Thursday, February 28, 2013

A Letter To Virginia Woolf About Writing For A Living

Dear Mrs. Woolf,                                        February, 2012

I’m writing to you because I don’t want to become Mrs. Hilbery. Mrs. Hilbery—that  fair-weather writer from your novel Night and Day who despite some aptitude, lacks discipline and organization and ultimately fails. You describe her as “beautifully adapted for life in another planet.” Regrettably, though, “the natural genius she had for conducting affairs there was of no real use to her here.” Nor do I want to become Mrs. Oliphant, the lady who committed what you call “brain prostitution” by writing for a living, as you describe in your essay, Three Guineas. These characters, instructive in what kind of writer not to be, also say a great deal about the kind of writer I do want to be: a writer like you. Perhaps that’s really why I’m writing this letter.

Three Guineas names writing as a means to promote peace by “protect[ing] culture and intellectual liberty,” then swiftly adds that writing for a living does the opposite. I’ve just spent the last of “Ashley’s Education Fund” training to do just that: write for a living, that is, to be a journalist. At the same time as journalism school taught me to write for a living, it also introduced me to your essays and inspired my hopes that I could be what I would call a “good writer”: someone who honestly says what she thinks in the choicest words that she can imagine. Are the two, good writing and professional writing, incompatible? You seem to think so, and I hope that I can come to a different conclusion, not out of disrespect for you but, on the contrary, out of admiration.

In Three Guineas, you describe a manifesto that you have been asked to sign promising to “protect culture and intellectual liberty." You write the essay in the form of a letter to the man who sent you the manifesto and also asked your opinion of how to prevent war. After reminding him that you and your class, “the daughters of educated men,” have very restricted intellectual liberty and that the culture of England is not of great value to women, who don’t reap many of its benefits, and that the influence of women is quite limited—stop to breathe—you describe how one might live up to such a promise to “protect culture and intellectual liberty.” It is, you say, “simply by reading and writing their own tongue in such a way as to protect those rather abstract goddesses themselves.”

“At last, the influence of writing!” I cry, reading the passage. “I’m going to write and thereby protect culture and intellectual liberty, like Virginia Woolf!” If I didn’t exactly say that, my unconscious did.

I’m thrilled and then, quickly, deflated, for as soon as you point out the power of writing, you go on to say that the kind of writing I studied, at great expense, is “the wrong kind.”  

You say it by discussing the writing of poor Mrs. Oliphant, who wrote for a living and in so doing “prostituted her culture and enslaved her intellectual liberty.” Writing like hers inspired you to restrict your requests for signatures to women who already have enough money to live upon, who do not need to write for a living. 

Here I am clamoring to follow you to the ends of the Earth, and then you tell me that you don’t even want me to sign your petition.

At this point you might rightly say, “I’ve put you in a bind, have I? And you wish to emulate me. You seem a little afraid of me, but you bravely persist in writing to me, trying to imitate my style as you go. But who, may I ask, are you?”

To describe myself in the terms you laid out in Three Guineas, I am the daughter of educated parents and write for my own pleasure. At the same time, I do not have enough to live upon and so also write for a living. I don’t think I am like Mrs. Oliphant, but I am in her class and also the class of journalists, of whom your opinion seems quite low. I want to prove that I am not destined to a life of intellectual prostitution.

You seem to disapprove of writers who write for money. More specifically, though, you seem to refer to people who “writ[e] what [they] not want to write for the sake of money.” I think that is a key distinction wherein may lie some hope.

I haven’t particularly wanted to write everything I’ve written, but I wouldn’t say that I’ve written anything that I explicitly didn’t want to write or that I wrote anything against my will. Nor would I say that everything I write is “for [my] own pleasure” or for love. I guess I’m an ambivalent prostitute.

In that particularly vivid analogy, a concern arises: Even if a prostitute loves her client or enjoys her work, even does it for her own pleasure, while he pays her, it’s still prostitution. She’s still in his power. Is that true of writing? Even if a writer loves the work she is paid to do, is she still prostituting her brain?

Perhaps prostitution implies selling something that should never be sold. It is flat-out wrong to be paid for saying things you don’t believe. But I don’t see anything wrong with being paid to write something you are willing to write. Nor do I see a problem with tailoring your work to please the person paying you. Sometimes, that person’s specifications can improve the work. And in the case of journalism, sometimes writers cannot do their work at all unless they are paid.  

I think you should ask journalists to sign the manifesto, paid though they are. They do a lot of important work. They promote intellectual liberty by giving people information to think freely about. Who produced those images on your table of the dead bodies and bombed houses, to which you keep referring to in Three Guineas as illustrations of war? Though these particular photos, you say, you say came from the Spanish government, generally, journalists are the ones who take such photographs today. Who sends the journalists to take the pictures? Newspapers.  In one instance, you call newspapers “the smeared and dejected pages of those who must live by prostituting culture”; in other places, you call them “history and biography in the raw” and seem to think that they aren’t all bad. I think they newspapers are not just passable but important.

Maybe newspapers have improved since your time. I’m sure I could turn to microfiche machines to answer the question of what journalism and paid-for writing used to be like. But we are in a great hurry, seeing as we have to earn a living, so we will not go to library and look at The Telegraph from 1920, though it might be a pleasant way to spend an afternoon. No, instead, let me just say that there are many books published today that I like to read and several publications, such as The New Yorker and The New York Times, that produce honest journalism that is as disinterested as one could ask.

I would concede that some journalism does require a reporter to write not what she thinks but what she thinks will sell, or what she thinks a reader will want to buy and read. Yet this is not always a bad thing. I think that being a journalist and choosing what to write is like buying gifts for someone else: you don’t necessarily give them something that you love; you give them something that you think they would like. If I am a writer for the local newspaper, I may not particularly care about the schoolboard meeting, but I’ll write about it because things that happen there could be important to my readers. 

A former journalism professor of mine tells students to imagine the face of our ideal reader as we read our drafts. It’s similar to the way you imagine the face of the person reading the letters you write, or the way you place imaginary people into the abstract situations you discuss. Picture the average reader, he says, not particular interested in a given subject but willing to read an enticing story, very busy what with riding the subway and tending to children and reading mail and arranging used coffee pots and hares for the bazaar and—those last examples came not from my professor but from Three Guineas. You do think of your reader and so you are, in a way, influenced by your reader. It’s not such a bad thing.

Perhaps what you worry more about is less that writers think of their readers but that they think of the people who own the newspaper or who run ads in it. Those concerns are reasonable, but whole institutions and foundations, including the Nieman Foundation at Harvard, founded the year you published Three Guineas, devote themselves to worrying about those things. Let’s return to the individuals who want to “protect culture and intellectual liberties” and also want to write.

You say that the women who sign the manifesto should have enough independent income to live upon so that their writing will not be influenced by money. I can see why you feel that way. But is any money truly independent? That is the question I would put to you and the lucky writers who are endowed with enough to live upon and rooms of their own. Where did these ladies get their money? They got it from someone who earned it. People earn money by doing things that others will pay them to do. Yet culture and freedom depend on writers having this money. The result, when you look at it abstractly, is that intellectual freedoms and culture are being paid for by what you would call the brain prostitution and cultural ruin of their sponsors. In reality, it’s not that stark and horrible. But writing on an endowment is not very much more pure than writing for a living. 

Three Guineas does not focus solely on moneyed writers. You say that women who want to promote peace should “bind themselves to earn their own livings.” I take it that you are suggesting that they earn their livings by some means other than writing. These protectors of liberty and culture are not journalists or best-selling novelists.

But what about me? What about us? What about the daughters of educated parents who don’t not have enough to live upon but want to write? Should those people earn their livings some other way?

Imagine a woman, call her Lydia, with a bachelor’s degree from a well-regarded college who is interested in writing. She decides to work as a cashier by day and pursue her passions, all artistic—ballet, music, writing—by night. Outside of work, she has intellectual freedom. She does exactly what she wants, and she writes what she thinks.

Yet it isn’t a perfect situation. She doesn’t have money to pay for emergencies or new shoes. As a cashier, she is not using her education, nor is she particularly distinguishing herself in the grocery business, which values quickness, superficiality and reflexes while she is known for slow reflection.

But the worst problem with this situation is that it isn’t exactly producing brilliant writing. For one thing, she doesn’t write full time, and her inspiration comes sort of the way Mrs. Hilbery’s did, in spurts: “Ideas came to her chiefly when she was in motion,” you write of Mrs. Hilbery.

“She liked to perambulate the room with a duster in her hand, with which she stopped to polish the backs of already lustrous books, musing and romancing as she did so. Suddenly, the right phrase or the penetrating point of view would suggest itself, and she would drop her duster and write ecstatically for a few breathless moments; and then the mood would pass away, and the duster would be sought for, and the old books polished again…It was as much as [Mrs. Hilbery’s daughter] could do to keep the pages of her mother’s manuscript in order, but to sort them so that the sixteenth year of Richard Alardyce’s life succeeded the fifteenth was beyond her skill.”

Lydia does a little better than Mrs. Hilbery. She self publishes a book, also a biography. It is sincere, and she manages to put it in chronological order. She does not include, “for sentimental reasons,” the irrelevant reflections of any “very fluent old lady” in her book. Yet the work is not without digressions about Lydia’s own life that, given perspective, could have been omitted from the written life of her father. And perhaps the summary of his research was a bit too detailed and served primarily to prove that Lydia understood it rather than to help the reader understand her dad. The book would have benefited from an editor’s blue pencil.                 

I bring up that last point because, in addition to avoiding the influence of money, you also seem to think that writer should avoid the influence of editors. You urge them to self publish the way Lydia did. “By using these cheap and so far unforbidden instruments [typewriters and copiers] you can at once rid yourself of the pressure of boards, policies and editors.” While your efforts at self-publishing were marvelous, it may not be for every writer. This letter, which I am sending you by way of self-publishing, is not free from errors. They keep popping up, though I have read it over many times. An editor would have helped. You don’t think much of critics, either, when they demoralize writers. 

In your idea that writers should avoid an editor’s pencil and a critic’s scathing review, you remind me of an essay published after your time by Randall Jarrell, “Poets, Critics, and Readers.” Jarrell quotes Wordsworth as saying that “every writer, in so far as he is great and at the same time original, has the task of creating the taste by which he is to be enjoyed.” Lest people think this doesn’t apply to writers they know about, who may simply not be any good, Jarrell explains how it does apply: “Some of these trivial, immature, and eccentric writers are our great and original talents.” Jarrell also quotes Goethe saying that “All great excellence in life or art, at its first recognition, brings with it a certain pain arising from the strongly felt inferiority of the spectator…Mediocrity, on the other hand, may often give us unqualified pleasure; it does not disturb our self-satisfaction.” So Jarrell and those he cites think that critics are not useful because the best writing, if it is original, will probably be the writing that the critics don’t like. He, like you, seems to think that “poverty, chastity, derision, and freedom from unreal loyalties” are a writer’s teachers.

But scorn and derision and obscurity do not earn a writer a living. Of course, that is one of your arguments against professional writing. Though I agree with Jarrell that some great writing may be unpopular at first, I don’t think it has to be that way. Whether it’s due to my poor taste or to the writing quality, I can’t say, but I do think that writers produce, for pay, plenty of good work. I hope to add mine to theirs.

Goethe's idea that great, original art may be unpopular at first is nice, but the problem is that bad writing, original or not, also "brings with it a certain pain." It's hard to know which of the scorned writers are in fact great. That's the argument against taking criticism too seriously. But it might also be an argument for trying to produce writing that editors or critics actually like. Perhaps they like it because it is good.

After all, not everything one writes has to be original, particularly not in journalism. The news of the day, the month, or even the year, for instance, should not be written in a style that will take decades to ripen; it should be written in a style that people can readily appreciate. If the style is too original to stomach without pain, the information will be lost.

But we are in a great hurry, as we have to earn a living. So let me try to explain what I think Lydia should do. As I see it, a writer has three possibilities: Write in the sponsorship of someone else; Do something else for a living and write on the side; Earn a living by writing what people will pay one to write and write for pleasure on the side.

The first option, which you encourage, to write using inherited or bequeathed wealth is hypocritical, in my opinion, as it avoids one kind of prostitution with funds earned from another. Still, it is a means toward disinterested writing. Lydia does not have this option.  

Consider the second option, which Lydia has already tried: to earn a living another way and write on the side. Since making living takes a fair amount of time, it means that the writer  relinquishes a lot of time and energy she might have spent writing professionally in effort to save her chaste brain for the writing she does after work. Since writing well requires a lot of practice, this may mean that she cannot write enough to really develop her skills.

The third option means that a writer can write both for a living and for pleasure. It solves the problem of having enough to live upon without having to rely on charity or inheritance. At least if the writer earns the money herself, she can be the judge of whether or not it comes from reputable work. Plus, since much good writing, in The New Yorker and other publications, is paid for, it follows that aspiring writers can expect to be paid for good writing. The practice she gets from writing for pay will help her experimental work. Plus, as a journalist reporting, she learns things! It’s not paid-for education but paid education!

As someone who has invested in journalism school, it is hard for me not to conclude that the last option is the best one, for Lydia and for me. I hope I’m right. I’ll continue to try to prove it, not in letters to dead authors, but through my work.

Now, Mrs. Woolf, I can’t finish this letter now. I have to go earn a living. But I’ll be back.


Oh, Virginia Woolf, you're so good! I just looked over A Room of One’s Own again. I love it. You seem so encouraging of the young writers you are lecturing to. Three Guineas raised in me some defensive spirit and made me want to show what a dedicated writer I was. But after reading A Room of One’s Own, I just want to read books, for pleasure, not to prove myself, and to enjoy writing. I no longer feel driven to prove you wrong, sharply polite, with references to history and biography. A Room of One’s Own makes me want not to analyze your work but to hug you and to tell you simply that I liked it.

Thank you for all the writing and the inspiration.


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