Why I’ll always geek out over Virginia Woolf

I will be the first to tell you, I’m not traditionally “cool.” As a teenager I wore WAY too much eyeliner while I listened to WAY too much Siouxsie and the Banshees. As is standard for any socially awkward teen stuck in the ‘burbs, I found a second home at the local Barnes & Noble. I probably could have built myself a small fortress from used Starbucks cups, appropriately located between the shelves of poetry and drama (I fancied myself just artistic enough to hang with Daria’s Jane Lane). But all of that is just scene-setting, the really important moment was when I literarily met the writer who would help me survive college, graduate school, and all the ugly unknowns that followed. I’m talking about non-other than Virginia Woolf.

Virginia Woolf — writer and a core member of the Bloomsbury literary group in London – came to me first by way of The Waves, a novel about loss and mourning that was way over my head at 15. I didn’t understand her constructs, or any of the book’s literary merit, but I did understand the confusion and the sadness that each character expressed. I sincerely felt what I was reading even if I didn’t quite get all the nuance. So much of what I’ve learned from Woolf aren’t hard and fast rules to life and literature, but rather the powers and dangers of being open to the world; how the lines between love and pain, beauty and fear, intellect and madness are very thin.

Of the countless lessons I’ve learned from Woolf and her work, here are some of the most lasting. I hope they help you too:

There is music in our daily lives

A professor of mine once explained that the beauty in Woolf’s To The Lighthouse is in the sound it makes; the very music that lifts off the page. Over a dinner party in the novel, glasses clink and people chat; a summer house groans and swells and lives and dies during the years of the First World War; water laps against the sides of a boat during a long awaited journey. All of these sounds and sensations may seem secondary in our ordinary world but in Woolf’s hands, they become exciting, energizing and give life to seemingly mundane experiences.

Even the insignificant has purpose:

The idea of a novel that takes place in a single day of a London housewife’s life doesn’t exactly sound appealing but Mrs. Dalloway manages to turn the preparations for a simple dinner party into an exploration of aging, death, regret, and possibilities. Every step of the day leads us to a new character or a new event and we quickly realize that even the smallest moment has its own significance in literature and in life.

Quality over quantity, always:

As a writer and a human being, it can sometimes be difficult to sort out what is worth your time and what is excessive. It’s a lesson that hurts the most when navigating personal relationships and friendships, but it’s also vital for anyone who needs to communicate effectively (re: everyone). Virginia Woolf’s writing is controlled, precise, and expressive without being over embellished. Rarely is too much said. Instead, we know as readers that what is spoken aloud is important — it has quality. It’s not an easy feat for a writer and it’s a lesson that transcends the page.

Sometimes silence is more powerful than speech:

Often in Woolf’s books a great deal of what occurs, occurs in the mind of the protagonist or narrator whether that is Mrs. Dalloway or Orlando. The books are reflective rather than assertive. Sometimes there are simply no words and that is OK. Again, quality over quantity.

After darkness always comes light:

It’s hard to imagine that a woman who cut her own life short would inspire me to see through the darkness in search of light, but Woolf without a doubt has done so. Life, no matter how very flawed or cruel, is always beautiful in its own way. In Orlando, nature and poetry give even the worst experiences reprieve; in Mrs. Dalloway, even in the face of mortality, there is comfort in the past; in To the Lighthouse, even after war there is the hope for reconciliation.

We’re all made of different stories and different parts – embrace it:

One of my favorite scenes in Orlando comes in the final chapter when the titular character (born a man in the Elizabethan era, and now a woman in the 20th century) goes through all the different people s/he has been over the years. From a lover to an explorer, a wife to a poet, Orlando has managed to be everyone, but more importantly, in this moment s/he accepts her faults as much as her assets. To embrace every person we have been or will be is, without a doubt, the hardest lesson in life – and one that I don’t think any of us ever stop learning.

Gender and sexuality shouldn’t be rigid or defined: 

She may have been married to Leonard Woolf, but it’s no secret Virginia Woolf was romantically involved with women too — in particular poet Vita Sackville-West. It’s an affair that’s so well known, the letters between the two writers are a favorite topic for bloggers today. And as the story goes, Woolf’s iconic work Orlando is said to have been inspired by and written in part for Vita. Love affairs aside, Woolf’s exploration of gender and sexuality both in her real life and in her writings helped shape the ways in which I would address the oh-so-touchy topic of feminism and female sexuality over the years.

So take a book of hers out of the library, download it on to your Kindle, buy it in a bookstore. But read her words. She just might affect your life in the same powerful way that she’s affected mine.

[Image via Shutterstock]

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