Virginia Woolf: Words Fail Me

Leave it to the BBC to store bits of Virginia Woolf’s psyche for us mere mortals to sift through on a whim. The broadcast of Woolf’s essay, “Craftsmanship,” was first heard on April 20, 1937. Five years later, it was published in a book called “The Death of the Moth, and other essays,” the year after she walked into the Ouse River with rocks in her pockets.

In “Craftsmanship,” Woolf insists that “words never make anything useful” and “tell nothing but the truth,” contradicting both meanings of “craft” in the dictionary. She says that words “hate being useful, that it is their nature not to express one simple statement but a thousand possibilities…”

Further into the essay, she says that “a useful statement is a statement that can mean only one thing. And it is the nature of words to mean many things.” Hence, words combined into statements cannot be useful. Writing is not useful.

Should I just end my life now?

Well! Now that I am a bit bloodied, Woolf turns her attention to the teaching of writing: “Think what it would mean if you could teach, if you could learn, the art of writing. Why, every book, every newspaper would tell the truth, would create beauty. But there is, it would appear, some obstacle in the way…For though at this moment at least a hundred professors are lecturing upon the literature of the past, at least a thousand critics are reviewing literature of the present, and hundreds upon hundreds of young men and women are passing examinations in literature with the utmost credit, still—do we write better, do we read better than we read and wrote four hundred years ago…”

And so she places the blame not on writers, but on words. The dagger seeks its victim elsewhere! I am relieved that my many failures are not my fault.

“Of course, you can catch them and sort them and place them in alphabetical order in dictionaries. But words do not live in dictionaries; they live in the mind. If you want proof of this, consider how often in moments of emotion when we most need words we find none…”

I have lived several decades of this proof.

“All we can say about them, as we peer at them over the edge of that deep, dark and only fitfully illuminated cavern in which they live–the mind–all we can say about them is that they seem to like people to think and to feel before they use them, but to think and to feel not about them, but about something different. They are highly sensitive, easily made self-conscious.”

How I continue to struggle with this, looking for a particular word or phrase. But that only sends the words I am looking for deeper into the morose and morbid shrubbery.

She is telling me to focus on the “thing” itself, to feel, and the words will order themselves on the page. Oh yes, what genius!

But if I start to think that Woolf sat in her room of one’s own, in a trance, placing word after word in correct order upon the page, I should think again. According to her husband, she revised and retyped even her shortest pieces extensively. Her genius kindled to flame through legion revisions.

Once I digest this, Woolf’s stream of consciousness runs off in another direction, saying: “Perhaps that is their [words] most striking peculiarity–their need of change. It is because the truth they try to catch is many-sided, and they convey it by being themselves many-sided, flashing this way, then that. Thus they mean one thing to one person, and another thing to another person…Perhaps then one reason why we have no great poet, novelist or critic writing today is that we refuse words their liberty.”

I would argue that she’s being a little hard on the writers of her generation, including herself.

She continues: “We pin them [words] down to one meaning, their useful meaning, the meaning which makes us catch the train, the meaning which makes us pass the examination. And when words are pinned down they fold their wings and die.”

I breathe and pause to let this image sit for a moment. How often have I felt this way?

The essay continues, giving additional insight into her writing process: she says it’s critical to include a pause while writing, a caesura, where we “become unconscious. Our unconscious is their [words] privacy; our darkness is their light…That pause was made, that veil of darkness was dropped, to tempt words to come together in one of those swift marriages which are perfect images and create everlasting beauty.”

Am I taking the time to pause, to create a shadowy zeitgeist of words?

For some writers, this pause may mean meditation, for others a walk or dreamtime. We must impede our forward progress for a moment or a month–to internalize the essence of what it is we’re trying to communicate. And must do so unconsciously.

I am thinking that Woolf is correct, writing cannot be taught through words, yet another disconnect or degree of separation.

Perhaps it can only be intuited, through physical practice, through time, the gloss** and erasure of words upon the page.

I highly recommend reading “Craftsmanship.” You can find and listen to a partial recording (Woolf’s voice from the BBC) of it at:

Among other highlights, she also presents a humorous account of how “signs” are replacing words, using examples from the Michelin guide and others—forerunners of Amazon and GoodReads stars. She discusses how words have strange and diabolical power, how “royal” words “mate with commoners,” how they range and go “a-roving, a-roving fair maid.” This woman, so often debilitated by depression, had a wicked funny bone.

Leonard Woolf was correct in thinking these essays were “worth publishing.” Look for “The Death of the Moth and Other Essays” at your library or have your bookstore order it for you. And yes, if you must, buy it on Amazon.

**discover the varied meanings of “gloss” in your dictionary and apply them to the sentence

23 thoughts on “Virginia Woolf: Words Fail Me

  1. Carrie Rubin says:

    I’ve never thought of the craft this deeply, though I’m certainly familiar with being at a loss for words, much more during speech than during writing. To me words strung together make more than statements–they weave stories. And the magic of words (or perhaps a curse if one thinks like Woolf) is that the same words put together differently can create unique stories each time. 🙂

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      True that an infinite number of rugs can be woven from the same yarn, but I am also thinking that in the hands of a good writer, words strung together can bring forth multi-layered meanings. The word “gloss,” for example, can mean 1) a surface luster or shine, 2) a superficial attractiveness, 3) to mask the true nature of, 4) to deal with a subject matter too lightly or not at all, 5) a commentary on the text, 6) a false or misleading explanation–among others.

      Poets make extensive use of “meaning malleability.” But prose writers can do the same. It makes for interesting discussion, with multiple valid interpretations, one reason why the works of great writers are discussed for years. Shakespeare is the classic example.

      And I do believe Woolf thought that words had a life of their own, far and away from physical human contact. A fascinating perspective.

  2. Letizia says:

    Oh how I love Woolf! I can read and reread her words over and over again. I love all the passages you chose but I particularly liked this one: “they seem to like people to think and to feel before they use them, but to think and to feel not about them, but about something different. They are highly sensitive, easily made self-conscious.” It really seems to encapsulate her thoughts so well.

  3. Call of the Siren says:

    Thanks for the link to the Woolf recording. What a powerful thing to hear Woolf’s voice! I really like what you say about taking a necessary pause. If only it lasted for just a walk or or the length of a meditation. I’m finding that my pauses sometimes last for weeks. It’s a hard lesson in humility and patience to wait so long.

  4. postmoderndonkey says:

    Thanks for the “Craftsmanship” rec. Returned to “Moth” as it had been years since teaching it. The power of metaphor to use the familiar as gateway to the unknown. Woolf, wow, wonderful writer, woebegone while writhing with wishfulness and zeal. So much a part and victim of the disintegration of western civilization as WWI revealed a global neurosis Nietzsche, Eliot and Freud had called out as cars and airplanes unlocked the sense of home and stability and moving pictures destabilized personal experience and Sassure exposed words as unstable signifiers for signified ideas that cannot be maintained as controlled signs while the world suffered great economic, psychological and environmental depression and the Lost Generation was living their moniker until Europe goose stepped into yet another global war which ended with the first weapons of species destruction, the huge weight of individual responsibility Existentialism imposes and the rise of technology that dehumanizes yet connects beyond the capacity of humans to perceive. As the moth’s window is our little lives lived out against the panorama of a world beyond us, Woolf’s rocks in her pockets, like Chopin’s Edna Pontellier before her, are mankind’s portentous acceleration of activity without conscience or meaning pulling us all down into the wreck. Yet, despite her succumbing to despair, Woolf railed against the madness using the bee hive of language, embracing its precise sting and system but as well its zigging and zagging and cloud-like confusion. Thanks for bringing her back to me again.

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      She is something akin to a religious experience. “Moth,” the first essay of the book, is so stunning that I’ve kept returning to it this past week. I am glad that she now walks again through your house, lighting candles and opening doors.

      • m lewis redford says:

        a two-and-a-half year-old quip and you want to know why it was ‘timely’ …? Let’s see now; it’s because of one of three things: it was months into my my last (and hopefully Last) breakdown at work and I was looking for words to find my way back to validation … and not finding them; I have been intrigued by Virginia Woolf for decades but still haven’t gotten around to sitting down with her for a good read despite several nudges in the ribs; I recently re-joined the National Trust and visited Monk’s House in Sussex a few times and even wrote a poem on being there (but I still haven’t read Mrs Dalloway) … that’s it … I don’t know why it was ‘timely’; when I read her work, I’ll tell

  5. roughwighting says:

    I’m just seeing this post now and loving every, dare I say, WORD… Yes, I believe you don’t ‘teach’ writing. You teach the ability to let the words go, to practice the writing, to enjoy the flow. Then you learn writing.

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      Yes, its much more of an intuitive process, isn’t it? I often think of learning how to write as an apprenticeship, where “masters” can help guide or speed the process that must happen within the apprentice. But there’s no substitute for messing around with the materials to see what happens. Lots of messing. Lots of messes. Lots of dusting yourself off.

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