Virginia Woolf on the Courage to Create Rather Than Cater and the Remedy for Self-Doubt

“One must face the despicable vanity which is at the root of all this niggling and haggling.”

Virginia Woolf on the Courage to Create Rather Than Cater and the Remedy for Self-Doubt

“The most regretful people on earth,” Mary Oliver wrote as she distilled a lifetime of wisdom on creativity, “are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.”

She was nearly a century old when she died. Virginia Woolf (January 25, 1882–March 28, 1941) was yet to wander through her garden and arrive at her flower-fomented epiphany about what it means to be an artist. She was already making a living by her pen, but she was catering rather than creating, writing book reviews and essays for various literary journals — miniatures of her mind, which pulsated with something larger, with its “own creative power restive and uprising,” leaving her raw with self-doubt, the way we always are in those threshold moments before some great leap into our own depths.

Virginia Woolf

It was the spring of her twenty nineth year. The Lighthouse OrlandoVirginia wrote in her diary that there were only ink drops of thought left at her fingertips.

Well, you see, I’m a failure as a writer. I’m out of fashion: old: shan’t do any better: have no headpiece: the spring is everywhere: my book out (prematurely) and nipped, a damp firework.

With an eye to the commercial work syphoning her energy and talent — the era’s equivalent of “content” — she resolves:

I shan’t become a machine, unless a machine for grinding articles. My own perspective rises in my head as I write. It makes me wonder though if this perversion of the feeling I have that I only write for half as many people instead than 1500. — make me eccentric — no, I think not.

Long before Bertrand Russell reflected on how to grow older contentedly, counseling that you must “make your interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life,” Virginia adds:

The root cause of so much niggling is vanity. I think the only prescription for me is to have a thousand interests — if one is damaged, to be able instantly to let my energy flow into Russian, or Greek, or the press, or the garden, or people, or some activity disconnected with my own writing.

These fragments appear in A Writer’s Diary (public library) — the magnificent posthumous volume that gave us Virginia’s reflections on the relationship between loneliness and creativity, what makes love last, the consolations of growing older, the creative benefits of keeping a diary, and her arresting account of a total solar eclipse.

Begin with Keith Haring about self-doubt. Next, we will revisit John Steinbeck’s use of the diary to help him achieve creative self-actualization. Whitman is a specialist on creative self-esteem.

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