c/o Virginia Woolf
Dear A Writer’s Diary
When we first met, it was kismet. Let me explain. I’ve experienced a transformative shift in the way I see myself and my writing in the past year. I’ve become bored and impatient with the forms I’ve been practicing for 20 years—narrative non-fiction, the personal essay, the how-to. Everything and everyone has begun to sound the same in my ear. I’ve been craving fiction (hence, this project). I’ve even started writing it.
It will surprise no one who has tried it, but writing fiction is hard. It requires a different set of skills than non-fiction. I’m beginning to think it requires a different brain. In fact, that is actually true. As Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool write in Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise,
“The main thing that sets experts apart…is that their years of practice have changed the neural circuitry in their brains to produce highly specialized mental representations, which…make possible the incredible memory, pattern recognition, problem solving, and other…advanced abilities needed to excel in their particular specialties.”
And so, I’ve been looking for writer brains to study. I want to understand how writers think. I want to get a glimpse into the mental models that they have adopted that I cannot yet see.
That’s when I found you.
Woolf kept a diary for 23 years, between the ages of 35 and 58. Unfortunately, she was a victim of suicide that final year. What a loss for all of us! Her journals were not written to be published, which is what makes them so beautiful and fascinating. As a writer, she was careful and precise. As a diarist, she was freer, though still direct and uncompromising in her perspective.
The scope and breadth of her journals must have made for a challenging publishing project. I am grateful to her husband Leonard for going through every entry and collecting any parts that were about writing. That is why you are here now. What a treasure you have turned out to be. Because of his decision to curate Woolf’s journals through a writing lens, we get to witness her daily writing process and how it evolved over time. We learn what she thought about in order to solve different writing challenges. We learn how she dealt with praise and criticism. We see how she kept up her motivation and stayed prolific throughout her career.
As I spent time with you, I had specific questions of my own in mind. I hope you will not mind me taking the liberty of asking them, out of context of the actual work as they may be. The brain you represent is truly fascinating, and I have learned so much from you.
SA: Why do you keep a diary?
…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 and shoot them with no more pause than is needed to put my pen in the ink.
SA: Has your diary helped you with your published works, then?
It strikes me that in this book I practise writing; do my scales; yes and work at certain effects. I daresay I practised Jacob here; and Mrs. D. and shall invent my next book here; for here I write merely in the spirit—great fun it is too, and old V. of 1940 will see something in it too. She will be a woman who can see, old V., everything—more than I can, I think.
SA: So your diary is partially for your future self—the wise and learned “old V”. Does getting older worry you, or are you looking forward to it?
I don't believe in ageing. I believe in forever altering one's aspect to the sun.
SA: How does it feel, now that you’re a famous author?
I think the nerve of pleasure easily becomes numb. I like little sips, but the psychology of fame is worth considering at leisure.
SA: How is your creativity different for you now than it was in previous years?
Odder still how possessed I am with the feeling that now, aged 50, I'm just poised to shoot forth quite free straight and undeflected my bolts whatever they are. Therefore all this flitter flutter of weekly newspapers interests me not at all. These are the soul's changes.
SA: So you are free to be more yourself as you’ve gotten older. Does that mean that critical reviews don’t bother you anymore?
I very soon recover from praise and blame. But I want to find out an attitude. The most important thing is not to think very much about oneself. To investigate candidly the charge; but not fussily, not very anxiously. On no account to retaliate by going to the other extreme—thinking too much.
SA: You mention praise for your work. Does praise motivate you, or are you indifferent to it?
What is the use of saying one is indifferent to reviews when positive praise, though mingled with blame, gives one such a start on, that instead of feeling dried up, one feels on the contrary, flooded with ideas?
SA: What about criticism? How does that affect your creative process?
I heard from Ka this morning that she doesn't like In the Orchard. 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 any praise I should be content to go on.
SA: Even though there is an opportunity to learn in any criticism, do you worry about what the literary public might think when you receive bad reviews?
[No.] One likes people much better when they're battered down by a prodigious siege of misfortune than when they triumph.
SA: How does it feel to read your work after it’s been published?
Is the time coming when I can endure to read my own writing in print without blushing—shivering and wishing to take cover?
SA: It sounds like publishing takes a toll on your mental health. Is it worth it?
…if we didn't live venturously, plucking the wild goat by the beard, and trembling over precipices, we should never be depressed, I've no doubt; but already should be faded, fatalistic and aged.
SA: What are you writing right now, and what is your current process?
I am now galloping over Mrs. Dalloway, re-typing it entirely from the start, which is more or less what I did with the V.O.: a good method, I believe, as thus one works with a wet brush over the whole, and joins parts separately composed and gone dry.
SA: How do you develop such rich characters?
I shall really investigate literature with a view to answering certain questions about ourselves. Characters are to be merely views: personality must be avoided at all costs. I'm sure my Conrad adventure taught me this. Directly you specify hair, age etc. something frivolous, or irrelevant gets into the book.
SA: How do you think about style in writing? What differentiates the style of a novice from that of a practiced writer?
A first rate writer, I mean, respects writing too much to be tricky; startling; doing stunts.
SA: Is writing difficult for you, or does it come naturally?
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. Yet writing is always difficult.
SA: How do you get ideas to put into your writing?
…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.
SA: Are there certain things you do that make it easier to live in your imagination?
…my mind works in idleness. To do nothing is often my most profitable way.
SA: What do you do when you become unmotivated?
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.
SA: What do you do when you haven’t written for a while, and you want to get started 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.
SA: Does writing great fiction require solitude or a variety of experience?
More and more am I solitary; the pain of these upheavals is incalculable; and I can't explain it either.
SA: What distinguishes writing that is Art from writing that isn’t?
Art is being rid of all preaching: things in themselves: the sentence in itself beautiful: multitudinous seas; daffodils that come before the swallow dares.
SA: How does someone start taking their writing seriously as an artist?
I think writing must be formal. The art must be respected. This struck me reading some of my notes here, for if one lets the mind run loose it becomes egotistic; personal, which I detest. At the same time the irregular fire must be there; and perhaps to loose it one must begin by being chaotic, but not appear in public like that.
SA: Why do you write?
This insatiable desire to write something before I die, this ravaging sense of the shortness and feverishness of life, make me cling, like a man on a rock, to my one anchor.
SA: What helps you not take yourself and your writing too seriously?
How little one counts, I think: how little anyone counts; how fast and furious and masterly life is; and how all these thousands are swimming for dear life.
Note to reader: If you’re intrigued by this love letter, consider this a personal introduction to A Writer’s Diary by Virginia Woolf. Especially if you’re a writer or in the creative arts. I think you will find a very good friend here.
In the spirit of POSSE, this was also published at: