Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf? Me! That’s who. Now I consider her one of my writing heroes. But why was I afraid of her? I’ve been exploring all sorts of fears and how they affect writers this week in the blog so I’ll tell you why Woolf used to scare me.
I’ve already confessed to another fear that wasn’t exactly rational. That was my fear of knitting. I have a few more on my list. Stand-up paddleboarding because my balance is lousy. Gadgets scare me. I’d rather give a speech in front of 500 people than try to figure out how to operate a flat iron or the cable control. But Virginia Woolf?
For a long time, I regarded Virginia Woolf, her works, and life as subjects for the right-brained folks. I went to nursing school, then got a bachelor’s degree in political science, and finally a law degree. My life was rooted in fact and logic. Definitely left-brained. While I always loved to read and write, I considered those “frivolous” activities or hobbies for my “spare” time, of which I had none. I still read lots of books, fiction and non-fiction, but literary fiction intimidated me. I’ll admit I thought I was out of my league or at least in a different league. But sometimes I fantasized what it would be like to be in a profession where you read or wrote fiction all day and got paid for it.
Once my children were grown and I had a little more leisurely time, I began rereading Jane Austen and a few other favorite authors I had indulged in as a young woman. Then I began exploring some of the classics I had missed while studying law and medicine. I decided to give Virginia Woolf another chance. Mrs. Dalloway had frustrated me on my first read as a young woman when a friend insisted I would love it because I was so outspoken about women’s rights. I knew I wasn’t getting it. I gave A Room of Her Own a whirl but returned it to the library a week before it was due. I’m an intelligent woman, but I threw my hands up in the air and decided I wasn’t Virginia Woolf material.
But it nagged at me when I’d hear her work quoted or her life referenced. When I began to write, I felt it was important for me to understand this revered female writer. So when a course on her work was offered this spring, I decided to give Virginia one more chance. The two professors who co-taught the course knew more about Virginia Woolf than I imagined possible, one having done her thesis on Woolf. My classmates were cordial but it was immediately clear they had read Woolf before and got her. Really got her. I was terrified.
Until I started reading Mrs. Dalloway again. This time I decided I wouldn’t judge Virginia or me. I would just read. It was difficult for a different reason this time. When I had read Woolf before, I had not begun writing. Now, I read Mrs. Dalloway hearing my agent’s voice in my ear. “You can’t switch point of view like that.” “That’s too much backstory. Weave it into contemporary events.” “You can’t introduce eight characters that quickly. You’ll confuse your reader.” But under the patient tutelage of my teachers, I quickly learned the constraints Woolf had faced and I realized how much she helped the modern novel to evolve.
By the time the class moved on to read A Room of One’s Own after reading Mrs. Dalloway, I no longer feared Virginia, she had become a writing hero to me. “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” A man in our class questioned whether this famous quote from Woolf’s lecture-series turned essay was relevant today given the achievements of women since 1929. A lively discussion erupted during which Woolf’s ability to trace the ability of women to engage in creative pursuits with parity throughout history indeed found modern relevance and was punctuated with passion from women within the class.
“The history of men’s opposition to women’s emancipation is more interesting perhaps than the story of that emancipation itself.” Woolf’s ability to recount that history in 1929 was groundbreaking. She dared say what others had too long-feared to say. “Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size.”
In the end, it was her fearlessness that won me over to Virginia Woolf. I began to appreciate that there is a history of fear in writing. The fear in writers about how others will judge their writing seemed almost universal “Literature is strewn with the wreckage of those who have minded beyond reason the opinion of others.”
I took heart in Woolf’s own words of courage. “Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.” “Anything may happen when womanhood has ceased to be a protected occupation.”
I am no longer afraid of Virginia Woolf.