Imagination the everyday art

A WRITER, AN actor. A mother, a daughter. The mother captured and lingered in the public memory when she chained herself to a bar in the quest for equal rights, the daughter has claimed an enduring place for herself and the characters she has brought to life on stage and screen. For both the power of imagination is central, something essential to their art and their lives.


MERLE: Writing and acting make an extended use of imagination and, very importantly, they also engage the imagination of the reader or audience. But imagination in its basic use is part of the everyday. It is an essential part of observing and understanding and communicating. Human mental flexibility depends on it.

For instance, what my eyes take in when I look at this table is restricted to what is on my side of the table; when I see it as a table I'm relying on a lot of previous table experiences, but I'm also relying on the ability to imagine a back to the front of it, an underneath to the top. I couldn't cross the room without using this basic kind of imagination.

SIGRID: That's not what people ordinarily think of as imagination.

MERLE: It's a wider focus. The primordial function of imagination. The point of mentioning it is to establish that imagination is not just a process of daydreaming and self-indulgent fantasising (though it can be that). Thinking of imagination as opposed to reality is on the wrong track. Imagination is a primary part of our way of reaching out to reality.

SIGRID: People usually mean thinking of something that isn't in the real world. Something that's imaginary.

MERLE: That's what I want to get away from. Imagination is a positive ingredient in human thought because it allows us to consider what the possibilities are, to entertain alternatives. What we imagine can be untrue, not in the real world, but our ability to imagine it is a powerful aid to our finding out about the real world. And what we imagine can turn out to be true or real, even if we didn't know that when we imagined it.

SIGRID: As if I improvised a line of dialogue for a character presenting a historical person and then found out she had actually said that in those words.

MERLE: That sort of thing happens in writing. You imagine something happening, you write the story and it turns out to have happened, or even to happen after you wrote it. It is actually the job of what you might call the professional imaginer - actor or writer - to be attuned to what, in human affairs – in individual character traits or broad social context – will lead to certain outcomes as it plays out.

SIGRID: Imagination aims at reality?

MERLE: Yes. It can get us closer to reality.

SIGRID: The difficulty with "reality" is it can lead you up the garden path. It's also interpretation. Reality TV is an example. It's not at all real, most of it. The editing after shooting and the artificial situation with its particular pressures on participants to perform for entertainment value take it right away from the real world. Less interesting than reality.

MERLE: The same sort of thing can apply to thinking that a book claiming to be "historical" or "biographical", to be about the real world, is necessarily going to bring us closer to reality than literary fiction, which depends on the power of imagination to bring the reader closer to understanding the real world of people.

SIGRID: How do you think the everyday sort of imagination relates to someone being imaginative?

MERLE: Someone who's imaginative has an extended ability to get a concrete or detailed sense of something possible but not true. Not necessarily true, that should be. Entertaining a possible world of imagination helps us know what to look for in our experience.

SIGRID: Is that what drew you to the literary novel as a creative form?

MERLE: Well, yes. That's the use of the imagination the literary novel tries for. It doesn't always achieve it, but that's where it's aiming. Quality of imagination is not altogether a matter of the form you work in, though. From time to time an episode of a TV soap, say, that aims simply to divert the viewer, might achieve a highly imaginative riff. You need to be always on the lookout for successes and failures of the imagination. It's being able to imagine yourself in someone else's shoes in other possible circumstances that counts.

SIGRID: How do you go about it?

MERLE: Writing a novel is a large project and there are layers of imagination to tap. The subject I wanted to address in After Moonlight (Interactive Publications, 2004) was the great shift in Australian women's sense of themselves that has been achieved in the years since my earlier feminist campaigns around admission of women to public social space and to work outside the home. A shift achieved not without pain and struggle, since it is an inner shift that takes women away from the life trajectories of their mothers and grandmothers. So you might say that is the broadest layer of imagination for my novel, getting a grasp in imagination of that shift in women's consciousness.

SIGRID: Women of my generation don't remember the world of systematic upfront discrimination against women. There is plenty of discrimination left for us to notice, and there was more when we were younger, but there is a different dimension to it nowadays.

MERLE: I think the fundamental difference is that in my own youth, when I went through school and university and started career work and married and had children, the broad social consensus was that women were deeply different creatures from men. Different enough that it was natural to have different rules and more restricted lives for women. Discrimination didn't need to be justified. Questioning it was wrong–headed and showed there was something wrong with you – you "weren't really a woman".

SIGRID: That sounds like a different dimension.

MERLE: Yes. Certainly when I campaigned for the right to be admitted to public bars there were people who seemed to think I was literally a freak. And there is no doubt that the way women thought of themselves, their sense of themselves, was structured by the accepted beliefs about the nature of the sexes.

SIGRID: That's before the change in their sense of themselves?

MERLE: It is. When I began campaigning as a feminist in 1965, women were excluded by law, regulation and custom from important areas of public social space (such as public bars), also from most professional career work. Where they were accepted in paid work, it was on an explicitly discriminatory basis. It was easy, in a way, to see salient things that were wrong for women then. Easy as long as you could reject that underlying belief about women's nature as simply support–people for men and children.

Now that women are out in society and formally accepted in work, they need in a sense to be new kinds of people. They have been moving from lives restricted to support of their men and families to lives that have to find independent meaning and priorities. The problems are more complex, sometimes subtle.

SIGRID: Which brings us back to your novel.

MERLE: Because the theme is sense of self, the intimate consciousness, I have been keen to explore that in imagination, rather than cold analysis, and that is why I have chosen the novel as vehicle. My academic writing has been about women from the outside looking in; After Moonlight is a woman from the inside looking out.

The main action takes place in 1997, which I think is roughly the time the changed consciousness of Australian women became the norm and, generally speaking, women had stopped taking a major part of their sense of themselves from their relationship to the men they "belonged to".

While writing it I have also been thinking about the place of the imaginative story as a foundation structure in human consciousness, in the way we think about ourselves and about the direction of our lives. Our sense of ourselves as our sense of where we are up to and where we are going in our life stories. Our sense of ourselves is essentially dynamic rather than static. It has story form, the form imagination gravitates to. It is the most powerful structure in our memorising.

I see the shift in women's identity that has been taking place in my lifetime as a profound change in the imagination of women, in the kind of story women inwardly experience as the shape of their lives.

SIGRID: You think we carry a story inside ourselves and live our lives to fit the story?

MERLE: I do. But the story can change. It's interesting to consider: can we change it ourselves? Or is it more a matter of discovering the change if we are to get clear about our identity? I think both things are involved. They interact.

At all events, my realisation of the importance of this inner world has paralleled my own moves from feminist activism and academic theorising through writing for performance to the novel as the form for me now.

SIGRID: Let's talk about how that uses your imagination. When you're writing a passage in the novel, how does your imagination come into play?

MERLE: When it comes to what happens in a particular passage of the book, I try to think my way into the character I'm writing about. What has happened in the world while she has been alive, her personal traumas and joys, how she talks, walks, how she interacts with other people, how she is seen and treated by others and how that affects her. What she believes in the grander sense – her world view. How she feels on the inside. I try to become that character in imagination. It has a cumulative effect, so you know how your character will react.

Everyone does that sort of thing to some extent. If I say: "Imagine you are walking down Queen Street Mall on a sunny morning", you can do it, and even imagine where the shadows will fall.

SIGRID: Now imagine you are someone else; a woman just arrived from Baghdad who has never been in Australia and can't speak English. You will quickly get some way with it, thinking of things that you (as this person) will notice, security in the street, the scanty clothes, abundance in shops and so on.

MERLE: Practice improves one's ability to imagine in this way. And novel readers get practice while they are reading.

SIGRID: Collaborative imagination.

MERLE: Indeed. Reading a novel is an assisted process of imagination. The novel works to sensitise readers to the situation of others and to what flows from what in human behaviour.

I've always thought there must be similarities here with acting. When you are preparing to act a particular character, how do you go about imagining yourself into the character? Or when you're actually acting?

SIGRID: Preparing is different from acting. There are lots of different things involved in preparing an acting role. Multitudinous methods have been set out, put forward. There are lots of different ways to skin the cat, but it's all about what frees the actor's imagination  different things for different actors.

For me there is the nature of the script, the kind of material it is (plot or characterdriven, for instance) and even the amount of preparation time affects the process. What happens with performance work  what you do in both film and live theatre  especially theatre  is you lock in on a track of imagination, which you fix for the character for that season.

MERLE: Just for the season?

SIGRID: If you (the actor) went back to that character after three or four more years of life experience, it would be different. Just as for the writer it's absolutely affected by the sum of your life experience to date.

MERLE: What sorts of things help you to find the track to lock in on?

SIGRID: Interaction with other actors and especially with the director. The director must work with other people's imaginations.

I engage intellectually first and work out from that. But you can't lock into that. It has to be something more physical. You must engage physically and emotionally as well.

MERLE: Can you think of examples?

SIGRID: There's muscle memory: it's mixed with muscles imagination. For some actors it's the key to find a walk or posture for a character  that unlocks a stream of other imagined things about the character.

MERLE: I vividly recall the posture of Lawrence Olivier in the opening scene of Richard III when I saw him in Sydney in my youth in the famous tour of 1952. That deformed posture seemed even for the audience to set the character for the play.

SIGRID: When Olivier was playing with Dustin Hoffman in the film Marathon Man, Hoffman was required to play a scene in which he had spent a night on the tiles. Hoffman turned up for the shoot much the worse for wear. A method actor, he had spent a night on the tiles as preparation. "Dear boy," said Olivier, "haven't you ever heard of acting?"

MERLE: Imagination!

SIGRID: Imagination.

MERLE: In The Blue Room, where you play five different characters, streetwalker, au pair, model, politician's wife, actress, do you need to find a different "lock" for each of the characters?

SIGRID: Yes. The clarity of the transitions is central for that play; it's possible to settle on any method that works for you  to get physical engagement with the character.

MERLE: You have to go from one social class, one ethnic background, to another in short order.

SIGRID: Accent is very important. To change accents you have to change fine use of mouth musculature. It is about changing one's own familiar physiological patterns. That change can call up other major changes to go with it.

One of the things Meryl Streep did in her 10year golden period was to make a series of clever choices of roles, and she chose a lot of accented roles, which unlocked imagination for her. Another actor might feel closed down or confused by attempting the accents. Streep is very good at accents  for instance, audiences here will remember her Lindy Chamberlain.

MERLE: I've often thought that your experiences with different accents as a child might have influenced your choice of an acting career. When we went as a family to London when you were seven and lived there for a couple of years, just at first you would pass from an Australian accent to a London accent in the one sentence. We used to chuckle and tease you about asking could you have a bath [Australian] because you'd really like a bath [with a long London a]. But you soon got the hang of it.

SIGRID: I think it could have been the accents that started me off.

MERLE: How would you compare Blue Room with SeaChange from the point of view of how it used your imagination?

SIGRID: For SeaChange, I had the one role for a long time. When you find yourself in one world for a length of time you become acutely aware of how that character would react to a particular situation.

An actor is often asked is the character close to your own? The answer is always, "Yes". I think that must be similar for writing because although After Moonlight is not at all like a story about you, in some painful parts I found it difficult to read because in a certain way it was so close to you as I know you. And in funny parts it gave me an extra chuckle.

In acting you are using the sum total of your self in a role  that character will have large parts of me even if I am playing an axe murderer.It's the power of the imagination, the power of the intellect and a sort of ability to crystallise those two in a physiological way. I think that defines performance work. How close is that to what you experience as a writer?

MERLE: Very close. There is that physiological imagination – such as being Claire for After Moonlight – maybe not always as central as in acting, though the physical presence of the character is very important. Certainly in sex scenes, which are not easy, the physiological imagination takes over. But in the case of a writer there's also the need for the words. Sometimes the words come along with fixing the imagined character, or even the place and time, you're after; sometimes you have to find words for it after you are already in it in imagination.

When you're writing action or conversation involving a few characters, you have to be able to manage quick changes of your identification as writer – compare Blue Room where as actor you had to switch rapidly from one character to another through five switches. When you're reading dialogue in a novel or play you can sometimes detect a failure of the writer's imagination if the voice doesn't change from one character to another.

SIGRID: A writer has to find the words; an actor is a conduit for the work of a writer as well as those other things I mentioned. I have found myself occasionally having a problem with another actor not being, as I thought, true to the intention of the writer.

The actor must have a healthy respect for the intention of the writer. I remember when I learned that. I was playing in the telemovie The Boy in the Bush with Kenneth Branagh, a piece based on the D.H. Lawrence and Mollie Skinner story. The cast read through the script together. Ken was shocked that we Australian actors could consider changing the writer's text. I think he is right. What he said has stayed with me.

MERLE: What kind of imagination do you exercise in realising the overarching intention of the writer? As in "what is this play saying?"

SIGRID: First up, I think of it intellectually.

MERLE: So what you are doing is picking up on what a certain kind of character, certain kinds of behaviour, are like in order to illuminate the writer's understanding of the real world – to go back to what we were discussing earlier.

SIGRID: There are different levels of imagination used in different kinds of acting. In television soap opera you have to think on your feet  the actors are usually playing heightened versions of themselves, so they reinterpret the work of the writer to make themselves more comfortable. They are playing close to their own skins.

Another different kind of acting is the method of John Travolta. He learned early on he should only think a thought, not try to project it out. He thought it and it came out on the screen. It requires tremendous focus of energy to achieve that. It's a particular kind of emotional or passion intelligence that he has.

MERLE: We've been talking about how our respective arts use imagination in their own practice, but also about how that is a means to sensitise the imaginations of readers and audience to the experience and the situation of people other than themselves. That is what gives work of the imagination human, social and political import.

Your own life experience has taken you to meet people whose lives in both culture and circumstances are very different. How far do you think you are helped by your imaginative work in relating to their experience? I'm thinking especially of your World Vision trips to Africa and Bangladesh.

SIGRID: Some of the people I've met in World Vision humanitarian programs live in confronting circumstances that make the most powerful and immediate appeal to the human empathy of anyone who meets them. I suppose I think you just need to be another human being to feel that bond when you actually meet someone in those extreme circumstances. For instance, a family horribly affected by a mix of AIDS and poverty.

I've had the opportunity to see and meet people in firsthand situations that most people in affluent Western countries feel very remote from. I do think that for Westerners who may never have such a direct experience as I have had, plays and novels can bring them deeper into the personal realities of those other lives than reports and documentary material, important as those can be.

Visiting World Vision programs made me realise the importance of the creative work of the imagination; it can expose the fundamental common ground between people in a way more profound than factual material. For instance, seeing a film clip of people lining up for bags of rice is dehumanising; contrast imaginative work that gives a sense of what it feels like to be in that line.

MERLE: The closest we can get to entering the consciousness and the emotions of another person is through the imagination. We use our own consciousness to do it – our own consciousness in its imaginative reach.

It's not that you don't need factual information, but cold facts are not nearly enough. You need an opening into the beliefs and understandings of that person in the line waiting for the bag of rice. What she takes to be the facts, and the way all that is essentially connected to her emotions. Her world.

SIGRID: That's why you need the work of the imagination.

MERLE: To put yourself in that other person's point of view. As nearly as may be. Emotions, that basic dimension of our consciousness, like actions on which they have such powerful influence, are tied to our beliefs, the beliefs that make up our individual world. As it is sometimes put, emotions have intensional content (as opposed to extensional content). Change the beliefs, you change the emotion.

For instance, to take a classic example, in Middlemarch, Dorothea's passion for Casaubon, her determination to marry him in the face of forceful advice to the contrary, depends essentially on her belief in the value of his grand project of writing a "Key to all Mythologies", together with her belief that, as his wife, she will be able to share in the work of his project. When she discovers her errors, her emotions necessarily change.

SIGRID: Imagination lets us understand that.

MERLE: And through works of the imagination we can enter the consciousness of characters in very unfamiliar situations, in other cultures even.

SIGRID: In the great tsunami destruction, it is easy to empathise with the primary distress of the bereaved and traumatised, just from looking at news footage. But to enter their situation at a deeper level, imaginative presentation would get us further.

MERLE: I don't know of any Acehnese writing available in English. But I have certainly found the work of Pramoedya Ananta Toer, in his quartet of novels and in various stories, powerful in giving a sense of the longstanding ethnic and linguistic pecking order in Indonesia, with the Acehnese standing low. How that pecking order weaves into so many personal and official relationships.

SIGRID: That kind of reading is a valuable entrée?

MERLE: Works of the imagination train us to look for connections between different peoples in the world and be better at imagining them for ourselves.

SIGRID: Do you think that points towards a common humanity? We're all alike?

MERLE: In a way. Being able to extend your concern to people beyond your own circle of intimacy has since classical times been acknowledged as a marker of civilisation. But understanding people better doesn't always make you like them better – just as you don't like everything about yourself. Getting a better handle on where people who seem quite different from us are coming from does help us to find common ground and get a better understanding of how circumstances might have changed ourselves.

Like you were saying, even if you're acting an axe murderer, it's still yourself that your portrayal is coming from.

SIGRID: Where does that relate to your feminism?

MERLE: Closely. It's imagination that helps to explore the common ground between women and men. How they are not divided by some natural barrier that dictates they have to be treated quite differently.

Maybe, since feminism has had such an ill–conceived bollocking in the popular press in the last few years, I should say what I mean by feminism. "The pursuit of the advancement of women" is what I mean. It's a broad church and pretty much of a motherhood statement you'd hope no one would disagree with (though don't be sure).

But I think that feminism is currently in something of a hiatus. It currently lacks the vision and the sense of ideas whose time has come that characterised earlier surges of the movement. That is despite the admirable work of numerous women, and some men, in the field, implementing and working to improve the legislation that has shifted our society away from sex discrimination – politicians, administrators, lawyers, sociologists, psychologists, EEO officers and so on.

The area that stands out as the one that continues to need deep change is reproduction – the way individuals, society, government, construct responsibilities of childbirth and child nurture. How the many sides of that relate to the public and private worlds. Women now have more motherhood options (including don't do it, go it alone, only do it with a fully responsible partner not necessarily male, use or reject artificial reproductive assistance), but they don't, as a generality, feel they have options that are fair and satisfying, even acceptable. That's quite clear from their many public statements of tension and disappointment. Ideas about who other than mothers (taxpayers?), have responsibilities and which maternal responsibilities are binding are both limited and varied. Motherhood's proper relation to paid work remains, in important ways, a vexed area. Feminists put forward a range of valuable ideas but there is no driving overarching vision of the fair, socially responsible and humanly desirable way forward. There is little sign of a new surge for feminism.

Especially in such dark times as we are living through, it is essential to turn to the work of the imagination, which puts us in touch with the consciousness of contemporary women and helps us to recognise what we women share (and otherwise). Public policy and morality don't spring fully formed from novels and plays, but the human dilemmas as experienced in individual consciousness do, as they can in no other way.

It is never easy to recognise the levers of change. Imagination can help us to identify the radiant images and the creative directions to take up. Imagination is especially needed in dark times when the way forward is less clear.

SIGRID: Imagination has a high value in the real world.

MERLE: It does. 

Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review