In the Only Surviving Recording of Her Voice, Virginia Woolf Explains Why Writing Isn’t a “Craft” (1937)

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Vir­ginia Woolf Offers Gen­tle Advice on “How One Should Read a Book”

The Steamy Love Let­ters of Vir­ginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West (1925–1929)

An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to Vir­ginia Woolf

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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