Writers: Great Geniuses or Great Fools?

Yesterday I started reading Orlando by Virginia Woolf, and I came across the following passage:

Anyone moderately familiar with the rigours of composition will not need to be told the story in detail; how he wrote and it seemed good; read and it seemed vile; corrected and tore up; cut out; put in; was in ecstasy; in despair; had his good nights and bad mornings; snatched at ideas and lost them; saw his book plain before him and it vanished; acted his people’s parts as he ate; mouthed them as he walked; now cried; now laughed; vacillated between this style and that; now preferred the heroic and pompous; next the plain and simple; now the vales of Tempe; then the fields of Kent or Cornwall; and could not decide whether he was the divinest genius or the greatest fool in the world.

It describes my feelings while writing and about writing perfectly (for some reason Woolf always seems to know what I’m feeling even before I’m even fully conscious of it and manages to state it in such beautiful terms). Sometimes after writing something that I really like, I’ll feel as though I’m “the divinest genius… in the world” and then when I go back to read it a month or so later, it seems so ridiculous that I once thought so highly of it; I know myself for the “greatest fool” I am, and writing turns into this constant ricochetting between joy and hopelessness. Considering this, does there ever come a point where you’re able to look at your own work and say that you’ve finally crossed some threshold of success/acceptance of self/admission of talent? I guess in a way being critical of one’s own work can be a positive thing, but I think the problem is with being overly critical.

I’m curious to know how anyone else feels about the process of writing and how you’ve felt revisiting your old writing.

6 thoughts on “Writers: Great Geniuses or Great Fools?”

  1. That’s a great quote. I’m not sure the feeling Woolf describes ever entirely goes away, but if writing is what you do, and you keep doing it – developing your writing muscle, forming your own process to keep the words flowing – then I think you do learn to ride the bumps and not get too carried away by the ecstasies. In a way, it’s almost academic, because if you have to write, you have to write, and fight your way through the bad patches, and be grateful for the good to whoever or whatever is your muse.

    I don’t mind looking back. Sometimes the ever-watchful editor in me will let everything stay as it is; sometimes he grimaces at the infelicities, but tries not to think too harshly of my younger self, and what he was trying to achieve.

    This is perhaps my favourite quote about writing, from the pen (or typewriter) of Anaïs Nin:

    ‘We also write to heighten our own awareness of life. We write to lure and enchant and console others. We write to serenade our lovers. We write to taste life twice, in the moment, and in retrospection. We write, like Proust, to render all of it eternal, and to persuade ourselves that it is eternal. We write to be able to transcend our life, to reach beyond it. We write to teach ourselves to speak with others, to record the journey into the labyrinth. We write to expand our world when we feel strangled, or constricted, or lonely. We write as the birds sing, as the primitives dance their rituals. If you do not breathe through writing, if you do not cry out in writing, or sing in writing, then don’t write, because our culture has no use for it. When I don’t write, I feel my world shrinking. I feel I am in a prison. I feel I lose my fire and my colour. It should be a necessity, as the sea needs to heave, and I call it breathing.’

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    1. That quote by Anaïs Nin is so wonderful and inspirational, thank you for taking the time to share it! I think writing, like nearly all other activities, only improves with time, patience, and lots of hard work and passion. Sometimes it’s hard to remember that many people who have been influential in their art or passion didn’t start out as geniuses, either. I’m glad to hear that you don’t mind looking back at your old writing, and I guess that’s something that probably comes with more age and experience. That quote is so lovely and just sums up my feelings when I write perfectly. Thank you for your encouraging words!

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  2. I recently read Orlando for the first time – I did not like it much, but I recall the quote, a true gem of the book. It so captures how I feel about my own writing – that is why she was a genious, uh?

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    1. I’m really liking it so far but I think my favorite parts of it are finding gems like this quote. It’s nice to know you can also relate to it; thank you for taking the time to read & comment!

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