Virginia Woolf on Sickness

Painting of Virginia Woolf by her sister Vanessa Bell.

As I sit home from work today sick, I’m feeling a little useless. But the congestion in my chest, which, this morning, caused a sharp pain unlike any I’ve ever felt with this type of sickness, in all my years of sinus and congestion type infections (I’m good for at least two of these illnesses a year, and lately it’s been more, probably because of kids)–this pain and congestion demanded I stay home and rest. So in my forced uselessness, at some point in the morning, I remembered the Virginia Woolf essay, “On Being Ill,” which I read not so long ago in grad school. Though healthy when I read it, nonetheless, her take on the mental state we assume in sickness resonated. She addresses the sort-of limbo we find ourselves in when given permission to do nothing all day. We remove ourselves from society for a day or two, which is an odd situation for a working, fairly responsible adult and parent. We’re not sure how we’re supposed to feel. Well, rather than try and wrest from my virus-addled brain a substantial blog post, I decided to have Virginia Woolf speak for me. The following is an excerpt from that essay. Enjoy one of the greatest writers ever (and my personal favorite!):

“There is, let us confess it (and illness is the great confessional) a childish outspokenness in illness; things are said, truths blurted out, which the cautious respectability of health conceals. . . . [The] illusion of a world so shaped that it echoes every groan, of human beings so tied together by common needs and fears . . . where however strange your experience other people have had it too, where however far you travel in your own mind someone has been there before you–is all an illusion. We do not know our own souls, let alone the souls of others. Human beings do not go hand in hand the whole stretch of the way. There is a virgin forest, tangled, pathless, in each. . . . Here we go alone, and like it better so. Always to have sympathy, always to be accompanied, always to be understood would be intolerable. But in health the genial pretense must be kept up and the effort renewed–to communicate, to civilise, to share, to cultivate the desert, educate the native, to work by day together and by night to sport. In illness this make-believe ceases. Directly the bed is called for, or, sunk deep among pillows in one chair, we raise our feet even an inch above the ground on another, we cease to be soldiers in the army of the upright; we become deserters. They march to battle. We float with the sticks on the stream; helter skelter with the dead leaves on the lawn, irresponsible and disinterested and able, perhaps for the first time in years, to look round, to look up–to look, for example, at the sky.” (1925)

Virginia Woolf knew much more about illness than I, suffering as she did with extended bouts of depression, but isn’t there something in that passage that anyone who’s ever stayed home sick from work can recognize? I loved it immediately, because I’d never seen anyone write about this type of thing. You’d be doing yourself a favor to read the entire essay, and while you’re at it, read a few more. You simply can’t read too much Virginia Woolf.

Alan D. Tucker, MA
Content Writer, Essayist, & Novelist

Writing Advice Comes Cheap

Twitter: “Work to discover your style of writing voice.” #amwriting #amediting

Me: “But I’m pulled between Virginia Woolf and David Foster Wallace.”

My inner voice: “Neither of which are YOU, Alan.”

So goes the internal conversation for a writer who’s deep in his first novel. Though I’d like to write more often, I’m largely happy with my progress. About three-fourths of my original length goal has been committed to Word, and I have a routine in place that should get me to the end of my first typed draft before the year’s up, maybe. Hopefully.

An artist’s influences are never far from his work, perhaps, and there’s always the danger of derivation, or the temptation to outright mimic. A little thrill moves through me whenever I write something I think Virginia Woolf could’ve written, so I understand the temptation. But no one can out-Virginia Virginia. Therefore, then, the task becomes figuring out how to simply do Alan. This is the part demanding artistic grit–the part that only the artist can discover, and usually only after years of working. A writer’s voice can’t be gifted him from a well-meaning source, and it can’t be borrowed. Few are the Mozarts, who seem to have been born with their gift; many more are the van Goghs, who labor in obscurity. (Van Gogh would’ve been quite amused by the modern conception of him as a tortured genius; tortured he was, but only two or three thought him even talented, much less a genius.) The question I have for the universe is this: will I know when I find my voice?

A screenshot from this morning.

I got down about six-or-seven-hundred words today. Through the large plate-glass window of my early-morning Starbucks, I could see the steady rain. The gray dawn looked wintry, but the actual outside air was more like room-temperature. Some of what I wrote, I liked, but just as much will improve with the second writing. In the meantime, I will work, and if I work enough, then maybe my writerly voice will come.

Alan D. Tucker, MA
Content Writer, Essayist, & Novelist

25 November 2017 (British lady in a Starbucks)

 

“She was a complicated lady.” It was spoken with a British accent. I looked up from my work, and the tall woman with long black hair and bangs was smiling at my Virginia Woolf book of essays. I’d seen the woman in Starbucks before but had no idea she was British. Why would I ever suspect that? White people look the same from country to country, except for maybe those from Scandinavia.

Her statement about Virginia Woolf had the ring of authority, or maybe that’s just how I heard it, given her accent. But being an American makes me no authority on Henry James, so why should I assume such a thing of this woman. In fact, I was shocked to learn, from the only other British person I know in real life (i.e., not on social media) that English literary history is hardly emphasized in Britain’s schools anymore. So here’s this thing known as English literature, which I’ve idolized for years, only to find out it’s nearly neglected in its homeland. What the what?! Now I’m wondering whether my new British Starbucks friend has even read Virginia Woolf, or if she simply repeats the line passed down in idle conversation. Perhaps, for her, the name Virginia Woolf triggers the phrase “complicated lady” the same way that Meryl Streep’s name invokes “good actress” from people who never watch her movies—like the goal is simply to talk, whether or not the conversation has any substance.

Maybe I’m wrong. It could be that my new British buddy has a working knowledge of Woolf’s novels, after all—maybe even an essay or two. I will probably never know, because our interactions never transcend the smallest of small talk. Usually I’m so eager to get back into my work that I leave little room for anything more than a hello. And that is okay.