The Self-Doubting Virginias
Virginia Woolf in 1939
It was Virginia Woolf who wrote in her diary the following; ‘There’s no doubt in my mind that I have found out how to begin (at 40) to say something in my own voice; and that interests me so that I feel I can go ahead without praise.’
All I can say to that is lucky Virginia. It is no coincidence that I use Woolf as a quote to illustrate myself here. After over a year of research into her life in Richmond for a book which just so happened to be published in the same month as my 40th birthday, I already feel a certain bond with Virginia. But this is where the similarity ends.
It was true that Virginia desperately needed praise from her peers and Leonard, her husband, who was nearly always the first to read her manuscripts. Friends such as Lytton Strachey and E.M. Forster wrote to Virginia about her most recent publications. She often went through periods of self-doubt, but I want to be that Virginia in the quote at the top. I want to be able to go ahead and write whatever I want without needing praise or adoration.
Is it the right of every writer to expect praise? If the writer expects praise, then they should also expect the negative. In my most recent submission, I was told I repeat myself. And it is true, I do repeat myself. I repeat myself a lot. I even find new ways of saying the same thing a few lines later like I’ll probably do here. The manner in which I retell the same information is occasionally astonishing. But this is the good negative. I welcomed the editor writing back to me so generously with their opinions and even apologised if I was going to be hurt by this unasked-for criticism. Indeed, not hurt, generally happy and it gives me something to work on.
I think it was probably their founding of the Hogarth Press which sealed it for Virginia. Having your own printing press is almost like giving the middle finger to all those publishers who wouldn’t publish your work. Having said that, Virginia’s first publisher was also her half-brother, who she later accused of sexually abusing her, so it is no surprise that this wasn’t to be a match between author and publisher.
Earlier I said that Virginia was lucky. In a way, she was, because she had the freedom that the Hogarth Press allowed her to publish what she wanted to write, in her own words. But it’s possible that this very freedom also constrained her in ways unimaginable. The nature of her death in 1941 is common knowledge, but the mere fact that she managed to write so many intelligent novels, short stories and essays is testament to her talent. This vast portfolio of work stands proud above her self-doubt, self-criticism and mental illness.
So therefore, when I find that nobody wants to read an article I’ve written, or that I’m struggling to get reviews for my book, I just need to remember that now I’m 40, I have just found the beginning of writing things down in my own voice, and whether I repeat myself or not, it’s my voice. However, praise is always nice to get, whatever Virginia might have said.