Sina Queyras | Issue 17
On Writing Rooms
Writing, and thinking, for me, is physical.
My desire to write is steeped not so much in the desire to tell a story — though it certainly includes that — but in a desire to represent the physicality at the root of the story.
Writing often feels more like dance, or performance, in my own work, yes, but even when I am thinking, critiquing, and discussing it — when I am in a workshop, for instance, I often feel I have to hold on to the table or I may float and tumble across the seminar room.
Words buoy me. Ideas uproot. They spiral overhead threatening to rocket out of site, or stall and come crashing down on me.
But how to capture this in writing?
I had this desire before I could articulate it for myself. My awakening to it was realized through my initial encounter with the work of Virginia Woolf.
In Rooms I explore this moment, and then the way in which my young self tried to grapple with and realize this awakening within the constructs of a heteronormative white, patriarchal, world.
Rooms then, is about awakening to the existence of and a desire to achieve for myself, a life of the mind.
I found, in those early days, resistance to this desire in every direction including in myself. The resistance in fact, may be an animating principal of the dance.
There’s something extremely physical about Woolf’s writing. She strides across the pages of A Room of One’s Own. She is everywhere — in the diaries, letters, novels — juggling the English canon with as much ease as she navigates the spaces of Cambridge, Oxford, and London. The movement, the all at once and all up in the air, nothing solid, the juggling of critical — as we see in the essays, and in A Room of One’s Own, in the creative, the innovative work of her prose, in particular, The Waves — this is one of the key attractions for me, the thing that takes me back to Woolf again and again with the question how did she do it?
When I began writing Rooms I wasn’t actually thinking of the Woolf of 1928 and 1929, when she was engaged in the writing of A Room of One’s Own, but rather, it was the Woolf of 1918 & 1919 that was captivating me. As we were facing Covid back in the spring of 2020, I spent my days with Woolf as she navigated the ravages of war and the Spanish flu epidemic. Even as everything seemed to be crumbling in the world, for Woolf, everything was coming into existence — the 17 club, the press, her second novel, Night & Day. She was settling into her marriage, domesticity, being an aunt. She was becoming aware of the many aspects of a writing life she would need to master & juggle, from the banal (must handle close friends expectations of my services as reviewer) to creating her country home (bought in the summer of 1919). Coming out of that period, to my mind, she possessed a clear sense of what she would need to create one of the most productive writing practices of the 20th Century.
The Woolf of 1919 is on fire, and emerging. The Woolf of 1929 is towering. The vistas were hers to describe, the descent not at all on her mind, but the Woolf of 1939 is fatigued. Frayed. The house Woolf lived in for two decades on Tavistock Square was bombed so they moved to a new house on Mecklenberg Square. In October 1940 the Woolfs arrived in London to find those rooms blasted open as well: ‘I cd just see a piece of my studio wall standing: otherwise rubble where I wrote so many books,’ Woolf writes, ‘A wind blowing through. I began to hunt out my diaries.’ Francesca Wade’s Square Haunting covers this moment well. And it drifts through my Rooms. It drifts through my relationship with Woolf. A perennial, but brutal optimism. Finding beauty in ruins.
As Woolf finishes her 1940 entry, she observes a strange relief at the prospect of losing it all. Of starting fresh in peace. It’s not a feeling she sustains; the certainty that Hitler would win the war was high then, and the idea that life as her circle knew it would be lost forever was very real.
In a few weeks I will be the age Woolf was at the end of her life.
Three decades into writing I can say that this sense of being vulnerable never goes away.
To me this vulnerability is what keeps me awake.
But in order to sustain this level of vulnerability in one’s work and one’s life (by now you see I do not see any separation between the two…) one needs retreat. Retreat is perspective. Retreat is restoring the self. I have not always been good at achieving that part of my life and even when I do, no amount of retreat appears to be enough to feel truly prepared for publication.
Sometimes the anxiety of speech acts can be so physical that words make me retch.
On the other hand, I often wear my anxiety like a shield.
Still, in the week leading up to publication of my current book I wandered around as though I was wearing a weighted poncho that everywhere pressed me to the earth.
The body is a room. The mind is a room. A life of the mind is a room. In the mind, we are always alone, and yet, surely never truly alone in our thinking. Connecting with the long line of women who have stepped into Woolf’s shoes, and the long line of women whose shoes Woolf stepped into, helps ease some of this pressure. 'I am I: and I must follow that furrow, not copy another. That is the only justification for my writing, living,’ Woolf writes.
I am I. That is what I can accomplish. But also, I am, and must be, part of the endless I.
And therein lies the dance.
Sina Queyras (they/them) is the author of the poetry collections, My Ariel, MxT, Expressway and Lemon Hound all from Coach House. Their work has been nominated for a Governor General’s Award, and won The Friends of Poetry Award from Poetry Magazine, a Lambda Award, the ReLit, a Pushcart Prize and Gold in the National Magazine Award; they have twice won the AM Klein Award for Poetry, and twice won the Pat Lowther Award. Their first novel, Autobiography of Childhood was nominated for the Amazon.ca First Novel Award. Rooms is their first memoir.
Rooms: Women Writing Woolf by Sina Queyras Coach House Books, 2022 Purchase Rooms at Coach House Books
Thirty years ago, a professor threw a chair at Sina Queyras after they’d turned in an essay on Virginia Woolf.
Queyras returns to that contentious first encounter with Virignia Woolf to recover the body and thinking of that time. Using Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own as a touchstone, this book is both an homage to and provocation of the idea of a room of one’s own at the centre of our idea of a literary life.
How central is the room? And what happens once we get one? Do we inhabit our rooms? Or do the rooms contain us? Blending memoir, prose, tweets, poetry, and criticism, Rooms offers a peek into the defining spaces a young queer writer moved through as they found their way from a life of chaos to a life of the mind, and from a very private life of the mind to a public life of the page, and from a life of the page into a life in the Academy, the Internet, and on social media.
Montreal launch for Rooms: Women Writing Woolf on June 24, 2022 5-7pm:
Issue #17 of Send My Love to Anyone
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