My son bought me a copy of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway as a Christmas present. He is working his way through a long list of classics (admirable) and said of those he had read so far, this was his favourite. I had to confess I had not read Virginia Woolf. As a feminist, this seemed like a particularly shameful confession because although Woolf was conflicted about labelling herself a feminist, so many women I admire hold her in near saintly esteem. When I started reading Mrs Dalloway I remembered (at least one of the reasons) why I had avoided her work. The semi-colons.
As most people interested in the written word will know, the story details Clarissa Dalloway’s day as she prepares to host a party. She muses and ponders as various characters are introduced. The writing style is a jumbled, poetic and wordy stream of consciousness slipping between different narrative points of view.
The interesting themes of the book are widely discussed, debated and deconstructed but the thing that stops me being able to make any tiny contribution to the discussion is the semicolon.
The semicolon litters the book like particularly invasive confetti – it germs the book to a point where I can’t get past the irritation of it to enable me to see the work in all its discussed glory.
I have never been a fan of the semicolon. A recent editor of some of my work invited me to add them to a particular paragraph. I had to re-write the whole thing because although I could see where she was going with it, why the suggestion had been made – and even how it might subtly add nuance to the paragraph – I just couldn’t litter my text with them.
As we all know, a semicolon is used to link two separate, equally positioned but closely related ideas in a single sentence.
I understand they have more about them than simple lists. I completely get that they can add a particular quality to a sentence. I am aware of many great authors who not only praise their utility but consider they add beauty to text. I am not one of them. I am in good company. Hemingway preferred short declarative sentences honed to acute sharpness.
However, one of the great things that often happens when I finally read an avoided or neglected classic work is that I am forced to consider why I haven’t read it earlier. In this case, to revisit my animosity towards the semicolon. Perhaps, maybe I am considering a softening towards considering the possibility of it being (as Abe Lincoln said) ‘A useful little chap’. I’m not sure. I need to ponder…
In any case, I will of course finish Mrs Dalloway – because I think I should and also because I will look forward to discussing with my son why he enjoyed it so much but whether it will nudge me towards more semicolon use remains to be seen.
In other news…
I submitted my novel to the publisher’s deadline. The wheels towards publication are in motion and after submission, I felt a little bit ‘what now?’. It is a strange space to be in and I had a peculiar gap of feeling I should be writing but despite lots of ideas not having any motivation. It lasted for most of January. I don’t recall reading about gap management in any ‘writers process’ type scripts. Stephen King and many others say they write word count every day – does this mean they don’t perceive ‘gaps’?
Anyway, fortunately, last week I suddenly got my AWOL mojo back and wrote and submitted three short stories to competitions, a trilogy of poems to an online anthology and started on my next novel. So far no semicolons have been used.