On Monday evening as I walked round the Other Worlds exhibition at Oxford’s Story Museum and marveled at the creativity that had gone into the 25 installations, the thought I kept returning to was the astonishing power of our imaginations to respond to even the slightest triggers if only we let them.
Although, in retrospect, my own imagination has always served me pretty well, there are two important things about it that it took me a long time to learn. The first is that what it serves up spontaneously from whatever inky subconscious pool it dips its bucket into, is more often than not the best, most powerful expression of that idea you’re going to get.
But the critical voice – the ‘inner policeman’ as Ted Hughes used to describe it – can sabotage that spontaneity quickly and comprehensively if you allow it to. And most kinds of formal education predispose us to listen to PC Plod. The idea that the rational self can sometimes be a hindrance is anathema; it certainly was in my case where Latin and Greek, followed by Law, encouraged me to be analytical in all things and to avoid strenuously whatever seemed illogical or whimsical or playful. When I started writing fiction I found myself having to work very hard to overcome that urge.
The second thing I learned is that the imagination is hungry and sticky. Given half a chance, it will leap out and latch indiscriminately onto anything it fancies. This is a good thing. For while it may be tempting to hold out for some kind of Platonic ideal of the imaginative visitation (such as PC Plod would endorse), experience tells me that you will almost always get just as good a creative result if you simply run with whatever comes to hand.
I‘m certain that our Other Worlds installation would have been much more of a struggle – for me at any rate – had I not, over time, learnt to surrender to the forces of serendipity and trust that my imagination would always come up with the goods.
As it was, when the sight of our absurd, going-nowhere corridor suggested a little door high up in its end wall, there was hardly a moment’s doubt that there was the core idea of our whole story. When later, on the way to a meeting with Ellie and Anna of The Flower Appreciation Society, my collaborators, I passed a poster outside the British Library with the name Babatuni on it, I grabbed it as the name for our race of little people without a second thought.
And last weekend, when we realised that the waterproof, earth-filled box holding the plants that were to be the centrepiece of the installation was three inches too long for the intended space, we simply turned it through 90 degrees and presented a different version of the Babatuni world – where every year a feast day marks a symbolic attempt to reach the forever unattainable door.
Then there was the language. I wanted to tell the back story of our Day of the Door in a way that echoed the craziness of the tableau we had created with plants, hundreds of tiny architect’s figures, a host of not-at-all-to-scale laser-cut props, and a barking-mad sound track. I was hardly aware of what I was doing before the story started coming out in a version of the language spoken by Riddley Walker in the Russell Hoban novel of the same name that I wrote about last week:
Waybak waybak then wen th worl wer yung an th furst Bab’tuni sore jak daw up ther in th hyrok they wannid ter gedaddim an opnim an see wot wer thru im. Wel wdnt u? So they tryd an tryd but th hyrok dfeetd em evrytym it even killd summum. That wer longtym go. Now wunce evry sungoroun ther a grt feest wen evrywun wotch sum speshul hurlymans clym th hyrok an tryan reech jak daw. Tho corse they jst pertendin jak daw cant be reechd as evrywun kno an ths do rmynd em wotall cant be knowd bout LYF HISSELF. Tho evry sungoroun ther sum Bab’tuni wot think temself praps thistym, praps thistym …
The door became ‘jak daw’ because a jackdaw is knowing and mischievous and elusive, while the whitewashed breeze-block wall-cum-cliff became the ‘wyt hyrok’. The ‘hurlymans’, meanwhile, I got from the former Hürlimann brewery that had been converted into the hotel I stayed in recently in Zurich. The name reminded me of a fairground and so a feast day, but also the fact that some of our little people could be hurled to the ground in their attempt to reach the door.
The inner policeman who gets in the way of such things is present in platoons in the business world. This is one of the reasons exercises such as Other Worlds are so important to the business writers, in this case all Dark Angels masterclass graduates, who take part: they remind us that he always can, and often must, be sidestepped.
You can see photos of The Day of the Door here.
Jamie, I love it. I’ve been feeling like a hurlyman myself for the last few weeks. Sometimes writing can be like that. Like flinging yourself at the ceiling in a velcro suit hoping you’ll stick long enough to take in what the world looks like from up there. However well you fasten on to that other worldly place you eventually peel off and plummet back.
Wonderful. Thank you.
I thoroughly enjoyed Other Worlds especially the long corridor and your trailing story Jamie. It pulled me towards its end and the ultimate door. What you teach is observation, observation, observation – oh and quite a bit of listening too. Tch! Would somebody please take that whistle-blower’s tooter away? I’m trying to see!
Another totally brilliant post that hits the nail on the head, and I loved Simon’s metaphor, that will stick with me (oh sorry, I really didn’t mean to do that!). I can’t wait to see the finished exhibition.