Reading Virginia Woolf’s ‘A Writer’s Diary’

A Writer's DiaryA Writer’s Diary by Virginia Woolf
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

My copy of A Writer’s Diary and its forest of little tags poking out from the side. All the passages I’ve marked. Some of those passages I share with you below, in bold as I try to sort out the meaning, comfort, madness and beauty of Virginia Woolf’s writing life. 2015-10-06 05.40.36

As a writer, I move daily between despair and joy. A good day of writing leaves me scoured clean and refilled with peace;
There is some ebb and flow of the tide of life which accounts for it; though what produces either ebb or flow I’m not sure.


but the stress of rejection and of praise is an invasion of the external world into my emotional and intellectual equilibrium.
…the worst of writing is that one depends so much upon praise. One should aim, seriously, as disregarding ups and downs; a compliment here, silence there.


The only way to right the imbalance is to shut out the world and offer myself up to the page. To sit and write until my limbs are stiff, my eyes ache, my brain empties out.
The truth is that writing is the profound pleasure and being read the superficial.


Then, to take a walk, letting the words sift from my head down to my toes. When I return home, I have room for the words of others.
The way to rock oneself back into writing is this. First gentle exercise in the air. Second the reading of good literature.


A Writer’s Diary show the decades of a writer’s life unfolding in real time: the highs and near-shame of success; the deep, quiet pleasures of the life of the mind; the fear and resignation of failure, which is usually far more a product of the writer’s imagination than of the external world.
Arrange whatever pieces come your way. Never be unseated by the shying of that undependable brute, life, hag-ridden as she is by my own queer, difficult, nervous system.


It is a gift to be embraced and supported by communities of writers, to learn, to mentor and be mentored, to share and commiserate. Yet there are moments that stun and wither me: writers who may have achievements of publication or prestigious degrees, mocking those who are struggling to learn their craft; writers sizing each other up, sniffing at genre or publisher, determining another’s literary merit relative to one’s own with that barely-concealed sneer of competitive literary criticism.
I am, fundamentally, I think, an outsider. I do my best work and feel most braced with my back to the wall. It’s an odd feeling though, writing against the current: difficult entirely to disregard the current. Yet of course I shall.


What would Woolf make of the cult of personality she has become?
Now I suppose I might become one of the interesting–I will not say great–but interesting novelists?


What would we have made of her work, what more could she have offered us, if mental illness had not had the last word, if she could have found her way to a different final chapter?
A thousand things to be written had I time; had I power. A very little writing uses up my capacity for writing.


I remarked to another writer what an inspiration this book is to me, what comfort I have found in Woolf’s own struggles and doubts. She reminded me how things ended for Woolf. That she took her own life. How strange a response. She missed the point entirely.


Instead of being haunted by Woolf’s end, I think of Mary Oliver’s poem, “The Summer Day”: Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? Oliver asks.


Perhaps this is how Woolf would have answered:
Now is life very solid or very shifting? I am haunted by the two contradictions. This has gone on for ever; will last for ever; goes down to the bottom of the world—the moment I stand on. Also it is transitory, flying, diaphanous. I shall pass like a cloud on the waves.


Virginia Woolf passed like a cloud on the waves. But her words have become moments upon which we all stand, strengthened, made taller by the foundation of her genius. And we look up at those clouds, mouthing, Thank you.

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19 thoughts on “Reading Virginia Woolf’s ‘A Writer’s Diary’

  1. Your writing is rather elegant & metaphorical. It’s really nice to read.
    I admire Virginia Woolf too, but have read little of her! Recommend anything? I’ve always rather struggled reading authors of earlier centuries, which is a pity since they are the greats. Advice?

    Cheerio from one author to another. You are one of the few who really has a way to turn phrases!


    • Thank you for the beautiful comment, Vandini!

      I don’t enough classic literature, for certain. And I tend to default to the British classics when I do, which is another discussion, entirely! I love Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Shakespeare . . . for Woolf, you might try To the Lighthouse, The Waves, Mrs. Dalloway. I have a long way to go to get through her vast oeuvre.

      I’m so glad you stopped by!

      Warmest regards,


      Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve just recently recommitted to a (near) daily practice- returning to the ever-peaceful and cathartic Morning Pages à la Julia Cameron. I need to find-or make-a journal that has Virginia Woolf on one page and a blank page opposite 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for the post and your review. I’ve read some of VW but not this book, will look for it. I really appreciate your comments, too. Let’s all encourage each other and celebrate each other’s successes, however we determine success.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Lovely review, Julie. Reading Vanessa and Her Sister at the moment, and enjoying Parmar’s beautiful prose, sense of story and pacing. But she does make the young Virginia out as a bundle of ego and nerves; I wonder if she really was quite so unpleasant to live beside? It makes me sad to think that for all her brilliance, I might not have liked her much, if she was really so mean. Of course she’s only 23 in that novel, and we all (hopefully) grow up as we age, so maybe an older Virginia would have been more self-aware and less selfish.


    • Oh, Cynthia, I must look for this- thank you. Okay, I just put it on my TBR list 🙂
      I have to think that VW must have been very moody and absolutely, the diary shows that ‘bundle of ego and nerves’ (what a great phrase!). She was very concerned about her reputation, sales, the reception of her books, not unlike any author, I’m sure. And thin-skinned, as I think many artists are. It’s odd and disconcerting to be in a livelihood that’s at once so solitary, yet so dependent upon the approval of others. Does funny things to the brain!
      So look forward to reading Parmar’s book. Thank you!


    • Thank you, Edith. It’s amazing to follow years of this writer’s life, to watch the ebb and flow of her confidence and motivation. And she was very obsessed with her sales 😉
      I started journaling this spring, but have fallen off again–so hard to keep up with it all!

      Liked by 1 person

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