Virginia Woolf 1925
“[I]f to read a book as it should be read calls for the rarest qualities of imagination, insight, and judgment, you may perhaps conclude that literature is a very complex art and that it is unlikely that we shall be able, even after a lifetime of reading, to make any valuable contribution to its criticism. We must remain readers; we shall not put on the further glory that belongs to those rare beings who are also critics. But still we have our responsibilities as readers and even our importance. The standards we raise and the judgments we pass steal into the air and become part of the atmosphere which writers breathe as they work. An influence is created which tells upon them even if it never finds its way into print.
If behind the erratic gunfire of the press the author felt that there was another kind of criticism, the opinion of people reading for the love of reading, slowly and unprofessionally, and judging with great sympathy and yet with great severity, might this improve the quality of his work?”
Virginia Woolf wrote this essay directly to readers. Putting aside her experience and identity as a writer and novelist, and speaking as Virginia, the reader, to her fellow readers. She is simultaneously instructing and revering what happens naturally. Instructing, because there are ways to read well. Reading is not passive but even athletic, requiring all your intelligences to fully engage with the work, to reap what the writer sowed. You know when you’re reading with an awake mind. Your mind is up on its toes, is sprinting and going the distance at once and takes all hurdles. Your intellectual and emotional intelligence is right on the heels of the author. It’s a pursuit and a partnership.
A writing teacher once told me to write as though my reader were slightly more intelligent than I am. I can tell when I’ve done that. I can certainly sniff out when I’ve done the opposite. Right now, I suspect you are smarter than me.
I latched on to an idea nearly ten years ago that I think about quite often. That artists must breathe the same air as each other, especially musicians. I had a conversation about this idea at a writing conference in New Orleans. Being there, listening to live music every night, listening to musicians that played live every day with other musicians, made it ring incredibly true. I have a musician friend who splits his time between New York and New Orleans. When I think about him being in New Orleans, nightly playing his saxophone or clarinet with other musicians in front of small or large audiences, I actually feel he’s more oxygenated. He’s fed and he’s playing. I picture him in New York, composing and practicing, and occasionally playing with others. But there in New Orleans, where the amount of air is so much smaller and it’s filled with the breath of so many fellow musicians, his time is all output.
There’s times when sea lions will land on rocks and do what they do, their lopsided walk, and then there’s the plunge and the swiftness, the fast and graceful glide of being in your element amongst your own kind.
I have inhabited numerous writing communities over the years: most significantly my MFA program, working at the Brooklyn Writer’s Space, my fiction writing group which I’ve participated in for the past ten years. These communities with writers, where the work and talk at hand is writing, serve a huge need. They provide context, and nourishment and cross-fertilization. I cannot over emphasize the support that I find in these communities and atmospheres. (Although, I could describe some of their inherent flaws and weaknesses too. Putting all those writers together. But that’s another story.)
But however much writing environments feed writers, unlike making music, at the end of the day writing will always be a solitary work. The writing is done alone.
Which is exactly why I love what Virginia Woolf is saying in these passages. Writer, go breathe the air of your readers. Feel that reader breathing in the room with you as you write. They are not a critic, nor a potential buyer of your work. They are your counterpart. There’s osmosis taking place in equal parts if you consider their inhalation of your exhalation, if you take in their attention and offer a steady stream of ideas, story and meaning that they are part of. The exchange between writer and reader is pretty mystical. Imagine it’s happening not when the work is done and published and then consumed, but rather in the very time of creation, with everyone’s awake mind comingling in the air.