When I entered the world of writing, if I entered that world at all, I wanted it to be the world of Virginia Woolf, the artist whose way of being in writing was so delicately lit that I knew it would allow me to find my way – alone – to where I was going. In her memoir, ‘Sketch of the Past’, Woolf wrote: “If I were a painter I should paint these first impressions…I should make a picture of curved petals; of shells; of things that were semi-transparent…showing the light through, but not giving a clear outline.”(Moments of Being, 2002)
As a new writer I’ve needed a private conversation with such a writer; a place where I could practise, and begin to make my practice. I wasn’t consciously aware of Woolf as I wrote my first shy short story. But I was lucky to encounter To the Lighthouse (1927) in my first year of a BA English Honours. I didn’t even know then that I was becoming a writer. It was just a matter of me, an undergraduate student and that novel, with an essay to write. I still think the best way to learn about writing is by reading writing. Susan Sontag says in Writing As Reading, “to write is to practice, with particular intensity and attentiveness, the art of reading”(Where the Stress Falls, 2001). This is why universities must fund and refund the Humanities discipline of English.
It’s a radically personal thing, finding your path to practicing as a writer. It’s noticeable that people, institutions, superegos in both these forms, will try to organize you into shutting that pathway down. There’s a fear of such play that goes on outside of time structures. People fear your need to be alone, the ordinary days spent wandering outside on the lawn of the summer-house, and that look you get of doing nothing, as Clive James puts it so well. I remember a bloke bailing me up on the forest path once. He wasn’t interested in my research, only in verballing me over the amount of the time it had taken me to write my thesis, once he’d extracted that private information. I advise every becoming writer to take out shares in a knitting mill, because you’re going to need a lot of thick socks for those big clock mouths.
Finishing something is just one thing, an End. The process of making up the writing: that’s about being in a state of achievement.
In To the Lighthouse Virginia Woolf writes of artists-as-children in various states of making up stuff, under the present or non-present gaze of Mrs Ramsay, the mother: “…Mr Carmichael, who was basking with his yellow cat’s eyes ajar, so that like a cat’s they seemed to reflect the branches moving or the clouds passing”; “…Lily Briscoe went on putting away her brushes, looking up, looking down. Looking up”. Woolf’s interest in such ordinary play is about writing “moments of being”(2002). As a writer/publisher with a unique connection to Freud [Freud escaped to London from Nazi-occupied Vienna in 1938; the Woolf’s Hogarth Press in Tavistock Square went on to purchase and publish Freud’s works] Virginia Woolf’s visionary reach is far ahead of her own time in terms of the history of psychoanalysis. By this I mean the shift from Freud’s focus on the phallus in human sexuality, to the importance of the infant and mother pre-Oedipal relationship. Woolf’s novel articulates the imaginary life of Mrs Ramsay and all her subsequent ‘children’ playing on the lawn, fiction straight after Melanie Klein’s Object Relations. Beyond Klein, you could say that D.W. Winnicott’s theory of Playing and Creativity and its relation to re-making the first object, the mother (The Mrs Ramsay) in her wake, is also of particular interest concerning To the Lighthouse. Woolf lost her mother when she was 13.
Milan Kundera says that we’re always forgetting stuff and therefore “Beauty in art: the suddenly kindled light of the never-before-said” of the “novelists’ discoveries, however old they may be, will never cease to astonish us” (The Art of the Novel, 1986).
To write something beautiful, light-tender, I think one needs a paradox: space alone, and another writer, even if she’s a completely unconscious presence. The presence of a non-present mentor, if that makes sense, offering you her hand as light.