Virginia Woolf on Writing and Success

OCEANBUFFETIn junior high, I thought it would be a great idea to read Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. I’m not sure why, because the text went way over my head at the time. I think I set it down halfway through and picked up Ella Enchanted instead (still a great book, just not quite the same).

But as we all try to do with classics from time to time, I picked it up recently and read it again. This time, I couldn’t help notice the great observations Woolf makes about the craft of writing. Two of them stayed with me in particular: (1) our writing as an extension of ourselves, and (2) success as a process.

Writing as an extension of ourselves

Whatever the characters in Mrs. Dalloway want for themselves, they want for their writing. One character, Septimus Warren Smith, is a writer who faces shell shock during the novel.

At one point, when he anticipates a doctor finding him, he thinks: “Now for his writings…Universal love: the meaning of the world. Burn them!” Since he believes that the doctor will seek to remove him from his current life, he wants to remove himself first. (This is definitely one of the more morbid examples in the book – and spoiler alert for anyone who hasn’t yet read it!)

When considering how to best leave, though, one of his first concerns is for his writings. His work has become a reflection of who he is, so much so that he needs the writings to be burned even if they contain ‘the meaning of the world’. Just as he wants to remain untouched by doctors, he wants his writings to remain untouched.

As writers, we pour an incredible amount of time and effort into perfecting each small word or turn of phrase. Because of this effort, Woolf points out the strong attachment we feel to what we create.

Lady Bruton, another character in Mrs. Dalloway, describes the process of writing a letter with frustration: “After a morning’s battle beginning, tearing up, beginning again, she…would turn gratefully to the thought of Hugh Whitbread who possessed…the act of writing letters to the Times”. She doesn’t have enough skill to express herself as she would like through words, so she asks her friend, Hugh Whitbread, to revise her work. Her letter to the Times will be signed with her name and will then be viewed as an extension of herself.

While readers won’t meet her in person, they will read her letter and judge who she is based on what they’ve read. Our writing becomes a visible representation of who we are.

Writing success as a process

Toward the end of the novel, another character (and writer) Peter meets an old friend who asks him, “…he was to write, surely? In those days he was to write”. He never did write though, and the quote illustrates how determined he was to pursue this career when he was younger.

For Peter, external forces (lack of time, lost motivation, a need to put some bread on the table) disillusioned him and derailed his dream. However, Peter remains in pursuit of establishing a connection with readers.

His dream of living as a writer is seen as postponed, not necessarily ruled out. He continues to work toward his goal of connecting in a meaningful way with an audience.

Woolf keeps the dream burning in the hearts of her characters who write. There’s a sense that as long as we continue to try to create an impression with our words, we may still achieve success as writers.

Have you read Mrs. Dalloway and did you enjoy it? Are there any other books which made you think about the craft of writing?


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