(Head)room of One’s Own

Virginia 1Last year I finally got around to reading Virginia Woolf’s extended essay, A Room of One’s Own, and I find myself still pondering her words today. Although it was first published in 1929, so much of what Woolf wrote rings true ninety years later: it is a feminist manifesto, delivered gently yet powerfully, bringing the place of women in literature and society into laser-sharp focus.

I’ve mulled Woolf’s words over. I’ve disappeared down various rabbitholes as her words and life have cropped up in other books I have read, most notably in Drusilla Modjeska’s beautifully written memoir Second Half First. I’ve read more of Woolf’s own works, including the brilliantly conceived and executed Mrs Dalloway. I’m planning on re-reading The Waves and To The Lighthouse, volumes I have not delved into since my university days.

And yet, despite all this investigation, I am still struggling with Woolf’s central premise in A Room of One’s Own:

A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.

VIRGINIA WOOLF

I firmly believe Woolf’s statement to be true.

But what, I wonder, would she make of women’s lives in the twenty first century?  Ninety years after the publication of A Room of One’s Own, many things have improved for women in the western world.  Our access to education has improved, along with our employment prospects and our control of our own lives and bodies.

What I think women in the western world have lost control of, however, is our minds.

Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.

VIRGINIA WOOLF

I would love to embrace this idea as a true representation of my self and my life, to punch my fist skyward and proclaim that my mind is entirely my own, that my freedom is guaranteed because I am not shackled by cerebral restrictions.

But I can’t.

Not quite.

I may have money I earn myself and a place to write (even if it is not an actual room), but do I have space in my own head?

There is just so much…stuff…to remember in any given day.

Remember to schedule a dental appointment. Drop off the dry cleaning. Pick up forgotten ingredients for tonight’s dinner. Replace a child’s gluestick for school. Sign permission slips for an excursions. Meet a work deadline. Return the library books on time. Change the bedclothes. Find light blue cardboard for a child’s project (no, not dark blue or royal blue or navy blue). Collect that undelivered parcel from the post office. Arrange a playdate before netball training and remember to buy oranges for the game. Pay the gas bill. Replace yet another gluestick (what, do they eat them or something?). Phone the electrician to get the laundry light fitting replaced. Feed the fish. And the cat. And the family. Buy a present for an upcoming birthday party. And a card. Take out the garbage and know which bin needs to be curbside on which day. Update the credit card expiration date on — wait, what was the password for that account again?

Virginia 2Our lives are so full, and are lived at such a relentless pace. We bandy around words and phrases like “mindfulness” and “mental load”, but do we ever have time to stop — let alone to imagine?

How can we write fiction if we have no headroom to allow the stories to form? How can ideas flow and characters develop and whole realms emerge from such cluttered minds?

Fiction is like a spider’s web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners.

VIRGINIA WOOLF

I know my own fiction writing is informed, in part, by the life I lead — regardless of whether I am writing a children’s picture book, a longer story for older children, or working on the young adult novel I have been aiming to finish for some years.

Much of the time, however, my fictional projects lie immobile, suspended in that spider’s web as I attend to the myriad minutiae of everyday life that encroach upon it from all four corners. And more often than not, my own innate need to create is ignored in favour of other, far more basic needs — not just of my own — and it is not until I sense my fictional worlds are hanging by a single thread that I make time to write.

Virginia 3Even so, I remain hopeful.

I would rather snatch a moment here and there to write a paragraph, to edit a word or two, or to scribble down a new idea than to fill my pockets with stones and walk into the nearest river.

I am learning, slowly, to prioritise my fiction writing, even if it is — by definition — not real.

Because it is real to me, and gives my life deeper meaning.

And despite her own untimely end (which I may comprehend, but cannot ever condone), I think Virginia Woolf knew exactly what it was like not to have room in her head. Even so, in spite of this — or perhaps because of it — I believe she would have continued to encourage women generally, and writers particularly, had she lived to see our present day and age, just as she did in her lifetime.

Money is one thing, I think she would tell us.

But the room of one’s own — that sacred space needs to exist in your mind as well as in your world.

Therefore I would ask you to write all kinds of books, hesitating at no subject however trivial or however vast. By hook or by crook, I hope that you will possess yourselves of money enough to travel and to idle, to contemplate the future or the past of the world, to dream over books and loiter at street corners and let the line of thought dip deep into the stream.

VIRGINIA WOOLF

 

We Need More Words

qualityThe Bloke and I don’t fight often. We’ve spent the better part of twenty years happily muddling along, quietly delighting in our continued coexistence.

But every now and then — because we’re real, normal human beings — we have a bit of a barney. Generally speaking these arguments are not over anything particularly controversial (such as just how many surfboards/boogie boards/random vessels of an inflatable variety a family of four might actually require on a weekend away), but last night…well, it was a different story.

We were watching Nanette, Hannah Gadsby’s hour-long stand up show, a vertiable tour de force explaining why she is choosing to leave comedy behind. Nanette is, simply, brilliant: it is a brutally honest and unbelievably courageous piece of story telling. It is also, in parts, uncomfortable viewing — particularly if you’re a straight, white male who has just been watching Season Two of Glow, complete with its depiction of a Harvey Weinsteinesque “meeting” involving a young and vulnerable actress, and if you had also happened to top that experience off by taking a look at Andrew Denton’s Interview with Tim Winton (the one who wrote my favourite book) speaking about toxic masculinity.

Straight, white male.

Now we all know that the straight, white male segment of the population is copping a bit of a caning at the moment. With good reason, of course — and let’s be clear: in my view, there’s nothing wrong with challenging a long-established framework of white, male privilege that has been propped up by centuries of patriarchy and misogyny. And I, as a straight, white female, last night felt the need to point out that those structures were the very things that silently condoned straight, white men heckling or wolf-whistling at me when I was a schoolgirl, walking past a construction site at the top of the street I lived in. That allowed a crowded platform of commuters to stand by and ignore the straight, white man who tried to look up my skirt, and who failed to assist me when he followed me onto the train. That normalised regular pay increases for the (overwhelmingly) straight, white male professionals in several firms in which I worked and did not even bother to schedule salary reviews for the (overwhelmingly) female support staff.  That continues to impose a tax on women’s sanitary products…but let me stop there. I could, as most women could, go on and on.

Straight, white male.

These were the words that sparked our disagreement, along with the onslaught being fairly and squarely directed at that particular segment of the population.

Because The Bloke identifies as a straight, white male — and, while I can’t dispute his logic, last night I also felt the need to point out that I don’t view him through that prism at all. I felt the need to explain that if he had been the sort of straight, white male who is currently — and with good reason — being called to account, I would never even have considered dated him, let alone marrying him. That I don’t believe him to be a misogynist. That I certainly don’t perceive him to be anything like Donald Trump.

I explained to The Bloke that when I look at him, I see a successful business owner who pays his male and female staff equally. I see a husband who consistently treats me as an equal in our life partnership. I see a father who is helping to raise two daughters to be the best human beings they can be. I see a person who frequently helps with housework and does not delineate duties on the basis of gender. I see a man who is willing to draw attention to language, attitudes and behaviours towards women that are unacceptable. I see a…feminist.

Feminist?!

Initially, The Bloke wasn’t quite sure what to make of that word, either, being aware of the many and varied connotations and convictions attached to it. But — because of the man he is — The Bloke listened to me and not only heard, but also made sure he understood my point of view.

unityAnd that’s where Hannah Gadsby is absolutely right — we need more words, people.

We need a multitude of words.

We need more words to describe the men who might, quite literally, be straight, white males, but who are also men whose own language, attitudes and behaviours are helping to dismantle the architecture of straight, white, male privilege. Men who support and empower women and girls not because they are female, but because they are human beings, and who encourage other men and raise their sons to do just the same. Men who, in my life, I feel fortunate to call father, brother, mentor, friend.

We need more words to define the things that unite us and celebrate all the things we hold in common — not more labels, or pigeonholes, or tiny little compartmentalised boxes.

We need more words.