Friday, September 18, 2015

On Non-Fiction, Virginia Woolf and A Room Of My Own

Yes, Ron, I finished my non-fiction classic assignment. I'm sorry it took me so long. I have an admission to make ... Despite the sheer number of books I read and have read, only the tiniest number of those are non-fiction. 

As a young girl, I read lots of biographies on women I admired. And I have a friend who has gifted me with several amazing non-fiction reads. I've started them ... they intrigue me ... They truly Beckon me to indulge their ideas and savor their words. And I will. I want to.  Be patient with me ... I'm just not finished ... yet.  Just give me Time.


See when I read fiction, I escape or explore or visit or experience something outside my purview. I go on an adventure somewhere or with someone who exists only in my imagination. But when I read non-fiction, I'm guided to look inside. Sometimes that isn't the easiest read for me. I read slower. I read to learn or take note of something. I read ... differently.

So, Ron, when I selected my non-fiction classic, I selected the shortest book I could. All of 113 pages, I thought I'd get thru Virginia Woolf's A Room Of One's Own in record time.

Um ... I didn't. Took me six weeks and one library renewal. Perhaps it was knowing my brother had already read it and actually owned a copy that pushed me to finally pick it up and NOT set it down in favor of something ... fiction.

So, Virginia, I have a room of my own. This, according to Virginia, was necessary for a writer to truly find her voice. As I type my prose or my poetry, I enjoy my room. My cat shares my room. My family occasionally ventures into my room. But, it's mostly my room and that's pretty much all I can expect since I'm a woman who makes less than the 1929 equivalent of 500 pounds a year ... another requirement according to Virginia.  Inflation being what it is, I am informed that to adjust said £500 in 1929 to present value would mean about £25,000 or $43,000 in US dollars. Anyway, I don't make that, Virginia, so sharing my room occasionally but having it to my self most of the time is a pretty darn good deal.

About the book ... If you pick it up, read the first two pages of Chapter 1. Then, when she starts going on about Mary Beton, skip to Chapter 2. I am absolutely convinced that if I had done that in the first place, I would have been captivated much faster. See Virginia lacks focus in Chapter 1, she rambles a lot in an attempt to illustrate the poor treatment of women at the time and how impossible it was for women to become writers. That's pretty much all I got from Chapter 1.

But then as I read on, I found myself noting many profound comments that I wanted to return to or make note of later. (That's what happens to me when I read non-fiction!) Virginia's use of descriptive devices is tremendous. I could see and smell the places she referenced. Her story about Shakespeare's "sister" and the unwelcome nature of not only an Elizabethan writer but an Elizabethan female actor ("any woman born with a great gift would have gone crazed, shot herself, or ended her days in some lonely cottage outside the village, half witch, feared and mocked at") was stirring. As a female actor myself, the idea that someone would tell me that I could get no training in my craft or laugh in my face and bellow something about "poodles dancing and women acting" as he proclaimed that no woman could ever be an actress ... well ... that hit me. And I didn't like it.

Perhaps my favorite section was Virginia's examination of Jane Eyre, one of my treasured and much read books. Have you ever read it? Well, there are moments where Charlotte Bronte clearly spoke her own thoughts as Jane. She let her own commentary bleed into the work and into the thoughts of her character.  See there ... on the pages of that great novel ... I met a fellow restless spirit for the very first time. Jane/Charlotte shared a stirring reflection about her ... their? ... personality: "the restlessness was in my nature; it agitated me to pain sometimes ... " And she went on to say: "It is vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquility ... Women are supposed to be calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties and a field for their efforts ..."

According to Virginia -- and clearly both Charlotte and my dear friend Jane -- they need a room of their own and a chance to explore and find their voice, eventually articulating that voice on paper ... but that's only an option for a woman with £500 a year,

Virginia noted how most books about women at the time were written by men.  Men wrote their view of women and how a woman thought. Virginia then noted how women find themselves challenged to write like men when they should write their way. They should nurture and use their own voice -- not as someone else might or as someone might want them to write. They should not allow someone else's opinions to muddy the message they want to share. 

Virginia illustrated her thoughts with passion. Her images were stirring and decorated with beautiful and very intentional word choices. Her description of Shakespeare's talented but cast aside sister stirred me. Her review of Mary Carmichael's first novel was amusing. And her impatience with a world intolerant of women artists was quite clear.

Women writers out there ... Buy this book. Highlight the passages that stir you. And write like a woman. Write your words your way. Don't try to master a tone that isn't yours. Exercise the authenticity of your own voice!

Men writers out there ... Buy this book. Honor all your fellow writers ... male and female. You may not be Will Shakespeare, but you have something to say ... just like he did. You can learn from Virginia to honor your voice.  

Jane Austen had to hide her writing. She didn't have a Room Of Her Own. She didn't go anywhere ... the only traveling she did was through the pages of her novels. Those transported Jane as they eventually transported the reader.

Charlotte and Emily Bronte sold their beautiful tales for a pittance. They had neither £500 or a room of their own in which to write. But, these female writers -- women who probably scrounged and borrowed paper -- penned words and ideas that would stand the test of time. They found their voice and created vivid and intensely passionate characters that connected to their readers -- male and female. 

Virginia recognized their unique accomplishment in 1929, She would be glad to know these authors are still celebrated today.

I hope Virginia Woolf knows that women have their own rooms now. And that we have found our voice ... Oh, and that the Bodleian library now lets women inside its doors.

So, Ron, thanks for challenging me to read a non-fiction classic. I learned a lot about writing as I dog-eared page after page of "good stuff" in this little book. Think I will buy a copy to read it again ... and again.  

Just gonna skip Chapter 1!

                                                                                                                              -- Jenni