“You must illumine your own soul”: Thoughts on Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own”

I recently finished “A Room of One’s Own” by Virginia Woolf, and it made it with steady pace to a spot in my list of favorites. Since I’m in the process of writing a story, much of the writing advice in the essay was precious. But what hit closest to home was the encouragement to write despite all the prejudice and barriers set for women through systems and culture. For although the book was written in the late 1920’s, so much of what it pointed out about systematic restrictions for women’s creative work was something I witnessed and experienced growing up in Mexico.

I knew Woolf to be a vocal feminist but I was surprised at the passion with which she expressed her opinions about patriarchy, equality, the military, family planning, and independence. I was at times burning to hold up the book and yell “You tell ’em gurl!!” and moments later to curl up in a ball at her repeated “Now stop complaining, get off your ass, and go work” (I’m paraphrasing of course).

It was tempting to copy here all the excerpts that made an impression on me, so I’ll focus on Woolf’s advocacy for writing the stories that we feel are important. A brief summary: Woolf uses a fictive self doing research so that she can write a commissioned speech titled “Women and fiction”, and she sets off to explore the somewhat unexpected argument that until a woman has a room of her own and enough income at her disposal, she simply won’t be able to become a writer. She describes the way in which Western women have lived so far, as a foundation to explain why income is so necessary: It grants independence, space and quiet, resources to travel, study, meet people, cover expenses of the trade (pen, ink, paper…), etc.

Throughout the essay, she brings up known female authors and theorises about their subjects and themes. She’s not surprised that stories such as the ones written by Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters concern themselves with domestic settings, while contemporary books written by men concern themselves with war, travel and adventure. She’s also not surprised that one group of themes should be considered “great” while the others are considered “trivial” by the critics:

[A novel’s] values are to some extent those of real life. But it is obvious that the values of women differ very often from the values which have been made by the other sex; naturally, it is so. Yet it is the masculine values that prevail. Speaking crudely, football and sport are “important”; the worship of fashion, the buying of clothes “trivial”. And these values are inevitably transferred from life to fiction. This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room.

Lately, so much of the writing advice that I hear and read about is to “write what you know”. But isn’t that limiting and cruel, considering that if the only thing one knows is domestic life, one’s work might not be able to break it into the group of stories that are considered important? This paragraph reminded me of a time I discussed a draft with a former colleague (perhaps 20 years older than me) who said he might as well sit down at the kitchen table and listen to the conversation his aunts were having than to read my story. When I proposed that there could be something of value in such conversations he called me off and told me not to be pretentious. At the time, this criticism hit me hard enough to have me put that draft in a drawer and never look at it again.

For years I tried to dissect why I could even think that these conversations were important, and finally I understood: At age 22 I lived in a community that values tradition and reputation, especially the reputation of women. For middle-class girls this reputation is probably the most important factor when it comes to differentiation and social mobility, sometimes (sadly enough) even more than education and professional accomplishment. Thus, these “kitchen conversations” were of great value to me, and I still believe them to be important.

This realization was beautifully delivered home by another fragment of Woolf’s essay about the value of life as lived by women. She initially complains about how little it is known about how women lived during the Edwardian era, and why it becomes all the more important to create a window into the lives of those invisible characters, however “trivial” it may seem:

All these infinitely obscure lives remain to be recorded, I said, addressing [the model early female novelist]. Above all, you must illumine your own soul with its profundities and its shallows, and its vanities and its generosities, and say what your beauty means to you or your plainness and what is your relation to the ever-changing and turning world of gloves and shoes and stuffs swaying up and down among the faint scents that come through chemists’ bottles down arcades of dress material over a floor of pseudo-marble.

I loved how in the end she encourages women (mostly because this essay was a lecture in women’s colleges, though I believe any creative person should feel addressed) to write about anything and everything, because we owe it to ourselves and to the lives of other authors before us, accomplished and frustrated, and to all who paved the road for us to be able to achieve these dreams. It lit a spark in stories I’ve been carrying without realizing they were there, about my great-grandmother hiding in caves during the Mexican Revolution, and my aunt who didn’t finish medical school but lived a life so full that it consumed her entirely.

So, it’s time to get to work. More notes on this book will come, but for now I’ll leave this excerpt, for you who are making anything and feel the pull of self-doubt creeping in. We have no choice but to create.

So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say. But to sacrifice a hair of the head of your vision, a shade of its colour, in deference to some Headmaster with a silver pot in his hand or to some professor with a measuring-rod up his sleeve, is the most abject treachery[.]