A LITERARY COMMUNITY POWERED BY VIDA: WOMEN IN LITERARY ARTS

Turn The Key: An Interview With Virginia Woolf

Why did I resurrect Virginia Woolf? I am British. (Working-class roots. Cypriot ancestry.) With this birthright comes an acute sense of class. So every time I hear about Virginia Woolf’s five hundred pounds per year inheritance, which relieved her from the worry and need to find work to keep a roof over her head and put food in her mouth, it pierces my heart a little.

I have been teaching creative writing in the U.S. for twenty-two years—seventeen of those years as an adjunct (in addition to a full-time office job), and now with a full-time teaching job that, on good weeks, requires me to read approximately 280 pages of creative work then write 34 pages of a typed responses per week. (On a bad week—final theses, etc.—I read approximately 1,400 pages of reading and 44 pages of typed responses.) The money I earn from this work does, however, enable me to afford a Room of My Own as well as the modern-day equivalent of five hundred (un-inherited) pounds.

Times have changed. Most of the women writers I know are working full time. Most are supporting themselves; some are even the sole providers for their families. Beyond this, most of the women writers I work with have more than one job—one full-time, plus another part time. When I hear women writers talking, it is not about wanting a room, but wanting time.

In the 21st century U.S., we are currently without free national healthcare and free college-level education, so this means we have to spend much of our lives working to pay off our student loans and dental bills, to pay for our entire family’s health coverage, to pay rent, gas, electric, heat; and what we have left, we use to feed our families.

Why did I write the following interview? As an undergraduate and graduate student I worked full-time and went to school at night. At that time in my life (and as the daughter of a formally uneducated man and woman), I was in desperate need of a working-class woman writer to inspire me. I was hungry for this inspiration; without it I would have felt that writing was only something that a middle-class or upper-class woman with inherited money could do.

I resurrected Virginia Woolf to encourage working women who are writers to ask ourselves what we really feel about the “room” and the present-day equivalent of the five hundred pounds per year? For me, the most important question is this: In the 21st century, what do we most need as women who take ourselves seriously as writers in the world?

***

Interviewer (I): First, let me say how humbled I am that you have granted me this interview on your one-day resurrection. I have prepared some questions, so that I don’t waste a single one of your precious minutes. What my readers would most like to know is if you find the world of today a far cry from the one you left behind in 1941?

Virginia Woolf (VW): Before I plunge into my sense of how the early years of the 21st century differ from the 20th, let me first say I consider it a privilege to return for this fleeting moment to address some of the concerns with which women writers of today must contend.

Since time is indeed precious, let us begin: Yes, your world certainly differs from the one I was addressing in A Room of One’s Own, but there is still a lot that applies. What might be most helpful for today’s woman writer is to contemplate how my words may be differently interpreted to allow one’s self the freedom to write.

I: My readers would love to hear you talk about how you are re-interpreting your own work. Would you mind speaking further on this subject?

VW: Not at all. What first comes to mind is that since my death Feminism has offered women many positive advances, but, as with every movement, it is never a linear path; along the way there are obstacles to overcome. (From my celestial vantage point, I have a clear view.) Also, when I wrote “five hundred a year stands for the power to contemplate, . . .a lock on the door means the power to think for oneself,” it was not part of my experience that women could sometimes be the sole providers for their families. It was also not part of my experience that women could attend college to study beside their brothers. So in this day and age, where this is now the case, I would advise women to seriously contemplate how they will make the most of their five hundred pounds. (What would that be in 2013 for your countrywomen? Approximately $50,000 perhaps?) I venture to add that the most important question a woman writer might now ask herself is: What kind of lock would I buy?

I: If you wouldn’t mind, I have an experience to share with you that might act as a shortcut to help you understand further how life has changed for women since your death.

VW: Please, go on. I welcome any information that helps me to understand the lives of today’s women writers more deeply.

I: In 1991, I was watching an interview on the television with two writers—a man and a woman—who had recently published new work. The interviewer asked the writers what it was like to work on their books. The man spoke first. “I locked myself up in my office and didn’t see my children for five years.”

Then the interviewer asked the woman the same question. She said, “I am a single mother with two children and a full-time job, so sometimes I sat at my typewriter with one of my children in my lap, pulling at my earring as I typed.”

I don’t remember the name of the male author, but I do remember the name of the female author: Toni Morrison. (A contemporary woman writer of great stature and acclaim.) For women writers of today, the child sitting on a mother’s lap is a symbol of our time. Women are constantly having to juggle their responsibilities. I wonder what you think of this snapshot? Many women writers are clinging to it. (Myself included.) Have you thoughts on how this might relate to your updated idea of how we should ask ourselves what kind of lock would we buy?

VW: Thank you for this anecdote. I am a fan of Ms. Morrison’s work. (The Afterlife has an extensive library.) Your story clearly demonstrates how times have changed. It also helps me to refine my advice. I can see why women writers would cling to this kind of inspiration. What you are talking about here is determination. What is evident to me in your contemporary world is that money can buy a certain kind of freedom and it can also purchase a lock. But it seems as if turning the key has now become the primary obstacle. If I were to revise my words for the 21st-century woman writer, I would add to my original sentiment in this way:

“Five hundred a year stands for the power to contemplate, . . .

a lock on the door means the power to think for oneself . . .

turning the key means putting your work first.”

I: If I understand you correctly, you are asking the women writers of today to think about what it takes to put their work first.

VW: Exactly. What good is an unlocked lock? The focus of my advice is immersion, without the interruptions of others people’s ideas, needs, and demands. What hasn’t changed over time is how much women are expected to be all things to all people, and because of this it is a constant fight to put their writing first. Writing is a serious endeavor. It is not something to be done sitting on the sofa with children or spouses coming in to ask where you keep the biscuits or the automobile keys. Or to be interrupted by an employer who calls your home at night to ask where you put last year’s accounts. I’m sure that you must have your own example of how the world intrudes on your work. I’m interested to hear your story.

I: I wasn’t expecting the spotlight to fall on my own writing. On the one hand, it feels like a blessing to have Virginia Woolf’s ear, and on the other hand I feel exposed. Nevertheless, I will speak honestly.

A few years ago, I was given a backhanded gift that I have never forgotten: two months of unemployment. This was the only time in my adult life that I was not working full time. Besides looking for work, my only commitment was to my writing. This singular interval, in which time was abundant, was a revelation to me: I read and I wrote with a voraciousness that took me by total surprise—it was as if I had been waiting my whole life for this freedom. And something else equally surprising happened: during this short period of unemployment, when I sat down to write more poems (until this time I had only written poetry), instead, fifteen pages of prose spilled out. Then, two months later, I had thirty pages of prose. Once I was back in full-time employment, the prose kept coming (albeit in dribs and drabs). Eventually, I had to admit I was writing a novel, and not just any novel, but an historical novel, one that required me to do research on two women from the 19th century. One of these 19th century women was also given a five-hundred-pound-a-year allowance by her father, so, like you, she did not have to worry about money and was liberated to devote herself to her vocation. And as a result, her name became synonymous with heroism. The other woman—my main character—a descendant of people who were recently enslaved—was born into a working family, without an inheritance, but she did not let this deter her.

Working on this novel is teaching me, from the inside, about determination. And self-determination. And about the ways in which locks and keys can lock us in or lock us out. Ms. Woolf, I confess: the door to my room slammed closed behind me and I accidentally locked myself out, with the key inside.

VW: My dear, this is not something over which you need despair. A lock can be replaced. What concerns me is why you have not already done so? What have you been doing since you locked yourself out?

I: I’ve been writing in parked cars, on the subway, and even in airport terminals. I have also been writing at the kitchen table while the dinner is cooking, and at the Laundromat while the laundry is drying. I squeeze writing in wherever and whenever I can.

Ms. Woolf, I feel self-conscious that I have taken up your time with my own concerns, but then I know that my difficulties apply to others, and so I am emboldened to mention one last thing. Would you mind if I used another woman writer’s words to explain how I currently feel?

VW: Not at all. I am always looking for inspiration. Death has not stopped me from dreaming.

I: The writer, Hélène Cixous, once wrote: “One can die from being unable to write in time the book one has in one’s body. This is the book that must be braved, it demands of me a courage I desperately seek to call up in myself.”

This sentiment is exactly how I feel about my work, and I’m sure this sentiment is felt by a large majority of my readers. Therefore, my last question before you have to return to the Afterlife is: Taking into consideration Cixous’ words, do you have any advice to help those of us who have been locked out of our rooms?

VW: Yes, I do: Replace your lock. (But if this is too costly, a padlock will do.) Step inside. Turn the key.

 

Comments

  1. karla lee myles haas moskowitz says:

    elena, thank you for this. i cannot help but feel inspired by these words: “death has not stopped me from dreaming” and thinking about the invitations to die that one may encounter throughout life and beyond. then i consider how locks may provide various opportunities to die and to come alive depending on which side of the locked door you stand. so replacing locks and key-turning might be some handy skills to teach girls as they grow up. as a teacher, i will take that advice to heart.

    it is not surprising that you offer some lovely wisdom as you seem to do. at just the right time.

  2. Thank you, Karla. Yes, locks can be positive & negative. Making sure you’ve found one that works to keep you on the right side of nourished is what we all yearn for.

  3. Mary Pacifico Curtis says:

    Elena,

    So wonderful to ‘hear’ your voice in conversation with Virginia Woolf. This piece makes me think it would be productive to more regularly dialog with a favorite author about matters of our lives and times…

    • Hello Mary! Thank you for reading & commenting. What I found out about doing this mock interview is two things: 1. We need to update/rethink what we need to flourish as writers in the 21st century US; and 2. A lot of women writers are struggling in the same way as I am. . Now what to do? As for other interviews, go for it.

  4. Wow, Elena! This is so, so real and wonderful. Thank you! I am so grateful for the encouragement.

    • I’m so glad you found encouragement in reading this, Kat. We all need it. & we should all take it wherever we can find it.
      I hope your writing is thriving.

  5. Lara Yurman says:

    So good to read your words Elena, as well as Ms. Woolf. And thank you for the reminder that my work, my writing, must come first. Indeed it is time that is the most difficult obstacle to overcome, but also the expectations of those around us who often think their own needs are most urgent.

    • Well, Lara, I know that you are a f/t teacher in a high school, so it is difficult to put yourself first when the job of teaching is just as important as writing. That’s the problem.. & one pays the bills & the other doesn’t. So how do you parcel out your time when there are only 24 hours in a day?

      I have a solution for us all . . . We all get f/t pay for p/t work & free health coverage.
      Do you think any government would go for this idea? :-)

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