I’ve just finished reading Virginia Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary. Now, I have to admit to never getting along too well with Ms Woolf’s fiction although I haven’t given up all hope of reading it but I’m a great admirer of any writer who has the nerve to push boundaries and to follow their heart and I found her diaries absolutely riveting.
I lost count of the times I laughed out loud at her revelations about the writing life and how little has changed since her time. Writers, I fear, will always be insecure creatures searching for approbation and fearing the critic! She talks of how ‘the worst of writing is that one depends so much upon praise’ and how she finds it difficult to write when a new book is first published, finding it hard to settle until the reviews came in.
But she can never stop writing for long. Writing, it seems is a bug and I love the way she describes this. She confesses to having ‘an intolerable fit of the fidgets to write away’ and how she’s often caught up in ‘that ardour and lust of creation’.
And she reassures herself of what is most important about the business of writing. ‘The truth is that writing is the profound pleasure and being read the superficial.’ And how ‘it’s the writing, not the being read, that excites me.’
The diaries show a woman working incredibly hard at her art; she didn’t shy away from going over and over a piece of work until it was right. In 1930, she writes ‘Much will have to be discarded: what is essential is to write fast and not break the mood – no holiday, no interval if possible, till it is done.’ And she leaps from one project to the next with alacrity. ‘I must hastily provide my mind with something else, or it will again become pecking and wretched’.
Inspiration comes and goes. One minute she writes, ‘Will another novel ever swim up?’ And then she can’t seem to write fast enough: ‘I get excited writing. Three hours pass like 10 minutes.’
Her diaries also detail what she is reading as well as what she is writing and I love this passage from 1933: ‘What a vast fertility of pleasure books hold for me! I went in and found the table laden with books. I looked in and sniffed them all.’ Ah, yes! How many of us authors know what that’s like!
Like many of my favourite writers, Virginia Woolf gets great comfort and inspiration from walking especially in the countryside around her Sussex home. One diary entry from 1935 talks about how she and her husband Leonard went for ‘a walk this afternoon; and that seems to me an enormous balance at the Bank! solid happiness.’ I love that.
And, in a time long before the Amazon KDP self-publishing revolution, she talks about what it’s like to be a publisher. One diary entry in 1925 tells of how she refused to do a book for a traditional publisher, saying that she could ‘write a book, a better book, a book off my own bat, for the Press’ – referring to her own Hogarth Press which she ran with her husband, Leonard.
I’d love to know more about Virginia and Leonard and how their working relationship as publishers affected their lives. Leonard would often critique his wife’s work and, in a diary entry from 1940, she describes how ‘It was like being pecked by a very hard strong beak.’
What I love most about Virginia Woolf is that she realises how important it is to remain true to herself. ‘I am I: and I must follow that furrow, not copy another,’ she writes. I love her steadfastness to do exactly what she feels compelled to do. ‘I write what I like writing and there’s an end on it,’ she says. May all authors do the same.