“If I didn’t feel so much, how easy it would be to go on.”
The accessibility of something so informative as an artist’s biography/diary is not something that had ever occurred to me. For years I have eaten up every secret, every story, that has been relayed to me by my mentors and have treasured each of these conversations. I almost feel pathetic for only reasoning now, at 17, that this information and experience that I am constantly in search of is waiting for me on a bookshelf.
I frequently inquire about the experiences of the artists in my life because I have found a consistency in the advice and sentiments communicated by these individuals. This is not to say that the experience of an artist is unanimous. I simply am often surprised by the extent to which many creative individuals share comparable philosophies toward their work.
I typically identify advice as valuable when the individual’s sentiments are similar to something I have heard before. I have found the diary entries of Virginia Woolf to be particularly potent, not only because they emulate what I have accepted as principle, but because her sentiments painfully resonate with experiences and sensations that I assumed were unique to me. I do not know that the diary provided me with any answers. I do not think it is likely that answers exist, for if they did, none of us would be struggling. While I do not know that I have happened upon a solution, I do think that I have encountered a remedy of sorts. Woolf’s diary has alleviated some of the discomfort that comes with feeling as though one is alone. I have found seclusion to be disagreeable because it breeds a sense of incompetency, futility, and impossibility.
When I began reading Woolf’s diary, I was immediately taken aback by the abundance of commentary on the writings of her contemporaries. I would say that Virginia Woolf analyzed the work of others at least once a month in her diary. Actually, her sentiments were more akin to criticism than analysis and were often outright condemnations. There was something comforting about the frequency of these criticisms. So many entries in Woolf’s diary exude a sense of pride that certainly does not conceal Woolf’s ego. To many, Woolf may come off as ill-tempered. I, on the other hand, experienced a peculiar kinship while reading the diary. I have always been extremely critical of the work of others. I am very quick to belittle other artists and am rarely impressed by the performance of my peers. What I am getting at, is that the arrogance of Virginia Woolf’s diary entries is astoundingly familiar.
I have always found my conceit to be remarkable (and not in a positive way). I am constantly convinced that I can do a better job than everyone around me and think very highly of my intellect, ability, and potential. I, like Virginia Woolf, am entirely cocky and overwhelmingly critical. This is probably the most irritating aspect of my personality. It relates almost directly to my superpower/kryptonite. I am extremely competitive, only because I have seen myself win and think very little of my competitors. This confidence completely unravels when I encounter an obstacle that I worry will jeopardize my reputation and confidence if I end up failing. In her diary, Virginia Woolf mentioned failure more times than I can count. Because of her confidence and competitive nature (that was quite possibly her superpower), a major concern of Woolf ‘s was her ascendency into fame, recognition as a leading female modernist of the 20th century, and the opinions of her own critics.
Throughout her diary, just days after releasing one of her pieces into public eye, Woolf would determine whether her work was a success or a failure based on the sentiments of critics and the recognition it received. Woolf would often reread her writings once they were finished and declare, in her journal, that they were failures. While writing The Years in December of 1935, Woolf proclaimed, “the main feeling about this book is vitality, fruitfulness, energy.” I was amazed, and stared at the pages of the diary with my mouth agape, when I read her comments regarding The Years from just one month later. In January of 1936, Woolf asserted, in her diary, that The Years was a “show up of (her) own decrepitude.” What she had originally characterized as energetic was now “feeble twaddle.” I almost threw the book across my room. The statements left me angered and irritated. It was not until the following day that I recognized the familiarity of these sentiments. It is so like me to endlessly criticize others, temporarily think very highly of myself while commencing a project, and then ultimately grow miserable as I attack my work upon considering its fate in the laps of my critics. In her diary, Woolf would also anticipate the criticism she would receive upon publication: “The reviewers will say that it is disjointed because of the mad scenes not connecting with the Dalloway scenes.” This tendency to evaluate her performance through the eyes of others (something that I think is a by-product of one’s competitive personality), was listed as one of my kryptonites two weeks ago.
I do not know that the diary provides any concrete answers, though I should note that Virginia Woolf is, ultimately, one of the most influential authors of her time. Does this teach me that my own judgement of my work is irrelevant and valueless? I do not think that I should conclude that the opinions of others are meaningless. I believe that the lesson is not to disregard their opinions, for it is impossible for an artist to improve, be successful, or make any money without some public approval/criticism. Rather, Woolf’s diary may teach me that I really do not know what others will think and should stop allowing my guesses and concerns to consume my energy and deplete my confidence.