I read Virginia Woolf for the first time a few months ago. Can you believe I never read any Virginia Woolf until a few months ago? If you’ve never read any, it’s time. She’s pretty good.
I selected two pieces: a short essay entitled On Being Sick and the surprisingly slender A Room of One’s Own. Did you know that A Room of One’s Own is a speech? Well, it’s an essay she wrote with material from lectures she gave at Cambridge back in the 1920s, but to me, that makes it kind of a speech and therefore awesomely immediate. Both texts were packed with stunning, thought-provoking, clever, frequently charming prose. Virginia had the gift, man. In On Being Ill, she describes people who fall sick for long stretches thusly:
“We raise our feet even an inch above the ground on another, we cease to be soldiers in the army of the upright; we become deserters. They march to battle. We float with the sticks on the stream; helter-skelter with the dead leaves on the lawn…”
“The armies of the upright”?! Just head-slappingly good. But when I read Room, I learned something that truly blew my mind.
The phrase “a room of one’s own” is deployed with enough regularity that few native-born English speakers would go, “Whuh?” if someone dropped it into conversation. Your friend Stu might say, for example, “You know, I just need a couple weeks to chill. Do some journaling, cook, rest. Like, in a little cabin in the woods or something. A room of one’s own, you know?” And you would know what Stu is saying. He craves privacy and meditation time. He needs space and time, to turn off the cell phone and the email. A room of Stu’s own.
Some of us will know that Woolf’s concept of “a room of one’s own” was shared within the context of speaking about women — specifically, women writers. Her point is that women who want to write need space, few distractions; they need their independence.
That’s not the whole quote, folks. Virginia Woolf didn’t say that a woman who wants to write needs “a room of one’s own,” no she did not. This is what she said:
“A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”
Money and a room! Money and a room of her own. Do you realize how freaking important that is to what she’s saying? It changes everything! Having a dumb room is going to work for about two seconds unless you’ve got some scratch. Where is this room? Floating in space? No! It’s in a building! With heat and water to pay for, I’d wager! And how ‘ya gonna eat, child?? You need bread! Butter! Chocolate eclairs! How can you write anything of consequence if you’re starving and how can you write anything of consequence with pizzaz if you can’t buy yourself a damned eclair every once in awhile? Good grief! Virginia got it — she knew where the bakery was.
So re-learn the Woolf quote. It’s not just that a woman writer must have space. She has to have means, as well, and that idea raises curtains in the brain to let in magnificent, dazzling light. Money and a room of one’s own. Zowie.
Bonus quote expose: I recently came across this famous piece from Thomas Jefferson, which you will surely recognize: “What country before ever existed a century and a half without a rebellion? …The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”
You know that one. But there’s another line. That’s not the whole quote. Check it:
“What country before ever existed a century and a half without a rebellion? …The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.”
Word Nerd, over and out. You’re welcome!