January 25th was Virginia Woolf’s birthday. Although I am a huge fan, it would have passed me by had it not been for a friend’s Facebook post with a link to a 2013 Paris Review spot which contained the only known recording of Woolf’s voice. Although I don’t necessarily agree with everything that Woolf says in the seven minute, thirty-eight second snippet, she does say much that is accurate. I had not really thought about the memories attached to words, or how words mean different things to different people. If you are a lover of language, or a lover of Woolf, I urge you to access the link.
As I listened to Woolf examining the role of words in the creation of literary truth and beauty, I couldn’t help but reflect on my own challenges as a wordsmith. When I began writing, I was primarily interested in story and character development. Since the novels in my series were written in the first person, I had fun looking at and commenting on the world from the point of view of my protagonist. In dialogue scenes I was conscious of the need to create a difference in voice between characters through their distinctive use of language. With each successive novel I also found myself paying more and more attention to sentence structure, and word choice.
Just this week I sent my agent the manuscript for my fourth novel. This comes after a very long journey, one that I’m sure is far from over. Where I had with my third book paid a great deal of attention to use of language, this last one took me to the edge of obsession. This was not only because I have (hopefully) been improving my craftsmanship, but also because of the nature of the material.
Unlike my previous three books which were set in present-day Toronto, this new epic of mine takes place in various parts of Canada, and several locations in the north of England. Not only that, but there are two story lines a hundred years apart, both taking place in the two countries. I had to grapple, therefore, with national, regional, and time-related differences in dialogue and narration. I know I learned a great deal through my research, and the countless hours of writing and rewriting. I now have my fingers crossed that I have come somewhere close to bringing those differences in language, and all they represent, to life on the page.
After this last writing experience, and after listening to what Woolf has to say, I do know that I have developed a much greater appreciation for ‘the word.’ Hamlet seems to have nailed it on so many levels when Polonius asks him what he is reading, and he replies, “Words, words, words.”