What Virginia Woolf Can Teach Us About Creativity

Sep 25, 2013

Virginia Woolf is not for the faint of heart. While time always seems to soften the revolutionary, don’t let her place on the “classics” shelf fool you.

Her essays give us a glimpse into the creative process of one of the most brilliant women of the 20th century. From them, perhaps we can discover: How did Virginia Woolf define creativity? How do we get there? And what stops us from creating?

“Perpetual Lethargy”

Woolf at 20 years old

Woolf knew that in order to be creative, you need to quiet the mind.

[A] novelist’s chief desire is to be as unconscious as possible. He has to induce in himself a state of perpetual lethargy. He wants life to proceed with the utmost quiet and regularity [...] so that nothing may break the illusion in which he is living — so that nothing may disturb or disquiet the mysterious nosings about, feelings round, darts, dashes and sudden discoveries of that very shy and illusive spirit, the imagination.

-"Professions for Women," 1931

The idea that creation is not an analytical, heady, controlled process was pretty revolutionary in Woolf’s time. Creativity is instead “mysterious nosings about,” which might even require lounging about, doing nothing. Perhaps Whitman described this process when he wrote, “I loaf and invite my soul.”

How rare it is, today, to do nothing! You might even feel guilty about doing nothing. Creativity requires “quiet and regularity.” Doing nothing, staring into space, lying on your couch and looking out the window. Do it long enough, and you may see that “shy and illusive spirit” visit you.

A Mind of Your Own

Are you one of those people that can hardly create because so many voices are judging your work? Can you barely write a paragraph without going back and editing and rewriting and rethinking?

Woolf talks about the necessity of killing the voice in your head that tries to moderate your strong opinions:

I turned upon her and caught her by the throat. I did my best to kill her. […] Had I not killed her she would have killed me.

-"Professions for Women," 1931

Yes, it’s a bloody metaphor. But it’s appropriate: excising the parts of you that hamper your creative, productive self can be violent.


In 1910, Woolf and her friends donned beards and facepaint and pretended to be Abyssinian princes in order to board a ship of the British Navy. It was a deeply embarrassing incident for the Navy, which she and her friends found hilarious. (Virginia Woolf is the person on the far left in the above picture.)

What does this have to do with creativity?

This anecdote challeges a surface-level perception of Woolf as a serious, even tragic, figure. Isn't she too brilliant and "important" to put on a beard?

But creativity and humor have always gone hand-in-hand. In order to be funny, you have to be open and loose (see “Perpetual Lethargy,” above) and lose the social shame judger (see “A Mind of Your Own”) that keeps you from making a joke. And in order to be creative, sometimes you have to be willing to be silly.

“Playful” is not normally the first word people apply to Woolf. But a subtle, inventive humor runs through all her essays.

Woolf's humor, fierce independence, and sensitive imagination inspire us. We'd love to hear your thoughts about Woolf and how she's inspired you.