One of the best things about writing / reading literature is getting the chance to return, after a gap of some years, to a work you once found really amazing, and, on re-reading it, find it even more amazing than before. It wasn’t that you were naive and easily moved; on the contrary, you couldn’t perceive, at least not fully, all that novel’s remarkable qualities. The passage of time, and the slow acquisition of greater skill, allows you to read more deeply, and be even more impressed.
I was lucky enough to have that experience a week ago. In our fiction class with the novelist Michael Knight, we were reading and discussing Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway.
I first read Mrs. Dalloway in Taiwan, and at that time, I had not read a lot of classic literature. During my teenage years, I read almost entirely science fiction, fantasy, and horror, and in my early twenties, I mostly read contemporary, recently published novels. But I was standing in one of Taipei’s public libraries, and I saw Mrs. Dalloway on the shelf, and I guessed that it had to be at least as good as the last couple of novels I had read. I started reading; I was stunned. Woolf was simply on a different level: reading her novel was one of those experiences that I can only call “canonical,” like seeing Michelanglo’s David.
For instance, I read paragraphs like this one, knowing as I read just how remarkable it was (this is an early moment in the novel. Clarissa Dalloway is walking in London, remembering her old friend Peter, long since departed to India):
For they might be parted for hundreds of years, she and Peter; she never wrote a letter and his were dry sticks; but suddenly it would come over her, If he were with me now what would he say?–some days, some sights bringing him back to her calmly, without the old bitterness; which perhaps was the reward of having cared for people; they came back in the middle of St. James Park on a fine morning–indeed they did. But Peter–however beautiful the day might be, and the trees and the grass, and the little girl in pink–Peter never saw a thing of that. He would put on his spectacles, if she told him to; he would look. It was the state of the world that interested him; Wagner, Pope’s poetry, people’s characters eternally, and the defects of her own soul. How he scolded her! How they argued! She would marry a Prime Minister and stand at the top of a staircase; the perfect hostess he called her (she had cried over it in her bedroom), she had the makings of the perfect hostess, he said.
Later, during my MFA, I don’t think I ever consciously sat down and decided to imitate the style of Mrs. Dalloway. But once I had decided that the novel I was writing would have a female protagonist, I think I was drawn, through sheer gravity, to Woolf’s rolling sentences, to that novel’s so unforgettably vivid love of life. I had also discovered the techniques of the cumulative sentence, and so Christensen’s methodology, plus Woolf’s style, led me to produce epically-long sentences, some of which comprised entire (huge) paragraphs.
The result was pretty much a disaster. At times, my sentences were unreadable; at all times, they did not achieve the blissful effects of reading Mrs. Dalloway. I probably decided that long winding sentences and abrupt shifts in focus and subject were simply not accepted in the humdrum world of the creative writing workshop, and I developed a more focused style for my remaining semesters.
Last week, however, re-reading Mrs. Dalloway in Tennessee, the above paragraph in particular, I realised that, back then, I had completely misunderstood the nature of Woolf’s craft. I had been trying to copy the wrong thing.
I suspect that this kind of thing happens a lot to writers. We admire a famous author’s work so much that we attempt to reproduce its effects, but we miss what actually made that work so great in the first place. Reading great fiction can be like watching a magic trick. The writer shows you one cool technique with her right hand, and, tricked, you think that’s where you’re supposed to look. But the actual magic is somewhere else, not so easily seen–the flourishes of the right hand are just meant to distract you from the secretly working left hand, which is, of course, where your card has been hidden.
What I had taken from Mrs. Dalloway was the idea that a sentence and a paragraph could careen and dash all over the place. No matter how wild the prose, it was simply the reader’s job to follow along; I was mystified, as a result, why her work was easy to follow and mine was not. But that apparent chaos, that hyper-paratactic style, I now believe, is just a surface quality of Mrs. Dalloway. In reality, Woolf’s writing is extremely cohesive and close knit. It’s wonderful, for instance, to track the repetitions of subjects, topics, and ideas in the paragraph quoted above, to see how one sentence explains or presents in a fresh way the idea introduced in the previous. Again and again, Woolf gives us one claim about Peter, and then follows it up with a concrete example, or clarifies it with new phrasing, or develops a small element of the previous point. The jumps in meaning or focus (from sentence to sentence) are nowhere as large as they first seem.
1) “Peter never saw a thing of that.”
The next sentence gives us a concrete depiction of how he “never saw”:
2) “He would put on his spectacles, if she told him to; he would look.”
Why wouldn’t he do more than look?
3) “It was the state of the world that interested him; Wagner, Pope’s poetry, people’s characters eternally, and the defects of her own soul.”
That last part sounds unpleasant–in the next sentence, Woolf confirms that it was:
4) “How he scolded her! How they argued!”
About what defects?
5) “She would marry a Prime Minister and stand at the top of a staircase…”
And several of those ideas, introduced here in seemingly the most casual way, repeat and develop through the entire novel, culminating in the final scene.
In other words, prose that once seemed, to my unsuspecting eye, to be free to do anything at all, was indeed free, but because it was so cohesive, so internally robust and interconnected. When I was trying to copy Virginia Woolf, I was just looking at the obvious features of her prose, the magician’s right hand. I was trying to imitate how it made me feel, not how it actually worked.
Perhaps, if I ever try to draw on my love on Mrs. Dalloway again, I will proceed from a much closer study.
How about you? Do you set out to imitate your favourite writers’ styles? Or are you desperate to avoid doing so?