A few months ago, I caught myself on a Saturday evening at the dining room table while the kidlets watched Season 2 of The Muppet Show in the adjoining living room. I had spent the entire day alternating between working on a new song that had emerged from some noodling on my guitar, and trying to read the entirety of Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse in time for that Sunday’s MFA reading conference on the book.
Somewhere in Woolf’s incredible 28-page dinner party scene (28 pages! 14 pages on just the soup course!), Elton John broke into “Bennie and the Jets.” A choir of Muppets echoed him every time he said “Bennie.”
“Bennie,” Elton sang in unblemished, un-effected falsetto.
“Bennie! Bennie! Bennie!” the Muppets sang in muppetly ragtag fashion.
My attention shifted from the book to the show—how could it not?—and then the scene changed. The Swedish Chef chased a chicken across the stage. Scooter, in that ridiculously unrestrained Muppet way, introduced the guest star’s next act: “The greatest talent in the history of the universe—Elton John WAHHHHHHHH!”.
The curtains opened and the Electric Mayhem band accompanied Elton on “Good-bye Yellow Brick Road.” Animal on drums. Dr. Teeth on keys. Janis on guitar. Zoot on sax. Sgt. Floyd Pepper on bass. Elton had a new pair of glasses. And he was so young! Elton is thirty years old in this performance. And so mind-blowingly talented.
What is the point, I wondered. The Muppets flopped, chickens scattered, and Elton crooned. And me? I spent an entire Saturday working on a song that had seemed divinely inspired that morning and suddenly, in the company of a long celebrated classic, entirely unnecessary. Amateur. Sophomoric.
And meanwhile Virginia Woolf lay open on the dining room table. This 1981 Harcourt, Inc. edition with Eudora Welty’s forward is the second copy I’d bought that month. The pages were yellowed, underlined and scribbled by a former reader, but as long as I could distinguish my scribbles from hers, I preferred this to the shiny-paged, no-paragraph-first-line-indentation, solid-text-block version I bought in December. My MFA program is making me picky about publishers, but formatting is a necessary consideration. I awakened on countless mid-nights throughout January with the book in my hands and drool on the pages, unsure if it was the writing or the font that always put me out.
Since twelfth grade I’ve half-read Mrs. Dalloway and Orlando, have several times seen the Tilda Swinton film based on the latter, and been thoroughly amused by the Edward Albee stage-play and joke “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
Me, I have often thought, I am. Too many words, too little plot. Too fluid, not enough grounding. I didn’t get it, didn’t get her. I simply couldn’t get through a Woolf book. If not for this particular requirement for the reading conference, I would have waded into To the Lighthouse. And for this reason—THANK GOODNESS for required reading.
After three days with my new Harcourt edition, To the Lighthouse illuminated Woolf’s genius. Perhaps in my earlier years I was simply not ready for her. Woolf writes through external events and her characters’ internal experience with inspiring deft. Her fluidity is like water undulating through cavernous rock. What is the point? I again wondered. How does any writer step up to her bar?
In To the Lighthouse, Woolf captures the mind chatter and mood fluctuations of her cast, then passes the thread of experience around from character to character, each tumbling of them through thoughts like sea glass churning through waves. She catches each shift of judgment and emotion in pristine and exact language. I have never read anything that so nimbly expresses characters’ subjective perspectives and the interplay of relationships. Grand gestures and broad paint strokes of plot are not the point here. To the Lighthouse is painted with the delicate minutiae of Rembrandt, not the impressionistic swatches of Cezanne. The precision is immaculate. Intimidating, actually.
And so I found myself wallowing in that same question I had with Elton John—What is the point?—and just before I smothered with despair, Woolf sealed the deal and entirely endeared herself to me. As I lamented that I would never be the writer she was, Woolf turned her craft to comfort my aching inner-artist.
For this I must show you with her own words:
…before [Lily] exchanged the fluidity of life for the concentration of painting she had a few moments of nakedness when she seemed like an unborn soul, a soul reft of body, hesitating on some windy pinnacle and exposed without protection to all the blasts of doubt. Why then did she do it? (Yes! Isn’t this the same question I wonder always??) She looked at the canvas, lightly scored with running lines. It would be hung in the servants’ bedrooms. It would be rolled up and stuffed under a sofa. (Yes! The doubt of unworthiness!) What was the good of doing it then, and she heard some voice saying she couldn’t paint, saying she couldn’t create (Ah! Those inner voices that enter innocuously and then fester!), as if she were caught up in one of those habitual currents in which after a certain time experience forms in the mind, so that one repeats words without being aware any longer who originally spoke them.
…Then, (Ah! this “Then” is the glimmer of the new moon, the faith, the passage out of doubt and into doing) as if some juice necessary for the lubrication of her faculties were spontaneously squirted, she began precariously dipping among the blues and umbers, but it was now heavier and went slower, as if it had fallen in with some rhythm which was dictated to her…, so that while her hand quivered with life, this rhythm was strong enough to bear her along with it on its current.
So, at the encouragement of Woolf (and despite my own doubts), I’ve continued. The MFA reading conference came and went, and in the months since To the Lighthouse I have continued to move through my self-doubts. I imagine this dance with doubt will be a long process. Perhaps a lifetime. But if Woolf wrote about artistic doubt through her character Lily, she must have experienced it first-hand herself. If she and I have that much in common, then I can hope we also share a gift for language arts.
Recently, I began work on a creative non-fiction piece about a difficult topic. By its nature, there’s an internal journey of questions seeking answers. Although the seeking is (I hope) a fascinating exploration, I want my future reader to stay rooted in the external world of the story’s setting. The books laid upon the dining room table. The kidlets in the living room singing along with The Muppets. My story is a delicate dance of internal and external experience, a writing skill I am just beginning to explore. So where I was once intimidated, and later comforted, by Woolf, now, as my hand steadies, she is my teacher in craft. To the creative process and the honing of skills I say this: bring on Elton and the Electric Mayhem band. There is room for countless songs on this stage.