Virginia Woolf and the Art of the Essay

I once thumbed through Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, skimming the seductive writing with the speed of a racehorse headed toward the finish line. Or at least the deadline for that book review due the next day.

Years passed.

Woolf’s essay became a feminist classic, a rallying manifesto for women intent on being taken seriously as creatives, be it as writers or artists in other areas of specialization. Quotes taken from Room abounded in all sorts of writing, especially the one that goes like this: “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” (p. 18) Many food writers latched into that quote, which contains much truth. In fact, in that quote, Woolf sums up the essence of life for nearly all sentient beings on the planet.

Some scholars questioned the predominant trend to leave Room in the line up with other feminist works, a part of the literary canon of the women who burned their bras and kept their maiden names, names gleaned from their fathers and their fathers before them. Michael Degen presented a contrary opinion in Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own: A Contribution to the Essay Genre (2014). He summed up his argument with these words:

“The pulse of freedom and opportunity does not merely beat within the content of A Room of One’s Own; the pulse of freedom and opportunity beats within the form itself.”

As an essayist, Woolf took her inspiration from Michel Montaigne, that brilliant French writer who knew that inside his head were things that needed to be said. And so he retired to his study and set down those words that reverberate still, all these years later. The essay form provided him – and Woolf – with the wide open spaces necessary to run with a thought, to bring a theory to fruition, to explore a topic from angles unavailable to writers in other genres.

So I have set for myself the task of reading all of Woolf’s essays, which can be had in digital form.

Bacopa Literary Review, an Invitation to Writers

 Bacopa Literary Review

Contest submissions open March 1 – May 31, 2018 with a $250 prize in each of four genres plus $25 payment for each published work. $3 submission fee (first submission free formembers of Writers Alliance of Gainesville). If accepted for publication, you agree to grant us First North American Serial Rights. 

 We’re looking for well-wrought poems. Intrigue us, move us, surprise us with stunning imagery, lyricism, soundplay, structure. Disturb our well-trod patterns of thought.

  • 1-3 poems per submission
  • Each poem maximum 88 lines including spaces
  • Do not double space: show the shape of your poem as it will appear in print.
  • 12-point type; Arial font preferred
  • Submit the file in .doc, .docx or .rtf only

Prose Poems are pure creation, the playful and daring edge of poetry. The writer must provide powerful lyrical language and, above all, a truthful, commanding voice.

  • One prose poem per submission
  • Limit 500 words
  • Do not double space; show the shape of your prose poem as it will appear in print
  • 12-point type; Arial font preferred
  • Submit the file in .doc, .docx or .rtf only

Short Stories must draw in the reader with their depth, clarity and voice. Elements of a short fiction story include characterization, conflict and change. Fiction of under 1500 words is welcome, but must revolve around a central story core. Keep the writing tight and concise, with a powerful, authentic voice.

  • One short story per submission
  • Limit 1,500 words; minimum of 250 words
  • Double-spaced
  • 12-point type; Arial font preferred
  • Submit the file in .doc, .docx or .rtf only

The Creative Nonfiction we publish has a moving inner voice. It holds to the same standards as other literary forms while remaining grounded in fact. As author John McPhee says, “Creative nonfiction is not making something up but making the most of what you have.”

  • One creative nonfiction per submission
  • Limit 2,500 words
  • Double-spaced
  • 12-point type; Arial font preferred
  • Submit the file in .doc, .docx or .rtf only

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Why I Write, According to Joan Didion

Why do I write? Why does anyone write?

I can always think of things I’d rather do than write. Reading the great and not-so-great books on my bookshelves, trying recipes from my burgeoning collection of National Trust cookbooks, or just walking in the rain.  And I think most writers call that procrastination. Non-writers would say any of those activities fall under the daily joys of life.

Like most writers, I love reading about the lives of other writers. How do they churn out the words when a headache holds their brains in a vise grip or the sullen daughter-in-law refuses to attend a family dinner? How do they keep going when life seems to break into pieces with every breath taken?

I discovered a copy of Joan Didion’s essay, “Why I Write,” in a pile of papers, wadded into a filing cabinet in my office. Ms. Didion is no stranger to things falling apart. Her Year of Magical Thinking pokes at the tender spots, the places where we all try not to go – loss, bereavement, grief, death.

How does Ms. Didion write about these things? What transpires between her thinking of her thoughts and her words that land on the whiteness of paper or screen?

Here’s what she says:

Let me show you what I mean by pictures in the mind. I began Play It as It Lays just as I have begun each of my novels, with no notion of “character” or “plot” or even “incident.” I had only two pictures in my mind, more about which later, and a technical intention, which was to write a novel so elliptical and fast that it would be over before you noticed it, a novel so fast that it would scarcely exist on the page at all. About the pictures: the first was of white space. Empty space. This was clearly the picture that dictated the narrative intention of the book a book in which anything that happened would happen off the page, a “white” book to which the reader would have to bring his or her own bad dreams and yet this picture told me no “story,” suggested no situation.

Of course. Pictures. Or “images,” in today’s parlance.

A picture is worth a thousand words. Or perhaps 80,000?