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The Women in Literature and Life Assembly
of
The National Council of Teachers of English
Editor:  Patricia Kelly kellyp@vt.edu
Volume 5
Fall 1996


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Journals Spanning Time: Virginia Woolf, the Indigo Girls, Me

Michelle Lee

I remember turning back the rainbow-striped cover of my first diary and flipping to March 21. 1 had just unwrapped it, a birthday gift for turning eleven years old, and my ticket to some private isle of life. Writing my first entry, I shoved the book under the mattress to keep it mine. For a day it was mine-until my brothers found it and laughed at it, and I had to win it back. So on March 22, 1 scrawled in it again, this time slipping it into the pocket of an old bathrobe hanging lifelessly in the back of my closet. Every few days I would sneak it out and write down my glee and rage and qualms, my doings and wishes and tears, more and more "secrets." But after a few days, my brothers again found the sacred book and my secrets once again became public. And so this scenario continued in a not-uncommon war of privacy that became quite a game, even a sport. In the end, I gave up on the notion of keeping a journal without really missing it, and without knowing what I was missing.

And then two years ago, I came across the rainbow-striped diary, its cover battered from rough handling, but its pages almost empty. One entry flipped me instantly back to the day, pushed me immediately back to the strides I had walked at age eleven. Words released memories, details awoke, whole atmospheres unfroze, and I felt again what it was to be alive on March 21, 1985. 1 read eagerly the few entries I had made, disappointed there were not more, marveling at what I had preserved and what I had missed. I wondered what my grown brothers would think if they read it now. I wondered what my grandchildren might think if they found my journal in fifty years. I wondered about what I could live through someone else's journal

Published journals are an engaging genre of literature, read to provide insight into the writer's life. Becoming familiar with a writer's "secrets" expands the reader's view of the writer's other works. Such a behind-the-scenes look is valuable, especially in critical, biographical, historical and psychological approaches to criticism and understanding. For example, Virginia Woolf's diaries, published posthumously, offer glimpses into her daily thoughts and activities as wife, daughter, writer. Knowledge of her personal life serves as a springboard of understanding for her novels and short stories.

Reading published journals can indeed create an intimate bond between the reader and the diarist. Emily Saliers of the Indigo Girls, the popular folk music duet, illustrates this bonding in her song "Virginia Woolf " The thoughts, activities and feelings Woolf expressed in her diaries made a profound connection between Saliers and Woolf that surpasses that made from Woolf's public writings. As Saliers explains on the "2001 Curfews" album, an audiocassette issued by Columbia in October 1995, only the more candid, open nature of the journal could connect these two women across the decades. The musician felt that reading The Diary of Virginia Woolf was like having a telephone conversation with Woolf, "a long-lost friend"; it was "a letter to her soul." Saliers makes this connection "through time" because Woolf possessed "a mind without end" and expressive genius. The diary was Woolf's room of her own, and its openness and honesty provided access for an American woman of the late twentieth century.

Reading the doings and "secrets" in Woolf's diary assured Saliers, that she was "alright" because the entries confirm the universality of conflict in human life and affirm that "each life has its place," that no life is ever lost. When Saliers doubts the meaning of her "whole life," when that life seems to be "empty pages," she hears Woolf's reaffirmation. Woolf's private communication fosters identification and understanding which Saliers translates into reassurance, into endurance.

In the last part of the song, the connection between diarist and reader reaches new heights as Saliers writes back to Woolf to console her in her struggle with the critics, publicity and cruel mortality," telling Woolf that she has survived a century despite the criticism.

So you know you're alright ... did you hear me say, "Each life has its place."

It is likely that Saliers especially identifies with the public side of Woolf's life, for she is also a woman in the public spotlight, offering her art to critics and peers. In reassuring Woolf of the survival of her art and life, she also strengthens her resolve to weather her own conflicts in life and art.

The song ends by referring to Virginia Woolf's tragic death and to the musician's "rebirth" that has come from this timeless connection to Woolf through her diary. "The place where you hold me is dark in a pocket of truth. The moon has swallowed the sun and the light of the earth. And so it was for you, when the river eclipsed your life and sent your soul like a message in a bootle to me, and it was my rebirth. So we know we're alright.... and each life has its place." Like a floating message from someone stranded on a desert isle, Woolf's personal legacy reaches Saliers on the shore, where it confirms life for the artist. The refrain- "each life has its place"- demonstrates the magic that preserved words make. Saliers' song "Virginia Woolf' acknowledges that the honesty of Woolf's diary has transformed the musician by reinforcing her determination to endure.

Published journals serve as enlightening, intimate vehicles of communication through time, as Saliers demonstrates so eloquently in her music. By its very nature, journal reading allows a more informal, honest insight into the life and words of a writer, while journal writing offers a private release that delights in the preservation of honesty of expression-and yes, a haven for "secrets" can grow even from mattresses and bathrobe pockets. Both aspects of journals are enriching means toward self-discovery, communication, harborage.


Michelle Lee studies biogeography and English at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio.

© 1996, The Women in Literature and Life Assembly of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN #1065-9080). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale.

Reference Citation: Lee, Michelle. (1996). "Journals Spanning Time: Virginia Woolf, the Indigo Girls, Me. WILLA, Volume V, pp. 21-22.


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