Notetaking, life writing – and Virginia Woolf

Update, Nov 2016: having just discovered biographer extraordinaire Richard Holmes, suddenly material is everywhere: Stanley Spencer, Flaubert…and here’s a piece on the commonplace bookDear diaryMapped: all Virginia Woolf’s novels & Virginia Woolf’s London

#corpusmooc and #flfiction14 gave different perspectives on writing and notebooks. Key points from the latter:

  • there are no rules
  • looking through your notebook may give you ideas, reawaken your creativity (or act as procrastination?)
  • it’s a personal running commentary, a map, a collection

My blogging is my notetaking for something or other, but are notebooks something we should be collecting and (digitally) curating, or are they only of interest to ‘scholars’? Is archiving, dissecting them a form of over-analysis? (Like archiving Twitter.)

Writers and their notebooks featured on R3’s Free Thinking back in May 2014, along with a gallery and commissioned piece A junkyard of the mind by Lawrence Norfolk (more by him on writing):

a notebook is an act of triage on the world outside…accumulates its value slowly, line by line and page by page…work passes through it on the way to becoming something else

Guest Bidisha wondered whether “less [sic] notebooks might have meant more novels” – she described her notebooks as low grade matter, the result of a psychological impetus and the precursor to a published (read: completed) work  rather than writing with a narrative form. But different from a diary, which is way too personal. Sometimes the notes can be as/more interesting than the finished article, or are they just everyday detritus?

BL bod Rachel Foss saw blogs as the new notebooks, but are digital notebooks just too easy – putting pen to paper is a much more conscious act. It’s like smartphone photography – since I got my iphone I’ve been snapping away with the rest of them. This is one thing which makes digital different, but is it affecting the way we think?

The British Library’s Discovering Literature site has put “huge swathes of writers’ and poets’ personal archives” from the Romantics and the Victorians online, but it’s not that easy to find a notebook per se.  They are also archiving writers’ website, to Bidisha’s chagrin.

From notetaking to life writing (vs place writing)…

The BBC has just run the light but lovely Life in squares (James Norton!) and I just finished Alexandra Harris’ Virginia Woolf (review). I left the ribbon bookmark by this quote (pp109,111), unfashionably in praise of the car:

She wanted to translate her money into life-enhancing thingsTo the lighthouse bought a car. Like the excellent lunch in A room of one’s own, the car encourages the expansiveness of mind that might result in good writing. We can feel the effects of the Woolfs’ Singer car (called The Lighthouse) in the pages of Orlando. Scenes flash by, the world opens up…the car made Virginia feel freer than ever before.”

Not much of a Bloomsbury-ite up to now, I have A room of one’s own and Flush; next stop may have to be essays, eg Street haunting (aka the pencil story; BL), Portrait of a LondonerXmas shopping on Oxford Street

Diving into the industry we have:

Back to life writing:

Literary heritage may traditionally speak of the preservation of authors’ manuscripts, belongings and houses, but it also must include interpretation, understanding and the relationship of the artefacts to the individual, the community and the culture as a whole. (source)

Three related conferences have just taken place:



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