By: Siphokazi Magadla
“What was Shakespeare’s state of mind, for instance, when he wrote Lear and Antony and Cleopatra? It was certainly the state of mind most favourable to poetry that there has ever existed. But Shakespeare himself said nothing about it…Nothing indeed was ever said by the artist himself about his state of mind until the eighteenth century perhaps. Rousseau perhaps began it. At any rate, by the nineteenth century self-consciousness had developed so far that it was the habit for men of letters to describe their minds in confessions and autobiographies….And one gathers from this enormous modern literature of confession and analysis that to write a work of genius is almost always a feat of prodigious difficulty…Dogs will bark; people will interrupt; money must be made; health will break down. “
This extensive quote is from Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own”. In it, Woolf reflects about the social and economic conditions that are conducive to the act of writing. I have been thinking a lot about writing as I am in the midst of writing my PhD thesis. In my daily life, I am surrounded by writers, women and men who think that writing changes the world. With every year, I naively think that our schedules will clear up so that there is time to think one’s thoughts through with greater clarity – somewhere overlooking the ocean, perhaps with a glass of wine at hand and perhaps Billy Holiday or Nomfundo Xaluva in the background. But alas, every year the plate gets fuller. Babies are born; weddings and funerals to attend, school fees to pay, school governing body meetings to attend, committee meetings, reference letters to submit before the deadline, and everything else that leaves one exhausted to the borne in no state to write.
My friend Athambile reminds me always that this is what it means to be an adult. Better to get on with it and pull up one’s big girl panties and stop complaining. After all, we are a generation of black women who, due to no creation of our own but the fortune of history, are “lucky” enough to steal, even a second, time to vomit our thoughts to the world and to demand that our lives, as black women and men, matter. Many times the stolen writing time feels like vomiting on the pages. If only there was enough time, the ideas would be clearer. The article would not sound so angry and accusatory to whoever at the time encounters my wreath.
By the time this reflection is published, I will be halfway on a flight to Guangzhou, China, for a conference. If it were not for the teaching, the marking, there this and that, I wish I had more time to develop my ideas for the conference paper that I will be presenting. When I come back next week, just days before Christmas, I wish to have some time to connect with my beloved and rejoice for good health at yet another years’ end. At the end of the holidays, I will wish that I had done more work on the thesis.
When I think of what writing does for my sustenance, I think of Alice Walker’s description of her mother working in her garden. It is Alice Walker who introduced me to Virginia Woolf. Walker, in the book, “In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens”, writes of her mother:
I notice that it is only when my mother is working in her flowers that she is radiant, almost to the point of being invisible – except as Creator: hand and eye. She is involved in work her soul must have. Ordering the universe in the image of her personal conception of Beauty.
I cannot say that writing represents beauty in my life. I can only say that language gives me permission to breathe. To pretend to know what it means to be an adult, that is, to qualify to wear big girl panties, I need to write. Alice Walker says of writing: “the life we save is our own”.