Writing Tip: A Moment of Being a la Virginia Woolf

Posted on 21. Jan, 2011 by in Blog, Writing Tips

Don’t be intimidated by the mention of Virginia Woolf’s name. This is a very simple exercise that everyone can do. There’s no right or wrong way, and your only goal is to describe one moment as fully as possible. The idea is to slow down and to tune into your senses: sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. So turn off the phone, hide in the loo, do whatever’s necessary to get 10 minutes undisturbed. And for good measure, add any details that fully capture this moment in time for you: temperature, touch or texture, sensations of comfort or discomfort, thoughts that are occupying your mind. No-one’s going to read it, so don’t worry about spelling, punctuation, etc. Write it like a shopping list if you want to. Start anywhere and, at the end, tack on anything you want to add.

Here’s my example: Standing at the computer typing out these words, a twinge in my neck tells me it’s time to change position, so I grab a chair. Wheels rattle across pine floorboards. I feel the hard chair as I sit, and the twinge disappears. At my son’s Mac desktop (“Why do you always have to use my computer?”) with the baseball background – Yankees player sliding into base – I contemplate the messy monthly calendar on the wall with our activities scrawled in red, navy and orange, and the cork notice board heaving with papers, all curling at the edges. It’s the best I can manage organization-wise. Daisy is in her bed asleep, snoring through her tiny pug nose. The office hums with the sound of 4 desktop computers, and the continual thudding from nearby house construction is really beginning to get on my nerves. The garden is covered in last week’s snow. Tall beech trees, their trunks encased in ivy, their branches like bony fingers, rise from the drifts of deep snow. The sun glows behind a layer of thick white cloud, the light is yellow, the frozen snow like layers of lemon ice. For one moment, all thoughts are gone. Peace.

That’s it. * Sigh *

And now for a little summarized background from Wikipedia (sorry, purists): ‘Moments of Being is a collection of posthumously-published autobiographical essays by Virginia Woolf. The title for the collection was chosen by its original editor, Jeanne Schulkind, based on a passage from “Sketch of the Past”. As described by Woolf, ‘moments of being’ are moments in which an individual experiences a sense of reality, in contrast to the states of ‘non-being’ that dominate most of an individual’s conscious life, in which they are separated from reality by a protective covering. Moments of being could be a result of instances of shock, discovery or revelation.’

I have loved Woolf’s prose style with a passion my whole life, but I’ve learned that the experience of reality doesn’t have to come from ‘shock, discovery or revelation’. The exercise above brings us gently, quickly, to reality. No shocks necessary!

Until the next tip, remember what Martha Graham said: “There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and will be lost.

Happy writing!

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