The literary voice of Virginia Woolf comes to us from a life lived fully in the service of literature, a life devoted, we might say, to the “craft of writing.” That earnest expression gets tossed around innocently enough in various grammatical forms. Writers craft sentences and paragraphs and set about crafting worlds for characters to inhabit. Describing writing as a craft seems a corollary to our current utilitarian thinking that literature should serve us, not we it; that we should justify our time spent reading and writing by talking about the use-value of these activities. Virginia Woolf had little use for these sentiments.
In an essay offering guidance on how to read literature, for example, she asks rhetorically whether there are “not some pursuits that we practice because they are good in themselves, and some pleasures that are final?” Is not reading among these? Just as she decries reading as a professional task, Woolf critiques the idea of writing as a form of “Craftsmanship” in an essay with that title that she delivered as a talk on BBC radio in 1937 as part of a series called “Words Fail Me.” In the excerpt above, the only surviving recording of Woolf’s voice, she reads the opening paragraphs of her essay, stating upfront that she finds “something incongruous, unfitting, about the term ‘craftsmanship’ when applied to words.”
“Craft,” ways Woolf, applies to “making useful objects out of solid matter,” and it also stands as a synonym for “cajolery, cunning, deceit.” In either usage, the word mischaracterizes the act of writing. “Words,” Woolf says, echoing her contemporary Oscar Wilde, “never make anything that is useful.” She offers us many colorful examples to make the point, and argues also that words cannot be deceitful since “they are the truest” of all things and “seem to live forever.” These qualities of language, it’s uselessness and truthfulness, make the practice of writing as “craft” impossible, since writers do not work by “finding the right words and putting them in the right order,” like one would build a house.
Words do not cooperate in neat and tidy ways. Indeed, “to lay down any laws for such irreclaimable vagabonds is worse than useless,” says Woolf, “A few trifling rules of grammar and spelling are all the constraint we can put on them.” Rather than thinking of words as raw material we assemble by rote, or as incantatory symbols in magical formulae, we should think of words as sentient entities who “like people to think and feel before they use them.” Words, says Woolf in her mellifluous voice, “are highly sensitive, easily made self-conscious” and “highly democratic, too.”
Against modern conceptions of writing as a practical craft, in her time and ours, Woolf tells us that words “hate being useful; they hate making money; they hate being lectured about in public. In short, they hate anything that stamps them with one meaning or confines them to one attitude, for it is in their nature to change.” At best, she suggests, we can change with them, but we cannot control them or shape and bend them to our ends.