Reading a writer’s posthumous diary is a guilty undertaking—absorbing words I was never meant to see, glimpsing the private corners of a mind I was never meant to explore. In this particular case—A Writer’s Diary, by Virginia Woolf—the act of reading is perhaps mitigated by the fact that Woolf’s husband Leonard culled and collected the entries himself. Nonetheless, I approach the book with both hesitation and awe. And I cannot help but be moved by Woolf’s observations on the delights and struggles of writing, of reading, of being a soul alive in the world.
In an entry dated August 22, 1922, Woolf says that to write, “One must get out of life… one must become externalised; very, very concentrated, all at one point, not having to draw upon the scattered parts of one’s character, living in the brain…. when I write I’m merely a sensibility. Sometimes I like being Virginia but only when I’m scattered and various and gregarious.”
It’s a feeling we all know: the joy of disappearing into the work in front of us. A story, a painting, a sculpture, a song. For that moment, when we are immersed, we become “mere sensibilities”—the gathered force of our effort to complete what we seek to create. The defining features of our lives recede: our names, our awareness of any life outside of that instant. Just then, when all else drops away, we are paradoxically most ourselves, most deeply connected to the world. And then there is the inevitable surprise of rising from our work and seeing ourselves in the mirror—remembering we are beings with bodies and names and histories.
There is a certain disappointment in that. There is also a certain relief.