Why I will never write like Virginia Woolf—and why I love her

At a time when life was difficult and confusing—more difficult and confusing than it normally is—I discovered Virginia Woolf. I was in my twenties, living in London in the days before connecting with friends and family far away was easy and cheap, before the Internet, when International phone calls were prohibitively expensive. In those days, I read and read and read, and I started a love affair with British writers.

Especially Virginia Woolf. I read everything by her I could get my hands on, including her diaries, which had just been edited by her nephew, Quentin Bell.

Her two masterpieces are, in my view and that of many others I think, To the Lighthouse, and Mrs. Dalloway. It’s hard for me to put into words the quality of her writing, the way she lets a story dawn rather than erupt, and how delicately she draws characters so that their skin seems translucent and we can see right inside of them.

Like this, from the beginning of the To the Lighthouse:

Yes, of course, if it’s fine tomorrow,” said Mrs Ramsay. “But you’ll have to be up with the lark,” she added.

To her son these words conveyed an extraordinary joy, as if it were settled, the expedition were bound to take place, and the wonder to which he had looked forward, for years and years it seemed, was, after a night’s darkness and a day’s sail, within touch. Since he belonged, even at the age of six, 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, James Ramsay, sitting on the floor cutting out pictures from the illustrated catalogue of the Army and Navy stores, endowed the picture of a refrigerator, as his mother spoke, with heavenly bliss.

It’s luminescent writing, so far removed from the way writers are encouraged to write today. Very few modern writers could get away with it—the long, parenthetical sentences nonetheless perfectly balanced, the leisurely description that comes to the point at the moment before it would be too much. Perhaps Colm Toibin, Kazuo Ishiguro, possibly Ian McEwan at his best.

I adore Viriginia Woolf, and many other writers who write nothing at all like me. Reading them lifts me out of myself, and opens me to possibilities. It pushes me to keep striving to be a better and better writer, even knowing I will never try to imitate them, only try to write the best that I can, in my voice, with my style.

It’s the most I can hope for.

 

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