Writing Past Silence with Virginia Woolf
“What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life?” Muriel Rukeyser once asked then said, “The world would split open.”
My world split open last Thursday night when I taught the first Writing Women’s Lives™ class at Riverviews Artspace in Lynchburg, Virginia. Eight women joined me around a large oak table in a brick-walled room of a nineteenth-century building that once churned out shoes stitched by hand and now houses studios and galleries devoted to art. I was so nervous before class that I felt a cold pulsing at my temples. Was my syllabus too long? Would my writing prompts work? Was my choice of Virginia Woolf’s “Professions for Women” for our first reading too…too what? Too feminist?
Virginia Woolf would call this crescendo of inner turmoil—this relentless self-doubt and inner criticism—The Angel in the House. “It was she who used to come between me and my paper when I was writing…,” Woolf tells us in “Professions for Women,” an essay based on a speech she gave the National Society for Women’s Service in 1931. Woolf’s Angel:
She was 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 leg; if there was a draught she sat in it—in short she was so constituted that she never had a mind or a wish of her own, but preferred to sympathize always with the minds and wishes of others. Above all—I need not say it—she was pure. Her purity was supposed to be her chief beauty—her blushes, her great grace. In those days—the last of Queen Victoria—every house had its Angel. And when I came to write I encountered her with the very first words. The shadow of her wings fell across my page; I heard the rustling of her skirts in the room.
Woolf’s “those days” are these days for every woman writer I know. Every woman writer I know must wrestle her Angel every time she sits down to get her words onto the page. “Killing the Angel in the House was part of the occupation of a woman writer,” Woolf says. Which is why I asked the women in Writing Women’s Lives™ to pick up their pen and write for ten minutes about their particular Angel. “Describe her in as much detail as you can,” I said. “Be specific. And feel free to kill her.”
Every woman at that table killed her Angel. By putting her pen to the page; by putting her fingertips to the keyboard; by risking her own vulnerability with words that were her words and not the canned words she’d been taught were supposed to be hers; by taking a deep breath and reading her words aloud even though her lips quivered as she read; by listening to others’ words and hearing—really hearing—the Angel in another’s house and recognizing that other Angel as part of her own, truths rang out. I recognized them in the tingle of my spine, the ache in my throat, the sudden tears in my eyes.
Truth is that powerful.
“Empowerment is what the emerging artist needs to win for herself,” says Judith Ortiz Cofer.
Indeed, Woolf won. By killing her angel she won for herself the empowerment it takes to write as one’s true self from one’s unique voice tuned to one’s own vision. She wrote past the cultural limitations that prescribed who she might be as a female writer. In short, she wrote past silence. But, she tells us, “the struggle was severe; it took much time that had better have been spent upon learning Greek grammar; or in roaming the world in search of adventures. But it was a real experience; it was an experience that was bound to befall all women writers at that time.”
Woolf’s “that time” is now this time, and the women in my class wrote timeless truths in which we recognized ourselves in each other even though many of us were meeting each other for the first time. By describing her Angel every woman in that brick-lined room put her truth onto the page in words that carried the stirrings of literature. Women’s literature sprung of women’s lives, women’s real experience.
When a woman writes her real experience she wins for herself the empowerment essential to becoming the unfettered artist she was born to be. And when a woman writes her real experience and shares it with others, others recognize an aspect of the Angel in the House that she must face in order to win for herself the empowerment she needs to be a writer.
What she must face: centuries of silencing of women denied the truth of their lived experience. Killing the Angel in the House is to my mind the struggle against silence that every woman writer is up against, an interior battle, a fight for her voice, her self, her truth, her vision.
On Thursday night I witnessed woman after woman take pen to page and wrestle herself back from the Angel in the House that silences writing, masks experience. Each woman at that table won for herself the empowerment essential to becoming the writer-artist she was born to be.
Which leads me to the Angel in Your House. Who is she? Set your timer for ten minutes, and without lifting your pen from the page, describe her. Is she a stack of dishes in the sink? Does she look like your high school English teacher? Your father? Your mother? Is her voice critical? What does she say, exactly, when your pen nears the truth of your experience, when you are on the cusp of telling the truth about your life, to splitting the world open? Be specific. And feel free to kill her. Then leave a comment below about your particular Angel in the House that we may begin to recognize the face of silence in each other’s struggle to show up to the page.
To writing past silence!