Monday, February 14, 2005


Back in January, a friend wrote for advice about teaching Jacob’s Room (1922), Virginia Woolf’s third novel and her first experimental one. It’s a novel that I have lots of affection for. I am tempted to write that I’ve become disenchanted with the book, but that’s exactly wrong. Jacob’s Room is a book that, for me, remains full of moments of enchantment. When I think of the book, I immediately think of little gems within it. Still, as a book it does not work: it’s boring, its hero is a blank (for all kinds of decent intellectual reasons, but still, what’s the satisfaction in reading about a blank hero?).

I didn’t write this to him. I wrote, instead, that I didn’t really know of any great essays on the novel but recommended he look at Christine Froula’s new book. Later that week, I re-read the chapter I’m working on now (should be working on at this very moment) only to discover that I myself have written fifteen pages on Jacob’s Room. My first impulse was to write back and offer to share the manuscript. Perhaps I could just attach it in an email? But then, I decided to do neither. What checked the impulse to share? And why did I forget my own nascent attempts to come to terms with the book?

When I read some blogs, I get the sense of secrets, of a whole, rich life lived behind them and I admire the restraint and focus of the blog. Danny Gregory’s review of Bob Dylan’s memoir ends with a list of lessons on creativity culled from Dylan and the list seems to come out of a kind of gentle, patient exhaustion at being turned to by others for advice and a restraint, holding something back for his own creative self, for his own forthcoming book, too. Andrea, at Superhero journal, too, reaches out with great warmth and then disappears for a week or so, making me guess at all kinds of great, creative happenings. Now, in my Monday surfing, I read that Ayelet Waldman is discontinuing Bad Mother for now. She is not a restrained person; I don’t feel she’s keeping secrets or holding back and I like that, too, but it doesn’t make me hungry for her books, just her compulsively addictive blog.

I remember the crestfallen look on my professor’s face when Paul DeMan’s Nazi sympathies were revealed. He had been her advisor and she always felt he was not giving her his full wisdom; only decades later did she see how horribly deep his restraint had been. But then, in his restraint, did he betray or protect her, a young Jewish graduate student?

There are so many motives stand behind the act of keeping a secret, of holding something back: being a good teacher or friend, being shy, being superstitious about sharing creative work too soon, being greedy for full credit in some mythical future. In my friends, I want warmth; I get hungry to know if they’re writing, if they’re working, how they’re doing it. I can sometimes feel betrayed, or, less melodramatically, left out, to find that a new book or article is coming out and I haven’t heard about its gestation. In writers I’ve not met, unknown companions, it’s often restraint that brings out my admiration.

No comments: