I Am Afraid of Virginia Woolf

Once, long ago, I served as a holy man for a lovely wedding in the green hills of Virginia. For my troubles, I was paid my standard fee: one bottle of good tequila and four volumes of Virginia Woolf’s essays, hardcover. And a good fee it is.

Virginia Woolf was, in my humble yet somewhat informed opinion, the greatest writer of the 20th Century, at least in English. Joyce, Faulkner, and others have their moments (the “Penelope” chapter of Ulysses, the Quentin section of The Sound and the Fury), but nobody, maybe not even Shakespeare, can match Woolf’s command of the English language as a medium for thought and art.

So, reading Woolf as a wannabe-writer can be dispiriting. I don’t want to write books like the ones Woolf did, but it’s still dispiriting to realize there were and are people like Woolf who could out-write and out-think you in their sleep. Dispiriting to know that her failures (like The Waves) are better than most writer’s masterpieces. Woolf probably scribbled more brilliance on a cocktail napkin she later used to wipe up spilled red wine and threw away than most of us will ever write.

I was reminded of this recently when reading through the aforementioned essay collections. In one of the essays, she describes a fire in a rural cottage as looking like “a dusty pot of light.” It’s a brilliant image. Beautiful. Evocative. Far better than any description of light, or dusty pots, I’ve ever conjured.

That’s the depressing part about dedicating yourself to any career or endeavor, the knowledge that there’s always someone out there better than you. Someone smarter, or faster, or stronger. Most of the time you can ignore it and keep on keeping on, but every now and then it makes you want to just give up. What’s the point, after all, if you can’t be the best? Or even the best of the rest? Or just the rest?

Woolf could actually relate. She once said that Proust made her never want to write again, that after reading In Search of Lost Time, her own writing seemed “insipid and worthless.” (Which is why I don’t read Proust. If Woolf is right, then 10 pages into Swann’s Way and I’d have to throw out all my pens, burn my notebooks, and take a hammer to my laptop. And then you would be denied this amazing blog! Tragedy all around).

Still, Woolf found a way to work past her depression over Proust’s brilliance. “His book did not have to be followed by silence,” she said, “there is still room for the scribbling of others.”

Wise words. None of us will ever be as brilliant as Woolf, we may never reach the literary heights or the bestseller list, but we can still keep scribbling.

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