Was Virginia Woolf the Most Self-Critical Author of All Time?

Virginia Woolf

Despite (or because of) her brilliance, Virginia Woolf was continually beset with self-doubt when it came to her writing endeavors.

In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: Manic Depression and the Life of Virginia Woolf, author and psychiatrist Peter Dally discerned a pattern by which Woolf appeared excited yet stable when starting a new book; then, when shaping and revising, her mood gave way to exhaustion and depression.

It’s now widely believed that she suffered from bipolar disorder. There were scant options for treatment at this time, and so, during particularly bad bouts of mania or depression, she withdrew, unable to participate in her active social life, and found it difficult to focus on writing.


Steadfast support by Leonard Woolf

The approval of her steadfast husband and publishing partner Leonard Woolf often allayed her agonized self-criticism, as did that of her peers. But while many classic women authors were masterful at self-flagellation, Woolf seems to have practiced it to the maximum.

The point is this: Woolf suffered as an artist. Yet despite her struggles with self-doubt and excruciating self-criticism (perhaps exacerbated by her mental illness), she kept writing nevertheless.

She didn’t allow her discomfort or doubt stop her. Indeed, she was one of the most prolific authors of her time, and is still one of the most studied and revered. Following are some of her self-lashings, from letters to her friend Violet Dickinson, and from her journals, collected in A Writer’s Diary.


Virginia Woolf and self-doubt, in her own words

“O why do I ever let anyone read what I write! Every time I have to go through a breakfast with a letter of criticism I swear I will write for my own praise or blame in future. It is a misery.” (from a letter to Violet Dickinson, 1907)

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“My writing makes me tremble…I have wasted all my time trying to begin things and taking up different points of view, and dropping them, and grinding out the dullest stuff, which makes my blood run thick. However, I shall begin again now, I have 4 books of white paper waiting me.” (from another letter to Violet Dickinson, 1907)

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virginia woolf

Virginia Woolf wants you to write “for the good of the world”

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“My proofs [of Jacobs Room] come every other day and I could depress myself adequately if I went into that. The thing now reads thin and pointless; the words scarcely dint the paper; and I expect to be told I’ve written a graceful fantasy, without much bearing upon real life.”  (A Writers Diary, May 1927)

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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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“It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.

I’m a little anxious. How am I to bring off this conception? Directly one gets to work is like a person walking, who has seen the country stretching out before. I want to write nothing in this book that I don’t enjoy writing. Yet writing is always difficult.” (A Writer’s Diary, May 11, 1920)

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Virginia Woolf and self-doubt

Virginia Woolf Quotes on Living and Writing

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“I wonder if anyone has ever suffered so much from a book as I have from The Years. Once out I will never look at it again. It’s like a long childbirth. Think of that summer, every morning a headache, and forcing myself into that room in my nightgown; and lying down after a page: and always with the certainty of failure. Now that certainty is mercifully removed to some extent.

But now I feel I don’t care what anyone says so long as I’m rid of it. And for some reason I feel I’m respected and liked. But this is only the haze dance of illusion, always changing. Never write a long book again. Yet I feel I shall write more fiction — scenes will form. But I am tired this morning: too much strain and racing yesterday.” (A Writer’s Diary, November 9, 1936)

2 Responses to “Was Virginia Woolf the Most Self-Critical Author of All Time?”

  1. Hello! Thank you for your insightful piece! Question: Where were you able to obtain the quotes you listed in writing, particularly the quotes derived from letters between Virginia Woolf and Violet Dickenson in 1902? Scoured the internet but no avail. Kindly help a writer out! Best wishes!

    • Salma, from the notes of the original Literary Ladies Guide to the Writing Life book, it seems like the quoted passages from Virginia to Violet are from The Letters of Virginia Woolf, Volumes I-III, edited by Nigel Nicolson (Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1975). I hope that helps!

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