In 1941, the threat of Hitler invading England was very real; Woolf’s London houses had already been destroyed by bombs and the countryside around Monk’s House had been shelled as well. Woolf suffered most of her life with depression and mental breakdowns; her writing brought stability, despite the anguish it often caused her. Yet even writing failed to provide solace as the war came closer. Amidst the possibility of England’s fall and her own fears of returning madness, Woolf’s despair was evident in the note she left for Leonard before she walked into the river: “Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness.”
As a writer and critic, Woolf expanded the boundaries of literature. Her novels experimented with point-of-view, time, and structure, bringing a unique and feminist voice to a patriarchal literary world. I first read To the Lighthouse as an undergraduate thirty-some years ago and it is still one of my favorite novels. Following its shifting viewpoints is like watching a shell game: despite how closely we observe each movement, we still can’t understand how everything ends exactly as it should.
In my first pearlmoonplenty post, I mentioned that the night before I started graduate school for my PhD, I dreamed that Woolf invited me for tea, which I took as reassurance toward my new endeavor. Woolf was, in fact, a mentor for many young writers, including May Sarton, who had tea with Woolf when Sarton was starting out as a novelist.
Virginia Woolf kept a diary for much of her adult life; after her death, Leonard anthologized the entries about writing into A Writer’s Diary. For the last couple years, I’ve kept this book by my bed, opening it at random every few nights to read a few pages as inspiration for my own writing life. Or maybe less inspiration than support, for Woolf was clear about the difficulties of writing: “Writing is not in the least an easy art. Thinking what to write, it seems easy; but the thought evaporates, runs hither and thither” (May 13, 1933).
Woolf was also honest about the financial aspects of writing, delighting when her books start to make money so she can afford a WC at Monk’s House. It’s Woolf’s blend of practicality and “you go girl!” spirit that draws me to A Writer’s Diary again and again.
In memory of Woolf today, I want to share some of my favorite passages from A Writer’s Diary for all of us who love literature and rejoice in the imaginative life of the mind:
May 11, 1920: It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything. I’m a little anxious. How am I to bring off this conception? Directly one gets to work one is like a person walking, who has seen the country stretching out before. I want to write nothing in this book that I don’t enjoy writing. Yes, writing is always difficult.
May 1, 1925: This is a note for future reference, as they say. The Common Reader [Woolf’s collection of literary criticism] came out 8 days ago and so far not a single review has appeared, and nobody has written to me or spoken to me about it, or in any way acknowledged the fact of its existence; save Maynard, Lydia, and Duncan. . . I have just come through the hoping fearing stage and now see my disappointment floating like an old bottle in my wake and am off on fresh adventures.
March 20, 1026: But what is to become of all these diaries, I asked myself yesterday. If I died, what would Leo make of them? He would be disinclined to burn them; he could not publish them. Well, he should make up a book from them, I think; and then burn the body. I daresay there is a little book in them; if the scraps and scratching were straightened out a little. God knows. This is dictated by a slight melancholia, which comes upon me sometimes now and makes me think I am old; I am ugly. I am repeating things. Yet, as far as I know, as a writer I am only now writing out my mind.
August 12, 1928: We had tea from bright blue cups under the pink light of the giant hollyhock. We were all a little drugged with the country; a little bucolic I thought. It was lovely enough–made me envious of its country peace; the trees all standing securely—why did my eye catch the trees? The look of things has a great power over me. Even now, I have to watch the rooks beating up against the wind, which is high, and still I say to myself instinctively “What’s the phrase for that?” and try to make more and more vivid the roughness of the air current and the tremor of the rook’s wing slicing as if the air were full of ridges and ripples and roughnesses. They rise and sink, up and down, as if the exercise rubbed and braced them like swimmers in rough water. But what a little I can get down into my pen of what is so vivid to my eyes, and not only to my eyes; also to some nervous fibre, or fanlike membrane in my species.
October 11, 1929: And I snatch at the idea of writing here in order not to write Waves or Moths or whatever it is to be called. One thinks one has learnt to write quickly; and one hasn’t. And what is odd, I’m not writing with gusto or pleasure: because of the concentration. I am not reeling it off; but sticking it down. Also, never in my life, did I attack such a vague yet elaborate design; whenever I make a mark I have to think of its relation to a dozen others. And though I could go on ahead easily enough, I am always stopping to consider the whole effect. In particular is there some radical fault in my scheme? [Leonard Woolf considered The Waves “a great work of art, far and away the greatest of her books.”]
November 16, 1931: Oh yes, between 50 and 60 I think I shall write out some very singular books, if I live. I mean I think I am about to embody at least the exact shapes my brain holds. What a long toil to reach this beginning—if The Waves is my first work in my own style!
October 29, 1933: Yesterday the Granta said I was now defunct. Orlando, Waves, Flush, represent the death of a potentially great writer. This is only a rain drop, I mean the snub some little pimpled undergraduate likes to administer, just as he would put a frog in one’s bed. . . . But let me remember that fashion in literature is an inevitable thing; also that one must grow and change. . . . I will not be “famous,” “great.” I will go on adventuring, changing, opening my mind and my eyes, refusing to be stamped and stereotyped. The thing is to free one’s self; to let it find its dimensions, not to be impeded.
August 2, 1934: I’m worried too with my last chapters [of The Years]. Is it all too shrill and voluble? And then the immense length, and the perpetual ebbs and flows of invention. So divinely happy one day; so jaded the next.
November 14, 1934: A note: despair at the book [The Years]: can’t think how I ever could write such stuff—and with such excitement: that’s yesterday: today I think it good again. A note, by way of advising other Virginias with other books that this is the way of the thing: up down up down—and Lord knows the truth.
August 21, 1935: Up in London yesterday. And I saw this about myself in a book at The Times—the most patient and conscientious of artists—which I think is true, considering how I slave at every word of that book.
March 24, 1936: A very good weekend. Trees coming out: hyacinths; crocuses. Hot. The first spring weekend. Then we walked up to Rat Farm—looked for violets. Still spring here. Am tinkering—in a drowsy state. And I’m so absorbed in Two Guineas—that’s what I’m going to call it [later Three Guineas]. I must very nearly verge on insanity I think, I get so deep in this book I don’t know what I’m doing. Find myself walking along the Strand talking aloud.
December 19, 1938: On the whole the art [of writing] becomes absorbing—more? no, I think it’s been absorbing ever since I was a little creature, scribbling a story in the manner of Hawthorne on the green plush sofa at St. Ives while the grown ups dined.
In memoriam: Virginia Woolf, 1882-1941