Photo taken from Amazon.com and this book is the version that I used in reference to this essay. (Clicking this photo will pull up a tab in which you can purchase the book yourself)
Last fall I had the greatest five months of my life studying abroad in Florence, Italy. I was able to travel, make friends from across the globe, observe up close some of the world’s greatest art, and oh yeah, take classes. While abroad I was lucky enough to take a class called “Women in Literature” where we studied in depth both female characters but also women writers. While abroad I was less excited for this class than my other four classes. But I mean, who can blame me when my other classes were Pairing Food and Wine (with lots of food AND wine tastings every class), Art History (where every class we went to a different museum, gallery, or church to see the works in person), and Florence in the Literary Imagination (where we took field trips to different locations in Florence which were popular for both authors to write about and for them to physically visit to write), and Italian (which in Italy was pretty helpful). My Women in Literature class never took field trips, it was not focused on Italian culture as my other classes were, and it certainly never included wine; however, it quickly became my favorite class that I took during my five months in Florence. My professor was the most intelligent, beautiful, and charming Italian woman who was a proud feminist and absolute genius in the literary field. Oh, also being a professor was also her part-time job. Her full time job was to travel around the world pitching movies to producers, in hopes of them becoming blockbuster hits. Every weekend she would travel to a different country for another pitch. Basically, she was the most incredible human in all of Italy and I got to sit in her classroom and absorb her knowledge every week for three hours.
It was this professor who introduced me to my now hero, Virginia Woolf. It was in this class where I learned about the innovation, bravery, and world changing actions of Virginia Woolf. In fact, one of the writers who we focused on the most was Virginia Woolf. We spent weeks on Woolf because her impact on the literary world was so huge, whereas other authors received only one class period. Woolf wrote novels, short stories, and essays; each carefully carved with intimacy, knowledge, and poise. Each forever changing the face of literature.
I think Virginia Woolf would have loved the way I came to find her writing and discover my passion for her words. I think she would appreciate the fact that her writing convinced a headstrong American girl living in Italy who only wanted to learn about the amazing Italian writers out there, found that the best writer she encountered that semester didn’t write a single time about the city this girl had become obsessed with. This is just as her writing convinced the people of the 20th century that she was a force to reckoned with, even though they didn’t want to admit it.
Virginia Woolf is highly considered to be one of the most important modernist writers in the 20th century and one of the most important figures in literature of all time. Not only was Virginia Woolf a strong feminist in a time full of adversary for women, she also had a love affair with Vita Sackville-West, which was considered highly taboo in the 20th century. Aside from all of this, one of the most important and monumental tasks Woolf accomplished was being credited with the creation of the stream of consciousness writing style. Woolf pushes the boundaries which had never been explored before by experimenting with narrative styles in the way she does with Stream of Consciousness style.
It is important to understand the life and upbringing of Virginia Woolf because it is where she draws her inspiration for her work. Woolf, describes in her critical essay, Modern Fiction, that modern writing and fiction needed to be personal. She believes strong writers need to start by “Attempt[ing] to come closer to life, and to preserve more sincerely and exactly what interests and moves them, even if to do so they must discard most of the conventions which are commonly observed by the novelist” (Woolf 161). Woolf encourages writers to write about things they know and things that interest them because strong fiction needs to be personal and relate to the author’s spirit. Important factors to know about Virginia Woolf include the fact that her parents were very progressive and successful, meaning she was raised in a manner in which she was supported for being both an independent woman and a writer; these paths were not yet mainstream in the late nineteenth century (Nicolson). This is a main contributor to comfort in exploring that which had never been experimented with.
Woolf also endured many tragedies throughout the early years of her life. Her half sister suffered from a severe mental handicap and when she was only six years old she was sexual abused by her half brother. When she was only thirteen her mother died and her half sister died just two years later. Her father passed away when Woolf was twenty-two years old and after another two years passed she lost her brother (Biography). When Woolf was still very young she began to suffer from mood swings and depression. It is likely that Woolf suffered from bipolar disorder, however, they did not have the means to diagnose nor medicate bipolar disorder until the 1950’s (Nicolson). Due to these many tragedies it is possible that this is one of the reasons she wrote about death and the tragic of missing life’s opportunities so often and with such passion.
I love Virginia Woolf’s advice to write about what is interesting to a writer because to me that is going to be the work that is most genuine, intriguing, and filled with the most authentic curiosity. Of course I believe writers should challenge themselves with new topics, however, I truly think that writers need to be excited about their subject. There is no guarantee that anyone is reading your work (aside from maybe a professor in an academic setting) so why waste your time writing what you think your writer wants to hear? Instead, I agree with Woolf, write what is important to you and what you cannot help but explore. If you are excited about what you are writing that will translate to your reader. On the other hand, if you are bored to death of the topic you are researching and writing on then I fully believe that it will show within your work and it will not have the passion and drive necessary for a piece to have its own breath.
As I previously mentioned, one of the reasons Woolf became so well known was because of her influential and progressive writing style; Virginia Woolf was a modernist writer who was not afraid to break traditions. Used thoroughly throughout her novels, especially To The Lighthouse, Woolf experiments with Stream of Consciousness style. Stream of Consciousness is defined as being “a literary style in which a character’s thoughts, feelings, and reactions are depicted in a continuous flow uninterrupted by objective description or conventional dialogue” (“Dictionary”). From my recent research I have not found any essays of Virginia Woolf using this exact style of stream of consciousness as she does in her fiction however I do see elements of it. For example, in her essay “Why” Woolf does not follow chronological order, she uses dialogue though not always stating who is saying what, and she switches from idea to idea. This has the effect of a person’s real unedited thoughts. This is much more natural than a traditional structured essay. Though Woolf is still able to share her opinions and ideas clearly she is not following the typical form one may have followed in the 20th century. This style is much more story-like and imaginative which I love. There are even a few fragments. I really enjoy this because people don’t think in complete, properly prepared sentences. We think in fragments; sometimes our thoughts are jumbled and messy and confusing. Woolf is able to portray this with such poise and grace that a reader may not even notice this is what she is doing. She never tries too hard to get her point across; it is all very natural.
Woolf’s writing, especially her fiction, captures real moments of life. The monotonous day to day moments are portrayed so accurately that she is able to make them intriguing and worthy of discussion. Woolf is purely intimate with her writing. She explores topics as personal and terrifying such as death in her essay “The Death of a Moth.” In this essay she explores the fragility and fleetingness of life and its opportunities. She analyses the simplicity and complexity of life and death through the metaphor of a moth, a creature who I am sure we can all admit to overlooking. Woolf does not create a single use metaphor however. She creates an entire story arch around this moth and the symbol is comes to represent. She even has the reader rooting for this little moth, hoping it can fly on its own. The metaphor carries on throughout the entire essay, creating images and emotions for the audience to relate to. I hope I can include more of this in my writing. I really like metaphors but I have a hard time making them up on my own. I believe symbols are a great way to express deeper emotions which are harder to put into words. Virginia Woolf is a master of this art, especially within her essays.
Another thing I like about Virginia Woolf’s writing style is that it is autobiographical. The narrator is herself so she is able to share her own opinions openly. I think this is a nice balance for an essay and I like when authors are able to talk about their subject and themselves (their past, feelings, opinions) within a single essay. I think a writer’s bias is impossible to contain while writing so I enjoy when a writer, such as Virginia Woolf, is able to work her bias and experiences into a piece. I also believe that when I am writing essays it is more interesting and fun to write when I can include my own personal thoughts and opinions on a subject. Another important note for Woolf’s writing style, especially within “The Death of a Moth” is that her sentences are just interesting to read. She varies in sentence length and tone so the writing never get boring or drags on for too long. This is not something I ever focus on when writing essay because I am so focused on the ideas I am hoping to share. As I continue with my growth in the essay genre I hope I can better manipulate my style in order to keep the reader’s focus and interest.
One of the my favorite things about Virginia Woolf is that she forged the way for women, including but not limited to writers, in the beginning of the twentieth century. Woolf was unafraid of change and believed that women should be able to do anything a man does without shame or fear of being ridiculed. The 1930’s onward, in both literature and the world, have been forever changed by the work that Virginia Woolf dedicated her life to. Virginia woolf was brave, outspoken, unafraid to be different, and broke stereotypes for women. She does not believe that her gender should define her as a person nor that it should dictate how she should live her life; In short, she was a feminist. As a fellow feminist I admire her bravery and outspokenness with her beliefs. I find it intimidating to release into the word my unpopular opinions. I even have a hard time making politically charged posts on Facebook. I struggle with opening myself up to opportunities for backlash especially within writing and online. Albeit, Virginia Woolf started her beliefs with pride and integrity which I greatly look up to and hope to one day do the same.
One of my favorite essays by Virginia Woolf, “Professions for a Woman” is an example of Woolf’s ability to share non-mainstream opinions without fear of being ridiculed. I studied “Professions for a Woman” briefly in my Women in Literature class and though I read it well over a year ago I still think of this piece of writing very often. This essay was actually began as a speech read to the Women’s Service League. What I find particularly brilliant in this piece is the metaphor she creates in the piece, the “Angel of the House.” Again, exhibiting her ability to contrive original meaningful metaphors for topics which may seem impossible to discuss. Virginia Woolf wrote about the concept of every women referring to it as the “Angel of the House” in her essay Professions for Women. Angel of the House is the social construct of how every woman should act to be a proper woman. Woolf describes the Angel as being “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 led; if there was a draft she sat in it– in short she was so constituted that she never had a mind or wish of her own, but preferred to sympathize always with the minds and wishes of others” (Woolf 170). Woolf wishes to defy the Angel of the House in every way possible; she does not wish to be an empty mind just fulfilling the wants and desires of those around her, especially men.
I love how Woolf creates a huge metaphor which can be so easily imagined for what she is discussing. She is able to smash this idea of what women should be by destroying the “angel” itself. Woolf is such a talented writer that she makes the image of the angel of the house seem tangible, believable, and real. The reader can picture this perfect woman just as they can picture Woolf overcoming her.
I also appreciate how tongue-and-cheek her tone is particularly in the beginning of the essay. This essay is titled “Profession For Women.” This calls upon the stereotype that women can have professions such as secretaries, teachers, nurses however not engineers, surgeons, entrepreneur. She blatantly calls out patriarchal stereotypes. She also does not dismiss women who prefer to act as an angel of the house. Instead, she says it is not right for her or for her ability to write thus her personal need to destroy it.
Virginia Woolf’s essay range in topic but always remain wholly honest, vulnerable, and intimate. She has the magnificent talent of making even her informative essays personal. Woolf writes with her spirit not her body. What I mean is that she puts her whole heart and soul into her words, she is not simply gliding her pen along a page. She is so deeply intimate that the reader is compelled to feel connected to her. I admire this greatly because I often feel as if there is a 10 foot pole between myself (my true thoughts, emotions, hopes, fears) and my keyboard. Since taking Theory and Practice and learning more about the dynamics of the essay I have been attempting to smash this desire for space between my true feelings and my typed words. In the past, (the very recent past, as in two essays ago), I would never use common colloquial in an essay or even personal pronouns. I was used to facts, clean thorough sentences, and dressing up my words with a bow. Yet, as of late, I am thoroughly trying to be more open in my writing as Virginia Woolf was. It is much harder than I would have ever believed. I can tell that her openness and truthfulness are part of what makes her work so incredible and impossible to put down. Her captivating sentences come from honesty and authenticity. She is writing first and foremost for herself and for her own expression. The words she is writing are not for a check, or a grade, or to make someone else happy. She writes completely for herself and is brave enough to share it with the world. It is for that reason I will always admire Virginia Woolf. Plus the fact that she has the most beautiful gift with words… Also, she is a revolutionary for literature… and she made incredible strides for woman… Okay so, maybe there are lots of reasons why Virginia Woolf is one of my personal heroes and why she is an essayist worth knowing.
Now I wonder, will I ever be?
“Dictionary by Merriam-Webster: America’s Most-Trusted Online Dictionary.”
Nicolson, Nigel. Virginia Woolf. New York: New York Times, 2000. Print.
The Biography.com website. “Virginia Woolf Biography.” Biography.com, A&E Television Networks, 15 Sept. 2017.
Woolf, Virginia. Collected Essays of Virginia Woolf. Dead Authors Society, 2017.
Virginia Woolf is one of the most important essayist in the 20th century due to her authentic curiosity, holistic intimacy, extensive use of the stream of consciousness style, all of which is exhibited in her collected essays. Woolf’s authentic curiosity is seen within the subjects she investigates within her essays, especially within her piece “The Death of a Moth” where she questions life, death, and the fleetingness of life’s opportunities. Woolf also displays holistic intimacy within her writing because with every sentence Woolf is baring her soul to the reader; she holds nothing back and is completely honest and vulnerable for her audience. Every piece of Woolf’s writing is intimate to its core. For example, in her essay “Professions For Women” she describes an internal fight for wanting to be a proper feminine figure and wanting to be a writer who does not follow mainstream gender roles. Finally, Woolf is credited with the creation of the stream of consciousness style which is writing as a person thinks, switching from ideas quickly and writing more as a conscious flow rather than in full complete and coherent sentences. Through this style Woolf is able to write as one thinks; it is very natural, genuine, and realistic. It is seen throughout her essay “Why” which does not follow chronological order and switches quickly between thoughts and ideas.
(Exercise from class on 2/27)