Friday, November 30, 2007

Breaking the Sequence

Has this ever happened to you: You come across a passage or line in a book and think it brilliant, and are thrilled that you’re the first one to discover it, only to find that people have been talking and writing about that exact thing for years?

Much later than I should have, I read A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf, and it happened to me. There’s a section in this amazing essay in which Virginia (Can I call her Virginia? I think she wouldn't mind) decides to evaluate a recent novel written by a woman named Mary Carmichael. She expects it to be sentimental and sappy, as most novels written by women at the time tended to be. But instead of long, flowing sentences, she found that Mary used short, abrupt ones, almost as if Mary were intentionally trying to avoid sounding sappy.

As she read further along, Virginia noticed that the plot, though set up to be a typical love story, turned out to be a story of the friendship and scientific careers of two women. Such subject matter was rather shocking in that day, as women typically were featured in novels as in relationship to men, not as characters interacting with each other. Virginia recognizes that Mary Carmichael first “broke the sentence; now she has broken the sequence.” Although the novel was not the best-written piece of literature ever penned, it still carried significant notability in Virginia’s estimation as it did something vitally important: it broke the pattern that women were confined to write certain types of sentences about certain types of subject matter.

I was truly amazed by this whole idea and overjoyed that I discovered such a thing. To my chagrin, as I related this finding to my friend, she said, “Oh yes, you should read this book of criticism about that; it’s right over there on my bookshelf.” Indeed it was, and the title was none other than Breaking the Sequence. Oh well, it still felt like a revelation to me.

And although I wasn’t the first to discover Virginia’s brilliance in discovering Mary Carmichael’s brilliance, I still feel like I’m part of the, well, sequence, of women discovering and building upon each other’s ideas. Isn’t that always the job of the artist? To recognize the sequence, the patterns and traditions, and break out of them into something new, undiscovered, significant? As long as, Virginia says, we do them “not for the sake of breaking, but for the sake of creating.”

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