“I see you everywhere,
in the stars,
in the river,
to me you’re everything that exists;
the reality of everything.”
-Virginia Woolf Night And Day
On March 28, 1942 …seventy five years ago…author Virginia Woolf wrote letters to her beloved husband and sister, put on her overcoat and filled her pockets with stones and walked into the River Ouse outside her home in Sussex and drowned herself. Contrary to some of the newspaper reports of the day, according to her note, her suicide was brought on by her mental health struggles and not an inability to cope with the hardship of the war. Read on…
Her body was found three weeks later on April 18, 1941.
Dear Ms Woolf,
To write, or not to write? That is the question.
Should I be leaving you to rest in peace rather than risk resurrecting the anguish, which stole your life away? Your ”disease” was not a game and as much as I might enjoy writing letters to dead poets, is it fair for me to impose? Break into your peace threatening to cart you off to Whitechapel Road…a place I only knew from the Monopoly board before last night.
No matter how well intentioned I might be, I am a stranger and not the one you cried out to from the very depths: “If anyone could have saved me, it would have been you.”
I am not trying to save you but I don’t want to walk past your grave like you weren’t even there. Indeed, while paddling along this stream to your door, I have read: Flush, A Room of One’s Own and A Letter to A Young Poet. So, although we were once strangers, we have embarked upon that negotiation towards friendship…two women writers being eaten alive by too many unanswered questions.
However, before I could reach any kind of conclusion, words were filling up the page and destiny stepped in. You were meant to be. That was weird, especially when I’m not sure that you’re a poet, but you were definitely a prose poet and the rest is all semantics.
So how are you?
I cast my question out into a slow flowing stream with my characteristic awkwardness and after a few false starts, the float is bobbing up and down in the current as I await your reply. It is a picturesque country scene and the stream meanders through weeping willows and English grass so bright I need shades. Of course, my camera has been a thorough glutton devouring everything in sight on this trip. We’re accustomed to a “sunburnt” land.
Of course, for you, there is no such thing as a simple question. You would need some time to pause and consider your response. Perhaps, you have gone to Oxbridge. Or, you’re at the British Museum, ploughing through that huge stack of books looking for answers. You might even consult Mary Beaton. Or, let Lady Winchilsea speak on your behalf. She had quite a way with words:
Alas! a woman that attempts the pen,
Such an intruder on the rights of men,
Such a presumptuous creature, is esteemed,
The fault can by no virtue be redeemed.
They tell us we mistake our sex and way;
Good breeding, fashion, dancing, dressing, play
Are the accomplishments we should desire;
To write, or read, or think, or to inquire
Would cloud our beauty, and exhaust our time,
And interrupt the conquests of our prime;
Whilst the dull manage of a servile house
Is held by some our outmost art, and use.
Introduction, Lady Winchilsea
By the way, when I asked you how you are, it was really more of a social convention. You didn’t need to write me an essay so long, that it’s become a book. Indeed, I’ll need a room of my own and independent means to have the time to read it.
Ms Woolf, I am writing to you because for so many years I took your words to heart:
“A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”-Virginia Woolf
How I’ve longed for a room of my own overlooking the beach with the waves rolling in and crashing on the rocks below!. Indeed, I used to have that room once upon a time in the now mythical land of Whale Beach. Unfortunately, it’s long been lost and buried in the sand, just like Atlantis. Indeed, it now feels like a dream…
There’s a street light shining down the other end of the beach and a stream of light slithered like a snake through the surf mesmerising and luring me away from the blank page like the Pied Piper. I wasted so much time thinking the quest for love was all there was and nothing else mattered. My sense of self went up and down the waves and the tide like a helpless piece of driftwood without any kind of anchor. As much as I could stretch my wings and fly in that room of my own, I was alone.
I didn’t understand just how precious those hours were back then. I do now.
I AM FOREVER walking upon these shores,
Betwixt the sand and the foam,
The high tide will erase my foot-prints,
And the wind will blow away the foam.
But the sea and the shore will remain
Kahlil Gibran: Sand & Foam
However, I have also longed for that room of my own, that much needed oasis where I could write and even hear my whispering thoughts without competing with the ugly din of TV, fighting kids and barking dogs.
So, I did what any dreamer does when the outside gets a little tricky, I retreated within. Built a room inside my head. Indeed, it was a Kombi and especially in the midst of utter disaster and despair, we would head up North to Byron Bay and I’d run through the sun chasing butterflies.
Fortunately, the clouds lifted and the disease which has been stalking me like a crazy possessive lover for the last ten years, has left me alone. Well, not entirely alone but his shadow has retreated out through the back door and is crouched on a distant hill. I’m hoping he’s run out of manoeuvres and I’ve finally won but I’m staying vigilant. Reminding myself that even though things are going well, I still need to take precautions. Be prepared.
So, now my view of the room has changed and I no longer need or necessarily believe that a writer, regardless of gender, needs a room of their own to write fiction or any other genre. Rather, there is so much to be gained from rich, complex and nourishing relationships that you simply cannot experience in a room of your own. Moreover, as a lover of the wings of a butterfly, the rich beauty of a rose and basking in the sun under an azure sky, I’d rather be outdoors. Liberated!
An extraordinary moment.
I also have to ask whether it is truly necessary for a writer to be a single person and not experience an ongoing, intimate relationship without being forced to hang up their pen, computer or quill. Is it possible to love and be loved and still be a writer? Taking that relationship further, dare a writer male or female have children? Or, must these be also sacrificed to the cause as well? Is the muse an all-consuming beast and the writer is but its inglorious host?
Well, being something of a glutton myself, I am trying to have my cake and eat it too.
So, I personally believe “the room of your own” needs a re-think. After all, while it has solitude, it is missing so much! There are no other people, no affectionate tail-wagging dogs sleeping on your feet. There is no one bringing you a cup of tea and calling you ”darling” and wrapping their arms right around you like a vine and drawing you close enough to feel their heart beating next to yours and all that entails. There’s no one who cares whether you live, die or whether your train was delayed and you were late for work. Or, how the muse whispered in your ear and the words flowed through your pen and onto the page in a never-ending glorious stream.
Personally, I find there’s nothing like standing with your feet anchored in the wet sand as the waves roll into the shore. Meanwhile, you’re watching your children carving out engineering masterpieces trying to contain that great uncontrollable force…the sea. I watch them through my camera lens soaking up their delight and also my daughter’s intense fear and avoidance as the waves roll in and her little feet run up onto dry sand and stay put.
Those days were very precious and have slipped through my fingertips like sands through the hour glass.
While it’s easy to focus on all the “losses” sustained when a woman embarks on Marriage, Mortgage,Kids” , it is very easy to overlook the “gains”. While that all might sound incredibly mushy and more like something a grandmother might say, my children have actually extended me at least as much as they have clipped my wings. This includes taking up the violin which I’ve now been playing for four years and taking up skiing, despite having a chronic life-threatening disease and mobility issues. Possibly even more challenging, have been all the challenges involved in being a “Scout Mum”. Trust me, this is no passive support role. Rather, I’ve had to drive to remote locations and find their tents in the rain bumbling through the dark while helping them carry their gear. It’s meant having to empty and inspect my son’s backpack with him after funnel web spiders had been found in bags and I thought two sets of eyes were definitely better than one. Probably the most challenging thing for me, has been helping them to pack their bags for camp. Although they’re provided with a very easy to follow packing list, even this can be too much for us some times.
On one hand, you could say all these other activities are distracting me from my writing. That being a writer and indeed taking that leap towards becoming a best-selling critically acclaimed writer, takes focus. Absolute focus and not all these detours all over the countryside driving Mum’s Taxi.
However, to become a writer, you must have something to write about. Taken literally, you can argue the mere act of writing makes you a writer but that’s not the sort of writer we’re talking about, is it? We’re talking about writers pursuing the Holy Grail. We’re going straight for the jackpot, the gold medal and not settling for silver or bronze. Being the Shakespeare of our generation…no less!
That’s why we often do a deal with the devil and follow the muse straight over the edge. Go too far.
Perhaps, I’ve been doing that a bit too much myself lately. Locking myself away in my cave writing letters to dead poets while my kids are at home on school holidays. I should be spending time with them. I want to spend time with them but then the muse comes along and can be extremely possessive. Does NOT like sharing! Besides, , I’ve been going round and round the mulberry bush with the writing project for ten years and couldn’t walk away. I had to grab the sweet fruit with both hands and indulge. Let its sweet nectar drip all over my fingers and lips and let my soul feast.
And, so I found my heart torn in two.
Anyway, as the train has zoomed through A-U, I know find myself stopping off at V with you. There are so many questions I could ask.
Throughout these letters, I have explored what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman. While I had found poems by Hemingway and Kipling outlining the traits required to become a man, I couldn’t find any equivalent for my daughter. I don’t want to paint women as victims, unable to achieve. Rather, I want her to believe in herself and that she can conquer her particular sphere of the world and potentially be the difference there. I definitely don’t want her following in the footsteps of your Judith Shakespeare. Not at all.
So, it’s looking like I might have to write my daughter a poem all of her own.
Make that another one!
Well, I hope you have experienced happiness along our journey together and I look forward to hearing from you!
I apologise this has been rather rushed and I will head back in due course and revise it somewhat. School goes back tomorrow and getting organised has been a nightmare!