Programming week: This is a response to Adelaide Writers’ Week, which is an absolute treasure of a festival and part of the larger Adelaide International Arts Festival. I’m so delighted to have had Katherine Coppock and Lucy Welsh illustrate this one.
Every now and then you have that moment: the moment when you realise just how foreign the workings of your brain are to the majority of the population. Yes, it turns out that it is you who is the alien.
Don’t be alarmed. Our minds are so complex and individual that every one of us is an alien in our own right. Our isolation is our most unifying factor.
This week I am spending my days under trees, at the Adelaide Writers’ Week. The generosity and wisdom of the writers is making me feel immensely fortunate and rich but it is the audience questions that I am finding just fascinating. They remind me how foreign creativity is to so many minds.
“You named your character this. Why was that?”
“Did you write a story about a man with a strong grandfather figure because you long for a grandfather?”
These questions seem bizarre and jarring to me. Under the politeness and generosity the writers answer with, I hear a more abrupt answer lurking:
“I imagined it into being and therefore it was that way.”
“I named him that because it sounded good on the tongue tip of my brain.”
This is not the answer that Richard Flanagan or D W Wilson gave. They expanded it because they are polite, generous people and because they understood why they were being asked these questions. Those questions came from people fascinated by that incomprehensible medium within which the authors work: the imagination.
To those of us that work within the realm of imagination, these questions don’t need answering. It is blatantly obvious to us why a character is called this: there was an empty page and we filled it because we had to. Why? Because it is my work, my mission, my compulsion, my autism to get inside another brain; to manipulate a jaw that did not exist until I wrote it into existence and make it form sentences that have never been formed before.
And yes, as Richard Flanagan said on Sunday in the gardens, if you must interrogate and prise apart the folds of the writer’s brain, eventually they will shout “Madame Bovary c’est moi!” Elizabeth Gilbert also admitted that there is an element of this in her craft when she suggested that perhaps we are writers because it is illegal to kidnap people and have them play out our stories for us. It is personal because writing is personal but, on the other hand, sometime it is as simple as because imagination.
It goes both ways. The people who can make numbers sing or those who light up when talking about investments are completely foreign to me. My questions to them would sound idiotically simple. I would use the words ‘why’ and ‘you’ too much and some scruffy kid in the audience would shake their head at the reductionist nature of my thoughts.
“Why do you think like this? Why does your brain twist around this particular kind of logic?”
The expert would answer with all the politeness and generosity of our novelist. They would try to make me understand but beneath their answer would be lurking another, entirely alien to me:
“Because that’s the way the world works.”
“Because I have stared at those numbers again and again and that’s the way numbers fall into place.”
“Yes. He is named this because I had an empty page and I needed to fill it.”
By the way, my favourite audience question of the festival was asked of Alexander McCall Smith: “You seem to have a great sense of humour. Are you a Gemini?”
Thank you once again to my beautiful illustrators and to Sarah Walker for proof-reading. Katherine’s work can be found here.