As the days grow shorter and darker on our way to the Winter Solstice, I always find myself in a more introspective mood. I want to shut out the blare of the headlines, turn down the next holiday party invitation, and just make myself cozy at home, lighting candles against the press of darkness beyond the windows. Despite all the distractions, if we relax into the sweet darkness of the solstice here in the northern hemisphere, December is a perfect time for writing.
Lately I have been dipping back into Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, an autobiographical fiction that I fell in love with when I was in my teens. Woolf’s description of Mrs. Ramsay’s dinner party reminds me of our dark December days; she captures so perfectly how we humans draw together with lights, conversation and food to hold the dispassionate impermanence of life at bay. This is a long passage, but it bears re-reading—slowly—in full.
Now all the candles were lit up, and the faces on both sides of the table were brought nearer by the candle light, and composed, as they had not been in the twilight, into a party round a table, for the night was now shut off by panes of glass, which, far from giving any accurate view of the outside world, rippled it so strangely that here, inside the room, seemed to be order and dry land; there, outside, a reflection in which things waved and vanished, waterily.
Some change at once went through them all, as if this had really happened, and they were all conscious of making a party together in a hollow, on an island; had their common cause against that fluidity out there….
Everything seemed possible. Everything seemed right. Just now (but this cannot last, she thought, dissociating herself from the moment while they were all talking about boots) just now she had reached security; she hovered like a hawk suspended; like a flag floated in an element of joy which filled every nerve of her body fully and sweetly, not noisily, solemnly rather, for it arose, she thought, looking at them all eating there, from husband and children and friends; all of which rising in this profound stillness (she was helping William Bankes to one very small piece more, and peered into the depths of the earthenware pot) seemed now for no special reason to stay there like a smoke, like a fume rising upwards, holding them safe together. Nothing need be said; nothing could be said. There it was, all round them. It partook, she felt, carefully helping Mr. Bankes to a specially tender piece, of eternity; as she had already felt about something different once before that afternoon; there is a coherence in things, a stability; something, she meant, is immune from change, and shines out (she glanced at the window with its ripple of reflected lights) in the face of the flowing, the fleeting, the spectral, like a ruby; so that again tonight she had the feeling she had had once today, already, of peace, of rest. Of such moments, she thought, the thing is made that endures. [Source]
And there it is: the reason we write memoir. To create from words a thing that endures. To light our candles and bring together our own tribe, at least in memory, as Woolf did when writing her elegiac autobiographical fiction about her mother, “Mrs. Ramsay,” and the family of which she was the heart.
In To the Lighthouse, Woolf transmutes grief into beauty, honoring her mother while also knowing that she herself would choose to be a very different kind of woman, dedicated to her art rather than to tending a family. Mrs. Ramsay’s boeufe en daube partakes of eternity only because Virginia Woolf wrote it down, her words shining like candles against “the flowing, the fleeting, the spectral”—the inevitability of time passing and the once familiar vanishing into the forgotten past.
As Woolf shows us so skillfully, what happens—the plot—is often less important than what we think about whatever has happened in our lives. There is little action in To the Lighthouse, in terms of a standard plot, but the characters’ subtle reflections on their quiet days provide revelations that still reverberate now, many decades later.
As the darkness closes in this solstice season, it’s a good time to shut out the never-ending beat of the 24/7 news cycle and the press of social events and holiday festivities, and tap into your own quiet, reflective inner voice. A danger of our hyper-linked time is that we think more about other people’s experiences than about our own. Too often we exist in a superficial world of headlines, our thoughts driven by the herd mentality of social media.
Purposeful memoir asks us to slow down and resist this superficial rush, this never-ending parade of other people’s lives. Writing down your memories and reflecting on what lessons they hold for you—and, perhaps, for others as well—is a wonderful antidote to the holiday frenzy.
Light your candle, take out your notebook or fire up your laptop, and focus in on your own experience, letting your memories, those tender bits of eternity, rise to the surface and writing them down before they vanish again.
If you’d like some potent entry points, you can find many stimulating prompts in my Writer’s Companion guide for purposeful memoirists, which is included as a free ebook in my online course (on sale through December 31, 2017).
Wishing you all a solstice season of light, love and laughter—both lived and remembered.