My senior seminar paper at Yale was written on Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. Woolf’s slender book was a response: asked to deliver a lecture on “women and fiction,” she records her initial stalling. She has a difficult time settling on one interpretation of the task:
The title women and fiction might mean, and you may have meant it to mean, women and what they are like; or it might mean women and the fiction that they write; or it might mean women and the fiction that is written about them; or it might mean that somehow all three are inextricably mixed together and you want me to consider them in that light. (3)
The last suggestion, the most difficult, the most tangential and contorted one is the one she chooses. It was as an undergrad that I first heard the term écriture feminine (feminine writing), a term coined by Hélène Cixous in her 1975 essay “Laughing with Medusa.” Feminine writing promotes the idea that gender is inscribed in the structure of language. Woolf, who seeks a non-traditional approach to her subject matter, who “should never be able to fulfill what is, I understand, the first duty of a lecturer—to hand you after an hour’s discourse a nugget of pure truth to wrap up between the pages of your notebooks and keep on the mantel-piece forever,” by resisting this duty, engages in écriture feminine; her essay becomes a political act against a reductive and singular conception of knowledge production.
Virginia Woolf’s writing dances. It does not walk quickly and quietly to its place in line: it loops, sparks, and waltzes—linking its electric excesses back into itself. By refusing to be tidy, by incorporating imaginary figures and histories alongside autobiographical musings and meditations, her 114-page tome references volumes and volumes of women’s writing that had not been written, that had yet to be written, that should yet be written. Woolf’s project appealed to my long-established contrary nature, but also showed me what a blending of forms was capable of accomplishing. Part didactic lecture, part revisionist history, part herstory of Shakespeare’s fictive sister: A Room of One’s Own began to convince me that the act of collage was a legitimate and instructive way to approach both the attainment and the dissemination of knowledge.