Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Trusting the girls in the back room

On the grounds that it's never too early to start worrying about something, I have been worrying about a keynote speech that I don't have to give until February. I have to worry about it now, because, come the day, all my worrying capacities may well be used up on the problem of how to get to the venue in 47 degree heat without losing consciousness, but we'll cross that bridge when we come to it.

In the meantime, what to say to an academic conference when you haven't been an academic (not a fulltime one anyway) for thirteen and half years? How to approach this topic? What to do?

But a few weeks ago as I headed south down the unlovely Tapley's Hill Road, en route to the marginally less unlovely West Lakes Mall across the road from AAMI Stadium, registering on autopilot the elderly road-crossers, the non-signalling lane-changers, the speed-limit-excessers, the potential drag racers and the current price of petrol and bananas while thinking about my shopping list and its eccentricities, the solution came to me. It just appeared as if by magic, dropping into consciousness like a ripe fruit. There it was.

After I got home, I sat down at the computer and checked the Doonesbury strip for the day, where I found a link to a rare interview with its author (is that the word for a cartoonist?), the incomparable Garry Trudeau:

There must be many days when the ideas don’t come. What does he do then? Walk in the park? Dose himself with double-espressos? “That pretty much describes every day. I spend a lot of time not coming up with ideas, but assuming you’re temperamentally suited for deadline work, you do learn to trust the boys in the back room.

“I know how to prepare myself, but I have no idea how the actual imagining works. I often abandon an idea as hopeless, only to find weeks later that my brain has mysteriously solved the problem without any apparent guidance from its owner.”

My idea for the keynote speech had most certainly come from the girls in the back room. One minute I was floundering, and the next minute I had a phrase that constituted a whole argument, plus a potential framework for a structure. I'd call it a thesis sentence, except that strictly speaking it's not a sentence.

But in my own work, I trust those backroom girls more for the bigger projects than I do for the weekly deadline. Sometimes -- often -- they are napping, and writing four short fiction reviews a week, which is in fact a highly exacting task if you have any ambition at all to do it well, is something they couldn't always be bothered to stir for. They are the Marys to the mind's Marthas -- the Marthas being the girls in the bar, if you will, cheerfully serving the drinks, cleaning the tables and keeping an eye on the till. Those girls are the years of experience and training, and their job is to say to me 'This is your life's work. If you can't sit down and write a workwomanlike piece as part of the day's tasks after all this time, then you can't do anything at all.'

1 comment:

Nabakov said...

Bingo! As a prof scribbler m'self, this is exactly how it works for me too. Except I call 'em the pixies. My mum once asked my brother why I was missing for dinner again and he said "Oh, he's away with the pixies" - which then became a family in-joke.

So yeah, I'm always anticipating the pixies will come and cut the knots here and stitch things together there when it all gets tight and worrisome. Provided of course that you keep proving to 'em that you can handle the daily wordkeeping yourself.

This comment's door bitch password? "conaimi" which does rather sound like a treaty you sort out with your creative subconscious.