A “lens essay” uses a concept or method (a “lens”) from a given text to interpret, analyze, or explore another subject. It often then turns back to reflect, elaborate, or comment on the usefulness of the lens concept or method.

Anything that can be illuminated by a textual lens is an appropriate subject for this kind of assignment. For example, you might use one of the essays we read together to discuss visual representations, physical objects, events, spaces, or even your own lived experiences.

So far, we have read four essays together: “Homer I,” by David Denby; “Approaching Eye Level,” by Vivian Gornick; “Reading Philosophy at Night,” by Charles Simic; and “A Sketch of the Past,” by Virginia Woolf.

Choose one essay and use it as a “lens.”

A Map of the Future

If we accept Socrates's claim that “The unexamined life is not worth living,” two questions arise: What makes a life worthy of examination? How ought we to examine it? In the opening excerpt from Virginia Woolf's “A Sketch of the Past,” she does not address the former, but she meets the latter squarely. As she sets about writing her brief memoirs, she examines the mechanics of her memoir-writing. Between best approximations of her first “exceptional moments” (71), she subjects her own descriptions to scrutiny redolent of the scientific method: first observe, then identify, then attempt to explain the significance of the results: “That is, I suppose, that my memory supplies what I had forgotten, so that it seems as if it were happening independently, though I am really making it happen” (67). Here she accounts, as would a responsible scientist interpreting an experiment, for the shortcomings of the apparatus and experimenter. Her predilection for this exacting brand of self-analysis is fueled by ”…the rapture [she gets] when in writing [she seems] to be discovering what belongs to what” (72), an indulgence in which she partakes on several occasions — she apologizes for digressions on pages 67 and 70, though they're no more digressive than her other anecdotes or trains of thought — even as she earnestly intends to waste no time recording her history over the course of “two or three [mornings] at most” (64). For these indulgences I must readily forgive her, because I do the same, as a matter of intentional habit, in my online journal. I write there for many of the same reasons she does here, and much of her self-analysis rings familiar.

Early in the piece, Woolf considers briefly the form she ought to follow. “As a great memoir reader, I know many different ways [in which memoirs can be written]” (64) She doesn't elaborate, though a few paragraphs later she does note the fundamental importance (and difficulty) of describing the writer, “the person to whom things happened” (65). As quickly as she opens the question, she closes it: “But if I begin to go through them and to analyse them and their merits and faults, the mornings — I cannot take more than two or three at most — will be gone” (64). And with that, she begins to recollect, stopping here and there to reflect on the endeavor. One such reflection leads her to the idea of ”[making] these [notes] include the present — at least enough of the present to serve as platform to stand upon” (75), an idea which I also eventually derived for my own use.

In the early days of my journaling career, I wrestled with form as well, though for much longer, and out of ignorance rather than expedience. My very first entries were nearly unadorned chronology, narrowly avoiding tedium by sole virtue of their brevity. For example: “I spent all day today (from 9AM to 1AM) working on the big client project, with breaks for ingestion and excretion. It was slow going but I made some significant progress” (1999-06-27). On introspection, and with feedback from friends, it occurred to me that I was underutilizing my journal by employing it as a glorified calendar, and I hit upon a winning formula to fix it: describe what happened, then describe what I thought or felt about it. One such entry: ”…a noisy family sat around us, two behind and two in front. No peace for our tired ears, but even less for the mom in charge of her young kids. Against this backdrop, I am reminded of how glad I am to stand alone. I appreciate the degrees of freedom afforded me by having significant responsibilities only to myself. At some point in the future, this may no longer be true; I am enjoying it while it lasts” (2000-01-31) What might have been a colorless, odorless tale of a long, flat bus trip with a friend is now being told in a voice recognizably my own. Since it's “so difficult to describe any human being” (65), I attack it from the opposite direction: a stranger need only read some small finite number of my quotidian stories to form a reasonable mental facsimile of me.

As a published writer of repute, Woolf is certainly accustomed to having her work read by strangers. In this piece, however, she's writing as much for her own edification as for that of others. “I have no energy at the moment to spend upon the horrid labour that it needs to make an orderly and expressed work of art; where one thing follows another and all are swept into a whole” (75), by which she seems to be conveying her lack of interest in adhering to her usual standards of quality for public consumption. Nonetheless, she carries on writing, implying that she must have some other end in mind. We initially see only a peek at it, as she does: “But now that for the first time I have written them down, I realise something that I have never realised before” (71), a case of having deepened some existing understanding “by putting it into words” (72). Reflecting on how she “ceased to be obsessed by [her] mother” (81) as a result of having written To The Lighthouse, she notes, “I suppose that I did for myself what psycho-analysts do for their patients” (81) — namely, help them to arrive at a more accurate conception of reality, its meaning, and their place in it.

This happens to be the key function of my journal. While it's important to me that my friends and family read it to stay apprised, and I don't mind that the occasional Googler chances across it, I write in it primarily for my own benefit. A few months ago, in discussing with my sister our continued growth as adults, she related to me that the ways in which she's known me to analyze my beliefs, choices, and actions correlate very strongly with the techniques of “cognitive-behavioral therapy.” True or not, I smiled (narcissistically?) to think that professional therapists teach what I do. When Woolf supposes ”…that the shock-receiving capacity is what makes [her] a writer” (72), my experience suggests the reverse: my writing (which is to say, explaining) capacity is what makes me shock-resistant. I also don't agree with Woolf's seemingly subjectivist view that something can be ”[made] real by putting it into words” (72), but I do find that recorded language, in its potential rigor and permanence, places beneficial demands on my thinking. For instance, the act of writing about what seemed “cotton wool” (72) isolation while traveling in Europe transformed it into a “moment of being” by expanding my self-awareness: “I've been feeling wonderfully lonely the last few days. The mechanics of it make complete sense: spend time with old friends, make new ones, then say goodbye to all. Always too soon. Never enough time. By instinct one grabs at what has gone, tries to set it back as it was. But it can't be done. I like the way this feels. Knowing what it means, I enjoy watching myself struggle with it” (2005-06-06).

Had I not written about the emotional heft of those last days in Paris, I'd no doubt have forgotten all about it. Strangely, until a few years ago, I wasn't convinced I was particularly intelligent; I was rather certain that my intellectual successes were instead due to my high reading speed and capacity for memorization. Then I noticed I'd become terribly forgetful in my dotage, and pressed my journal into additional service as an aide-memoire. I recently explained my latest memory technique to a friend: “When information follows a pattern, don't store the information, just store the pattern.” Thus I remember hierarchies of abstractions very well, which prove applicable in many life situations, at the cost of many of the supporting details needed to derive them. (This is visible in my writing, which continually needs details stashed in the cargo bay to keep it from floating away.) Woolf encapsulates precisely the reason for my troubles: “Unfortunately, one only remembers what is exceptional” (69). With my combination of experience, introspection, and tendency toward abstraction, it's rare that an idea or event either conflicts with one of my rules, or requires me to invent a new one. So I'm too far gone to be able to reconstruct much from childhood, but by leafing through my journal, I'm “able to live [my life] through from the start” of late June 1999 (67).

In reconstructing her childhood, Woolf is contrite when “the strength anyhow of these impressions makes [her] again digress” (67). She needn't be. Sometimes it's enough just to observe. On rereading “A Sketch of the Past,” pen in hand, I paused and looked up. Through the windows in Lerner I gazed upon an animation: Columbians, walking in all directions, each with somewhere to be, something to do. Reflected in the windows, at least in my mind's eye, I saw myself among them, and I watched the animation accelerate. I thought: my four years here will end soon, on a regularly scheduled tomorrow. If I want to see it coming, I'd better walk with my head up.

This gives me hope. Perhaps I fashion mountains of abstractions in order to cope with a rapidly weakening memory; perhaps I fancy myself too worldly to be shocked. But because I still experience “moments of being,” I am still human. Such moments signify that my life continues to be worth the examining, and that my stories continue to be worth the telling.

Works Cited

  • Schlair, Amitai. Yareev's schmonz.com. 9 Feb. 2006. Amitai Schlair. 9 Feb. 2006. http://www.schmonz.com/
  • Woolf, Virginia. “A Sketch of the Past.” Moments of Being. Ed. Jeanne Schulkind. USA: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1976.