I held my breath as the train pulled up the station in Stratford-upon-Avon. I looked out the window and my eye fixed on the sign above the station door. No mistaking, I was here, about to walk in the footsteps of Shakespeare. I am sure I looked the ordinary tourist-type with wide eyes looking around every tree and brushing my fingertips through bushes as I walked up toward the town center from the train, almost as if anticipating meeting the very man himself. Which was fine with me and I freely admit to the giddy swirling in my stomach, especially as I reached the streets where Shakespeare might have actually walked. Well, where he did walk.
My first thoughts – I wanted to stand right there for a moment and not say a word. At each place – the house on Henley Street, his birthplace; the Guildhall, the King Edward’s School, Trinity Church, Clopton Bridge, the Avon River – all places where he might have stood in the very same place.
Walking along the banks of the Avon, leaning against a willow tree and watching the swans glide regally with the current, I wondered how many times he did the same and conjured up one of his characters. As a writer, the thought moved me and inspired me at the same time.
Many people have asked me why I feel such a connection to this city. Honestly, I am not really sure except that I have loved Shakespeare’s writing since I was very young. My grandmother loved the plays and we shared the same affinity for literature and writing. She gave me my first book of Shakespeare’s works, her very own college book, when I was eleven and still to this day I relish seeing the little notations in her own handwriting in the margins about her favorite passages.
Other people have asked me why I decided to write a novel about the possibility that Shakespeare did not write the plays and my answer is always the same.
I am a Stratfordian, and always will be a Stratfordian, but I am also a historical fiction author. When presented with an opportunity and an idea to create a work, I will run with it. I never before even heard of someone else writing the plays, but once, after visiting the Globe Theater, I saw a presentation there of the men who might have written them instead of Shakespeare himself. Christopher Marlowe’s eyes drew me in, and the novel emerged in my thoughts.
With all this being said and all of the words written and published, I still do not question my belief that Shakespeare is actually the man who wrote the plays. After all, who am I to question? I just thought the idea of Marlowe writing other than Shakespeare made for a creative alternative historical story to the one presented as fact.
So, my writing the story did not detract me away from the city, but drew me to it even more. Touching my fingertips onto the surface of the waters, walking slow through the room where he played as a child, standing at the edge of the grave where he is buried – all these things helped me with the writing of my story “Blood and Ink,” the same as walking through Canterbury to learn about Marlowe drew me to him.
It’s what historical fiction writers should do and what I highly recommend. Research on Google is one thing. Stepping your foot on the same ground as your characters is a very different experience entire. I stopped at the Windmill Inn/Pub which is only a few hundred yards away from where Shakespeare lived, so I sat there and imagined him jawing with some of this friends over a pint of ale, perhaps, Burbage? Perhaps, Jonson? And so, I downed a pint of my own and soaked in the literary air, hoping, nay praying some of the artistic inspiration might seep into my own brain.
I must say, as well, the draw of Shakespeare is well founded there, but even without this attraction, the city itself is incredibly beautiful. The half-timbered houses still standing, the gentle flow of the Avon, the peaceful swans… all the while laying back in the grass in the shadow of the Swan Theatre where the Royal Shakespeare Company still upholds the quality and caliber of acting and performance the man, Shakespeare, first envisioned when he set his quill to paper. You will fall in love with this city, when you visit, as did I. And, to be completely honest, I wept as I walked back down Alcester Road to the station that evening. I felt I was leaving home.
There is no doubt, if you ever visit my Pinterest board, that I love Virginia Woolf. She is a rare writer, whose work I can read over and over and over, again. She has such a beautiful way with words, a gift she left that reaches far beyond those days when she was alive. They reached clear to me, and I am sure, to many many others who adore her works.
As I continue on my blog postings, I will from time to time, post some of my favorite quotes or passages of hers, as well as some of my other favorite authors.
Here is a story I wrote back in 2009, a short imagining of sitting across from her at her home at Monk House.
A Visit to Monk House
Virginia Woolf sat across from me. Touching her slender fingers to her cheek as she turned her stare out the window, she answered my questioning look in a soft, yet resolute, voice.
“Women have sat indoors all these years, so that by this time, the very walls are permeated by their creative force, which has, indeed so overcharged the capacity of bricks and mortar that it must needs harness itself to pens and brushes and business and politics.” The corner of her mouth curled in a slight, awkward, smile. “Yes, I remember writing that.”
“And, Mrs. Woolf, what were your thoughts when you wrote that line?”
I prodded, hoping that she did not notice the nervous waiver in my voice and the insistent clicking of the silver knob on the end of my ink pen; an on and off whereby my hand struggles to write words in her presence, thus lending to my thumb’s pressing habit. Yet, of course, she noticed. How could she not? Even with her contemplative eyes staring through the unveiled window, over the untamed reaching arms of hollyhocks and tulips bowing over the garden path, and onward set on some distant thought in the passing cloud, she saw and heard.
She answered quick. “Oh no, my dear, that is not why you are here. You are here to answer for yourself. Tell me, if you can, what were your thoughts when you read that line?”
I felt overcome with clarity, like the sudden warmth rushing through your veins and flushing your cheeks when someone discovers you in a lie. My arm twitched and crooked to scratch an annoying itch at the spot between my shoulders. I paused in mid-scratching as her eyes rested on me with a knowing look. Oh dear, I thought, she saw that too. Of course.
“Well,” I said, swallowing down my fear, “I think women sometimes are their own masons.”
She struck a match and leaned her head back against the cushioned chair back; the end of her cigarette glowed orange as she sucked. “Too simple. You’re a writer, give me more,” she answered in a cloud of smoke, forming an aura around her loosely cinched brown hair.
I knew what she wanted. That connection. Perhaps she looked for the same electricity flying on the words of Henry James as he sat in her company. Perhaps he sat in this very chair. I crossed my legs and arms, fidgeting at the thought.
“You’re right, Mrs. Woolf, that is too simple. And yet, sometimes it is the simplest things that bind us in. Maybe not in your generation or even in my mother’s generation. Times were different then. Then, maybe women were among the trivial things of life, sitting within their four walls, cooking, cleaning, having babies, with men standing guard to make sure that his woman didn’t see that chink in the wall. For some, like you, their creative force found their way to pens and brushes, but, more often than not, so many suffocated in the darkness. I think of my grandmother. She was a college graduate, an English teacher, a writer on the verge, yet her little brick and mortar house and her sitting did nothing but turn her into a sad spirit. Where did her creative force go? It ebbed away down the drains and lay like dust on the floors waiting to be swept under the rugs. Whether you know it or not, Mrs. Woolf, but writers such as you laid the cornerstones of writer’s rooms today. Now, when we sit and our creative force permeates the walls, harnessing to pens, the vibration shudders across our gardens, into our towns, and floods national and international boundaries. Your sitting in that room of your own has opened the doors for my generation. As I said before, I think writers build their own barriers today because there are so many more opportunities for this generation. In some cases, not all. There are still those who because of circumstance, choice, or mental and emotional problems, who have no idea of the freedom enjoyed in the spinning of a potter’s wheel, or slapping a bold slash of color on a canvas, or the releasing of demons onto a blank page. That is why writers need other writers, and artists need other artists. Reminds me of a scripture that says, ‘one mans face sharpens the face of another as iron sharpens iron.’ As writers who have been there, we can help those who cannot see beyond their walls and shuttered windows. It is amazing what a gift of a journal and a pen can do in the hands of a person who is battered, abused, abandoned, alone, sad, feeling unloved, unworthy, scared, tired, or hollow. You were one of the fortunate ones, Mrs. Woolf, to have a husband give you the freedom of a room of your own.”
She took another slug of her cigarette and looked across at me with those dark eyes. “Fortunate? How can you call me fortunate when every morning I awoke with shackles about my brain?”
I found it difficult to look into her sad face; so turning my head to gaze through the front window, I rested my cheek on my palm. The sun broke in little shafts of light through the dancing elm leaves, casting shadows on the windowsill, and a sudden unexpected roll of thunder shook the pane. I lifted my gaze to the sky. A dark cloud edged over the tops of the trees, already streaking gray far in the distance where the River Ouse slumbers along. I knew what she was thinking, so I answered her question.
“Yes, I know. I have imagined you, Mrs. Woolf, sitting in your room, the hours passing by, the temporary consolation in the scribbling of your pen, your creative force throbbing within those four walls like the rising bubble of magma just before an eruption. You wanted a freedom beyond words, something that you could bear, and yet, when the struggle seemed hopeless, you chose death. Like so many incredible artists and writers of your day and before, geniuses who struggled with the gift of the divine chained in a human form, very like Hamlet crawling between earth and heaven, and opting for the quiet rest from a thundering brain. Some would say that your writing benefited from your suffering, for in those four walls you struggled for us all, over those common threads that link us: childhood, parents, relationships, triviality, inequality, sadness, humanity, and death. Therefore, you gave us a gift, the gift that so many writers sitting in their rooms have given: their minds gushing onto a page. Yet, if you look closer, you will see the core behind mere words, something real, something true, something lasting beyond death woven into every letter and every sentence. The gift of their soul. You left us, Mrs. Woolf, and yet, you still live for the writers after you to learn. You left a legacy, just like my grandmother. Although she cleaned away her ambition with a rag and a broom, it hid like a film of dust hiding way on the top of a bookshelf, waiting for my sticky young fingers to leave a mark and pick up my grandmother’s dust bunny soul. And this is me, now, sitting in your armchair at Monk House.”
The smell of smoke mellowed and I felt suddenly alone. I turned my head to see that Mrs. Woolf had risen from her seat and drifted away from me without notice. I ran to the window upon hearing the front door click shut and pressed my forehead to the cool glass. She paused at the front gate with her hand on the latch and looked up to catch my eye. The tilt of her head, the suggestion of a smile and the slight nod moved me beyond words. She stuffed her hands in the pockets of her coat just as the clouds burst open, drowning her fading form in gray.
As for me, I sighed and let my gaze caress over the items in the living room, the mementos of her past. Sucking a deep breath to soak in the lingering smell of her cigarette smoke, I brushed my forefinger over a certain dusty spot on the bookshelf: the spot where she left her final words. Like the sizzling pop of electricity, my brain throbbed, and, for a brief moment, I thought I felt her presence behind me. My tongue felt tacky and bitter from the ink pen clenched between my teeth and I imagined I heard her voice whisper into my left ear. Two words only, but they were enough.
Hey, all! So, here is my new blog! First and foremost, to address this large Jabberwocky who has stalked me for so many years now. There are so many reasons I left off writing all those years ago: my own fears, the travails of life, the ugly tragedies sucking my breath, and so much more. I really could go on and on, and perhaps, in time, as I pour out my heart upon this blank page, those waves will wash over me and out before me in black and white.
I thought I might start this blog by acknowledging the Jabberwocky's existence and give him fair warning that, as the saying goes, the pen is mightier than the sword. I have determined to post over the next few weeks many of my former short stories, passages, articles - little treasures this monster tried to hide within his dark cave - so as to renew an old fire started so many years ago. I have aged, grown up in ways I did not expect or want, but so did Alice after so many years spent in her Wonderland or on the other side of the Looking Glass.
And, so, here I go... another adventure down the rabbit hole...