Virginia Woolf Quotes on Living and Writing

Virginia Woolf painting by Vanessa Bell, 1912

Virginia Woolf  (1882 – 1941) produced groundbreaking twentieth-century works of literature. In her early career she taught English at Morely College, reviewed books for the Times Literary Supplement and wrote scores of articles, criticism, and essays.

Woolf’s  literary genius was fully realized despite debilitating battles with mental illness, including severe breakdowns. It’s now believed that she suffered from bipolar disorder. She labored over her first novel (The Voyage Out, 1915) for more than seven years, after which came a steady stream of novels and essay collections.

Virginia Woolf was not only a brilliant writer; she and her husband Leonard Woolf founded The Hogarth Press, for which she became an editor and published her own work as well as renowned authors like Vita Sackville-West. Here are some of her quotes on living and writing, displaying both the self-consciousness and wisdom for which she was known.

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“A good essay must have this permanent quality about it; it must draw its curtain round us, but it must be a curtain that shuts us in not out.”

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“A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”

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“To be 29 & unmarried — to be a failure — childless— insane, too, no writer … Why is life so tragic; so like a little strip of pavement over an abyss? … It’s having no children, living away from friends, failing to write well.” (From a letter to her sister, Vanessa Bell, 1911)

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“If you do not tell the truth about yourself you cannot tell it about other people.”

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“As a woman I have no country. As a woman my country is the whole world.”

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“The extraordinary woman depends on the ordinary woman. It is only when we know what were the conditions of the average woman’s life — the number of children, whether she had money of her own, if she had a room to herself, whether she had help bringing up her family, if she had servants, whether part of the housework was her task — it is only when we can measure the way of life and experience made possible to the ordinary woman that we can account for the success or failure of the extraordinary woman as a writer.” (from the essay “Women and Fiction”, 1929)

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Virginia Woolf and self-doubt

See also: Virginia Woolf: The Most Self-Critical Author of All Time?

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“Is the time coming when I can endure to read my own writing in print without blushing — shivering and wishing to take cover?” (A Writer’s Diary, March, 1919)

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“Every secret of a writer’s soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind is written large in his works.”

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“Fiction is like a spider’s web, attached ever so slightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners. Often the attachment is scarcely perceptible.”

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“It is only when we can measure the way of life and experience made possible to the ordinary woman that we can account for the success or failure of the extraordinary woman as a writer.”

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“Happiness is to have a little strong onto which things will attach themselves…as if dipped loosely into a wave of treasure to bring up pearls sticking to it.” (from her journal, April 20, 1925)

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Virginia Woolf smoking at her desk
Virginia Woolf Wants You to Write “for the Good of the World”

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“What is the use of saying one is indifferent to reviews when positive praise, though mingled with blame, gives one such a start on, that instead of feeling dried up, one feels … flooded with ideas?” (from her journal, six days after the publication of To the Lighthouse, May 11, 1927)

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“Success, I believe, produces a kind of modesty. It frees you from bothering about yourself.” (from her journal, October 11, 1919)

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“Fame grows. Chances of meeting this person, doing that thing, accumulate. Life is, as I’ve said since I was ten, awfully interesting …” (from her journal, November 23, 1926)

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“I thought about how unpleasant it is to be locked out; and I thought how it is worse, perhaps, to be locked in.”

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“I have a deeply hidden and inarticulate desire for something beyond the daily life.”

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“You cannot find peace by avoiding life.”

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“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.”

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“Outwardly, what is simpler than to write books? Outwardly, what obstacles are there for a woman rather than for a man? Inwardly, I think, the case is very different. She has still many ghosts to fight, many prejudices to overcome. Indeed it will be a long time still, I think, before a woman can sit down to write a book without finding a phantom to be slain, a rock to be dashed against.” (from the essay, “Professions for Women,” 1931)

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Virginia Woolf

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“Did I say … that Brace* wrote and said they were happy to find that The Years is the bestselling novel in America? This was confirmed by my place at the head of the list in the Herald Tribune. They have sold 25,000 — my record, easily.” (A Writer’s Diary, June 14, 1937; *referring to her publisher, Harcourt, Brace & Co.)

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“I am a little uppish … and self-assertive, because Brace [her publisher] write to me yesterday, “We think ‘Jacob’s Room’ an extraordinary distinguished and beautiful work. You have, of course, your own method, and it is not easy to foretell how many readers it will have; surely it will have enthusiastic ones, and we delight in publishing it…” As this is my first testimony from an impartial person I am pleased. For one thing it must make some impression, as a whole; and cannot be wholly frigid fireworks.” (A Writer’s Diary, October 4, 1922)

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Time and Tide says I’m a first-rate novelist and a great lyrical poet. And I can already hardly read the reviews: but fell a little dazed, to think then it’s not nonsense; it does make an effect … after all that agony, I’m free, whole; round: can go full ahead. And so stop this cry of content and sober joy.” (A Writer’s Diary, March 12, 1937)

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Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf page on Amazon
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“My profession is literature; and in that profession there are fewer experiences for women than in any other, with the exception of the stage — fewer, I mean, that are peculiar to women. For the road was cut many years ago — by Fanny Burney, by Aphra Behn, by Harriet Martineau, by Jane Austen, by George Eliot — many famous women, and many more unknown and forgotten, have been before me, making the path smooth, and regulating my steps.

Thus, when I came to write, there were very few material obstacles in my way. Writing was a reputable and harmless occupation. The family peace was not broken by the scratching of a pen. No demand was made upon the family purse. For ten and sixpence one can buy paper enough to write all the plays of Shakespeare — if one has a mind that way. Pianos and models, Paris, Vienna and Berlin, masters and mistresses, are not needed by a writer. The cheapness of writing paper is, of course, the reason why women have succeeded as writers before they have succeeded in the other professions.”

 “Chastity is nothing but ignorance-— a most discreditable state of mind. We should submit only the unchaste to our society.”  (Monday or Tuesday, 1921)

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“Haven’t we bred them (boys) and fed and kept them in comfort since the beginning of time so that they may be clever even if they’re nothing else?” (Monday or Tuesday, 1921)

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“Let us devise a method by which men may bear children! It is our only chance.” (Monday or Tuesday, 1921)

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“Everybody follows somebody, such is the philosophy of Whitaker; and the great thing is to know who follows whom.” (Monday or Tuesday, 1921)

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