Virginia Woolf’s Moments of Being

Ground breaking author Virginia Woolf is certainly one of the most respected writers of the twentieth century and any current writer, whether mainstream or cutting edge, can improve their work by learning something about her unique abilities. What was at the heart of Woolf’s unusual 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?

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)

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 psychological 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,” notable 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.

Author: Thomas Cotterill

I am a manic-depressive made philosophical by my long struggle with the disruptive mood disorder, during which I spent sixteen years living as a forest hermit. I write philosophical essays, fantasy, and science fiction. My attempt to integrate creativity, psychology, philosophy, and spirituality imbues everything I write. You will find hundreds of related essays and articles on my blog. I live quietly in British Columbia's scenic Fraser Valley, a beautiful place in which to wax philosophical.

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