writers' diaries and letters

The Diaries and Letters of Classic Writers

If you’re inspired by writers discussing their approach to the craft of writing, the following books are Must-Haves to add to your arsenal of tools, any of which can be ordered by clicking on the image.

Virginia Woolf
An invaluable guide to the art and mind of Virginia Woolf, drawn by her husband from the personal record she kept over a period of twenty-seven years. Included are entries that refer to her own writing, others that are clearly writing exercises; accounts of people and scenes relevant to the raw material of her work; and comments on books she was reading. Edited and with a Preface by Leonard Woolf; Indices.

Fyodor Dostoevsky
The essential entries from Dostoevsky’s complete Diary, called his boldest experiment in literary form, are now available in this abridged edition; it is a uniquely encyclopedic forum of fictional and nonfictional genres. A Writer’s Diary began as a column in a literary journal, but by 1876 Dostoevsky was able to bring it out as a complete monthly publication with himself as an editor, publisher, and sole contributor, suspending work on The Brothers Karamazov to do so.

Albert Camus Volume 2
From 1935 until his death, Albert Camus kept a series of notebooks to sketch out ideas for future works, record snatches of conversations and excerpts from books he was reading, and jot down his reflections on death and the horror of war, his feelings about women and loneliness and art, and his appreciations for the Algerian sun and sea. These three volumes, now available together for the first time in paperback, include all entries made from the time when Camus was still completely unknown in Europe, until he was killed in an automobile accident in 1960, at the height of his creative powers. In 1957 he had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. A spiritual and intellectual autobiography, Camus’ Notebooks are invariably more concerned with what he felt than with what he did. It is intriguing for the reader to watch him seize and develop certain themes and ideas, discard others that at first seemed promising, and explore different types of experience. Although the Notebooks may have served Camus as a practice ground, the prose is of superior quality, which makes a short spontaneous vignette or a moment of sensuous beauty quickly captured on the page a small work of art. Here is a record of one of the most unusual minds of our time.

Albert Camus Volume 3
The first two volumes of his Notebooks began as simple instruments of his work; this final volume, recorded over the last nine years of his life, take on the characteristics of a more personal diary. Fearing that his memory was beginning to fail him, Camus noted here his reactions to the polemics stirred by The Rebel, his feelings about the Algerian War, his sojourns in Greece and Italy, thinly veiled observations on his wife and lovers, heartaches over his family, and anxiety over the Nobel Prize that he was awarded in 1957.

Rainer Mario Rilke
Rainer Rilke is considered one of the most significant poets in the German language. The letters in this book were written by Rilke to Franz Kappus, a 19-year-old student at the Military Academy of Vienna. Discouraged by the prospect of military life, Kappus began to send his poetry to the 27-year-old Rilke, seeking both literary criticism and career advice. After Rilke’s death, Kappus assembled and published the letters.

Although the first letter from Kappus asked for critiques of his poetry, Rilke gave him very little during their correspondence. He also discouraged Kappus from reading criticism, advising him to trust his inner judgment. Instead, the majority of the letters address personal issues that Kappus revealed to Rilke; their span is tremendous, ranging from atheism, loneliness, sexuality, and career choices.

Joseph Conrad
The period covered by the third volume of a projected eight marks the years when Conrad stood at the height of his powers. It was during this time that he completed Nostromo and The Secret Agent. Yet, it was also a time of great personal unhappiness: his plans for leisurely, contemplative work were constantly interrupted by dangerous illnesses in the family, his own bad health, financial worries, and the pleas of editors desperate for copy. Conrad maintained his correspondence with old friends such as Galsworthy, Wells, and Ford, and developed a number of new friendships. This is also the period when Conrad became absorbed in political fiction, reflected in an intriguing series of letters dealing with Poland, the Congo, Latin America, and censorship. As always, the letters to his agent J.B. Pinker provide a detailed–and largely unpublished–account of the writer’s monthly and weekly plans and literary commitments.

Gustave Flaubert
Flaubert wrote to his mistress, Louise Colet: “An author in his book must be like God in the universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere.” In his books, Flaubert sought to observe that principle; but in his many impassioned letters he allowed his feelings to overflow, revealing himself in all of his human complexity. Sensuous, witty, exalted, ironic, grave, analytical, the letters illustrate the artist’s life–and they trumpet his artistic opinions–in an outpouring of uninhibited eloquence.
An acknowledged master of translation, Francis Steegmuller has given us by far the most generous and varied selection of Flaubert’s letters in English. He presents these with an engrossing narrative that places them in the context of the writer’s life and times. We follow Flaubert through his unhappy years at law school, through his tumultuous affair with Louise Colet; we share his days and nights amid the temples and brothels of Egypt, then on to Palestine, Turkey, Greece, and Rome. And the letters chronicle one of the central events in literary history–the conception and composition of what has been called the first modern novel, Madame Bovary. Steegmuller’s selection concludes with Flaubert’s standing trial for immoral writing, Madame Bovary’s immediate popular success, and Baudelaire’s celebration of its psychological and literary power.

Throughout this exposition in Flaubert’s own words of his views on life, literature, and the passions, readers of his novels will be powerfully reminded of the fertility of his genius, and delighted by his poetic enthusiasm. “Let us sing to Apollo as in ancient days,” he wrote to Louise Colet, “and breathe deeply of the fresh cold air of Parnassus; let us strum our guitars and clash our cymbals and whirl like dervishes in the eternal hubbub of forms and ideas!”
Flaubert’s letters are documents of life and art; lovers of literature and of the literary adventure can rejoice in this edition.

Gustave Flaubert
An acknowledged master of translation, Francis Steegmuller has given us by far the most generous and varied selection of Flaubert’s letters in English. He presents these with an engrossing narrative that places them in the context of the writer’s life and times. Throughout this exposition in Flaubert’s own words of his views on life, literature, and the passions, readers of his novels will be powerfully reminded of the fertility of his genius, and delighted by his poetic enthusiasm. Flaubert’s letters are documents of life and art; lovers of literature and of the literary adventure can rejoice in this edition.


P.G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters
Wodehouse is the type of writer who you think you may know because his writing style is so easily recognizable, especially in his hilarious Jeeves books. But this book of his letters, some sent to fellow writers including Agatha Christie, Evelyn Waugh, and George Orwell, distinguishes Wodehouse the author from Wodehouse the person. There’s also plenty to be learned from his experiences during the Second World War and time spent in a Nazi internment camp.


A Life in Letters: F. Scott Fitzgerald
This collection goes in and out of print every few years, but you’re likely to track it down just by stopping at your local used bookstore. Fitzgerald has been a source of obsession for literature fans for many years, and everything from his early letters through his life lessons to his daughter are compiled here.

Flannery O’ Connor
Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Special Award

"I have come to think that the true likeness of Flannery O’Connor will be painted by herself, a self-portrait in words, to be found in her letters . . . There she stands, a phoenix risen from her own words: calm, slow, funny, courteous, both modest and very sure of herself, intense, sharply penetrating, devout but never pietistic, downright, occasionally fierce, and honest in a way that restores honor to the word."—Sally Fitzgerald, from the Introduction

Written by The UnNovelist
The Unnovelist