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Young Virginia Woolf, 1902

Woolf believed even trivial incidents can have intense emotional significance. She treasured certain moody moments of being and used them to great effect in her work. (Image: public domain)

Your average writer is certainly no Virginia Woolf, but that only means we can improve our writing by learning from her unique abilities. What was at the heart of Woolf’s approach to writing? She once said, “I have some restless searcher in me,” indicating that a process of discovery was the basis of her life and work. For what was she searching?

We find the answer in Woolf’s first novel, The Voyage Out. Her young impressionable protagonist, Rachel Vinrace, takes ship for South America on a vessel owned by her father. During the voyage, her interaction with an odd assortment of passengers radically broadens her horizons. She has come from a secluded life in a London suburb, but exposure to challenging intellectual discourse and stimulating new ideas starts a process of rapid growth. She quickly transcends the limitations of her stuffy upbringing. She has begun an exciting voyage of self-discovery.

This is how Woolf saw herself: as a restless searcher on a voyage of self-discovery. She was searching for herself, for some way to understand herself and her life. Artists of all kinds share this passion for making sense of their experience. Their work is the arena where they shape abstract ideas, images, and real or fictional incidents into a representation of what they have experienced. In the difficult struggle to portray and share, they themselves come to a deeper understanding.

Woolf was profoundly interested in what she called “moments of being,” critical psychological experiences that made a deep impression at the time, and left a lasting influential memory. These moments did not have to be traumatic or even merely dramatic. The smallest of incidents could forge memories that were treasured or regretted for a lifetime. The mood or emotions invoked by the moment gave them their power searing them into memory.

The concept is crucial to understanding the basis of Woolf’s work. The restless searcher believed the art of living lies in the recognition of these moments of being, in grasping their importance. They are not the preserve of the powerful, the glamorous, or the gifted, but common to all lives. Each of us has our own store of special moments that we remember with fondness or remorse. They are the unique intensely-personal building blocks that, taken together, shape the foundations of our lives.

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