January 2, 2012

The Use of the Past: Reading Virginia Woolf's Sketch of the Past

Memory is a rich source of material for all poets and writers. It is the substance of memoir but also a major part of fiction and poetry. What we notice, what images resonate, what our mind fastens upon -- what fascinates -- changes over time. I've been reading a wonderful work about origins: Virginia Woolf, in "A Sketch of the Past," wrote:

"I can reach a state where I seem to be watching things happen as if I were there. That is, I suppose that my memory supplies what I had forgotten, so that it seems as if it were happening independently, though I am really making it happen. In certain favourable moods, memories -- what one has forgotten -- come to the top. Now if this is so, is it not possible -- I often wonder -- that things we have felt with great intensity have an existence independent of our minds; are in fact still in existence? And if so, will it not be possible, in time, that some device will be invented by which we can tap them? I see it -- the past -- as an avenue lying behind; a long ribbon of scenes, emotions. There are the end of the avenue still, are the garden and the nursery. Instead of remembering here a scene and there a sound, I shall fit a plug into the wall; and listen in to the past. I shall turn up August 1890. I feel that strong emotion must leave its trace; and it is only a question of discovering how we can get ourselves again attached to it, so that we shall be able to live our lives through from the start."

Each of us possesses those moments of great intensity that live in our mind, that actually illuminate and cast light on other events and become part of our perception. We listen to the past.

These moments make us who we are. Our listening to the past takes us back to events that are moments of intense sensation and awareness. Moments of being, Virginia Woolf calls them. And it isn't only events -- day dreams or night dreams like her own dream of the looking glass where she saw the frightening face of an animal in the background also create our consciousness. They are our dream of life.

Each writer has their own set of images, words, and sounds that are unique. These are repeated through one's body of work. Kate Green, a writing teacher, poet and novelist from Minneapolis, called these "totemic images" because they are very deep and they are in fact sources for the individual writer that yield again and again.

In writing, these are coordinates on the map that one might call the self. We see, hear, smell, taste and touch everything through these moments of being. It gives our work dimension and depth. Woolf said:

"I was thinking about Stella as we crossed the Channel a month ago. I have not given her a thought since. The past only comes back when the present runs so smoothly that it is like the sliding surface of a deep river. Then one sees through the surface to the depths. In those moments I find one of my greatest satisfactions, not that I am thinking of the past; but that it is then that I am living most fully in the present. For the present when backed by the past is a thousand time deeper than the present when it presses so close that you can feel nothing else, when the film on the camera reaches only the eye. But to feel the present sliding over the depths of the past, peace is necessary. The present must be smooth, habitual. For this reason -- that it destroys the fullness of life -- any break -- like that of house moving -- causes me extreme distress; it breaks; it shallows; it turns the depth into hard thin splinters. As I say to L: "What's there real about this? Shall we ever live a real life again?" "At Monk's House," he says. So I write this, taking a morning off...I write this partly in order to recover my sense of the present by getting the past to shadow this broken surface. Let me then, like a child advancing with bare feet into a cold river, descend again into that stream."

I write a lot, essay, poetry and fiction. It seems difficult now to distinguish kinds of writing -- memoir or nonfiction, fiction or poetry -- except by considering the external form, the writer's intent, and the purpose of the language. We want memoir and biography to be based on facts. of course. But it is a creation or a re-creation.

In fiction, the writer can create the facts to make a drama. Fiction captures the heightened moments of being and those other moments that mundane and the unremarkable in every life. "Non-being" according to Woolf -- "those moments lived not consciously." She said: "The real novelist can somehow convey both sorts of being."

Poetry (including prose poems) seems to have a shorter circuit, an immediate arrival at being, through its compression, physicality, language and music. Poetry has the capability of simultaneity. To me, it is the invention or device that Woolf wanted. Good writing does help us "plug in" and live our lives through from the start.

Schulkind, Jeanne, Editor. Moments of Being: Virginia Woolf. Second Edition. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publishers, San Diego, New York, London. c1985 by Quentin Bell and Angelica Garnett.


  1. --Sheila,
    Beautifully written.
    For me, the greatest writers bring EVERYTHING into their work: The past, present, & even the future. ***Each of us possesses those moments of great intensity that live in our mind*** For me, this is how the writing begins...
    Great Post. Love you & Love Woolf! Xx

  2. I think the intensity of those dark emotions; the pain, the confusion, the sadness and finally loss of all hope, is so heart wrenching for us to think about,that we can't let it go. It lives on through our sadnes for her and the tragedy of another human being having put rocks in her pockets and slowly walked into a lake.
    My husband & I were in London a few years ago, I wanted to find a house that she had lived in, somewhere near the British museum. I had no idea where, the tourist map left accidently at the room. So I just started out walking, no idea of a direction, oneone I spoke with seemed to know. So I just walking and walking,looking and looking, up & down lanes, circling and looking. It became a quest, I was going to find her. Finally as I passed a lane lin'ed with townhouses on one side and a park on the other, I looked way down that lane and saw a door,green I think, with a gold plague on it, like so mamy other doors in London; a famous personage once lived here. I walked to the door, and it was "the door" and "the townhouse" where she had once lived. I stood there for a very long time, it was strange and sad.