On concentration

As for something old, here’s an essay I wrote for Bill Wolfe’s blog in 2014. I’ve been thinking about this piece, because of a conversation I had with some of my students, and because Rebecca Solnit had a beautiful essay about Virginia Woolf in last week’s New Yorker. Virginia Woolf revealed to me the dramatic power of a character’s internal life, and even now, I can close my eyes and conjure up the way I felt when I read certain lines for the first time.

Originally published June 2, 2014 (on my birthday!)

About a million years ago, when I was in college, I did my senior thesis on Virginia Woolf. It was an odd choice of topic – for an American Studies major – but my department was an easygoing place. They didn’t mind that I was preparing to launch my deepest academic work on a British author I knew nothing about. They just asked me to find my own qualified advisor (which they might have thought would be limiting) so I queried my friends in the dining hall, and someone recommended J. Hillis Miller (a famed member of the Yale deconstructionists).  I made an appointment, and asked if he would take me on.

I have no idea why he said yes. I may have struck him as a raw primitive, he may just have been that sort of professor. On that first day, he established the rules. Read everything that Virginia Woolf had ever written, several times if possible. Read the autobiography by her nephew Quentin Bell. Read not one word of criticism or review. Not an essay, not a book, not a damn student editorial. And meet with him, once a week, for an hour, maybe two. (Can you believe that? Yale was great.)

I don’t remember any particular form for our sessions. I don’t remember poring over lines from the text, or discussing any literary theory. I don’t remember any formal analysis at all; mostly, we just chatted about whatever I was reading then. It was courteous; there was a pretense of intellectual equality. I remember my youthful enthusiasms; I must have bored him terribly. And then, when the hour or so was up, Professor Miller said “Alright, Laura, back to your reading.”

And that is how I spent many months, steeped in Virginia Woolf – her life and temperament so different from my own – with no particular expectations and no particular knowledge. It was magical. I don’t know how much I remember from that reading – I have that sort of mind – but I did eventually write a brutally long (for the reader, that is) essay on The Waves. No evidence of it exists – thankfully – but I vaguely remember an experimental beginning in stream-of-consciousness style. Ouch.

It seems to me that I often don’t know when I am in the middle of an extraordinary moment, when I am doing something I will never do again, and those months reading Virginia Woolf and talking about it with Hillis Miller, in that way, in that delightfully casual way, was such a moment.

I also learned two things.

One, it is a great pleasure to discover something in literature for oneself. To read a review, a critique, or an analysis is to lose something of one’s own impressions forever. I am careful of the chatter of other minds, even if they are better than my own. I try to strike the balance thoughtfully: between reading what others are reading at a given moment,which offers the great pleasure of shared experience, and reading what no-one else is reading at the time, for the different pleasure of silent space.

Two, when I write, I focus. I rewrote that senior thesis, all 40-some pages of it, on the day before it was due. I had woken up with the clear realization that the essay was terrible, and also with a clear idea of how to fix it. It was a Thursday in December, bitterly cold; I went to the Mudd Library, which had wonderful light, and I sat down at a table in the middle of the reading room and began to write. I wrote furiously. I remember my hand cramping several times, and I remember shaking my fingers angrily; I had to hurry.

I started writing when the doors opened at eight, and when I finished, when I wrote the very last word, the first thing I did was look at my watch. It was after four in the afternoon. I was relieved that I had finished before the library closed at five, I was surprised that I had been sitting so long. I remember those two thoughts, and then I remember realizing that I was cold. I was freezing. I was so cold that the feet of my chair were banging against the wood floor as my body shook. I could barely stand up – I was so cold and cramped – and also, I was hungry, I needed a bathroom, and it was getting dark; I could barely see the page on which I had just been writing. I looked up to see a young man, a graduate student probably, dressed in a winter coat and a stocking cap and gloves, with a red nose.

“Are you finished?” he said.

“I’m cold,” I almost yelled back. “There’s something wrong with the heat in here. I’m really cold. And it’s dark.”  I was a bit frantic, not at all polite.

“Yes,” he said. ‘The power went out about ten this morning. The library’s been closed since noon. We asked you to leave several times, but you never looked up, so I said I would just wait here until you were done.”

I really wish I knew who that man was. Wow, I really wish I knew who he was. But then, perhaps you can see why I stopped writing when my children were small.

Rebecca Solnit’s essay

“My Year with Virginia Woolf”

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