Writing towards her light

Virginia Woolf tight crop


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.




Nora Sumberg on Virginia Woolf’s language for “undescribable” things such as the punk act of painting


 “There’s this other undescribable thing that’s going on as well, which is just the act – the act of painting, which is where, you know, you’re not in control of what’s happening and don’t want to be. And that’s, I think, the sort of writer she is, and why I see her as an allied spirit as a punk.”

Nora Sumberg on Virginia Woolf Literary Punk episode #4 ‘To the Lighthouse’


To the Lighthouse

[And a big shout out to James Lloyd (aka James Wave, bassist with X-Ray-Z, 1977-8) for the podcast’s title track. Up louder, punker, more offensive this episode for my guest in the podcast studio: artist, teacher, PhD candidate in Fine Art at the VCA, and Melbourne punk queen, Nora Sumberg, as she gives us ‘the low down and the high down’ on the birth of the Australian punk scene, her art school days with Nick Cave and The Boys Next Door in Melbourne c.1976]




God Save the Queen: All hail Virginia Woolf!

The latest episode #4 of Literary Punk in podcast form is up on Hookturn!

For this month’s show we’re discussing To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf’s 1927 prose poetry revolution.

My guest in the studio is artist Nora Sumberg, Melbourne’s queen of punk: “…I really believe that Nick Cave and me and about 2 other people started punk in Australia.”

Sumberg is an artist with an extensive exhibition history going back to 1979. Her work is in numerous public collections, including the National Gallery of Victoria. She has had several Australia Council grants, as well as enjoying local and international residencies, including  a scholarship to the New York Studio School in 1978, where she met and mixed with the punk elite. She lived at the Chelsea Hotel in room 101, next door to… you’ll have to listen to the podcast to find out.

Join Nora and I as we talk about To the Lighthouse: the way it undoes you, and encrypts you into its wandering processes, as Virginia Woolf explores writing as being, and being an artist, from the inside out.


  Cumuloaccumulo   Nora Sumberg, 2003 

[Image courtesy the artist]