Each month, The Fine Line features women who inspire us in some unique way. This month’s guest is Nina Collins, founder of the Facebook group What Would Virginia Woolf Do? and author of a book by the same name that comes out this month.
A friend invited me to join WWVWD when we launched The Fine Line in 2016, and since then, I’ve found it an endlessly fascinating study in what women in their 40s and 50s care about. Conversations run the gamut from parenting woes to dating struggles, favorite jeans to dieting regimens, chin hairs to the many wonders of coconut oil — all from the point of view of women just like us.
“I started the group with around 20 close friends because I wanted to talk about my sagging breasts and the fact that I couldn’t sleep,” Nina says. “And then it grew, and grew, and grew.”
Today the group has 8,100 members who post about topics from forgiveness to hand jobs, and seek feedback on issues like workplace harassment and extramarital affairs. The group has spawned subgroups by geographical proximity and interests like travel and books. There’s now a podcast, a newsletter, a website with e-commerce, and the eponymous book.
I started the group with around 20 close friends because I wanted to talk about my sagging breasts and the fact that I couldn’t sleep. And then it grew, and grew, and grew.
When I chat with Nina, she is in California, where she is spending three months after driving cross-country from New York City to California with her dog and a man she’s been dating a few months. From her Venice bungalow she laughs and says, “Two years ago, I couldn’t imagine that I would be in this place. I keep saying to myself, ‘It’s so nice here. Why didn’t I do this before?’ And then I remember: I was raising four kids in Brooklyn. I couldn’t have done this before!”
For Nina, as for many of us in midlife, this is a period of exploration and reinvention. Not only are her children nearly grown — her youngest is a senior in high school — the heat generated by the WWVWD Facebook group reignited an ambition that she thought was perhaps part of her past. For nearly a decade, Nina says, she experienced a fallow period. Now she feels inspired and motivated to see just how far What Would Virginia Woolf Do? can go.
Now 48, Nina spent the early years of her career in book publishing, first as a scout and then as an agent. In 2008, she switched gears to pursue other things. In 2013, she earned both a life coach certificate and a master’s degree in narrative medicine. Her interests — issues around transition, loss, separation, end of life, and how women tell stories — are surely influenced by her mother’s death from breast cancer. Nina was 19 when her mother, Kathleen Collins, a pioneering black filmmaker, writer, and civil rights activist died.
A few days before Nina turned 46, the age of Kathleen’s death, Nina wrote on her blog: “Turning the age someone we loved was when they died: a clichéd moment that many of us can reflect on in one way or another. I read somewhere that in the case of a parent, it can be a startling revelation, a moment of immense freedom that washes over you. Somehow that strikes me as BS …”
However, when asked today how it feels to be older than her mother was when she died, Nina says without hesitation that she feels liberated.
Surely part of that liberation comes from processing her anger about her mother’s death. Kathleen kept her disease a secret from her daughter, and Nina was stunned when her mother called while Nina was studying abroad to say, “You need to come home. I’m fine, but the breast cancer I had before has come back.”
Nina hadn’t known about the breast cancer before. “She had kept this awful secret. It was such a shock,” Nina says. Two weeks later, Kathleen was gone. Nina was left to care for her younger brother.
“In my 20s and 30s, I had a lot of anger,” she says. “And now, I just don’t have the time or energy to be that angry. I realized all that anger was covering up a lot of pain. Much of my adult pain came from my mother’s betrayal.”
Before writing What Would Virginia Woolf Do?, a collection of personal essays and insight from other “Woolfers,” as members of the Facebook group call themselves, Nina traversed that pain as she painstakingly sorted through the contents of a trunk that contained her mother’s personal and professional writings. She wrote about the experience of reading through Kathleen’s diaries, letters, short stories, and plays in a gut-wrenching essay for Vogue. The result was the 2015 theatrical release of her mother’s film Losing Ground and last winter’s publication of Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?, a collection of her mother’s short stories.
With this month’s publication of What Would Virginia Woolf Do? Nina’s perspective and impact on the world will no doubt shift again. The Facebook group is a community of women unlike anything that has existed previously, and as a safe space for women to get real and share the pains and pleasures of growing older, it’s enriched a lot of lives.
The full title of the book is What Would Virginia Woolf Do? And Other Questions I Ask Myself as I Attempt to Age Without Apology. And truly, aging without apology is among the last frontiers.
“One of the things we’ve all discovered is that none of us is alone, and we don’t need to be ashamed about all the various issues related to aging. I’d like to bring that part of the WWVWD gift to a larger audience. I don’t quite know where this is going, but I’ll just hang out and find out.”