August 1, 2011

On writing essays

Posted in Susan's Blog tagged , , , , , , at 8:00 am by Susan

When Virginia Woolf wrote her now famous essay A Room of One’s Own, she began with a story. She described to her readers how she researched her topic while staying at an Oxbridge college. She ate two meals during her visit, and her account of the delicious fare she was served at a male college (sole in cream sauce, partridge, a confection for dessert that defies description), and the plain gravy soup, humdrum beef and prunes and custard she sat down to at a woman’s college, immediately pulls the reader in.

Her story is more than a way of engaging attention. Woolf uses it to make a serious point about the differences between men’s and women’s education. The men’s colleges benefit from centuries of endowment and can fund luxuries such as fine wine at lunch, while the recently created women’s colleges can afford only water.

Woolf tells another, more serious story to develop her thesis about the woeful neglect of women’s education. She invents the character of Judith Shakespeare, sister of the great playwright William, whom she imagines to be as intelligent and gifted as her brother. Judith’s trajectory is tragic. Unlike William she is not permitted to attend school. Though she teaches herself to read and write she is chastised by her parents for neglecting her household chores. When a husband is picked out for her – the son of a neighbouring wool-stapler – and she protests, she is severely beaten. She runs away to London and like William tries to earn a living by acting. Women, however, are not allowed on the stage. Finally, pregnant and in despair, she kills herself.

These stories are far more powerful than any statistic about women’s education. Through them we experience with Woolf the stark contrast in the way men and women are provided for at Oxbridge. We empathise with the plight of the imaginary Judith Shakespeare – and our frustration and anger at the waste of her life are real.

The genius of Woolf’s essay derives not only from her ability to pen gripping stories. She is a compelling writer because she is also a devoted word-smith. When she is chased from the forbidden lawn of the men’s college, she doesn’t simply invoke an irate porter, she paints for us ‘the gesticulations of a curious-looking object in a cut-away coat and evening shirt’. In her anecdote about lunch she is not content to list the menu, she engages all our senses in her depiction of partridges with ‘their retinue of sauces and salads, the sharp and the sweet, each in its order; their potatoes, thin as coins but not so hard; their sprouts, foliated as rosebuds but more succulent’. Woolf deploys language with the care and precision of a poet. She understands that words are powerful: that when they ricochet and dance together they have the potential to make us see the world anew.

There is a popular image of Woolf as relying on flashes of inspiration to fuel her writing. The truth could not be more different. Her detailed, almost daily diary entries and voluminous correspondence prove she was a voracious reader, a thoughtful planner, and a dedicated practitioner. She read French and Russian literature as well as English; classical authors alongside her contemporaries; books from a range of other disciplines. Ideas were tried and scratched out and slowly replaced by better ones; word choices were revised over multiple drafts.

I have quoted Woolf at length not only because I think story-telling and detailing particular cases are effective in presenting ideas to readers, but also because the record she left of her creative process demonstrates that good writing almost never comes fully formed. It requires feeding through wide-ranging and daily reading; ferocious hard work as well as regular breaks (Woolf was a great walker and frequently came back from an hour out of doors with a fresh perspective); and above all an incessant delight in the potency and possibility of words.