“The Power to Contemplate: An Artist Responds to Virginia Woolf” by Jennifer Carson
Five hundred a year stands for the power to contemplate …
a lock on the door means the power to think for oneself.
Several years ago, when my partner agreed that I could live in his house without contributing to the mortgage, I thought I had landed the perfect life. He had granted me Woolf’s five hundred a year. I could work part-time in academia and write the novel I had started in halting pieces.
The arrangement gave me serious material comfort. Together we had built a beautiful contemporary house: granite, bamboo and white oak under my feet and soaring ceilings above, warmly stained concrete walls and tiny skylights that evoked stars. We laid wool and silk rugs in every room and hung chandeliers. Twelve feet of glass doors framed the garden I tended almost daily. I smelled the ocean from my living room. I had my own “deep armchairs and pleasant carpets” and felt for myself “the urbanity, the geniality, the dignity which are the offsprings of luxury and privacy and space.” I could focus on the only two things I was sure mattered: writing, which had become an acute creative need, and meditation, which I had practiced intensively for six years.
“The lamp in the spine does not light on beef and prunes,” Woolf quipped, and indeed, mine lit more easily in such material security. I had grown up poor and lived on student’s wages for most of the first fifteen years of adulthood, as I earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in physics and a PhD in astrophysics. There were many days of beef and prunes. At the end of my second year out of school, I could no longer pretend interest in the work I was doing. I did not want the academic career in physics. My partner’s offer made it possible to leave it without giving up financial wellbeing. In that luxurious, borrowed house, I finished a draft of my novel. I attended my first writers’ workshop, joined three writing groups, and won a scholarship for a year of classes at a local university. These experiences changed me: they charged my work, deepened my commitment, honed my skills and exposed me to literature that challenged me by example.
Eventually, though, the cracks in the arrangement began to show. I cared that the lamp in my spine lit at the discretion and favor of another. Conscious of my dependence on my partner, I became increasingly concerned with gaining his approval. Although he never forbade my writing, he did not particularly approve of it either. He is an engineer, short on creative impulse and long on industry. I do think, in his quiet way, that he wanted me to succeed, but his ideas of what it meant to be productive ran counter to that desire. I felt, always, beholden to him — that I should make myself accountable, that I should waste no time. His thrift and practicality stood in contrast to my tendency “to dream over books and loiter in street corners and let the line of thought dip deep into the stream.” I worried often about producing something that would register as legitimate in his eyes.
Intensifying our divide, my partner was never fond of my work. He likes comedy and politics, has no interest in poetry and little in fiction. In contrast, my writing is serious and dense, and I care deeply about language. We had little explicit communication about this growing rift, but his opinion of my work, and of creative pursuits generally, began to fill my pleasant material refuge with the fumes of dependence and self-doubt.
My subversion of my work was subtle. I still picked up the pen, but my thoughts were compromised by an effort to bury my worries, to ignore the residue left by my partner’s lack of interest. The work leaned into a frantic and superficial cant, as I hurried for the tangible prize of publication and the legitimacy it would bring. Such a mode discourages exploration of language and form. It dulled my wilder instincts — the very instincts that set my work apart. My impulses toward risk and innovation became alloyed with fear and an undue emphasis on what was acceptable. I could be weird as long as I wasn’t too weird.
The risks I refused to take in my relationship were reflected on the page. I laid the novel’s foundation during my time with that partner, and there is certainly risk in those pages, but eventually I could not ignore the limits in the relationship — limits that existed even within the material advantage it seemed to give me. External changes were necessary before I, and the work, could grow. “Think only of the jump,” Woolf implored Mary Carmichael, and I heard advice for myself. Jump.
And so I did.
My perfect life was missing the second half of Woolf’s admonition: a lock on the door. The power to think for myself, which I was not going to find under the conditions of protection I had adopted. When I split up with him, my partner insisted I move out immediately, and so within a few days I gave up financial security, the comfortable home, the spacious schedule. But also these: the loneliness of our superficial conversations and the ever-present feeling that I had to account for my days. Jobless, I spent two months cobbling together house-sitting arrangements while laying a new foundation for myself. Eventually I secured two teaching jobs and freelance work. I rented a small but pretty apartment where I could no longer smell the ocean but could still walk there.
In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf writes of author Mary Carmichael, whose work she admired, “I am afraid, indeed, that she will be tempted to become, what I think is the less interesting branch of the species — the naturalist-novelist, and not the contemplative.” Woolf argued for the necessity of contemplative writing. As Mary Gordon states succinctly in the book’s forward, “It is to encourage writing of genius, to discourage flawed work, that Woolf is so insistent upon money and privacy for women.” Woolf’s contemplative is someone who aims for such unflawed writing.
I have seen the effect of a lack of privacy on my own creative process and have now been in my modest home, with its lock on the door, for over a year. There is much less time to write, but in the hours I do carve out, I loiter and dip. The space itself has begun to fill not only with my piles of books and notes, but with ideas and questions, poetry of my own generation. No one but me can cross their arms and judge my lack of industry.
How, then, to work toward that seemingly unattainable “writing of genius”? Gordon elaborates: “The important thing is that they express reality; they must express their own genius, not themselves. They must illuminate their own souls, but they must not allow the souls to get in the way of reality.” But what does it mean to express reality?
“Many poets are not poets for the same reason that many religious men are not saints,” Thomas Merton writes in Seeds of Contemplation. “They never succeed in being themselves.” We start by illuminating our own souls. A true contemplative cannot saddle herself to ideas that are popular or sanctioned, cannot “waste years in vain efforts to be some other poet, some other saint.” Paradoxically, this pursuit does not increase egotism, but humility, for “humility consists in being precisely the person you actually are.” Woolf seems to agree: “I find myself saying briefly and prosaically that it is much more important to be oneself than anything else.”
But as Mary Gordon warns, to illuminate one’s own soul is not enough. We must plumb deeper, to find and express the “reality” that is not obscured by our particular and limiting neuroses. Woolf described reality thus: “It overwhelms one walking home beneath the stars and makes the silent world more real than the world of speech…. [It is] what remains over when the skin of the day has been cast into the hedge.” This points us to a deeper experience of living, so that we may be truer to life in our writing.
The process of training the mind to get out of its own way in order to better discern reality seems to me a kind of purification, producing an unalloyed intelligence, the mind’s deepest potential. This pure experience of the intellect is, I think, what the teacher and writer A.H. Almaas refers to when he describes “brilliancy” or “essential intelligence”: “brilliance” as a luminous quality of mind and “essential” because it is innate and fundamental, existing underneath the neuroses that obscure it. Our “soul” no longer gets in the way of reality. Woolf described this state of mind palpably, as “unity of mind,” “resonant and porous, … it transmits emotion without impediment, … is naturally creative, incandescent, and undivided.” This luminous mind seeks reality and finds truth. Annie Dillard insists on it when she instructs us to “Aim past the wood; aim through the wood. Aim for the chopping block.”
What is at stake in our writing is no less than truth itself. Not the depiction of beauty as we usually conceive it, but the record of the real, of things as they are. This strikes me as the Buddhist quest: to see the world — and as a writer, to record what we see — without the obfuscation of opinion, interpretation, prejudice, or grievance. This is, perhaps, the deepest understanding of beauty, as Marilynne Robinson asserts: “For me, this is a core definition of beauty: … that it somehow bears a deep relationship to truth.”
To bring forth truth, to express such beauty, requires that we cast aside the pernicious “self”, another task at the heart of the Buddha’s teachings. I once heard a student ask Charles Johnson how his decades-long Buddhist practice and perspective affected his work. I immediately thought of the Buddhist themes and wisdom that saturate his novels, but Johnson gave a more process-oriented answer: he gets the self out of the way when he writes. After decades of meditation, he understands the ultimate fiction of self and can write from that place of understanding. What is left, he said, is just the world of the story. No ‘Charles Johnson’ to erect a barrier to the place where his characters live.
When our allegiance to self is strong, it bleeds out into our writing. Woolf notices it as “… a shadow [that] seemed to lie across the page. It was a straight dark bar, a shadow shaped something like the letter ‘I’.” She disdains the “aridity, which, like the beech tree, it casts within its shade. Nothing will grow there.” It is out in the sun, away from such withering shade, that true contemplation proceeds.
Woolf’s call to women is to be that contemplative. Some of us must try to become capable of expressing our own “genius,” of accessing that unalloyed intelligence that makes great work possible — writing without the taint of grudges or personal vendettas and undistracted by concern for what others think. Such purification is different for each woman. There is no generic enlightened mind. Like the purification of metals, each mind has its own properties and transforms according to its unique color, heat, malleability and luster. In bringing forth “genius,” we do not lose our individuality, but become, as Merton points out, more ourselves.
Every time I write I try to remember this commitment to truth, to the paradoxical movement in which we loose the shackles of “I” in order to more fully manifest work that is unique and irreplaceable. I know for myself the necessity of the door and its lock, of the time alone, safe within walls I pay for, in rooms slowly imprinted with my creative will. But to maintain these rooms, I, like most women, must work for money. Teaching physics pulls me away from my deeper creative work — not because it is impossible to be a contemplative in physics (though it is as rare there as it is in literature), but simply because it is not my path. I commit to as little of it as possible. I live on a financial edge, tolerating the lack of security so I can keep writing. I eat more beef and prunes than I would like.
The cracks in this arrangement are obvious. I cannot continue to make so little indefinitely. I cannot write well living like Hemingway, skipping lunch and filling my short stories with food. Neither money without privacy nor intellectual independence without material security can support the works of genius Woolf charges women to produce. Five hundred pounds a year and a lock on the door are necessary — not for living, merely, but for the more that Woolf expects of writers: “to live in the presence of reality, an invigorating life.” From across a century, I heed her call to that life.
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Jennifer Carson Artist Statement:
Jennifer’s work won an Honorable Mention from Glimmer Train magazine and has
appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books and the Barnes & Noble Review. She was
the 2015 Writer in Residence at the Wellstone Center in the Redwoods. She received two
yearlong writing scholarships from the UCLA Extension Writers Program and trained at
the Iowa Writers’ Workshop Summer Intensive, the Tin House Summer Writer’s
Workshop, and the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference. She recently completed her first
novel. She holds a PhD in astrophysics from UCLA and teaches college physics.