Writers learn to write by studying books by other writers – the best, the great ones. One or two become all-important to us and formative, though why they speak to us more than the others, who knows ?
I had never heard of Virginia Woolf when in 1958, at 16 and starting my first book, I chanced upon A Writer's Diary on the shelves of Coventry Public Library. It was hard to believe that it had only been published five years before, or that then Woolf was still not well or widely known. But I was hungry for anything which would not only teach me how to write novels but would tell me about how to be a writer, whatever that meant. Something that would reveal the secrets of the writing life. It is hard to convey the excitement with which I read the book.
It has been close at hand, usually beside my bed, for the 50 years since then. I have a first edition, well thumbed and annotated, and a couple of paperbacks too. I was enthralled by this extraordinary woman and her work, as I have been ever since. She was unique, a genius, a rare and strange artist as well as an ordinary, thinking, feeling, human being, and of course her writing life was like no other. Yet it can stand for so many others.
I learned how each novel germinated and grew, how she worked, sometimes quickly, before slow, careful, revision, and wove life around her writing and wove writing into her life; how she thought of it night and day, the constant background to everything else, how anxious she became about it, how ill it could make her – all of it was revelatory to me as a beginner, as it still is.
The diary introduced me to the woman, and led me to her books, which came as a revelation, as they did to her contemporaries. The shock of discovering her style, the passionate observations of life and places and people, has never really left me.
I pick up A Writer's Diary every day, at random. It opens on her description of visiting Thomas Hardy, on her ecstatic race across the final pages of The Waves, on how hurt she is by a bad review in The Times, on Leonard's opinion of To the Lighthouse, or how she cares that Lytton Strachey is getting more attention than she is. It has so many moods, contains so much intelligence, opinion, feeling – and gossip. It is a record of the times through which she was living while writing. The whole of Bloomsbury is here, in swift intimate pen sketches which reveal its people to us as well as many a lengthy biography. I do not like most of them as I like Virginia, but they are endlessly interesting.
I have never exhausted A Writer's Diary, never will. It gave me what I needed at 16, and still gives. And it led me to the rest of Virginia Woolf, and that has to be its greatest gift of all.
Susan Hill's new novel 'The Beacon' is published by Chatto & WindusReuse content