Virginia Woolf on a writer’s education

“. . . [A] writer’s education is so much less definite than other educations. Reading, listening, talking, travel, leisure—many different things it seems are mixed together. Life and books must be shaken and taken in the right proportions.”

“Let us always remember—influences are infinitely numerous; writers are infinitely sensitive.” And: “If you do not tell the truth about yourself you cannot tell it about other people.”

“A writer is a person who sits at a desk and keeps his eye fixed, as intently as he can, upon a certain object—that figure of speech may serve to keep us steady on our path if we look at it for a moment. He is an artist who sits with a sheet of paper in front of him trying to copy what he sees. What is his object—his model? Nothing so simple as a painter’s model; it is not a bowl of flowers, a naked figure, or a dish of apples and onions. Even the simplest story deals with more than one person, with more than one time. Characters begin young; they grow old; they move from scene to scene, from place to place. A writer has to keep his eye upon a model that moves, that changes, upon an object that is not one object but innumerable objects. Two words alone cover all that a writer looks at—they are, human life.”

“Let us look at the writer next. What do we see—only a person who sits with a pen in his hand in front of a sheet of paper? That tells us little or nothing. And we know very little. Considering how much we talk about writers, how much they talk about themselves, it is odd how little we know about them. Why are they so common sometimes; then so rare? . . . We know even less about the mind than about the body. We have less evidence. It is less than two hundred years since people took an interest in themselves; Boswell was almost the first writer who thought that a man’s life was worth writing a book about. Until we have more facts, more biographies, more autobiographies, we cannot know much about ordinary people, let alone about extraordinary people. Thus at present we have only theories about writers—a great many theories, but they all differ. The politician says that a writer is the product of the society in which he lives, as a screw is a product of a screw machine; the artist, that a writer is a heavenly apparition that slides across the sky, grazes the earth, and vanishes. To the psychologists, a writer is an oyster; feed him on gritty facts, irritate him with ugliness, and by way of compensation, as they call it, he will produce a pearl. . . . This proves that we are in the dark about writers; anybody can make a theory; the germ of a theory is almost always the wish to prove what the theorist wishes to believe.”

Excerpts are from “The Leaning Tower,” collected in Moment and Other Essays.


Filed under honesty, NOTED, reading, teaching, education

7 responses to “Virginia Woolf on a writer’s education

  1. You are adding to my education yet again. Does “The Leaning Tower” appear in a published collection that I could order?

  2. Beth, “The Leaning Tower” is in Moment And Other Essays, and may be in other collections. Interesting, given its title,that the photo I chose to illustrate this post, I’ve just realized, was once I took last May in Pisa, Italy, across from THE Leaning Tower.

    Incidentally, the voice and writing style in this essay remind me startingly of Annie Dillard.

  3. Thanks, Richard. I just ordered it, along with “A Room of One’s Own,” which I have never read. I’ll look forward to a trip to our little post office in a few days.

    Interesting, your thought about Annie Dillard. I’ll listen & see if I hear it, too.

    Funny note about the photo. I was struck by the photo when I saw it (although I didn’t know it was across the street from “the” leaning tower). It looks like a spot for lingering.

  4. Richard, how wonderful to come here and find this photo and quotations, which make Virginia Woolf seem like she is here in the room with us. I see the connection to Annie Dillard, also. Here’s the sentence I will meditate upon: “It is less than two hundred years since people took an interest in themselves;”

    Hard to believe on our personality-soaked age, isn’t it?

  5. I was really struck by that sentence, too, and by her awareness of that fact. She seems very modern when I read her, as I suppose all geniuses do.

  6. Rachel

    I just thought I’d point out that ‘the leaning tower’ is actually extracted from the poem ‘Spain’ by Auden rather than directly referencing the infamous structure in Italy.