I'm old enough to remember when not even Virginia Woolf was a certain member of the literary canon, although she was grudgingly accepted by the time I got to graduate school in the late 80's. When I was in undergraduate school, my professors were likely to present her as one of many female writers who were stark, raving mad, and therefore, not worthy of our attention.
When I got older, it occured to me to wonder why so many women writers were stark raving mad. Of course, reading Gilbert and Gubar's The Madwoman in the Attic was a huge help. No other book of literary criticism has meant as much to me as that one, and I don't expect that any book of literary criticism ever will.
I wrote my M.A. thesis on James Joyce, and it was interesting to read Mrs. Dalloway after that experience. We forget what a radical experiment those Modernist writers were engaged in: to try to depict human consciousness, just the way we experience it. As far as I can see, most writers in our day have decided not to make that attempt anymore.
As a creative writer, Virginia Woolf's essay "A Room of One's Own" has meant the most to me. She was so insightful in naming all the forces which have kept women from writing, and I have tried to fiercely guard against those forces. I haven't had children, and I've tried to always have some sort of job where money is coming in. I've gone as far as I could go in school, and I've tried to stay on top of the subjects where my lack of knowledge might be used against me. I have writing space that is mine, several of them, now that I think about it. They have doors that close--and lock, if necessary.
Of course, now in midlife, I begin to wonder whether or not the circumstances that Woolf observed early in the twentieth century are the same for us in ours. I think they are. If we're scrounging for money, we won't have time to create. If we have no inviolate space, it will be hard to create. Women who have children will create different art than those of us without children--or they may create no art until the children are older. When I was younger, I would have assumed that would be a great tragedy. Now, I'm not so sure. Maybe the art is richer.
No, if I was updating Woolf's essay, I'd warn about the insidious impact of so much technology that gives us so much information. I think that most of us don't have the kind of downtime that so many creative types need. We're all so plugged in. We may now have the money that Virginia Woolf realized that we would need, but those jobs that make us self-sufficient also drain away a lot of our time. We're always checking e-mail, always checking voice mail--and most of us don't have the kind of jobs where we really need to be present. Really, what will happen at the office if I check my e-mail 5 hours later? What crisis will there be? I'm not a brain surgeon. No one will be bleeding or dying--and if they are, that's responsibility goes to a dean's level person, not me.
We're frazzled and fragmented, but in such a different way than Woolf was. She was denied an education, denied entrance to the library, denied resources. We have more resources than we can ever consume in a lifetime. It's a burden of a different kind.
Happy birthday, Virginia Woolf. Thanks for blazing that trail that so many of us travel. Thanks for the notes you've left us to enjoy as we blaze our own trails.
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