet & the wildness made his behaviour a heroicism to be admired, not comprehended.

So begins Virginia Woolf's diary for 1922, the year she would publish her first experimental novel--the kind of work we all think of when someone mentions her name.  I am reading Woolf's early diaries (perversely, I've just finished re-reading the last volume for my work on Between the Acts) because I'm back to writing and thinking about her early work.  The tone is quite different:  in the last volume, she and Leonard can see Europe in crisis; they follow the Spanish Civil War in which one of Virginia's nephews dies; they make a suicide pact and hoard petrol so they can gas themselves in their garage should Hitler cross the channel; Leonard, you see, is a Jew.  The sense of the oncoming tragedy of history is palpable in every page; the way that tragedy affects artists is startlingly clear and insightful.  But in these early diaries Virginia attempts much more to record the natural and social worlds she  greeted with such joyful enthusiasm when she was well.   These diaries are more like those any of us would keep, except that they're written by one of English literature's most extraordinary stylists.

Reading them makes me want to back to keeping a diary.  I've kept one for years, first during my own struggles with depression in an attempt to record and understand what I was experiencing.  Later during my divorce, where the possibility that my daughter might someday read them meant that I couldn't indulge in vitriol or blame, but needed to record as accurately and dispassionately as I could what the experience was like.  "Diaries" and "censorship" don't usually mix; feminist scholars have long claimed the diary as the one place where you could hear women's real voices when publishers otherwise rejected their work as eccentric or self-indulgent or simply bad.  But occasionally self-censorship's lens helps you to move beyond histrionics; in turn, you perhaps get a better purchase on what is really happening in your life.  When I moved to Regina, my diaries simply became a way of celebrating or wondering about the world.  Carol Shields and I used to talk about our diaries; for her, it was the chance to write the one beautiful, perfect sentence of the day, and indeed diaries have all kinds of aesthetic uses.  Woolf used hers to record the progress of her work, or to put down early thoughts about a novel's form.  But sometimes they're simply gossip.

Friday 17 February

Molly Hamilton sits for her portrait today....She is a crude piece of work, one of the strugglers; & thus a good deal of time must be wasted upon facts--how she is to get a job--what she can live on &c.  Besides,  the strugglers are all worn & muscular with struggling.  She is bitter against people--seems to me to snap, as a dog does with a thorn in his foot.  And something of her pleasure in seeing me is the charwoman's pleasure in talking of her bad leg: by a grate which she need not polish, & with things which she need not wash up.  However, to give her her due, she is a warm, courageous, bustling woman; & I like her spirit, & the trophies she brings me of buffeting & rejection--'real' life; if one chooses to think so.  Never was anyone more on their own; & I think she means it when she wishes the motor omnibus would swerve in her direction, but can't be bothered to step to meet it.

Woolf called the diary a "capacious hold-all," and herself made use of its lack of generic rules.  We get weather; we get arguments with the cook; we get conversations with her illustrious friends; we get descriptions of her health and her mental states.  Really, is there anything you can't put in a diary?

Except that I've found the time I would otherwise have given to my diary is now given over to thinking about writing another blog post.  Surprisingly, I've loved blogging--something I was more or less required to do by my publisher.  You can't launch a book in the twenty-first century without having an online presence, the publicist assured me.  So I visited a number of blogs (not nearly enough I now confess) and more or less stumbled into my on M.O. (I know, using that word makes it sound like I kill people), which is more or less a loosely conceived essay or meditation that might wander quite far, but must always come back to a central point or observation or question.  But much of life's accidental whimsy, which might have otherwise gone into a diary and made one of Shields's beautiful, perfect sentences, gets filed away until a blog post begins to cohere around it.  And I can't decide whether or not I like this change.

In the meantime, my husband Bill has taken to FB with a vengeance, often writing rather long status updates, or status updates in a sequence (like his twelve meditations on the word "wanting").  I've come to see Facebook as his diary, as a casual, accidental record of what he's thinking about or seeing in the world around him.   Facebook, like the diary, is a capacious hold-all:  he can comment on a meal I've made, tell you about YouTube videos he's seen, offer his opinion on current events, link you to the Heart and Stroke Foundation page, confess that on December 10, 2011 he officially became a cat person.

Tuesday 14 February
Fergusson...pronounced that my eccentric pulse had passed the limits of reason & was in fact insane.  So I was laid in bed again, & set up my state in the drawing room, where I now write sitting up in bed, alongside the fire, with a temperature a shade below normal & a heart become naturally abnormal, so that perhaps I shall be up and creeping this time next week.  I am reading Moby Dick; Princesse de Cleves; Lord Salisbury; Old Mortality; Small Talk at Wreyland; with an occasional bit at the Life of Lord Tennyson, of Johnson; & anything else I find handy.  But this is all dissipated & invalidish.  I can only hope that like dead leaves they may fertilise my brain.

When I began writing a blog, I began formalizing and organizing the kinds of meditations that I might have put in my diary, dressing them up, plumping them out for public consumption they way you plump fruit in liquor before making fruitcake.  In contrast, when I read people's status updates on Facebook, I have the sense of intruding on snippets of their diaries.  Sometimes I'm delighted to know my friend Deb is having a wonderful time in Newfoundland and that FB has given her an easy way to share her adventures with all her friends.  Sometimes I'm dismayed to learn that X has just eaten a yummy burger at Y.  I can't quite decide what the blogosphere has done to the diary.  Is it keeping a record for people who otherwise wouldn't bother?  Or is it stealing time away from other people's diaries?  Is it convincing us that the banal is significant?  Is it prompting me to formalize my thoughts before they're quite ready because I've committed myself to a post a week, more or less?  Or is it giving me an opportunity for talking with you, or giving you a chance to listen to me as I think my way through the ideas and experiences that matter to me?  The jury is still out for me.  Do tell me what you think.

P.S.:  I know I've got some students out there for whom this is a question.  Weigh in, please!


  1. I was a journal (or diary) keeper and a prolific letter writer most of my life, before discovering the internet and online journals. When I wanted to have an online presence, a personal blog made perfect sense because I had the content, it came easy. Instead of writing letters to five different people, all saying much the same thing, one blog entry did the trick. Soon there were no more handwritten letters; and I don't receive any more, either. A loss, for sure, but there's no going back.

    I still keep a handwritten journal or diary, and sometimes steal snippets from it to put on the blog, where I often allow myself to ramble on and end up with something longer and different. There are no well-thought-out entries with a start, middle and tidy ending, there. What I do find, though, is that I end up putting into the blog some things that I figure should, rightly, be in the handwritten journal for me or my great-grandchildren to throw onto the fire (or not) someday. The handwritten journal gets short shrift, and I hope that's not regrettable. I don't know if it is. But I do know that I can't afford to scatter my writing energy and time in too many different places, so I'm working to focus more.

    Very glad you're blogging, though; I enjoy reading about your work, your life in general, your memories, your thoughts about books and authors, and whatnot. You're taking your blogging seriously; I don't take mine seriously - it's only my "letter out."


  2. Kate,
    Thank you for your thoughts on this and for your kind words. You're right, though, there's too little time in the twenty-first century, and the kind of focus and coverage a blog allows saves time--and the penning of five letters.

    Maybe we need to change the paradigm. Your grandchildren won't throw your journals in the fire; instead they'll fire up the computer to see what you were like. I enjoy your blog. It's got energy and joy. So you keep blogging too.