The truth is that I can tell what kind of writing day I’m going to have within the first half hour of sitting at my desk. If I have just ordered socks, turtlenecks and thermal underwear for Jacob from the Land’s End Catalogue, I’m probably not heading in the right direction. (Best to leave these online shopping sprees for the wee, sleepless hours.) If I have found myself on my favorite fashion website, salivating over an unaffordable pair of Chloe boots (since when did $1200 become the new $600?) I am also, most likely, not heading in the right direction. Ditto, if I am answering emails. Ditto, if I am reading too much of the morning’s news.
Lately I have been opening my treasured copy of Virginia Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary which I always keep within arm’s reach on my desk. I open it randomly, like the I Ching. It always has a message for me. Yesterday, Ms. Woolf had this to say: “Writing becomes harder and harder. Things I dashed off, I now compress and re-state.” As so often is the case, I felt a shock of recognition. This is what no one could have told me as a young writer–I wouldn’t have believed it. It gets harder. The more I learn, the more I know, the more I am aware of the scope of my own ambitions and the limits of my abilities and that crushing place where the two meet. I am tougher on myself. I don’t fall in love with my own words–ever. Long ago, when I was writing my second novel, I used to carry around manuscript pages with me–not to edit them, but (embarrassingly) because I loved them. This love should have tipped me off that I wasn’t doing the hardest work of all. Once, Grace Paley said that if she loved a sentence she had just written enough to get up from her desk and go read it to her husband, she knew she had to cut it.
Now, at this very moment, I will open up A Writer’s Diary and see what Ms. Woolf has to say for today: a bulletin from 1927, here it is:
“The dream is too often about myself. To correct this; and to forget one’s own sharp absurd little personality, reputation and the rest of it, one should read; see outsiders; think more; write more logically; above all be full of work; and practise anonymity.”