Writing in Virginia’s Shadow
by Mary Pomfret
Writing in Virginia’s Shadow is an eclectic collection of short fiction works presented as short stories, vignettes, email, and letters that explore what it means to be a female, working class, fiction writer. The writing contemplates similar ideas as those addressed by Virginia Woolf, hence the title.
It would take a long essay and a month of days to delve into the many themes presented through the fictional characters within the interconnected works so I only touch on a few.
We begin with Margot, an aspiring writer, who receives a rejection letter from a magazine, and is confronted with harsh criticism:
The devices you use to connect stories, such as recurring metaphors, motifs, related characters and the repeated theme of the ‘poor woebegone struggling women writer’, are tedious, pretentious and far from subtle. …We feel we want to scream at all these characters, ‘Get a life!’ but of course we wouldn’t; we are far too polite.’ 7
As the reader you feel the immediate sense of Margot’s despondency as she attempts to take an objective view of the criticism that is inherently a personal attack on Margot as a writer. The fictional letter pulls the rug out from under her and seems to mock Margot in such an awful way:
‘Margot, your namesake, who is seemingly the fictitious author of all the stories, intolerable. Eliminate her.’ 8
The rejection letter read in the context of the book as a whole is at once comical and awful, but we die a little on the inside for Margot at the thought of such a letter which can also be read as instruction to Margo to eliminate herself. This idea of exposing Margot is replicated in a letter she receives from Virginia (Woolf):
And as for you Margot. Where are you? You are weaving in and out of text, hiding behind words and phrases like a frightened child hides behind her mother’s skirt. Who are you? You must come out and declare yourself. You are the author, the writer of stories, are you not? 38
Margot is given opportunity to respond to Virginia Woolf in a letter and says simply:
If I am honest, I guess I am just plain scared. 41
but she defends herself in explanation:
…I feel that writing of stories, stories with female characters who are from the working class, will do more to advance women’s position in society…because such stories would be accessible to more women then are the writings of academic theorists. 42
One of the common frailties of the writer is explored through the character Leah – the not-good-enough-fear – shown in the form of Leah chastising herself:
When it came to her turn to introduce herself, she felt vaguely fraudulent. It had been over a years since she had written anything of substance. She muttered something about hoping this workshop would cure her writer’s block. 19
Leah, an emerging writer who competes for literary attention with her unsupportive writer husband,
He was getting sick of minding the kids every Tuesday night while she went off to her writing group. Old ladies and retired nuns – what would they know about the art and craft of writing? 11
finds herself struggling to live up to the standards of a writing group due to her family commitments:
This was a tall order – writing for a solid hour. It was a rare event for Leah to have the opportunity to write uninterrupted for an hour. Most of her writing was done in opportunistic snatches, while waiting to pick up children from soccer, or when a DVD was so engrossing that no one asked her where their socks were or what was to eat. The last time she wrote for an hour at a stretch was while she was waiting in the hospital room when her son had broken is arm. Leah picked up her pen and gazed around the room. All of the group were writing with such intensity. 22
It is brought home here, that Leah’s lack of confidence stems directly from her lack of support from her husband.
A message that comes through strongly in this book is that of how subjective (while hiding behind the mask of objectivity) reactions to fiction can be. Margot takes a battering of a variety of opinions from her email critique group:
‘She always had to steel herself for this monthly task of reading the email responses of her fellow writers.’ 27
She faces a maze of subjective advice,
…I am a Poet after all.) I suggest you condense it a little… 27
…Loved your story. I do suspect, however, that your male protagonist is a bit of a wank. Sometimes, Margot, I think that you don’t think much of male writers. Got to watch that, you know. It can sometimes sound like sour grapes.’ 27
and has to decipher the intentions of critiquers:
The problem with your story is that it doesn’t really make much sense. Even so, I like it and I’m not really sure why. I think you are headed on a quest. Do you know what it is that you are looking for? XX Nyall.’
I think Nyall has something else on his mind. We all know a Nyall don’t we?
One of my favourite sections in the book is an interaction between the character Louise and her plumber husband Norm.
Why the hell are you always making up stupid fucking stories? Why are you always telling lies? Her reply was stuck in her throat like snow white’s apple. She spluttered, struggled to get out the words. ‘Because…because I’m a writer – that’s what I do. I make up stories. Fuckhead. I make up stories to survive.’ 31
I’m a bit partial to calling someone a fuckhead so this appeals to me, but as she blurts out ‘I make up stories to survive’, it’s an instinctive blurt, and she hits on a truth for many writers that they write because they have to; they write to understand themselves, and the world they live in.
I love the reference to the poisoned apple, intentional or not. Those words Louise speaks to her husband, Norm are bound to begin a rift that may cause her to have to ‘go to sleep’ in relation to writing, to keep the peace, and forget writing completely.
Writing in Virginia’s Shadow is abundant with themes and ideas about writers. It can be read as simply as a series of stories about the lives of writers, or, it can be read as an insight into the state of the writer in all her phases, or, you may go deeper and read to examine the reflexive, post-modern style of the work. As a fan of meta-fiction, I find the latter adds a meaningful depth to the writing allowing a sense of realism that draws the reader in.
Either way, I urge you to take your time with Writing in Virginia’s Shadow, and give it the thought that it asks you to, and it deserves.
Mary lives in Bendigo, Victoria, Australia. You can find out more about Mary at her Blog.