The Struggles of Women Writers
ALUMNI FEATURE – NOVEMBER 2018
by Vanessa Kirkpatrick
This week as I was preparing to host the Poetry Masterclass week at Varuna, I found myself reflecting on a few things specific to the struggles of women writers. In Virginia Woolf’s 1931 essay, ‘Professions for Women’, she spoke about the need to kill the angel in the house. Woolf describes the angel as follows:
She was intensely sympathetic. She was immensely charming. She was utterly unselfish. She excelled in the difficult arts of family life. She sacrificed herself daily. If there was chicken, she took the leg; if there was a draught, she sat in it—in short, she was so constituted that she never had a mind or a wish of her own, but preferred to sympathize always with the minds and wishes of others.
Virginia Woolf’s essay, ‘Professions for Women’, in The Death of the Moth and Other Essays, Harcourt, Brace, New York, 1942.
Woolf goes on to explain that in order to write truthfully, she had to kill the Angel in the House – that it was an act of self-defence for if she had not done it, the angel would have killed her, in that it would have “plucked the heart” out of her writing.
Although in some ways, there has been significant progress in killing the angel in the house, women frequently express a lack of confidence in writing – and a feeling that it is indulgent to take time to themselves – that writing is in some ways a selfish task, rather than an important way of making meaning out of life, and of voicing and expressing not only our fertile imaginations but what is integral to our own identity.
Writing 40 years later, the American poet Adrienne Rich refers to Woolf’s essay and goes on to write about struggles that remain in relation to women writers.
Rich writes about a particular time in her life, after the birth of her third child, when she experienced a sense of numbness:
What frightened me most was the sense of drift, of being pulled along on a current which called itself my destiny, but in which I seemed to be losing touch with whoever I had been, with the girl who had experienced her own will and energy almost ecstatically at times, walking around a city or riding a train at night or typing in a student room…I was writing very little, partly from fatigue, that female fatigue of suppressed anger and loss of contact with my own being; partly from the discontinuity of female life with its attention to small chores, errands, work that others constantly undo, small children’s constant needs….For a poem to coalesce, for a character or an action to take shape, there has to be an imaginative transformation of reality which is in no way passive. And a certain freedom of the mind is needed – freedom to press on, to enter the currents of your thought like a glider pilot, knowing that your motion can be sustained, that the buoyancy of your attention will not be snatched away. Moreover, if the imagination is to transcend and transform experience it has to question, to challenge, to conceive of alternatives, perhaps to the very life you are living at the moment.
Adrienne Rich’s essay, ‘When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision’, in the Norton Anthology of Contemporary Poetry, 3rdedn, WW Norton & Co., New York, pp. 1086-1096.
Although 1972 may seem like the distant past, you may well identify with many of these same feelings.
One of the things that is so special about a residency at Varuna is that it enables you to become more deeply in touch with that energy that has led you here in the first place. Through being guaranteed writing time that is free from interruptions, and being free from those small chores that continually fragment a normal day, you come alive in all your senses – including the magical sixth sense of the imagination – and become more deeply connected to that part of yourself that most wants to write.
I will end with this poem by the Romanian poet Nina Cassian:
Call yourself alive? Look, I promise you
that for the first time you’ll feel your pores opening
like fish mouths, and you’ll actually be able to hear
your blood surging through all those lanes,
and you’ll feel light gliding across the cornea
like the train of a dress. For the first time
you’ll be aware of gravity
like a thorn in your heel,
and your shoulder blades will ache for want of wings
Call yourself alive? I promise you
you’ll be deafened by dust falling on the furniture,
you’ll feel your eyebrows turning to two gashes,
and every memory you have – will begin
Nina Cassian, 'Temptation', translated from the Romanian by Brenda Walker and Andrea Deletant, in Soul Food, Bloodaxe Books, Northumberland, p. 27.
For me, the value of a residency at Varuna lies not so much in the number of words I may write, or poems I may redraft, but in the significance of this experience in my life and in my writing.