Awaiting Further Instruction: A Letter to Virginia Woolf

Awaiting Further Instruction: A Letter to Virginia Woolf

April 07, 2020 2 Comments

Dear Virginia,

I’m writing with some wonderful news. I’ve done it! I have secured a room of my own: a third floor home office in which resides a perfectly adequate writing desk, yellow flowered armchair ideal for reading, and windows overlooking my backyard. As per your wise suggestion, it is even possible to lock the door.

Oh! More good news! The room comes to me by way of my own earning. Not only was I allowed to wander the libraries and grounds of my local university, I was permitted to enroll in the classes—right alongside men! Allowed to get not one, but two degrees! I have a thriving consulting practice and make meaningful contributions to my household income – much as you predicted. Also, in accordance with your predictions, I have borne children in the “twos and threes” (three, in my case) and “not in tens and twelves” (thank God).

Things are, for the most part, going swimmingly. If I may, then…a few follow-up questions.

First, the whole ‘working mom’ thing keeps me pretty busy, perhaps busier than you might have imagined. But it’s not just the maintenance of my financial independence that gets in the way of my writing—it’s more complicated than that. I will try to explain.

On the rare occasion I make it up to my room, lock my door, and sit down to write, I’m having some difficulty focusing. This distraction is largely attributable to the Internet (and its cousins: social media, email and texting). I will not bore you with an explanation of these strange things. Suffice to say their sum effect is akin to a constant knocking at the door of my room. For even when I retire there to write, I am aware of the presence of someone outside the door. Someone who wants or needs my attention. Those knocking include my husband, my children, my mother, my clients, my business partner, friends and neighbors, the store down the street having a sale, the person who needs my health insurance form, the host awaiting an RSVP to her holiday party… You will perhaps not believe it when I tell you that in the time I wrote this paragraph, no less than 16 people have knocked.

I know you say it has ever been thus, that general circumstance—health, work, barking dogs—conspire against the writing mind. I suppose I must, in the tradition of novelist Jonathan Franzen (don’t bother; you won’t like him), turn off the wifi, seal up my USB ports with wax, and hope that none of the thwarted communication is coming from a distressed child or irate client. It’s just that even if I ignore all the knocking, I can’t shed the very real sense that for every minute I spend in my room, the line outside my door grows ever longer.

Beyond their intrusion into my space, there is an even more disturbing element to these inventions, and I am rather at a loss as to how to translate it to you. Perhaps I can best explain it using your own words. You observe that it is the writer’s unique privilege and responsibility to remain awake to the presence of realityto give it shape and form on the page, thereby allowing readers to see and understand their own reality all the more deeply. This reality, you suggest, can take the form of a daffodil in the sun, a scrap of newspaper in the street, the silence of a dark and starry night. You describe its nature as both erratic and undependable. I love this.

Oh Virginia, what if I were to tell you that these same inventions—the Internet, social media, have become a filter through which I often experience and simultaneously tame this very reality? That as many times as I myself stand outside under the stars, I am ten times more likely to look at pictures on my phone of someone else doing so? That the serendipity of an overheard conversation is often drowned out by the podcast coming through my earphones? I am constantly mediating my reality - the very ingredient you identify as most crucial to writing. That can’t be good.

And above all, you exhort us women writers, be entirely ourselves. Write from this place of reality and authenticity and do not attempt to influence others. But how to do this in a moment of constructed online persona? A time when influencing others is not just a choice but a job title “influencer” an actual profession? When questions about platform and audience and how to market one’s writing can supersede the writing itself?

Oh dear. I fear I’ve lost you entirely.

In conclusion I will simply say this: if a room of my own was once proxy for the independence necessary to create, I worry, Virginia, we twenty-first century writing women may need something else. I think we may need not just our rooms but the permission and the capacity to sit quietly within them, and to stay in that posture long enough to create. I need the discipline to look up from my screen at the raw reality that surrounds me—to see my son’s dirty socks on the rug, to ponder my friend’s self-deprecating post-mastectomy comment, and I need enough moments of solitude to develop a rich interiority. Finally, I need the expanse of time necessary to marry the two in writing. With the current demands on my life, working mother that I am, I cannot conceive of how to make this happen.

When we had no space, you saw it, and you told us what needed to be done. Education and money – five hundred pounds a year to be exact. You were very specific. Now I respectfully request that you send further instruction as I am sitting in my room for the next twenty minutes before soccer practice pickup, ready to write.

 

Yours in hopeful expectation,
Susannah Q. Pratt

 

 

 

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Susannah Pratt is a Chicago-based writer specializing in essay and review. Her work has appeared in Full Grown People, Literary Mama, and 3rd Coast Review. You can find these pieces and others at susannahqpratt.com.

  

 

 

Did you miss How to Be Divorced? 

 

Photo by Harry Cunningham on Unsplash

 

 

 

 

 



2 Responses

Jenn Zatopek
Jenn Zatopek

April 24, 2020

What a well-written letter to one of our writing matriarchs! I think if Woolf read this, she would dive headlong into helping. Thanks for asking her, and sharing your experience here!

silvia
silvia

April 09, 2020

Brilliant, Susie. Am guessing if Virginia Woolf could read your essay, she’d be utterly fascinated by these cultural developments, and she would appreciate your skill in describing them. What would be her updated guidance, I wonder. No small feat! After reading this essay, she would maybe be proud of you and herself for inspiring you, and maybe be very excited about your next writing piece. I am! I really enjoyed how you used boldface.

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