During a time of crisis—as in this time of being isolated, rising death tolls, economies crumbling, and jobs slipping away— writing about one’s self or personal past may seem self-indulgent. However, somewhat paradoxically, the work of writing about personal past experience can be a powerful tool to enter the present more fully.
Like many freelance writers, I was hit recently with a job loss due to changes in the work availability brought on by COVID-19. A good friend of mine suggested that I offer an online course on writing memoirs, as a way to fill the gap while also doing something I love. My gears started turning. I studied WWII civilian women’s memoirs for my doctoral dissertation and found that women like Virginia Woolf and Hilda Doolittle used memoir writing as a tool for sustaining the self against the fragmenting realities of wartime.
My mind lit up with the possibilities and connections—writing the self can be a potent form of self-care, a way to express the fragmentation and dissociation of current experience, laying the fragments out to piece together a whole. Why not use this time of forced isolation to go inward, to explore how the past shapes our experience of this present and to very intentionally take note of what this strange present looks and feels like?
Passages from Woolf’s “A Sketch of the Past” came rising up from the dusty memories of my dissertating days. Woolf wrote “Sketch” from 1939-41, the early years of the war, from the relative safety of the English country village of Rodmell. Though the Woolf’s were set apart from the graphic violence of the London blitz, the frontline war zones, and the death camps, the violence of the war encroached on all sides. Both of their homes in London were bombed. German planes flew over with the regularity of vespers bells. Voices of dictators raged into the living room through radio transmissions. News of the dead piled up in newspapers. The threat of war haunted them to the point that Virginia and Leonard had plans for suicide in the event of a German invasion.
At one point, Woolf returned to her home to dig though the rubble in order to find her diaries, from which she gathered memories to write this memoir. The very material from which this memoir is drawn was salvaged from the wreckage of the war as it ripped through the present.
In the midst of this reality, Woolf writes about her childhood, inquiring about the nature of memory:
“[I]s it not possible—I often wonder—that things we have felt with great intensity have an existence independent of our minds; are in fact still in existence? … I see it—the past—as an avenue lying behind; a long ribbon of scenes, emotions. There at the end of the avenue still, are the garden and the nursery. Instead of remembering, here a scene and there a sound, I shall fit a plug into the wall; and listen in to the past. I shall turn up August 1890. I feel that strong emotion must leave its trace; and it is only a question of discovering how we can get ourselves again attached to it, so that we shall be able to live our lives through from the start.”
From the present of wartime, Woolf describes the experience of memory as something existing independently, whether or not she is actively remembering. It’s as if the traces of the past are playing in radio waves all the time, and she has only to turn the dial and turn up the volume to hear those scenes playing. This frequency in some ways may drown out the voices of dictators and news of war trauma that also come through the radio. But the traces of the past also intermingle with the present, affecting what can be heard even after the station is changed.
Later, after attempting to describe her aversion to looking into the mirror, and exploring the childhood trauma that precipitated that aversion, Woolf questions the nature of memory and the problem of accessing past experience:
“The person is evidently immensely complicated. Witness the incident of the looking-glass. Though I have done my best to explain why I was ashamed of looking at my own face I have only been able discover some possible reasons; there may be others; I do not suppose that I have got at the truth; yet this is a simple incident; and it happened to me personally; and I have no motive for lying about it. In spite of all this, people write what they call ‘lives’ of other people; that is, they collect a number of events, and leave the person to whom it happened unknown” (69).
Woolf illuminates here how the impact of a moment on the perception of the self may be inaccessible to that same person, not only as the experience is happening, but also decades later, with the perspective of a lifetime. However, the work of delving into her memory, through writing, places that fragment in the context of a larger tapestry. Bringing the fragment to the surface, she takes hold of it and explores its colors and patterns in relationship to other fragments.
Memoir writing, in this way, becomes a way to inhabit our experience. Writing about the past, in the present, we inhabit memory and bring it to life, tuning into its frequency and becoming attuned to how the traces of strong emotion inflect what we hear in the present. The practice of memoir enables us to explore the depths of experience as we live through it, seeing the picture as more of a whole, even if it’s patchwork, composed of many fractured pieces.
How do Woolf’s reflections on memory accord with your own experience? Does memory have a life of its own? How is the work of memory affected by writing in the midst of crisis? If you tune into moments in your past and turn up the volume, how does that frequency interact with the noise of this present moment of pandemic, quarantine, and uncertainty?