Blackbird Habits: A Letter to Virginia Woolf
April 20, 2016 § 4 Comments
By Emily K. Michael
Dear Mrs. Woolf,
I hope you will not mind bending time to receive my letter. I have wanted to write to you since the day I closed A Room of One’s Own and realized that you could be talking to me. You published that book in 1929, and I read it in 2005. I was seventeen then, turning the pages of a cheap paperback and underlining in smeary purple ink. I filled my own notebooks with stories and poems, thought essays belonged to academia.
I want to tell you about a ritual I invoke every semester.
First, you must know that I teach writing to young college students, and our discipline has wandered away from literature. These early level classes concern rhetoric, and I must tuck poems and stories into the slight half-spaces between research articles. My students are often crushed into ambivalence by the density of mandatory course texts.
Each semester, I rearrange the course schedule to place your essay, “Women and Fiction.” Will I nestle it between scholarly articles on discourse and academic convention—or slide it into the section that questions the value of writing rules? The essay has lived in several places on the syllabus.
But when we read the essay is much less important than how we handle it. My students arrive to class having read the piece and answered some basic questions about it. They expect a conventional discussion of content and style. They watch me arrive, deposit my bag, and arrange papers on my desk.
To begin, I divide the class in half, making them count off so that the grouping is arbitrary. I tell them to gather at opposite sides of the room. Then I announce that we are traveling back to Victorian England—the era just before your work. We will explore the conventions that shaped your essay, the criticism of women’s writing that prompted your response.
But we won’t travel as ourselves. I designate one side of the room as husbands, and the other side as wives. Regardless of gender, each husband must find a wife. Any extra wives can join existing couples as sisters (or spinsters). At this point, there is a lot of giggling as women on the husband side stride manfully across the room to claim their partners.
The real fun begins when I unveil the rules of the exercise. In Victorian fashion, each wife’s opinions must be filtered through her husband. The husband may translate correctly or creatively—or censor his wife’s comments.
Once we know which voices will fill the next hour, we investigate how attitudes become stereotypes, how binary genders often lead to strict opposites. We track the influences of war and peace on aspects of masculinity—bravery, duty, physical strength. We disavow makeup, corsets, and high-heels as exclusively feminine resources—citing their use in Georgian England and at Versailles. In short, we watch the evolution of gender through a social and historical lens: the model you provided in “Women and Fiction.”
Your essay responded to the criticism of female writers. Male critics said women weren’t suited to writing—and they used the sparse shelves as evidence. A handful of novels written by women, that’s all they had: if women could write better stuff, they would have done so.
You said that a woman’s pen was stalled by the cries of children, the mounting chores. Her time was given to the managing of a household, and her experiences were limited to that domestic space. Unlike her male contemporaries, a woman couldn’t be a sailor, a soldier, a rover. Society prescribed spaces for her. So she wrote novels—which could be set aside when the family needed her—or she didn’t write. Critics should not measure the quality and potential by the number of women writers on the shelf.
You demystified the process of writing, Mrs. Woolf. You said what I strive to teach to every writing student—the self-assured expert and the shaky novice. You cast out the myth of talent, what we in contemporary education call “inner-directed teaching.”
If a woman wants to write, she needs money, leisure, and a room of her own.
When my students work several jobs, live in crowded spaces, don’t have time to sit under a tree and read for pleasure, your words ring in my ears. I know what they need, what all writers need.
You addressed women called to write and women living by their pen: “In the past, the virtue of women’s writing often lay in its divine spontaneity, like that of the blackbird’s song or the thrush’s. It was untaught; it was from the heart. But it was also, and much more often, chattering and garrulous—mere talk spilt over paper and left to dry in pools and blots. In future, granted time and books and a little space in the house for herself, literature will become for women, as for men, an art to be studied. Women’s gift will be trained and strengthened.”
I wonder whether the blackbird and thrush work at their songs, what they need to make them. When we call their work “divine spontaneity,” we speak from a place of privilege and vision. What looks and sounds to us like magic must still be created, even in a method unknown to us.
We can map the songs of blackbirds, but we can’t map their divine spontaneity. If they knew English, I believe they could give us a hint. Perhaps it’s better that they don’t.
I offer students your work because they need your blackbird habits—kernels of passion carefully measured. They need to understand, as you wrote, that the extraordinary depends on the ordinary. Even in a class of silence or sullenness, I cannot forego these discussions. Perhaps some stray phrase will act like a snatch of thrush’s song—speaking to a listener in a voice they don’t yet understand.
Emily K. Michael is a blind poet, musician, and writing instructor, living in Jacksonville, FL. Her poetry and essays have appeared in Wordgathering; Artemis Journal; Compose Journal; Disability Rhetoric; Breath & Shadow; Bridge Eight; Narrative Inquiry in Bioethics; and I Am Subject Stories: Women Awakening. She develops grammar workshops for multilingual learners, and participates in local writing festivals – offering workshops on the grammar of poetry. She has essays in the forthcoming volumes Barriers and Belonging: Autoethnographies of Disability and Mosaics 2: A Collection of Independent Women. Read more of her work at her blog On the Blink.