I’ve been dipping into Virginia Woolf: A Writer’s Diary on and off for several years now, since my friend Andrea gave me the book for my 23rd birthday. Andrea inscribed the book thusly:
To a true Woolf fan, who is living Virginia’s legacy by being a strong and bold woman and writer.
A strong and bold woman and writer. It strikes me how often I leave off the final two words when I’m identifying myself. When people ask me what I do for a living, I always say I’m an English teacher. I teach college writing. If they push a little further, I’ll say I’m a freelance writer, which usually means you do corporate/technical writing or journalism. But I rarely say I’m a blogger, and even more rarely do I admit to writing fiction.
My girlfriend and I went to brunch with a couple of her friends, and one of them asked me about the writing I did. She knew I was writing a book, or for a magazine or something. I had never met this woman, so she got that information from Amanda, and my immediate inclination was to correct her. “No, no,” I played out in my mind, “I just write on the side. I’m a teacher.”
When I mentioned it to Amanda later, she laughed. “Are you surprised,” she asked, “that I first tell people you’re a writer, rather than leading off with teacher?”
Well, yeah. Duh. Teaching is the job that brings in money. It’s what feeds me and keeps a roof over my head. Writing is just the thing I want to do more than anything, the thing I went into debt with student loans to learn how to do, the thing I fear I’ll never do professionally. That’s all. A small thing.
It’s been two years since I graduated with my MFA in Fiction; it’s been almost five years since I packed up my stuff and moved to Virginia to study writing. And in that time, I’ve written some really crappy stuff. I mean, really bad. Embarrassingly bad. And then some not-as-bad stuff. And eventually, some stuff I was proud of. I spent the time after I graduated from MFA school floundering around, like a fish flopping on the beach, trying to find my voice, the true, authentic sound of me that I could splash into and swim away in. I’m not sure I’ve found it, but I know I’m closer than I was a few years ago.
In a few weeks, I’ll celebrate my one-year blog-o-versary. One year blogging in earnest, even when I felt what I wrote was pointless, even when my recipes turned out to be big fat failures, even when I was scared about what people would think about the things I wrote here. In the past year, I’ve cultivated a blog I’m proud of, I’ve been paid to write about food, and I’ve come the closest I’ve ever been to my true voice.
And still, if people ask me what I do, I say I’m a teacher.
I sometimes think I’m alone in this insecurity. I often tell Amanda that I think she believes in me way more than I believe in myself. And I think that’s probably normal; we are likely surrounded by people who believe in us more than we do ourselves, by people who see us as “strong and bold” when we see ourselves as meek, or quiet, or inadequate. I am thankful for people who are willing to tell me that they think I’m good enough because most days, I don’t think I am.
And I’m not alone. The thing about Virginia Woolf: she was plagued by insecurity. She filled up those diaries with worries about what the press thought of her books, what other writers thought of her, how much she was able to write, worrying over the times when she was ill and couldn’t write; worrying about the times when she felt well again, her eye to the future, to the moment when her demons took over again; she was never sure how much time she had before that happened.
At last today, which is Tuesday, after striking the match on the box despairingly, sterilely – oh I was so overcome with rigidity and nothingness – a little flame has come. (VW, 1934)
She worried over splitting her passion between the Bloomsbury Press and her own writing; over splitting her time between reading and writing; between writing criticism and writing fiction. She was hard on herself, and she was Virginia Woolf. She was brilliant.
I must not let myself believe that I’m simply a ladylike prattler. (VW 1933)
As I flip through her diary today, I find passages I’ve underlined, passages I’ve drawn stars and hearts next to. I love the impulse to underline passages in books, the passages my heart hopes to come back to, remember, later. I’m thankful that I don’t quickly dismiss the value of someone else’s words the way I dismiss the value of my own. So many of the moments in Virginia Woolf’s diary that I’ve underlined capture those moments of insecurity – whether they are in the thick of it, or whether they are those transcendent moments when the writer soars above insecurity and fear and doubt and manages to give herself some credit, to celebrate her position in the world as a woman who writes.
No, I must say to myself, this is a mere wisp, a veil of water; and so create, hardly, fiercely, as I feel now more able to do than ever. (VW 1933)
We have a job to do – we women writers, those of us who have published widely and those (like me) who are just starting out – we have a very difficult, tiresome job that requires some level of blind faith and stubbornness: we have to keep writing. We have to believe that the words we write matter. We have to believe that our blogs can be books and our books can be bought, and even if they never are, that what we do has value because it belongs to us, in this moment, and is a true record of our individual ways of seeing the world.
A note, by way of advising other Virginias with other books that this is the way of the thing: up down up down – and Lord knows the truth. (VW 1934)
My name is Dana, and I’m a writer – a writer who cooks, a writer who teaches, a writer who will, at least for today, claim it, grant it top billing, and own the strength and boldness I aspire to. Whew.