I absolutely love reading journals and letters. I can’t get enough of delving into another’s thoughts and experiences. And when I’m reading about an author’s creative life, it’s pretty much perfection. A Writer’s Diary has been everything I’ve wanted and needed to read of late. It was a rich, rich book, along the lines of the fabulous Edna St. Vincent Millay biography, Savage Beauty, and my dear L. M. Montgomery’s journals.
Ten years after Virginia Woolf died, her husband, Leonard, extracted from her diaries everything she had to say about writing. He also included entries where she was “obviously using the diary as a method of practising or trying out the art of writing,” passages that reflect “the direct impact upon her mind of scenes and persons, i.e. of the raw material of her art,” and any that commented upon the books she was reading.
So much in the diary felt familiar and real and relevant. She spoke about finding the form of her books. She struggled and fought and triumphed. She faced fame and criticism and had to decide how they’d affect what she brought to the page. One of her constant goals was to “jump the fence”* or “break the mold” as she explored each book’s shape and layers. It’s an intimate read and sometimes a hard one. The last entry comes four days before Virgina took her own life. But it was beautiful and powerful, too.
It might entirely be for my benefit that I type up the quotes that spoke to me in the Diary. But on the off-chance any blog readers might be interested, I’m also sharing them here with you.
October 4, 1922
At forty I’m 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.
October 14, 1922
I am perfectly serious in saying that nothing budges me from my determination to go on, or alters my pleasure; so whatever happens, though the surface may be agitated, the centre is secure.
October 29, 1933
On responding to criticism: 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 be impeded.
February 18, 1934
On writing The Years: I want to raise up the magic world all round me and live strongly and quietly there…
August 2, 1934
I’m worried too with my last chapters. 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 2, 1934
…if only for a time I could completely forget myself, my reviews, my fame, my sink in the scale…then I should be what I mostly am: very rapid, excited, amused, intense. Odd, these extravagant ups and downs of reputation…let all praise and blame sink to the bottom or float to the top and let me go my ways indifferent. And care for people. And let fly, in life, on all sides.
November 14, 1934
A note: despair at the badness of the book: 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
Another book. Have I the indomitable courage to start on another? Think of the writing and re-writing. Also there will be joys and ecstasies though…Is this worth writing? Perhaps.
August 7, 1939
If I say this, So-and-so will think me sentimental. If that…will think me bourgeois. All books now seem to me surrounded by a circle of invisible censors. Hence their self-consciousness, their restlessness. It would be worthwhile trying to discover what they are at the moment. Did Wordsworth have them? I doubt it. I read “Ruth” before breakfast. Its stillness, its unconsciousness, its lack of distraction, its concentration and the resulting “beauty” struck me. As if the mind must be allowed to settle undisturbed over the object in order to secrete the pearl.
December 29, 1940
I am I: and I must follow that furrow, not copy another. That is the only justification for my writing, living.
*This made me wonder: What would she have thought of Fonzie’s shark?!
Caroline, thank you for sharing these quotes. I feel sad for all who fall into despair and take their lives. Oh, how I wish I could give them the reason for my hope.
I too, find, reading about other creatives’ process fascinating. I have a shelf-full of writerly memoirs/diaries and yet, I throw all my own away because I cannot bear the thought of other people reading my private thoughts and prayers. I also experiment a lot in my notebook, couldn’t live without it really.
I do, too! That’s one reason why I love running interviews here. I enjoy the similarity I find in the creative process and am encouraged by the reminder there’s no one way to approach our work.
James Preller says
Just ordered it.