A Voice of One’s Own

Winnie on a swing

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?[1]
–Mary Oliver, “The Summer Day”

One afternoon this summer when I was playing Frisbee with my ten-year-old cousin, I decided to try a handstand.  It didn’t go well, but no bones broke, and for a moment my legs were airborne.  The decades that have passed between my handstands in our yard when I myself was ten and my attempt this summer seem like a single lightning strike of time.  I don’t regret having reached the upper limits of what anyone could possibly call “middle age.”  But what I do regret is that as the years flashed by, I somehow failed to fulfill my chances to have a husband and children, sustain my career as a teacher without drifting into academic byways, earn a fancier degree, and bring my parents and myself peace of mind.  Other, related, regrets attach to these.

I know I am greatly blessed.  My life has been filled with joys and adventures.  Yet I never completely found my footing.  I feel I could have done much more with my life, for the benefit of others and for my own satisfaction.  And because I never married and don’t have children, I also suspect that I’ve failed as a woman.  While I never regard other single or childless women this way, I do see myself as one who didn’t make the grade.

Now that I am old, or nearly so, how do I turn from regret to new determination and a sense of satisfaction?  How do I stop grieving what I had planned to do with my “one wild and precious life” and move on to doing my best by this life in the long or short time remaining?

One of the most promising answers for me is writing.  Finally I think I can sustain that cure.  Last week I finished setting up my blog and completed an entry, and voilà, for a couple of days I was no longer Has-been Spinster Winnie.  In my mind I became a full-fledged adult whose experiences have brought her to an interesting point in life and given her insights and observations to share.  By the beginning of this week, Has-been Spinster Winnie was sneaking back, but again I’ve evicted her—or at least given her notice—by forcing myself past my looming, recurring obstacles to writing.

My determination to write, no matter what, received a boost yesterday when I reread A Room of One’s Own, by Virginia Woolf.  The book is an expansion of lectures that Woolf delivered in October 1928 on the topic of women and fiction.  The resulting essay explores the conditions that make it possible for women to thrive as authors.  Of all the wonderful words, explanations, and guidance in A Room of One’s Own, this passage means the most to me: “. . . it is much more important to be oneself than anything else.” [2]  And I’m beginning to accept that being oneself means embracing all the warts and wrinkles, accomplishments and debacles, hours of bliss and seasons of despair.  The lives we have lived and are living are the oracle from which we draw our truths.  No two people share exactly the same vantage point out over life.

The books about writing that I have scoured over the years and the writing workshops and conferences I have attended have all presented their Commandments for Authors.  And every genre has its thou-shalt-and-shalt-not stone tablets.  Virginia Woolf reminded me that the gurus who demand our writing match their dictums are misleading us about the inviolable, eternal nature of their pronouncements.  Their rules may very well express the qualities currently in vogue; following the rules may ease the path to publication.  But following the rules has little to do with an author’s success in giving voice to his or her inspiration, creativity, insight, and soul.  Did William Shakespeare adhere strictly to the revenge-tragedy formula of his time?  Did Jane Austen follow all the guidelines of her era?  How about Emily Dickinson?  What about Virginia Woolf for that matter?  Here is what Woolf has to say about bending writing to the measurements of others:

Praise and blame alike mean nothing.  No, delightful as the pastime of measuring may be, it is the most futile of all occupations, and to submit to the decrees of the measurers the most servile of attitudes.  So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters, and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say.  But to sacrifice a hair of the head of your vision, a shade of its colour, in deference to some Headmaster with a silver pot in his hand or to some professor with a measuring-rod up his sleeve, is the most abject treachery. . . .

And so at last I truly believe that instead of bemoaning much of my past, I can use it to inform, inspire, and add meaning to my “wild and precious” present.  While others speak most clearly through different arts, I have long been obsessed by writing and have written quite a bit over the years—my job as a speechwriter demanded it, for instance.  But until now I had not fully allowed myself to jump into the swirling sea of memory, to write with abandon, to give full voice and appreciation to my years.  Today and all my tomorrows, I embrace Virginia Woolf’s counsel:

Therefore I would ask you to write all kinds of [things], hesitating at no subject however trivial or however vast.  By hook or by crook, I hope that you will possess yourselves of [the means] to travel and to idle, to contemplate the future or the past of the world, to dream over books and loiter at street corners and let the line of thought dip deep into the stream.[3]

[1] Mary Oliver, “The Summer Day,” New and Selected Poems (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), 94.

[2] Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, 1929, http://gutenberg.org.

[3] Original quotation: “Therefore I would ask you to write all kinds of books, hesitating at no subject however trivial or however vast.  By hook or by crook, I hope that you will possess yourselves of money enough to travel. . . .”

2 thoughts on “A Voice of One’s Own

  1. Well done, Winnie. Your writing is helpful and encouraging. I find myself wrestling with some of the same issues. Thank you for writing and sharing encoursgements to write.


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