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Recommended Reading: Virginia Woolf’s Diaries

There’s beauty and insight to be found even in the most mundane moments of our everyday lives.

Image by Barnaby Dorfman (CC BY 2.0)

Most successful writers do one or two things really, really well. Then there’s that small group of word magicians who can keep us riveted while recounting their trip to the greengrocer. Virginia Woolf firmly belongs among the latter. If you ever need proof, check out her diaries, where you’d be hard-pressed to find a non-mesmerizing sentence:

VirginiaWoolf

The heat has come, bringing with it the inexplicably disagreeable memories of parties, and George Duckworth; a fear haunts me even now, as I drive past Park Lane on top of a bus.

Diary entry from May 25, 1926

Beyond the mere pleasure of her prose, however, Woolf’s diaries contain so much wisdom, so much focused insight on the craft, and struggle, and pleasures of writing, that reading through any random entry is worth roughly 73 “How to become a better writer” articles. Case in point:

Yesterday I finished the first part of To the Lighthouse, and today began the second. I cannot make it out — here is the most difficult abstract piece of writing — I have to give an empty house, no people’s characters, the passage of time, all eyeless and featureless with nothing to cling to: well, I rush at it, and at once scatter out two pages. Is it nonsense, is it brilliance? Why am I so flown with words, and apparently free to do exactly what I like? When I read a bit it seems spirited too; needs compressing, but not much else.

Diary entry from April 30th, 1926

Here, Woolf is talking about drafting (what would end up being) some of the most stunning prose ever written — “Time Passes,” the middle section of  her 1927 novel, To the Lighthouse. Within a couple of sentences, she crystallizes two emotions that most of us who write feel constantly. The chronic insecurity — “Is it nonsense, is it brilliance?” — and the (mostly) joyful wonder at producing something that might just work — “Why am I so flown with words?” (You can find more diary entries from the To the Lighthouse period here.)

As you read through Woolf’s diaries, it’s hard not to think about the similarities between keeping a journal and blogging. Beyond the obvious commonalities — two easy, low-barrier outlets for self-expression — one finds a deeper connection. There’s something valuable for our writing in having a (mostly) unfiltered space in which we can explore new ideas and new forms.

The main requisite, I think on re-reading my old volumes, is not to play the part of censor, but to write as the mood comes.

Just as crucial is how journaling and blogging allow us to build our own archive — a space in which we can register and reflect on our state of mind across time (of course, on most fronts, having a searchable, customizable blog beats digging through rows of dusty notebooks). Here’s Woolf again, after revisiting some of her older diaries:

The main requisite, I think on re-reading my old volumes, is not to play the part of censor, 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.

Diary entry from April 20th, 1919

The most crucial bit for me in this paragraph is at the very end — the notion that for much of our writing, it takes time to understand what it was, really, that we were trying to do. The challenge, of course, is that you have to write something first before you can let it rest.

It might need “compressing,” but it’s there — its meaning ready to be rediscovered, or revealed for the first time.

Various collections of Woolf’s diary entries, as well as the collected whole, are easily available at libraries and bookstores. You can also find numerous quotes and excerpts online.

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  1. Your piece fits in well with this weeks DPchallenge, Ben. Did you plan it that way, you scoundrel? Thank you for the recommendation. Although once I read more of Virginia Woolf’s diary, I’m sure I’ll want to go back and rewrite my own. Before I do however, I’d better get back to “compressing” this week’s blog post. Oh, wait. That is a diary. Again…Many Many Thanks!

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    1. I can’t claim to have intentionally planned this post around the writing challenge; however, since they do fit nicely together, I’ll take credit for it anyway. What scoundrel wouldn’t? 🙂

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  2. As funny as it seems, I’ve never heard of Virginia Woolf (because I grew up in East Europe). But thank you very much, I just researched her and I found her really intelligent and inspirational! I will definitely read some of her books! Thank you!

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  3. Today I was being interviewed on one of the Indian blog portals and they asked me what my recommended reading list would be – and I told them Virginia’s diaries. I’ve read all six volumes cover-to-cover. I think she’s brilliant – and her diaries gave me an insight into her unfettered mind. What a privilege!

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  4. I’m actually just about to start reading her! I’m a college student, and one of the classes I’m taking is about Women and Literature, so we’re reading parts of her diary along with Mrs. Dalloway. 🙂

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  5. Virginia Woolf’s novels have never affected me on an emotional level as much as her non-fiction writing–I particularly love her essays. I go back and re-read the latter often. Elizabeth Bowen is the same way for me; her novels I can take or leave but I will pretty much read anything else by her. Both of these women are such powerhouse writers and thinkers.

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  6. I like the reminder (and allusion to the concept) that blogging is indeed journal-keeping or diary-writing in digital form.

    It makes me appreciate WordPress all the more.

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  7. I enjoyed the example quote at the begining, it certainly communicates Virginia Woolf’s skill. What really strikes me is the joy and freedom she communicates at the end of the Diary entry from April 1926. As you as a writer soar over your written landscape you are at once enraptured with the view, and terrified to bring someone flying with you.

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  8. Ever since discovering the marvelous multi-volume edition of Woolf’s letters many years ago, I’ve enjoyed her personal letters and diaries even more than I’ve enjoyed her fiction. Thanks for shining a light on her personal writings. I hope they gain new fans.

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  9. Hey Ben, what an inspiration she is as a writer… Her writing reflects her spirit. It has that natural connect and suggests you to explore more…She was indeed a woman ahead of her time.. I love this quote by her which I have used in my blog…”No need to hurry. No need to sparkle. No need to be anybody but oneself.”

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  10. To the Lighthouse, Cold Comfort Farm, and Orlando to name a few. I thoroughly enjoy Virginia Woolf’s novels as well as her diaries. I have several undergrad hours deconstructing her works.
    Thank you for the post. Everything you wrote was right on the mark!
    ~victoria

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  11. Woolf’s Death of the Moth is my all time favorite short read. Her prose has a very poetic quality to it. Highly recommended,

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  12. “…to write as the mood comes”
    I really like this part of the quote.

    Woolf’s motivation for looking back over old words we’ve written is something we all share. I would love to read over her old journals – and always wanted to read ‘To the Lighthouse’ – it just hasn’t happened yet.

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