Written by Barbara Lounsberry, author of Virginia Woolf’s Modernist Path: Her Middle Diaries and the Diaries She Read and Becoming Virginia Woolf: Her Early Diaries and the Diaries She Read
The great English writer and thinker Virginia Woolf kept a diary from age 14 until four days before her suicide in 1941. Woolf’s beloved works—Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, Orlando, A Room of One’s Own—always exist in tandem with her semi-private diary. In fact, I believe her published works would not exist without her diary. This is true of Leo Tolstoy and André Gide as well (whose diaries Woolf read).
A diary, in short, can be a vital tool for writers.
Woolf kept a periodic diary throughout her life, and the first lesson we can learn from her is that a diary does not have to be daily to be a diary. A periodic diary can more than convey a life. Some years Woolf wrote only 30 entries a year—that is, only two or three entries a month—but they vividly convey her Bloomsbury world and she found her diary very helpful.
Woolf used her diary as an exercise in non-stop free-writing. She would record her life rapidly for about 15 or 20 minutes. “The habit of writing thus for my own eye only is good practice,” she explained. “It loosens the ligaments. Going at such a pace as I do I make the most direct & instant shots at my object. . . . 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.”
This practice also allowed her to tap her subconscious. “The advantage of this method,” she wrote, “is that it sweeps up accidentally several stray matters which I should exclude if I hesitated but which are the diamonds of the dustheap.”
Woolf used her diary as a practice ground for her public writing—and for all of the following uses as well. Everyone—and especially aspiring writers—can do the same. The very act of journal-writing registers concern and respect for one’s self, life, feelings and experiences. Diary writing:
in its regularity, brings stability and continuity to a chaotic or challenging life. The diary can be the life raft through difficult waters—or the bridge over those waters;
allows one to possess one’s life more fully, for days are reprised and sifted through and reflected on as we write the entry—and then again and again when we reread our earlier diaries.
gives us a confidante—when we may need one—and can stave off loneliness;
can serve as a reservoir for our overflowing thoughts;
is a compost heap for creation;
can be a site of planning;
can be a place to capture the beauty of the world;
can serve for our family (and for the world) as a record of our place and time;
is a key to successful aging. Research shows that people who keep diaries actually live longer than those who do not. The great French diary theorist Philippe Lejeune calls diaries “life insurance.”
We can all learn much from Woolf’s diary practice. She always reread her last entry before she added the next. This allowed her entries to talk to each other. Rereading reminded her of her past diary concerns and invited her to complete narratives she had started, adding both interest and continuity to her diaries. Woolf also regularly reread her past diaries. This allowed her to make her diaries more artful. (If you do this, you may also find your life themes and concerns there.)
Perhaps more than any other writer, Woolf saw the great treasure residing in diaries—her own diaries and those of others. Woolf read at least 66 diaries besides her own that I’ve been able to track, but she unquestionably read even more. She sought in others’ diaries the natural human voice and also suggestive life traces beyond her own that she could transmute into art. “I ransack public libraries,” she told her 1921 diary, “& find them full of sunk treasure.” Diary writing (and diary reading) refreshed Woolf and filled her “cistern.” Her diary, as she wrote of Samuel Pepys’s famous diary, made her “one of ourselves.”