The writer in a time of change

A WHILE AGO I went to a lecture on geothermal power. Afterwards I got talking to the man sitting next to me, a retired professor of physics. When I told him I was a writer, his face lit up. A writer? Ah, you're the people the planet needs! You must get the message out – it's simple, just four words – coal is too cheap! Get that into every newspaper and magazine! Oh, well, I mumbled, I'm not that sort of writer. He peered at me. Uh, actually, I blurted out, I'm a fiction writer. His face fell. Fiction? You mean you write...novels?

Coal is too cheap. That was the message that was going to save the planet, and I was not the person who was going to deliver it. My new acquaintance was right: as far as I know, the cheapness of coal has never been the subject of a novel. Stung by his dismissal, I toyed with the idea of writing the great coal-is-too-cheap novel.

Well, someone out there may even now be putting the finishing touches to a great novel of coal and its fatal cheapness. I hope so. Because, frankly, I couldn't see any way to do it. A man and a woman in bed together.Darling, I've been thinking: coal is too cheap. Absolutely, sweetheart, and did you know that in 2007 geothermal power produced 14,885 gigawatt hours of electricity?

Then along came an invitation to present a lecture: ‘Writers in a Time of Change'. As the old professor had made so painfully clear, the value of fiction, of poetry, of drama and memoirs is much less obvious than the value of non-fiction. I pictured him sceptically listening to whatever feeble thoughts I might have, and decided to decline.

Soon after, there was spell of hot, dry, windy weather where I live. It seemed as if it would never rain again. Weeds turned up their toes; even the wretched bamboo was wilting. All over my garden, things died.

It rained eventually. I went for a walk, simply to enjoy the sight of water dropping from the sky. The gutters were streaming with dark water – really just mud. I saw that the topsoil was being scoured away, leaving nothing but a brick-hard clay subsoil. No seed would ever take root in that.

I suddenly understood that within a few years, without anything very remarkable occurring, my leafy suburb could become a landscape of barren dust, like the pictures of Iraq that we see on the news. It could happen. Actually, it had happened. After all, somewhere around Iraq was once the Garden of Eden.

Even someone who can't get her head around what a gigawatt hour is can understand that. I will have to say yes to that lecture, I thought. A catastrophe is going to overwhelm us unless we do something by around about tomorrow, and getting together to talk about our individual helplessness seems a good place to start feeling less helpless. And what you might call the ‘art' writers – memoirists and dramatists, poets and novelists – may have special attributes they can bring to the conversation.


CLIMATE CHANGE IS no longer a technological problem – scientists and engineers have provided us with many ways of producing clean energy. The problem is behavioural, a problem of imagination. We all know the guilty personal reality of those grand abstractions about saving the planet. It's leaving the hall light on because otherwise it's too spooky out there. It's turning the heater up rather than putting on another jumper. On a bigger scale, it's being unable to imagine an Australia that doesn't burn and export massive amounts of coal.

We're paralysed by confusing arguments and counter-arguments, so we let ourselves drift along in complacency and confusion. We know we should be doing something, and we even know what we should be doing. But we don't do it. How many of us have solar panels on our roofs? Or pay the premium for totally green power?

There's an area of psychology devoted to working out why we don't do the things we ought to do: the study of heuristics and biases. There are many ways in which we kid ourselves that everything is going to be okay, and that our judgement about where things are headed can be trusted. When it comes to climate change, as one author memorably put it, ‘People do not become any smarter, just because the survival of humankind is at stake.'

When I first started thinking about this business of behaviour, I thought the reason we can't turn the heater down is because we are hardwired for amelioration. We're always looking for ways to make our lives better: better than they were before, and better than the next guy's. If we weren't, I thought, we'd still be living in caves eating the occasional raw trilobite.

In that case, it's easy to see why so little is being done to deal with climate change. It's hard to turn down the heater if you're hardwired to want to be more comfortable, and hard to turn down your heater when the other guy might not be turning down his. And with every improvement we make, our notion of the tolerable shrinks. The idea of living in an unheated house in Hobart, or an un-airconditioned house in Darwin, is harder to see as a possibility.

Then I remembered a story told to me by a filmmaker friend. She was making a documentary about the Afar people in Africa, who live in the hottest place in the world. Every day at 1.30 the goatherds take the goats out to pasture. The filmmakers were running late, so they asked the people if they would take the goats out at two o'clock. No, that was impossible. The goats go out at 1.30. They'd always been taken out at 1.30. Taking the goats out at 1.30 is an immutable part of Afar culture.

For the Afar, the margin for error is zero. Over generations, taught by who knows what disasters, they worked out that the safest time to take the goats out is 1.30. Innovation – and the attendant risk of failure – is a luxury that their environment doesn't allow them.

What we're hardwired for is not one kind of behaviour over another. We're hardwired for learning from experience, and then setting it firm with the glue of culture. And this is exactly what neuroscience is discovering: there's a mechanism at work in the brain that rewards correct predictions, and another that gets excited when expectations are wrong. Whatever has worked for us in the past – well, that's what we're going to keep doing. Trouble is, learning from experience is a luxury we're not going to have this time. This time, we have to change what we do before the goats die.

Nature, that conscientious engineer, has made sure there are redundancies in our design. We have two kidneys, two eyes; we can store glucose in the muscles as well as the liver. So we might ask: Did nature know there'd be times when learning from experience wouldn't save us? Did she provide us with some other hardwiring as well?

Like many people, I was once a smoker. I knew about lung cancer, but I went on smoking. Information, cognition, intellect: these weren't enough to stop me lighting up. I don't smoke now, and I remember what changed. I rather fancied a young man, a bit of a hippie and health fanatic. We were getting on famously until the day I lit up in front of him. I can still see the look on his face: surprise, puzzlement, disgust. He took a step back, and I saw him recalibrating his idea of me.

What happened in those few seconds was powerful enough to make me do something that no amount of information had enabled me to do: that afternoon I chucked away the packet of Drum and started running instead of smoking. I had seen myself through his eyes. I felt his disgust as my own. That broke through the walls of resistance I'd constructed around the idea of quitting. It gave me a new perspective: not a cognitive one, but an emotional one – one of empathy.

I think this means that nature has given us another mechanism for impelling change; and that mechanism works through emotion. She's also given us a tool for harnessing that emotional response, and the people who are experts at building just that kind of tool. The tool is art, and those people are artists.


A WHILE AGO I was in Canberra, walking around one of the parks by the lake. I came across an artwork: a line of many white poles of different heights. A sign told me it was a memorial to Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel X. It recorded that 146 mothers, 142 children and sixty-five fathers drowned when it sank, and that ‘our message in making this memorial is that kindness is stronger than fear.' Oh yes, I thought, very worthy, very true, how sad.

I walked closer, where the poles weren't a line but in fact doubled back on themselves to enclose a space – and in order to read a second sign, I stepped into the space. ‘The SIEV X vessel was 20 metres long. The exact dimensions are outlined by these 42 poles.' I glanced to the right, where the curving rows of poles met, and to the left, where they met at the other end. I was standing in the middle of the boat that had somehow contained four hundred people, all but forty-seven of whom had drowned.

My throat closed, and I wasn't sure I could go on breathing. Something happened around my middle, something tremulous and frantic. My eyes seemed to darken; the colours of the morning bleached into black and white. I felt my face lengthen as all the muscles loosened and my jaw sagged. The sun was still shining but I was cold. I wanted to lie down and roll into a ball and howl.

All this was an effect that hadn't been achieved by reading the numbers, or the worthy words about kindness. As I stood on that patch of Canberra grass I went through an experience beyond my control. In that moment, when art takes us into a place where normal thinking is suspended, it feels like the brain is turning from one mode to another: as if a switch is thrown and understanding finds another path; not the path of cognition, but some other more concealed one.

Neuroscientists are discovering that we're hardwired for language, but not for reading, so when we're first confronted with that challenge our brain has no ready-made path for it. The brain makes use of existing circuitry designed for other purposes. It cobbles together the functions of many different parts of the brain and combines them in new ways, to process this new thing: reading. Once we learn to read, we no longer have to use bits and pieces of circuitry from all over the brain: we make a new path, a short cut. In the most literal way, learning to read creates new brain circuitry.

The neuroscientists I've read don't extrapolate that idea to the art experience, but I'm prepared to. Confronted with a rich piece of art – oblique, original and surprising – the brain has no readymade circuitry to process it. Just as it did with the challenge of learning to read, the brain will put a whole lot of pre-existing circuits together in new ways. If I'm right, experiencing art can create new circuits, new ways of thinking, new tools that the brain can then use for other purposes.

That feeling we have, that a work of art has flipped the switch over to some new kind of thinking, is genuine. Art is that powerful. Operating below the level of conscious thought, it can change the brain. As Kafka famously said, a book is an axe for the frozen sea within us.

Take the following passage from Housekeeping, by Marilyn Robinson:

...they were married, she and the silent Methodist Edmund who wore a necktie and suspenders even to hunt wildflowers, and who remembered just where they grew from year to year, and who dipped his handkerchief in a puddle to wrap the stems, and who put out his elbow to help her over the steep and stony places, with a wordless and impersonal courtesy...The rising of the spring stirred a serious, mystical excitement in him, and made him forgetful of her. He would pick up eggshells, a bird's wing, a jawbone, the ashy fragment of a wasp's nest. He would peer at each of them with the most absolute attention, and then put them in his pockets, where he kept his jackknife and his loose change. He would peer at them as if he could read them, and pocket them as if he could own them. This is death in my hand, this is ruin in my breast pocket, where I keep my reading glasses. At such times he was as forgetful of her as he was of his suspenders and his Methodism, but all the same it was then that she loved him best, as a soul all unaccompanied, like her own.

FOR SOME READERS, that passage might touch a string and start it resonating, as it did with me. For others, it might not. That's one of the things about art – people disagree about it. You could almost say that if it doesn't make people argue, it's not art. It's not just because it's ambiguous; there's something else going on as well.

Each of us brings our own experiences, memories and prejudices to a work of art and looks at it through that unique lens. We all read the same words when we look at that extract from Housekeeping, but we all see different things. In this sense, a work is made afresh by each reader, and even by the same reader at different moments. Each reader is enriched by the writing in a way unique to them.

Far from being a weakness, this is one of art's sources of power. Each time a work of art enters another consciousness, it shape-shifts to engage with what's already in that consciousness. We make the work of art ours. Or, more accurately, it makes us its. ‘A real book,' Auden observed, ‘is not one that we read, but one that reads us.'

It starts to look as though art might have unique qualities relevant to the problem of resisting change. It can alter brains. And, once it's broken through, the new way of thinking doesn't feel like something that's come from outside; it feels like part of our very selves. Which means that perhaps we do, after all, have a tool that can break through the icepack of denial and rationalisation.

That puts a heavy responsibility on artists. Should we all be writing books about putting on another jumper and sonnets about turning off the hall light? Sure, if that's where our creative impulses take us. But art can't be made to order. The most powerful art comes from somewhere other than a conscious desire to persuade. In any case, there's a law of diminishing returns on preaching.

There is, though, one responsibility we do have. As writers, we're also citizens and voters – we're privileged with education and the skills of both writing and reading. As writers in a time of change, our responsibility is to get informed about all the debates around climate change. And as public figures of a kind, we also have an obligation to act on our beliefs in whatever public ways we can.

But I have a feeling our greatest contribution might be in recognising that we have specialised skills that might be useful in a time of change. These skills are the psychic equipment that lets art happen: they're a kind of parallel universe of mental skills to the ones we're taught in school. We may be a bit hazy about gigawatt hours, but we do have much to offer.

To begin with, writers work round the edges of our culture and around the edges of the proper economy. Our values overlap with those of our society, but aren't identical. You might say we're in our culture, but not quite of it. Writers often sense and articulate a change that's latent and as-yet-unarticulated in the culture, picking up the first zephyrs of the winds of change and pushing them forward into the consciousness of the wider society.

We also know about the truth that can be found in untruth. We take bits and pieces from the culture around us and put them together in ways they were never intended for: bits of the past and of the future, bits of science and of magic. The ways we put them together are wrong, but they end up being right. Historians know more about the past than we do; scientists know more about the future. What writers know about is the continuous present of being human: the mysteries of why we are the way we are and why we do the things we do.

Would any man picking up the ashy fragment of a wasp's nest really think: This is death in my hand, this is ruin in my breast pocket? In art, the answer is always both yes and no. Metaphor is the currency of art, and it's a coinage that has no measurable exchange rate.


‘Tell all the truth but tell it slant – 

Success in Circuit lies...'

– Emily Dickinson

WRITERS HAVE WAYS of going into the darkest places and taking their readers with them, yet coming safely out again. It's scary in there. It might overwhelm us. But without the process of mourning – plunging into the dark places and walking through them till we reach somewhere else – we're doomed to the paralysis of melancholia. Specifically, in the shadow of the change bearing down on us, we're going to have to confront what we're about to lose, and why, and not turn away hopelessly from the job of saving it. Writers know that words, like Orpheus' lute, can give us a way to walk through the dark places with our eyes open. They put words to the otherwise ungraspable, so we can comprehend it; imagine the otherwise unimaginable, and put words to it.

They can also try to rescue the language from eco-vandals. How can a shopping bag made of thick strands of woven plastic really be ‘green', even if it is green? What are ‘eco' baked beans? What about the corruption of thinking embedded in an ad for air-conditioning that I saw recently: ‘creating climate change in your own home'?

Above all, we're experts at a particular kind of problem-solving. Let me give an example: you've lost your car keys. You know, rationally, that they must be in the house somewhere, because the car's sitting in the driveway. You look in every place you think they could possibly be. You work yourself into a lather. You get angry at yourself, at the keys, at the shelf where they ought to be. Finally you give up, and go and do the dishes. Just as you're balancing the big white plate against the blue mug and reminding yourself that you'd better buy more detergent, it comes to you in one piercingly clear moment: your keys are on top of the fridge.

This isn't usually called problem-solving; it's called inspiration, or intuition, or daydreaming – ironic, patronising labels. We don't get diplomas in daydreaming. And yet this kind of problem-solving is where the answers to the toughest problems come from.

Inspiration feels as if it comes from outside, a kind of magic. You didn't know where your keys were, but itdid. It, in my understanding, is a sophisticated resonance-effect in the prefrontal cortex that can keep a lot of different inputs all bouncing around simultaneously. But this can't happen if you try too hard. The endless chatter of the conscious brain has to be quietened enough for the small voice of it to make itself heard.

Artists use this kind of problem-solving every day. We've learned to trust that not knowing the answer is often better than knowing it. We know how to live for long periods without knowing exactly where we're going. What writer does just one draft of a work? Uncertainty doesn't make us rush to a quick fix. We've learned to accommodate it and trust a kind of potent receptivity or passivity – what you might call negative capability.

Because art can't be hurried or forced, artists understand the deep truth of that ironic Polish proverb ‘Sleep fast – we need the pillows.' So, as writers in a time of change, we have a lot to offer. But, just as there's resistance to the message that coal is too cheap, there's also resistance to the contribution that artists and art can make. Two hundred years ago, Shelley could claim that ‘poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world' and not be laughed out of the room. Somewhere along the line, our axe turned into a little plastic tomahawk.

On the grounds of irrelevancy and elitism, hundreds of years of literary heritage is being allowed to fade: it's ‘not relevant'; it's ‘too hard'. Even when it is taught, its blade is blunted by the works being presented only in their immediately understandable dimensions: ‘the journey'; ‘the individual and society'. The boundaries are being patrolled by genre police, demanding to see the passports of pieces of writing: Is it fiction or non-fiction? Is it history or all made up? The work, and whatever ideas it might be suggesting, disappears behind a pointless barrage of labelling. Resistance to art – that labelling – is the impulse to control, to reduce art to the comfortable and the bland.

Where art sits – between boundaries, where the real and the imagined collaborate – is where new things happen. The scary place that evades control is the very place where change is going to come from, if it's going to come from anywhere. Sidelining difficult art means that the generations of people who are going to be dealing with our terribly difficult future have never been exposed to the products of centuries of creative problem-solving and wisdom. The people who are going to be catapulted into the most difficult time humans have faced since the last ice age won't have experienced the humbling and exhilarating knowledge that a work of art might be more complex than they can readily understand. Their brains are going to be denied all the new pathways that would be created by engaging with complex art.


MY MOTHER WENT to school in the 1920s, to a very ordinary country high school. She learned Shakespeare's plays and huge amounts of poetry by heart. At any moment of importance in her later life, she had in her memory a piece of literature that spoke to that moment.

By the time I was in high school, in the 1960s, the values of our culture had changed. No one learned anything by heart any more. As I listened to Mum quote entire poems, I marvelled at this inner resource that she had access to. It was clear that, in remembering the words someone else had written, often hundreds of years before, she was joining her little moment to the bigger moments of the human race. She was being reminded that whatever was happening to her, whatever she was feeling, she was not alone. Others had been there before and felt the same things. They had found ways to give words to their experience, articulating their version of what she was feeling. Having access to their words enriched her emotional life, allowing her to understand her own experience and learn something new.

This was her favourite poem: ‘On First Looking into Chapman's Homer', by Keats. Not surprisingly, it's about the way art takes us into new places – into a moment of change.


Much have I travell'd in the realms of gold,

And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;

Round many western islands have I been

Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.

Oft of one wide expanse had I been told

That deep-browed Homer ruled as his demesne;

Yet did I never breathe its pure serene

Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies

When a new planet swims into his ken;

Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes

He star'd at the Pacific – and all his men

Look'd at each other with a wild surmise -

Silent, upon a peak in Darien.


IF WRITERS AND writing are to play a part in our time of change – if we're going to be ‘stakeholders' in it – then our first task is to assert that we have something to contribute. Let's recognise the power of art to bring about change at the molecular level. Let's assert the value of art, in an age where the quantifiable and the immediately understandable have come to rule.

As writers, let's pick up our axe and hone it to a fine old edge. Let's hoist it up onto our shoulders and swing it with a mighty arm. Let us write with passion; let us write deeply into the mysterious folds of the human interior. Let us write as if it matters, because it does.

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