When I think about the writers whose prose makes me groan with gratified envy, Virginia Woolf leads the posse. In her company are Annie Proulx, Sylvia Plath, Anne Enright, Peter Orner, Tania Hershman, and more. This “worship” of writers are stylists, and their sentences sing to me, letting me know that my own scrabbling in the word-pit is worthwhile. Canadian writer Douglas Glover says “good prose is vigorous, aboil with verbs, packed with motion.” This vigour in language is what I hope for when I read, as much as when I write.

I dip into Virginia Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary often. She’s candid about the way writers write on, regardless of critical or commercial success, in spite of rejection. While editing her novel Jacob’s Room she finds it “thin and pointless,” but acknowledges that “nature obligingly supplies me with the illusion that I am about to write something…rich and deep and fluent, and hard as nails, while bright as diamonds.”

She did, of course, write work that was all those things, but most writers are not gorged with genius as Woolf was, though we hope, equally, to produce good work. And we keep going despite the it’s-not-for-us notes that are part of every writer’s life. We understand that writing is a place we travel in and through, an exploration spot, not some destination that we arrive at.

Because I am taking time off writing in 2020 – my fiftieth year – I’m forced to pause and ask questions. Like, what is it for, this navigation of unexplored terrain, this slinging of ink onto bare pages? And, am I lying to myself? It’s absurd to imagine not writing for a year, writing is the warp and weft of my sanity – if I don’t write, I go a bit mad. So, I qualify the plan: “I won’t write a novel this year.” That, though scary, is at least realistic. I don’t need to write novels, but I do need to write so, with luck, my fiftieth year will be less about the freneticism of novel-writing, more about roaming through calmer places.

Last year, when I imagined my year off, I saw myself, too, jumping from the merry-go-round of literary festivals, teaching, readings, and schlepping around, home and away. I was wrung out by both novel-writing and novel-promotion, and a welcome literary bursary meant I could plan to step sideways for a year. For the sake of some much-needed peace, that’s what I decided to do. By lifting the novel axe from my neck, I thought maybe I’d learn the skill of doing nothing that seems so impossible to me.

World events, of course, eclipsed my plan; I, like most writers, am off the literary circuit for now, while the pandemic plays out. Making a choice is one thing, enforced seclusion is a different prospect, and it’s unsettling to find that my desire for more home-time and this crisis collided.


I think a lot of unpublished people have a skewed idea about what being a published author might mean to the writer herself. The book is the end-product of years of research and writing; of unsuccessful experiments; and of the mid-book cri de cœur: “I’ve failed – again!” Often, when the book is published, the writer is finished with it, emotionally and physically. The joy is not in the made object, or the party, or the wandering about, talking about the book. Those things can be fun, and celebration is important, but it’s not what the creative act is about. What the writer most wants is to be at home, alone, bubbling with anticipation, nurturing a fresh bud, being neatly deluded by nature and glad of it. Virginia Woolf said, “I want to be through the splash and swimming in calm water again. I want to be writing unobserved.” Amen, sister.


One of the happiest afternoons I’ve ever spent was at Monk’s House, Virginia Woolf’s country house in Rodmell, East Sussex. There, I exited our world and stepped into the place where all-is-well. The trees were heavy with pears and the pottery vases in the house heaved with purple salvias. The Woolfs’ painted furniture and lichened statuary seemed to hold pieces of them, and I wandered the property in a transcendent glow, knowing that Virginia had eaten at this table, she had written at that one.

There’s poignancy at Rodmell, too – it was from there that the writer walked to the River Ouse, in the last year of her fifties, and filled her pockets with rocks, the better to weigh down her drowning body. The few hours I spent at her home spoke only to the calm she enjoyed there but, still, I wished upon the poem “Ouse” by Patrick Chapman, which imagines the undoing of Virginia’s decision:

“under the gloss of the river

                                                                        a lily pad of red hair

breaking the surface

                                                                        it cowls into a bullet

as a head plunges up…”

Woolf’s writing lodge no longer smells of cigarette smoke, but it reeks of her presence. Her glasses are tossed on the desk, her rush-seat chair stands in a puddle of sunlight, waiting for her to resume ink-slinging, to attend to the ‘perpetual pageant’ of her imagination.

Like Woolf my mind converses with me endlessly and I too am “stuffed with ideas,” so the notion of my year off seems laughable, even moreso now that any writing engagements I had agreed to have been cancelled. But I remind myself that the plan was only not to write a novel, and to pull back from the public side of writing – those things being more palatable to my panicky side, which complains about the treadmill while stepping on and on and on.


Inspired by Woolf’s lodge, I built a room of my own, a grab at the untidy tranquillity she enjoyed at Monk’s House. My writing cabin is a place of joy; there, I’m untouchable. Like Woolf, who went to her lodge with “the regularity of a stockbroker,” I spend a large portion of each day in my cabin. My books are here, my desk, pictures, stones, sea glass, shells; a Victorian rocking chair. Woolf had a rocker too and a typewriter. It’s easy to imagine her dog Pinka sprawled across her feet while she wrote. Apart from some kind of income, writers need few things to be getting on – just language, leisure, and a place to sit, as I once heard the Canadian writer Alistair MacLeod say.


“There’s a luxury in being quiet in the heart of chaos,” Woolf wrote in her diary in 1927. I pencilled a big YES! beside this. I’ve only recently allowed myself to mark books. I realise that time is pootling on; I’m halfway through my life, or more, and it’s time to underline the important things: family, mental and physical health, clutching at any chance for peace, mostly by nurturing the joy in nature that was such a part of my rural Dublin childhood. In my year off, I hope to spend more time by water; I grew up beside the River Liffey, and Glorney’s Weir was my lullaby. I crave the calm and quiet that the sound and look of water brings.

I don’t take being a full-time writer for granted. I’ve worked solidly for twenty years to get to where I am. But I also recognise that sometimes it’s wise to try something else for a while, a different way of being in the world. As I turn fifty, and for the year 2020, I plan to channel beloved Virginia Woolf; like her “I will dream; I will take my mind out of its iron cage and let it swim.”

Nuala O’Connor lives in Co. Galway, Ireland. In 2019 she won the James Joyce Quarterly competition to write the missing story, “Ulysses,” from Dubliners. Her fourth novel, Becoming Belle, was recently published to critical acclaim in the U.S., Ireland and the U.K. Her forthcoming novel is about Nora Barnacle, wife and muse to James Joyce. Nuala is editor at flash e-zine Splonk

Author Photo by Úna O’Connor