Brain Pickings

Virginia Woolf on the Creative Benefits of Keeping a Diary

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“The habit of writing thus for my own eye only is good practice. It loosens the ligaments.”

Literary icon Virginia Woolf (January 25, 1882 — March 28, 1941) was not only a masterful letter-writer and little-known children’s book author, but also a dedicated diarist on par with Susan Sontag and Anaïs Nin. A fairly late journaling bloomer, she began writing in 1915, at the age of 33, and continued until her last entry in 1941, four days before her death, leaving behind 26 volumes written in her own hand. More than a mere tool of self-exploration, however, Woolf approached the diary as a kind of R&D lab for her craft. As her husband observes in the introduction to her collected journals, A Writer’s Diary (UK; public library), Woolf’s journaling was “a method of practicing or trying out the art of writing.”

In an entry from April 20th, 1919, Woolf makes a case for the creative benefits of keeping a diary — something Joan Didion echoed nearly a century and a half later in her timeless essay on keeping a notebook — and argues for it as an essential tool for honing one’s writing style:

I got out this diary and read, as one always does read one’s own writing, with a kind of guilty intensity. I confess that the rough and random style of it, often so ungrammatical, and crying for a word altered, afflicted me somewhat. I am trying to tell whichever self it is that reads this hereafter that I can write very much better; and take no time over 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 bull’s 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 and shoot them with no more pause than is needed to put my pen in the ink. I believe that during the past year I can trace some increase of ease in my professional writing which I attribute to my casual half hours after tea. Moreover there looms ahead of me the shadow of some kind of form which a diary might attain to. 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 anything, 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 so mysteriously do, into a mould, transparent enough to reflect the light of our life, and yet steady, tranquil compounds 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 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. 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 was also an autobiographical tool. In an entry from January 20th, 1919, a 37-year-old Woolf considers the utility of the diaries to her future self, noting with equal parts sharp self-awareness and near-comic self-consciousness her own young-person’s perception of 50 as an “elderly” age:

I note however that this diary writing does not count as writing, since I have just re-read my year’s diary and am much struck by the rapid haphazard gallop at which it swings along, sometimes indeed jerking almost intolerably over the cobbles. Still if it were not written rather faster than the fastest type-writing, if I stopped and took thought, it would never be written at all; and the advantage of the method is that it sweeps up accidentally several stray matters which I should exclude if I hesitated, but which are the diamonds of the dustheap. If Virginia Woolf at the age of 50, when she sits down to build her memoirs out of these books, is unable to make a phrase as it should be made, I can only condole with her and remind her of the existence of the fireplace, where she has my leave to burn these pages to so many black films with red eyes in them. But how I envy her the task I am preparing for her! There is none I should like better. Already my 37th birthday next Saturday is robbed of some of its terrors by the thought. Partly for the benefit of this elderly lady (no subterfuges will then be possible: 50 is elderly, though I anticipate her protest and agree that it is not old) partly to give the year a solid foundation I intend to spend the evenings of this week of captivity in making out an account of my friendships and their present condition, with some account of my friends’ characters; and to add an estimate of their work and a forecast of their future works. The lady of 50 will be able to say how near to the truth I come; but I have written enough for tonight (only 15 minutes, I see).

On March 9th, 1920, she returns to her future “elderly” self, this time with more hopefulness, presenting the diary as fodder for her future creative output — the building blocks of her combinatorial creativity:

In spite of some tremors I think I shall go on with this diary for the present. I sometimes think that I have worked through the layer of style which suited it — suited the comfortable bright hour, after tea; and the thing I’ve reached now is less pliable. Never mind; I fancy old Virginia, putting on her spectacles to read of March 1920 will decidedly wish me to continue. Greetings! my dear ghost; and take heed that I don’t think 50 a very great age. Several good books can be written still; and here’s the bricks for a fine one.

Portrait of Virginia Woolf by Roger Fry, 1917, via Wikimedia Commons

And yet Woolf’s relationship with the diary is at times ambivalent: On June 14th, 1925, she laments:

A disgraceful confession — this is Sunday morning and just after ten, and here I am sitting down to write diary and not fiction or reviews, without any excuse, except the state of my mind.

Like any dedicated diarist has experienced first-hand, Woolf observes the troublesome friction between the diary as a therapeutic tool for exorcising one’s demons and its uncomfortable counterarguments for one’s ego. On October 25th, 1920, she records her anguish:

(First day of winter time) Why is life so tragic; so like a little strip of pavement over an abyss. I look down; I feel giddy; I wonder how I am ever to walk to the end. But why do I feel this: Now that I say it I don’t feel it. The fire burns; we are going to hear the Beggar’s Opera. Only it lies about me; I can’t keep my eyes shut. It’s a feeling of impotence; of cutting no ice. Here I sit at Richmond, and like a lantern stood in the middle of a field my light goes up in darkness. Melancholy diminishes as I write. Why then don’t I write it down oftener? Well, one’s vanity forbids. I want to appear a success even to myself. Yet I don’t get to the bottom of it.

On December 29th, 1940, some eight years after her self-constructed brink of elderly age, she observes wistfully, aligning the desire to write in the diary with her writerly and existential vitality:

There are moments when the sail flaps. Then, being a great amateur of the art of life, determined to suck my orange, off, like a wasp if the blossom I’m on fades, as it did yesterday — I ride across the downs to the cliffs. A roll of barbed wire is hooped on the edge. I rubbed my mind brisk along the Newhaven road. Shabby old maids buying groceries, in that desert road with the villas; in the wet. And Newhaven gashed. But tire the body and the mind sleeps. All desire to write diary here has flagged. What is the right antidote? I must sniff round. I think Mme. de Sevigne. Writing to be a daily pleasure. I detest the hardness of old age — I feel it. I rasp. I’m tart.

Exactly three months later, Woolf filled her pockets with stones, walked into the river near her home in Sussex, and drowned herself.

In the introduction to A Writer’s Diary, from which all of these excerpts come, Woolf’s husband adds an apt caveat:

The diary is too personal to be published as a whole during the lifetime of many people referred to in it. It is, I think, nearly always a mistake to publish extracts from diaries or letters, particularly if the omissions have to be made in order to protect the feelings or reputations of the living. The omissions almost always distort or conceal the true character of the diarist or letter-writer and produce spiritually what an Academy picture does materially, smoothing out the wrinkles, warts, frowns, and asperities. At the best and even unexpurgated, diaries give a distorted or one-sided portrait of the writer, because, as Virginia Woolf herself remarks somewhere in these diaries, one gets into the habit of recording one particular kind of mood — irritation or misery, say — and of not writing one’s diary when one is feeling the opposite. The portrait is therefore from the start unbalanced, and, if someone then deliberately removes another characteristic, it may well become a mere caricature.

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