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