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self-doubt: Woolf’s doubt

Lytton Strachey, Virginia Woolf & Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, taken by Lady Ottoline Morrell, June 1923

I think a lot of the writers out there can identify with the feeling of self-doubt – even the greats had their own demons to dispense with. But could it be that these demons made the writers even better than they were? Of course, it could be that self-doubt might make one work harder to ‘be better’, or it could result in the complete opposite; a lack of work ethic so that nothing gets written.

The main purpose of this post is to highlight one particular diary entry that Virginia Woolf made, on April 8th 1921, which she was still living in Richmond with Leonard, her husband. It sticks out in my mind due to the sheer length of the entry – now, Virginia was known for long diary entries, so this isn’t necessarily a strange excerpt, but it also shows how she used her diary, not only as writing practice, but also for noting down her confidential thoughts. In my MA dissertation, I discussed the idea of whether Virginia had planned for her diaries to be published after her death, and I believe, in a way, that she did plan for it. This, in contrast, to one of her comments in her last letter to Leonard, where she asked him to destroy all of her papers – whether this meant her diary as well, I’m not so sure.

… And I ought to be writing Jacob’s Room; – I can’t, & instead I shall write down the reason why I can’t – this diary being a kindly blank faced old confidante. Well, you see, I’m a failure as a writer. I’m out of fashion; old; shan’t do any better; have no head piece; my book out (prematurely) & nipped, a damp firework.

April 8th 1921, Diaries II

The book to which she refers is Monday or Tuesday. I believe this is the publication which the Woolfs asked the local printer, McDermott, to help with printing, and unfortunately, it contained a lot of mistakes, leading Leonard to call it the ‘one of the worst printed books ever published.’

As she continues in her diary entry on the same day:

What depresses me is the thought that I have ceased to interest people – at the very moment when, by the help of the press, I thought I was becoming more myself.
April 8th 1921, Diaries II

It is clear from this entry that the Hogarth Press, established in Richmond, had indeed had the desired effect of helping Virginia through her bouts of mental illness, but yet the self-doubting thoughts still arose.

I, like others, am a kind of writer. Although I should say I am a writer. It still feels funny thinking that, let alone writing it. Virginia Woolf in Richmond has allowed me to explore the realms of what else I am capable of. This book is my Kew Gardens (the book which, in my view, ultimately made Virginia a success). From that book to a short story in Tempest: An Anthology (my first fiction) as well as the two ELT books I’ve had published. After having been an English language teacher for 17 years, I feel that ELT is the way forward, both in editing and writing.

Attending the IATEFL conference in Liverpool was a real eye opener, showing me that there are many opportunities that need to be grasped with all the might I can manage.

I’ve also had a wonderful review in an article in Prospect Magazine, which I’m thrilled about.

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