The following excerpts are from the diary of Virginia Woolf. If you are a fan of her work and interested in the writer’s process, I highly recommend that you also check this book out for yourself. The following are only my favourite passages from her diary, but there is so much more that can be learned from reading the diary yourself. Granted, I did not read the whole thing, just this condensed version (lovingly edited by Leonard Woolf). Here’s a link: A Writer’s Diary – by Virginia Woolf
The following passages are on her personal creative process: doubt, elation, disgust, despair, etc. These excerpts also capture some of her experiences in writing her beloved novels (you’ll find passages about Mrs. Dalloway, The Waves and The Years). The most shocking parts of the diary for me were nearer the end, when she begins to write about the bombings taking place around her during WWII.
Enjoy. Virginia Woolf lived from January 1882 – 28 March 1941. She truly was a remarkable woman and artist. Enjoy.
Tonight I shall have the pleasure of finishing him [Byron] – though why considering that I’ve enjoyed almost every stanza, this should be a pleasure I really don’t know. Maynard keynes admitted in the same way that he always cuts off the advertisements at the end with one hand while he’s reading, so as to know exactly how much he had to get through.
I am trying to tell whichever self it is that reads this hereafter that I can write very much better; and take no time this; and forbid her to let the eye of man behold it. And now I may add my little compliment to the effect that it has a slapdash and vigour and sometimes hits an unexpected bulls eye. But what is more to the point is my belief that the habit of writing thus for my own eye only is good practice. It loosens the ligaments. Never mind the misses and the stumbles. Going at such a pace as I do I must make the most direct and instant shots at my object, and thus have to lay hands on words, choose them, shoot them with no more pause than is needed to put my pen in the ink…
… I might in the course of time learn what it is that one can make of this loose, drifting material of life; finding another use for it than the use I put it to, so much more consciously and scrupulously, in fiction. What sort of diary should I like mine to be? Something loose knit and yet not slovenly, so elastic that it will embrace any thing, solemn, slight or beautiful that comes into my mind. I should like it to resemble some deep old desk, or capacious hold-all, in which one flings a mass of odds and ends without looking them through. I should like to come back, after a year or two and find that the collection had sorted itself and refined itself and coalesced, as such deposits do mysteriously do, into a mould, transparent enough to reflect the light of our life, and yet steady, tranquil compunds with the aloofness of a work of art.
The main requisite, I think on re-reading my old volumes, is not to play the part of censure, but to write as the mood comes or of anything whatever; since I was curious to find how I went for things put in haphazard, and found the significance to lie where I never saw it at the time. But looseness quickly becomes slovenly. A little effort is needed to face a character or an incident which needs to be recorded. Nor can one let the pen write without guidance, for fear of becoming slack and untidy…
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 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.
As I write, there rises somewhere in my head that queer and very pleasant sense of something which I want to write; my own point of view… I think the only prescription for me is to have a thousand interests – if one is damaged, to be able instantly to let my energy flow into Russian, or Greek, or the press, or the garden, or people, or some activity disconnected with my own writing
Maynard said he liked praise; and always wanted to boast… But, I said, it’s odd that one boasts considering that no one is ever taken in by it… I love praise, he said. I want it for things I am doubtful about.
I’m to write what I like; and they’re to say what they like; and they’re to say what they like. My only interest as a writer lies, I begin to see, in some queer individuality; not in strength or passion, or anything startling, but then I say to myself, is not “some queer individuality” precisely the quality I respect?
My note book lies by my bed unopened. At first I could hardly read for the swarm of ideas that rose involuntarily. I had to write them out at once. And this is great fun. A little air, seeing the buses go by, lounging by the river, will, please God, send the sparks flying again.
The way to rock oneself back into writing is this. First, gentle exercise in the air. Second the reading of good literature. It is a mistake to think that literature can be produced from the raw. One must get out of life… one must become externalized; very, very concentrated, all at one point, not having to draw upon the scattered parts of ones character, living in the brain… When I write I’m merely a sensibility. Sometimes I like being Virginia, but only when I’m scattered and various and gregarious. Now, so long as we are here, I’d like to be only a sensibility.
I like reading my own writing. It seems to fit me closer than it did before.
At forty I am beginning to learn the mechanism of my own brain – how to get the greatest amount of pleasure and work out of it. The secret is I think always so to contrive that work is pleasant.
One must write from deep feeling, said Dostoievsky. And do I? Or do I fabricate with words, loving them as I do? No, I think not. In this book I have almost too many ideas. I want to give life and death, sanity and insanity; I want to criticize the social system, and to show it at work, at it’s most intense. But here I may be posing.
At once I feel refreshed. I become anonymous, a person who writes for the love of it. She takes away the motive of praise, and lets me feel that without praise I should be content to go on.
Have I the power of conveying the true reality? Or do I write essays about myself. Answer these questions as I may, in the uncomplimentary sense, and still remains this excitement. To get to the bones, now I’m writing fiction again I feel my force flow straight from me at its fullest… the use of the faculties means happiness. I’m better company, more of a human being.
A could douche should be taken (and generally is) before beginning a book. It invigorate; makes one say “Oh all right. I write to please myself” and so go ahead. It also has the effect of making me more definite and outspoken in my style, which I imagine all to the good.
But how entirely I live in my imagination; how completely depend upon spurts of thought, coming as I walk, as I sit; things churning up in my mind and so making a perpetual pageant, which is to be my happiness.
One thing in considering my state of mind now, seems to me beyond dispute; that I have, at last, bored down into my oil well, and can’t scribble fast enough to bring it all to the surface. I have now at least 6 stories welling up in me, and feel, at last, that I can coin all my thoughts into words. Not but what an infinite number of problems remain; but I have never felt this rush and urgency before… Now suppose I might become one of the interesting – I will not say great—but interesting novelists? Oddly, for all my vanity, I have not until now had much faith in my novels, or thought them my own expression.
The truth is that writing is the profound pleasure and being read the superficial.
I have made a very quick and flourishing attack on To the Lighthouse, all the same – 22 pages straight off in less than a fortnight. I am still crawling and easily enfeebled, but if I could once get up steam again, I believe I could spin it off with infinite relish. Think what a labour the first pages of Dalloway were! Each word distilled by a relentless clutch on my brain.
The dream is too often about myself. To correct this; and to forget one’s own sharp absurd little personality, reputation and the rest of it, one should read; see outsiders; think more; write more logically; above all be full of work; and practice anonymity.
I know the feeling now, when I can’t spin a sentence and sit mumbling and turning, and nothing flits by my brain, which is as a blank window. So I shut my studio door and go to bed, stuffing my ears with rubber; and there I lie a day or two. And what leagues I travel in the time! Such “sensations” spread over my spine and head directly I have them the chance; such an exaggerated tiredness; such anguishes and despairs; and heavenly relief and rest; and then misery again. Never was anyone so tossed up and down by the body as I am, I think. But is over; and put away…
The mind is the most capricious of insects—flitting, fluttering.
I feel freer; can afford a dress and a hat and so may go about, a little, if I want. And yet the only exciting life is the imaginary one.
I fancy sometimes the world changes. I think I see reason spreading. But I should have liked a closer and thicker knowledge of life. I should have liked to deal with real things sometimes… How little one counts, I think: how little anyone counts; how fast and furious and mastery life is; and how all these thousands are swimming for dear life.
My notion is that there are offices to be discharged by talent for the relief of genius: meaning that one has the play side; the gift when it is mere gift, unapplied gift; and the gift when it is serious, going to business. And one relieves the other.
Father’s birthday… His life would have entirely ended mine. What would have happened? No writing, no books; — inconceivable.
I used to think of him and mother daily; but writing the Lighthouse laid them in my mind. And now he comes back sometimes, but differently. (I believe this to be true – that I was obsessed by them both, unhealthily; and writing of them was a necessary act.) He comes back now more as contemporary. I must read him some day. I wonder if I can feel again, I hear his voice, I know this by heart?
So the days pass and I ask myself sometimes whether one is not hypnotised, as a child by a silver globe, by life; and whether this is living. It’s very quick, bright, exciting. But superficial perhaps. I should like to take the globe in my hands and feel it quietly, round, smooth, heavy, and so hold it, day after day.
This celebrity business it quite chronic – and I am richer than I have ever been – and bought a pair of earrings today – and for all this there is a vacancy and silence somewhere in the machine. On the whole, I do not much mind; because what I like is to flash and dash from side to side, goaded on by what I call reality. If I never felt these extraordinary pervasive strains – of unrest or rest or happiness or discomfort – I should float down into acquiescence… If I could catch the feeling, I would; the feeling of the singing of the real world, as one is driven by loneliness and silence from the habitable world; the sense that comes to me of being bound on an adventure; of being strangely free now, with money and so on, to do anything… And this curious steed, life, is genuine. Does any of this convey what I want to say? But I have not really laid hands on the emptiness after all.
I am swimming in my head and write rather to stablize myself than to make a correct statement.
I read Shakespeare directly I have finished writing. When my mind is agape and red-hot. Then it is astonishing. I never yet knew how amazing his stretch and speed and word coining power is, until I felt it utterly outpace and outrace my own, seeming to start equal and then I see him draw ahead and do things I could not in my wildest tumult and utmost press of mind imagine. Even the less known plays are written at a speed that is quicker than anybody else’s quickest; and the words drop so fast one can’t pick them up… Evidently the pliancy of his mind was so complete that he could furbish out any train of thought; and, relaxing, let fall a shower of some unregarded flowers. Why then should anyone else attempt to write? This is not “writing” at all. Indeed, I could say that Shakespeare surpasses literature altogether, if I knew what I meant.
But I have never written a book so full of holes and patches [talking about the Waves]; that it will need re-building, yes, not only remodelling. I suspect the structure is wrong.
The truth is, of course, I want to be back at The Waves. Yes that is the truth. Unlike all my other books in every way, it is unlike them in this ardour, directly I have done. I begin to see what I had irrelevance and clearing and sharpening and making the good phrases shine. One wave after another. No room. And so on.
How physical the sense of triumph and relief is! Whether good or bad, it’s done; and, as I certainly felt at the end, not merely finished, but rounded off, completed, the thing stated – how hastily, how fragmentarily I know… What interest me in the last stage was the freedom and boldness with which my imagination picked up, used and tossed aside all the images, symbols with which I had prepared. I am sure that this is the right way of using them – not in set pieces, as I had tried at first, coherently, but simply as images, never making them work out; only suggest. Thus I hope to have kept the sound of the sea and the birds, dawn and garden subconsciously present, doing their work under ground.
How it rolls into a tight ball, the muscles of my brain.
As usual, doubts rush in. I get it all too quick, too thin, too surface bright?
And as usual I want to seethe myself in something new – to break the mould of habit entirely and get that escape which Italy and the fun and lounging and the indifference of all that to all this brings about. I rise, like a bubble out of a bottle…
and now I have spent the morning reading… 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. I could not resist carrying this one off and broaching it. I think I could live happily here and read forever.
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 it’s dimensions, not be impeded. And though this is usual is only a pot shot, there is a great deal of substance in it. October has been a bad month; but might have been much worse without my philosophy.
But of all things coming home from a holiday is undoubtedly the most damned. Never was there aimlessness, such depression. Can’t read, write or think. There’s no climax here. Comfort yes: but the coffee’s not so good as I expected. And my brain is extinct – literally hasn’t the power to lift a pen. What one must do is to set it – my machine I mean – in the rails and give it a push… It occurs to me that this state, my depressed state, is the state in which most people usually are.
Well: Do I think I shall be among the English novelists after my death? I hardly think about it. Why then do I shrink from reading Wyndlham Lewis [“now I know by reason and instinct that this is an attack”]? Why am I sensitive? I think vanity: I dislike the thought of being laughed at: of the glow of satisfaction that A.; B. And C. Will get from hearing Virginia Woolf demolished: also it will strengthen further attacks: perhaps I feel uncertain of my own gifts: but then, I know more about that than W.L.: and anyhow I intend to go on writing… Already I am feeling the calm that always comes to me with abuse: my back is against the wall: I am writing for the sake of writing, etc,; and then there is the queer disreputable pleasure in being abused – in being a figure, in being a martyr, and so on.
That’s the end of the book. I looked up past diaries – a reason for keeping the, and found the same misery after Waves – after Lighthouse I was, I remember, nearer suicide, seriously, than since 1913. It is after all natural. I’ve been galloping now for three months – so excited I made a plunge at my paper – well, cut that all off – after the first divine relief, of course some terrible blankness must spread. There’s nothing left of the people, of the ideas, of the strain, of the whole life in short that has been racing round my brain: not only the brain; it has seized hold of my leisure; think how I used to sit still on some railway lines – running on my book. Well, so there’s nothing to be done the next two or three or even four weeks but dandle oneself; refuse to face it; refuse to think about it.
A note: despair at the badness of the book [speaking of Waves]: can’t think how I 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.
How I should like, I thought some time on the drive up this afternoon, to write a sentence again! How delightful to feel it form and curve under my fingers!
This is the only answer: to stick to my ideas. And I wish I need never read about myself or think about myself, anyhow till it’s done, but look firmly at my object and think only of expressing it. Oh what a grind it is embodying all these ideas and having perpetually to expose my mind, opened and intensified as it is by the heat of creation, to the blasts of the outer world. If I didn’t feel so much, how easy it would be to go on.
I see that there are four? Dimensions: all to be produced, in human life: and that leads to a far richer grouping and proportion. I mean: I; and the not I; and the outer and the inner – no I’m too tired to say: but I see it: and this will affect my book on Roger. Very exciting to grope on this. New combination in psychology and body – rather like painting.
On Sunday I started to read the proofs [on The Years]. When I had read to the end of the first section I was in despair: stony but convinced despair. I made myself yesterday read on to Present Time. When I reached that landmark I said “This is happily so bad that there can be no question about it. I must carry the proofs, like a dead cat, to L. And tell him to burn them unread.” This I did. And a weight fell off my shoulders… Now I was no longer Virginia, the genius, but only a perfectly magnificent yet content – shall I call it spirit? A body? And very tired. Very old.
The miracle is accomplished. L. Put down the last sheets about 12 last night; and could not speak. He was in tears. He says it is “a most remarkable book” — he likes it better than The Waves – and has not a spark of doubt that it must be published. I , as a witness, not only to his emotion but to his absorption, for he read on and on, can’t doubt his relief was divine. I hardly know yet if I’m on my heels or head, so amazing is the reversal since Tuesday morning. I have never had such an experience before.
Now this is one of the strangest of my experiences — “they” say almost universally that The Years is a masterpiece. The Times says so. Bunny etc: Howard Spring. If somebody had told me I should write this, even a week ago, let alone six months ago, I should have given a jump like a shot hare. How entirely and absolutely incredible it would have been!
What a dream life is to be sure – that he should be dead [on Roger Fry], and I reading him: and trying to make out that we indented ourselves in the world; whereas I sometimes feel it’s been an illusion – gone so fast; lived so quickly; and nothing to show for it, save these little books. But that makes me dig my feet in and squeeze the moment.
Yes we are in the very thick of it. Are we at war? At one I’m going to listen in. It’s very different, emotionally, from last September. In London yesterday there was indifference almost… Rather like a herd of sheep we are. No enthusiasm. Patient bewilderment. I suspect some desire “to get on with it.”… Underneath of course wells of pessimism. Young men torn to bits: mothers like Nessa two years ago.
Our first air raid warning at 8:30 this morning… rather like a sea voyage. Forced conversation. Boredom. All meaning has run out of everything. Scarcely worth reading papers. The BBC gives any news the day before. Emptiness. Inefficiency. I may as well record these things.
It seems entirely meaningless – a perfunctory slaughter. Like taking a jar in one hand, a hammer in the other. Why must this be smashed? Nobody knows. This feeling is different from any before. And all the blood has been let out of common life. No movies or theatre allowed. No letters, except strays from America.
And for the hundredth time I repeat – any idea is more real than any amount of war misery. And what one’s made for. And the only contribution one can make – this little pitter patter of ideas is my whiff of shot in the cause of freedom. So I tell myself. Thus bolstering up a figment – a phantom: recovering that sense of something pressing from outside with consolidates the mist, the non-existent.
Tiredness and dejection give way if one day off is taken instantly. I went in and did my cushion. In the evening the pain in my head calmed. Ideas came back. This is a hint to be remembered. Always turn the pillow. Then I became a swarm of ideas… Began reading Freud last night; to enlarge the circumference: to give my brain a wider scope: to make it objective; to get outside. Thus defeat the shrinkage of age. Always take on new things. Break the rhythm etc. Use this page now and then, for notes. Only they escape the morning grind.
The third day of the Battle of Waterloo. Apple blossom snowing the garden. A bowl lost in the pond. Churchill exhorting all men to stand together. “I have nothing to offer but blood and tears and sweat.” These vast formless shapes further circulate… But though L. Says he has petrol in the garage for suicide should Hitler win, we go on. It’s the vastness, and the smallness, that makes this possible. So intense are my feelings (about Roger); yet the circumference (the war) seems to make a hoop round them. No, I can’t get the odd incongruity of feeling intensely and at the same time knowing that there’s no importance in that feeling. Or is there, as I sometimes think, more importance than ever?
The war is like a desperate illness. For a day it entirely obsesses: then the feeling faculty gives out; next day one is disembodied, in the air.
The Allies holding. How sick one gets of the phrase – how easy to make a Duff Cooper speech about valour; and history, where one knows the end of the sentence. Still it cheers, somehow. Poetry as Tony said is easier to write than prose. I could reel off patriotic speeches by the dozen.
Walking today by Kingfisher pool saw my first hospital train – laden, not funeral but weighty, as if not to shake bones: something – what is the word I want – grieving and tender and heavy laden and private – bringing our wounded back carefully through the green fields at which I suppose some looked. Not that I could see them. And the faculty for seeing in imagination always leaves me so suffused with something partially visual, partly emotional, I can’t, though it’s very pervasive, catch it when I come home – the slowness, cadaverousness, grief of the long heavy train, taking its burden through the fields.
I would like to find one book and stick to it. But can’t. I feel, if this is my last lap, oughtn’t I to read Shakespeare? But can’t. I feel oughtn’t I to finish off P.H.: oughtn’t I to finish something by way of an end? The end gives its vividness, even its gaiety and recklessness to the random daily life. This, I thought yesterday, may be my last walk.
Now we are at war. England is being attacked. I got this feeling for the first time yesterday; the feeling of pressure, danger, horror. The feeling is that a battle is going on – a fierce battle. May last four weeks. Am I afraid? Intermittently. The worst of it is one’s mind won’t work with a spring next morning. A sense of pressure. Endless local stories. No – it’s not good trying to capture the feeling of England being in battle.
An idea. All writers are unhappy. The picture of the world in books is thus too dark. The wordless are the happy: women in cottage gardens: Mrs. Chavesse. Not a true picture of the world; only a writer’s picture. Are musicians, painters, happy? Is their world happier?
Oh I try to imagine how one’s killed by a bomb. I got it fairly vivid – the sensation: but can’t see anything but suffocating nonentity following after. I shall think – oh I wanted another 10 years – not this – and shan’t, for once, be able to describe it. It – mean death; no, the scrunching and scrambling, the crushing of my bone shade in on my very active eye and brain: the process of putting out the light – painful? Yes. Terrifying. I suppose so. Then a swoon; a drain; two or three gulps attempting consciousness – and then dot dot dot.
I mark Henry James’ sentence: observe perpetually. Observe the oncome of age. Observe greed. Observe my own despondency. By that means it becomes serviceable. Or so I hope. I insist upon spending this time to the best advantage. I will go down with my colours flying. This I see verges on introspection; but doesn’t quite fall in. Suppose I bought a ticket at the Museum; biked in daily and read history. Suppose I selected one dominant figure in every age and wrote round and about. Occupation is essential. And now with some pleasure I find that it’s seven; and I must cook dinner. Haddock and sausage meat. I think it is true that one gains a certain hold on sausage and haddock by writing them down.
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