Books Meta Writing

buying the flowers herself

I just finished reading Mrs. Dalloway, the fourth Woolf book I’ve read in the last year. I liked it very much, though I didn’t adore it as much as I did To the Lighthouse or parts of Orlando (the other book was a collection of short stories).

I noticed when reading To the Lighthouse that I label her books, in my head, by technique — I think of TtL as the “how to write emotion” book, Orlando as the “how to write history” book. This is not to say that those techniques are the only thing I remember or like about the books, of course, or that they’re the only techniques Woolf employs or develops in each book; they’re the techniques that seemed most evident and interesting to me on my first read. For example, Woolf’s method of writing emotion in To the Lighthouse struck me because I’m often told by readers that my fiction is reserved, quiet, even distant in places — and I was amazed by how simply she approached the problem of communicating characters’ emotions, just stating, over and over, in a cascade: She felt X or He felt Y.

Mrs. Dalloway is the “how to write simultaneous thought and action” book — all through it, but particularly in that long lovely scene in which Peter Walsh moves about his hotel room preparing to go to the party and thinking about Clarissa. The technique is just as obvious as writing She felt X to express emotion, with parentheticals describing Peter’s actions as he thinks. But it works.

I wouldn’t usually describe a writer’s body of work as if it were a series of tutorials, but I do feel that way when reading Virginia Woolf; I learn some trick each time I read a piece of her fiction.

Which writers do you learn from that way?

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