NLA Keynote: Private Pleasures, Public Exposures

PRIVATE PLEASURES AND PUBLIC EXPOSURE: The creative imagination in the digital age


In an imaginary letter to the great Argentinean writer, Borges, composed ten years after his death, Susan Sontag referred to him as a ‘mental traveller’. It is a familiar concept to all creative workers, whether artists or artisans, scientists or social theorists; indeed, it is familiar to anyone who takes pleasure in the imagination. The mental traveller can go any place on or off the planet, to any time past or future. The mental traveller can enter any mind – animal, plant, human, extra-terrestrial – and rummage around for a minute, an hour, a week, or years. Mental travellers can find a way through a thicket of prime numbers or untangle a clot of abstract concepts. They can move through a mire of love, jealousy, grief and resentment, gathering clarity on the way. They can source an infinite store of personal memory, desire, hope, knowledge, experience. And, at the same time, mental travellers can choose the best writers, painters, scientists, historians, composers and musicians as their guides and companions. Rich in resources, the mental traveller never knows boredom.

Mental travellers may produce novels, music, buildings, theorems, pharmaceuticals, paintings, posters, fashions or furniture. They may simply be taking a holiday from the demands of everyday life. The underlying quality to all mental travelling is that it is imagined and it is creative. Its most common expression is day-dreaming. This is not the passive time-waster it is often accused of being. Somerset Maugham in his memoir, Summing Up, writes that ‘Reverie is the groundwork of the creative imagination.’

Reverie: a grown-up word that adds respectability to day-dreaming.

The requirements of the mental traveller are few and they are cheap. Primary among them are solitude, contemplation, focussed attention and privacy. The activity is open to anyone: children and adolescents, over-worked parents and cognitively-impaired octogenarians; gardeners, grave diggers, bank tellers, book keepers, electricians and librarians. Anyone can opt to be a mental traveller, but it is an essential requirement for the creative artist.


I was born, a second child and second daughter, who, in another couple of years with the birth of my younger brother, would become a mostly unnecessary middle child. Childhood and I were not an easy fit. Filled with anxiety I was getting the child role wrong and ever alert to tools that might help me navigate those perilous years, I studied other children in order to learn the ropes. The price of such vigilance was inexhaustible exhaustion. I was watchful during the day, and the nights were spent analysing the previous day’s mistakes and planning how to be perfect in the next. The most reliable respite I had from this anxiety was not sleep (with so much to do I was a poor sleeper) but fiction. I would slip into other places and other lives and, relieved of my burdensome self, I would be stimulated and invigorated. Ego-less I would know contentment. Spurred on by books, I would separate from my usual trials and travel through distant epochs and fantastic places of my own devising, meeting famous people and marvellous creatures, whose company was, literally, the best imaginable.

So began a life of mental travelling.

Reading provided an effective panacea during the formidable and seemingly endless years of childhood; it also provided one activitymy mother and I shared. A devoted reader herself, she encouraged me to browse her bookcase. She would recommend titles; she would help me past difficult first chapters by reading them aloud to me. She was doubly rewarded in her bookish child: with two other children to attend to, she knew if I was reading I could be left alone.

It suited me.

I loved everything about reading. I loved the characters in books better than most of the people in my real life. I loved reading so much I had already decided to be a writer – although I kept my ambition to myself having learned through those troubled years of childhood that whatever I valued must be protected, kept private.

So the life, the privatelifeof the novelist began. And while I never wavered in my ambition, an incident the year I turned thirteen, served to reinforce my decision.

It was a late November day, exams finished, the year winding down, when, with no prior warning, I was summoned to the principal’s office. I had no idea what I had done, but I knew it must be very serious. By the time I arrived at his door I could barely walk, I could barely talk, and I wanted to vomit. The principal was quick to enlighten me. I had, he said, been found in possession of ‘filth’. The filth was Han Suyin’s novel, A Many-Splendored Thing. He demanded to know where I had obtained it. From my mother’s bookcase, I said – and, I added, with her permission. I was accused of lying. No respectable woman, the principal said, would keep such a book in her home.

My mother wrote to the principal explaining I had indeed told the truth and the matter was dropped. But I learned from this incident that books were not only a source of life-giving pleasure and stimulation, they could also be dangerous, and very powerful. A year or so later, Mary McCarthy’s The Group(1963) was banned. Arthur Rylah, the deputy Premier of Victoria at the time, said he certainly wouldn’t want his teenage daughter reading it; I, on the other hand, had been privy to a pirated copy, or rather some much-fingered, fast-fading roneoed pages, thepages, as it happened. Around this time I also learned about Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Joyce’s Ulyssesand Henry Miller’s novel The Tropic of Cancer(1934), all, like The Group, banned for obscenity.

A couple of years later, and fired by a slender poetry book, I first became aware of political censorship and the persecution of writers. The book was called Modern European Verseand it cost 50 cents. In a single volume I was introduced to Brecht, Cavafy, Celan’s ‘Death Fugue’, Lorca, Mayakovsky, Pasternak, Rilke and Yevtushenko’s ‘Babi Yar’. It was a short journey from there to Akhmatova and Mandelstam, both of whom became and remain among my life’s essential poets. Art, I was learning, was a risky business with the power to expose complex and previously opaque truths. In the world I was trying to inhabit, my middle-class, beige, luke-warm, everyday-might-be-Wednesday world, this power of art, of books in particular, was not simply fascinating and admirable, it awakened a hunger in me to which I responded without really understanding.

I read before school, I read after school. I read through weekends and school holidays, I read when my siblings were playing, I read in preference to all other activities. I became an ardent mental traveller thanks to the riches on my mother’s bookcase and the local library. Outwardly I was careful to conform, inwardly I was wild. I would imagine places, people, dinners, deaths, coincidences and conversations. I would give my people emotions – anger, longing, love, sadness – all those emotions I prohibited in my own life. Soon I discovered that I could construct these imagined people and their imagined worlds at will. I might be sitting at my desk with homework or studying for exams, and I would permit myself thirty minutes respite during which I would travel into one of my imagined scenarios, thirty minutes in which I would lose myself, vent my frustrations and confusions, invent scenes and situations so much more preferable than those on offer in the real world. The thirty minutes would stretch to an hour: I didn’t care, I was totally captivated by the worlds within my head, and strengthened when I returned to real life.

Among my various guides, Iris Murdoch reigned supreme. She wrote into existence eloquent and original men and women whom I slipped into my own imaginings: Sebastian, Chloe, Franca, Tristan, Clement, Rainborough, and not a Janet or John anywhere in her pages. She wrote of a world I truly believed existed, a world that when I was finished with childhood in suburban Melbourne I would find and inhabit and in which, like Iris herself, I would write books.

So I would be a novelist. But I was faced with a crucial paradox: at that time in my life, much of the power, pleasure and solace of fiction, indeed all imaginative activity was that it was essentially private. I wanted my novels to be published, but if this were to occur my world of constant stimulation, which was at the same time my haven and sanctuary, would be exposed.

Fortunately, by the time Penguin published my first novel, Gracious Living, I’d learned that the public expression of imaginative work is vastly different than those early mental wanderings that first give a book life. I had learned mastery, control, management, I’d learned that art permitted a shifting from the private and personal to something separate from the author and accessible to a large number of people. As George Steiner has written: ‘This translation out of the inarticulate and the private into the general matter of human recognition requires the utmost crystallization and investment of introspection and control.’ (Real Presences p. 13)

The writer is driven by a desire to make perfect. This process of refinement through revision is the major part of writing and it is a wholly conscious and deliberate process. But in the early stages of a new work, when thoughts, ideas, situations, entire characters emerge from the imaginative swill, there is much mystery, and wonder too.


Take Auden’s ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’. This great poem was inspired by Brueghel’s painting‘The Fall of Icarus’, which hangs in the Musée des Beaux Arts in Brussels. The poem was written in December 1938 when Auden was thirty-one.

Auden and Christopher Isherwood had set off at the beginning of 1938 for China, to collect material for a travel book. They journeyed throughout the country taking note of the people, the landscape and the customs. During their travels they were constantly aware of the war between China and Japan, although more as background rumble than intrusive, unavoidable aggression. In June, the two men arrived in New York where they met up with friends and embraced the life and familiarity of the West. Auden was in Brussels in August of that year and again in December. Throughout this year of travelling he was deliberating whether to emigrate to the United States. He did so the following year.

It was against this background that, in December, 1938, Auden wrote ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’.

The starting point is Brueghel’s painting. A little over a metre wide and about eighty centimetres tall, it depicts a summery day, the sun shining on the smooth water of a bay, an elegantly carved ship in the foreground, other ships more distant. On the land over-looking the bay, there is a farmer working his plough, a herdsman day-dreaming amongst his sheep, and a fisherman perched on a bank pulling in a catch. It’s a peaceful scene with everyone going about their business. But between the fisherman and ‘the expensive delicate ship’, there is a boy falling head first into the water, his flailing legs making a splash. The figure is small and easily overlooked: if not for the title of Brueghel’s painting, ‘The Fall of Icarus’, most people would not see the boy.

And now Auden’s poem, ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’.

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Brueghel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Perhaps it was Auden’s recent experience of the war in China as background, perhaps it was the prevailing threat from Germany that people were assiduously avoiding, perhaps it was the Nazi persecution of the Jews that all nations were conveniently ignoring. Perhaps he’d been reading particular philosophical works, poetry or the classics. Or perhaps it was something more personal, that Auden had experienced slights from lovers, or maybe friends had let him down. A multitude of factors might explain his response to ‘The Death of Icarus’ – a painting I assume he had seen before. But whatever they were, Auden was seized by Brueghel’s focus: the turning away from the disaster rather than the disaster itself, the death of the boy. (That marvellous boy who flew too close to the sun, the boy who through foolishness, negligence or wild curiosity attempted to stretch what was humanly possible.)

It is impossible to know what occurred in the privacy of Auden’s mind, nor would we want to. What can be said is that Brueghel’s painting hooked into Auden’s imagination. It connected with memory, experience, emotion, intellect, reason, books, other art; it connected with Auden’s past and present and his ideas and fears for the future. As for the poem itself, it is a refinement, a distillation and ultimately a highly controlled public product of the complex private workings of Auden’s mind.

This is what art can do, whether music, visual art, fiction, poetry. If given the opportunity, it can insinuate itself into the vast territory of mind. It can excavate memories, ideas, hopes and insights, and it can inspire something original, a new work of art. ‘…the best readings of art are art’ as George Steiner has observed.

Just over a decade ago, in the very early days of the novel that would become, Reunion, I decided, for reasons unrelated to the nascent work, to memorise Auden’s great poem. It was a difficult time: my partner, the poet Dorothy Porter, was being treated for cancer and my mother was disappearing into the tunnel of dementia. I was anxious, stressed, fearful, yet needed to appear strong, responsible and, above all, optimistic.

When life is riven with uncertainty and the days are as quicksand, the act of memorising fills time with something finite, certain and solid; simultaneously, it pushes the foundering self from the forefront of consciousness (just like the mental travelling of childhood), and such a welcome respite this is. Once I’d memorised the poem, I would lie awake at night, silently reciting it over and over, thereby thwarting other more disturbing and anarchic thoughts. This, I would later realise, was more than the literate person’s version of counting sheep.

One line in particular kept resonating. ‘How everything turns away/ Quite leisurely from the disaster’

This line, the centre of the poem, would be instrumental in shaping my new novel – not that I was conscious of this at the time. Reunioncentres on a group of friends known to one another since university days. They are the brightest and best of their generation: a molecular biologist, a novelist, a philosopher who becomes a TV celebrity, and a scholar of comparative religion. They go their separate ways for twenty years pursuing their careers in various parts of the world before being re-united back in Melbourne. At this time each of them is facing a serious crisis – of career, of love, and, in one case, of life itself. Each of these friends would insist on their loyalty to all the others, yet despite their protestations of love and commitment, each turns away quite leisurely from the various disasters unfolding before them.

It was long after Reunionwas finished that I realised how Auden’s 21-line poem had fed into my 110,000 word novel.

A similar process to that of Reunionoccurred with my next novel, The Memory Trap, but in the latter case, the initial imaginative trigger was music.

Music is truly the transcendent art: it warrants its placement at the centre of the imagination. At times I think music is all mind and all heart – simultaneously. A few months after my partner died, months during which I had avoided music so as not to risk the incontinent emotion that music would release, I found myself reaching for the requiems in my music library: Mozart, Fauré, Verdi. I listened and I kept listening, because while the music played, I experienced respite from the grieving, tormented self. The requiems captured me in some blessedly welcome and total way. I started buying requiems, and having discovered that more than two thousand had been composed, was reassured to know I would never run out.

I did not question what was happening. I was afraid that if I tried to deconstruct the experience, it might desert me. This music held my attention, it allowed me stillness and stimulation, but most of all it silenced the burdensome, life-wracked ‘I’.

When not listening to requiems, grief muscled in on consciousness and colonised it mercilessly. Grief is untidy, brash, sly and bullish; absence and loss are unremitting pain. I tried to contain the grief and loss by barricading the mind – the imagination – with contrived order, predictable activity, mind-filling and mind-numbing occupations. I completed jigsaw after jigsaw, I played on-line Scrabble. I, who had never before collected anything, started a coin collection, and for hours at a time I would arrange fifty cent pieces according to a variety of strategies. I reached out for order to impose on my chaos, activity to batten down grief and repel wayward thoughts. I tried to stopper the imagination.

Fortunately I failed. First came the requiems. Then Mahler’s symphonies – the big ones: the second, the third and most particularly the huge epic of the eighth. The music simultaneously dwarfed me and transported me away from deafening, all-consuming grief back to poetry and prose. In the solitude of my home with my dog pressed against me I began to read again, connecting with people who had experienced what I was going through. I started with C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed, read many years earlier, but striking a much richer chord now. There were poetry collections and Tennyson’s ‘In Memoriam’, and several novels and memoirs, including the work of Julian Barnes, who, with the death of his wife Pat Kavanagh just a couple of months before my partner died, was writing and publishing as if his very life depended on it. Once I began I could not stop. Rather than squeezing out the imagination with mind-numbing occupations, I needed to let it run free through the words, the art, of others.

Soon I was writing again, firstly a long essay and then the novel that would become The Memory Trap(2013). I started with music. This novel was to explore genius, in the case of my character, the pianist Ramsay Blake, musical genius. I had long been interested in the extent to which unacceptable behaviour in a genius is excused because of the exceptional gifts the genius provides. Over the next 2-3 years, starting with my pianist, I spent long days at my desk creating the lives of the five main characters: their loves, their marriages, their disappointments, their work, their yearnings, their frailties. While immersed in the fictional world, my own troubles were quiet.

It was at the end of the third or fourth complete draft, at the stage when the work was starting to read well, that I realised I’d written a novel about memory. All types of memory, from memorising to memorialising. I’d written a novel about memory at a time of bereavement when all I had wasmemory. The central character of The Memory Trapis not the pianist, Ramsay Blake, but Nina Jameson. She’s an international consultant on memorial projects: she assists groups around the world to define, develop and build monuments. I researched monuments, I collectedmonuments. I thought of them as ‘solid memory’, as if that were possible. But when a beloved dies, that’s exactly what you want.

Over the course of my life I have been fascinated by the strange alchemy whereby the private and ephemeral meanderings of a freely-ranging, borderless mind transmogrify into tangible, observable behaviours, whether it be a decision to marry or move house, or a work of art like a painting, a piece of music or a book. Fascinated, and in the case of The Memory Trap, profoundly grateful. During the hours spent at my desk, the gaping absence that comes with the death of a beloved, the profound sadness, the anguish of loss were all muted as I plunged into the lives of my characters and the world of the emerging novel. I was learning that a creative imagination and an intrusive demanding self are mutually exclusive.

*         *         *         *


The imagination is easily seeded. Books, paintings, music, and landscapes too can energise it. But no matter what the trigger, they all share the same requirements: namely, solitude, privacy and prolonged attention.

If the imagination were a landscape, I have been there. The first time was standing in the vast desert of Central Australia, the aged, red land stretching in all directions, the blobs of spinifex, the mounds of ancient upheavals and an undercurrent, a vibration, a presence of ever-lasting life. And Antarctica. The craggy white mountains, the glaciers plunging to the waters, the huge icebergs wetly gleaming, the wonder of a land without  human footprints. Immersed in this sublime landscape the self is silenced. One’s entire sense of being becomes continuous with the environment: like invisible stitching, the join cannot be seen.

This is mental travelling in 3D.

Kilauea, on the large island of Hawaii, is the longest continually active volcano on the face of the earth. It is another of these landscapes of the imagination. Kilauea is no tidy-coned mountain; it is an entire volcanic landscape of hardened lava formed from numerous eruptions over the centuries. WhenIvisit, the eruption is occurring in a remote area of the island. From there, the lava flows through underground tubes and eventually into the Pacific Ocean.

My journey to the location where the lava enters the sea starts on a late afternoon of fierce, uncomplicated heat; the Hawaiian sky is its usual pristine blue, and a clear night is predicted with a full moon. This adventure has been beckoning for years; it is hard to believe that at last I am on my way. I pull my hat lower, shuffle my back-pack into a more comfortable hollow and set off over the lava bench. In a short time I will be standing as close as one can to creation: where lava from Kilauea pours into the sea I will actually witness the formation of new land. Far in the distance through the quivering heat I can just see a cloudy column of smoke. This is the marvellous spot; this is my destination.

The trek takes me over a high, broad cliff comprised of huge, curving slabs of black lava. I am tentative at first, but soon my feet learn the plains and pitfalls of this turbulent ground. To my right, beyond the danger signs warning walkers away from the cliff edge, stretches the Pacific Ocean; I can’t see the breaking waves but I feel nicely swaddled by their crash and roar. The breeze, with no barriers to navigate on this barren ground, is stiff and steady. I stop for a moment, lift my hat and shake out my already-damp hair, raise my face to the wind. I close my eyes, stand motionless in the rushing air and the sea’s roar, peaceful and happy. And then off again over the lethal ground; skipping and leaping, marvellously nimble and filled with a mysterious vigour as I skim these lobes of solid lava. They are smooth and hard and overlapping, like billowing black blisters or slabs of hardened liver. The charred land stretches ahead of me to the column of smoke and beyond; it stretches to the left as far as I can see. I have a sense of myself as an insignificant dot in this vast landscape, yet at the same time I feel wantonly, sublimely limitless, as if merged with the environment itself. I bend down, run my hand over one of the smoothly sculpted mounds; it’s hot and finely textured, and – no point in trying to explain it – a rush of something fizzes up my arm and billows in my chest. Crouched on the blackened earth, I hold on to the sensation, and only when it abates do I continue my journey.

Skirting the crevices, gliding over the rise and fall of the lava slabs, five, ten, fifteen minutes pass before I stop again, this time to drink from my flask. My feet are frying. Briefly I’m tempted to remove shoes and socks and douse my feet in water; instead I lift my hat and pour a cupful over my head; it’s gorgeously chill.

The sun is now low in the sky. I remove my sunglasses, peer into the distance. The column of spray and steam is closer now; it looks like a messy great geyser. I twist around, it’s hard to be sure but I think I am more than half way. Which is when I see it, nearly a metre down in a narrow crevice just behind me, a small fern clinging greenly to a barren ledge. A plant sprouting in the lava. New life in all this devastation.

In the waning light the other people making this journey become smudged and shadowy, and soon there’s the splash of torchlight skittering the lava mounds. The sky, greenish near the horizon, curves upwards into a glorious dark blue; the first stars are out.

I leave my torch switched off; my vision is clear. Closer and closer I come, darker and darker is the sky, and soon I reach a cluster of shadows, a dozen people standing still and watching. The sea crashes and sizzles, the spray scatters, the signs warn stay back, stay back. And there, there it is, orange, yellow, red, a liquid fire in the night light, pouring sinuously – such a leisurely miracle – lava pouring out of the land and exploding in the roiling sea.

Feel it, feel the energy of the stream of fire from the great volcano, Kilauea.


We live in the fast-paced digital world. This is a world of infinite information, easy communication with like-minded people, immediate connection with strangers, access to archives and catalogues – the New York Review of Books! The entire National Library of Australia! – so much in reach without leaving home. And while there is quite a lot of rubbish too, the riches are far more abundant.

It has all happened so quickly – our contemporary world is characterised by change – one day I was marvelling at my new IBM selectric typewriter, the next and I am skyping with my friend Constantine in New York (even the verb is new).

I embrace the digital world, who would not? But the change has been so rapid and so pervasive that caught in the white water of the moment, it is easy to miss what is being left behind. In particular, privacy, solitude, restlessness, reticence, focussed attention, contemplation; all the properties that fuel imaginative work, are being squeezed in today’s world. Compounding the issue, several of these qualities have acquired new social and moral attributes. Shyness is now included among the list of disorders in the American Psychiatric Association’s statistical manual of mental disorders. Naughty children, children who can’t sit still, children who are not achieving in school are, these days, likely to be diagnosed as having ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). The child who chooses the library over the playground, who is quiet and reserved and prefers the edge of the crowd, risks being diagnosed a social isolate. Asperger’s Syndrome is used to describe any child who reveals social skills that are not perfectly aligned to the ever-shrinking normal, while any child who has a singular focus on a particular activity – whether it be block building, go-carting, maths or music – risks a diagnosis of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

The denigration of privacy, the pathologising of reticence and solitude, the conflating of restlessness with a form of attention deficit, the re-defining of focussed attention as a disabling obsession threatens the future of creative work. Original work is original exactly because it emerges from a perspective that sees beyond the mainstream. Without restlessness, without a level of impatience with the status quo, human understanding would never advance. Without uninterrupted time alone, without the opportunity for mental travelling, without prolonged periods of contemplation, creativity is stymied. Without obsession – I’m perfectly at ease with the word – there would be no musicians nor mathematical whizz kids, no writers nor artists.

Privacy has been derailed and, at the same time, redefined negatively as ‘secretive’. Sharing counts among the modern age’s essential activities; there’s a rush to tell everyone everything, and tell it immediately. This actually cauterises the imagination, stops it in its tracks.  It is as if something has not truly happened until it has been communicated, whether it be the purchase of a new pair of shoes, the meeting of one’s own true love, or the beheading of a journalist in Syria. And it is not just events that come into existence through sharing, identity itself is constructed by and manipulated through these communications.

We live in a world of non-stop connectivity; texting, instagram, twitter, Facebook and their numerous spin-offs. The mobile phone is the metaphorical heart beat of the modern individual. We sleep with it, run with it, eat with it. It accompanies us to the bathroom, it’s in reach while we have sex. It is a common sight to see two people seated together in a café each occupied with their mobile, the only communication occurring when one shares his/her screen with the other. And the phenomenon of the selfie, how quickly it has taken off, an instant click which puts each and every one of us in the limelight. A single selfie disseminated through Facebook, Instagram or any of the sharing forums can elicit dozens of responses, and how reassuring it is to know we are not alone in the world. With WiFi fast blanketing the earth, even in landscapes of the imagination the digital heart beats strongly.

There is no down time. There is no solitude. And with new products being developed all the time, like the recently released Apple watch, the situation is not about to improve.

Creative work has been further undermined by multi-tasking. Attention spans have not shortened in the digital age, indeed, the contrary is probably true. But instead of one task occupying a few hours, people will be juggling two or three tasks every few minutes. Email, Facebook, 24/7 news, twitter, instant photography, music, and, of course, work. The singular attention – the obsessiveness – of the creative artist is the opposite of multi-tasking, and is fast going the way of the typewriter and the tape cassette.

Then there is that wonderful, seductive infinite stock of information, literally at our fingertips: the internet. We have adapted very quickly, so much so, that when we want to know something, we want to know it now, whether it be the closest bagel shop (with pictures to show if the bagels are authentic), or a DVD featuring the very fetching Jonas Kauffman singing Andrea Chenier(there’s not); it doesn’t matter what the nature of the information, we expect to have it immediately. And we do not stop with a single answer. One search leads to umpteen others, and an hour later there is little to show for the time.

Back in the days when smoking was de rigueur, people would use cigarettes to take a break from work. These days, email and Facebook have replaced the ciggie break. But after ten minutes, rather than returning to work, we are more likely to be responding to half a dozen Facebook postings, checking some must-see blogs, following a couple of essential twitter feeds, combing photo files for a shot that must be sent to X immediately. And the train of thought of minutes ago is lost in all this frenetic activity.

The imagination, if neglected, readily becomes dormant. If it is not nurtured, it can actually decay. Muscles that are unused start to ache and thereby draw attention to themselves. Unfortunately, the imagination goes far more quietly.

Reading novels, listening to music, wandering vast and other-worldly landscapes, day-dreaming: in all these activities, the mind is relieved of the clamouring self. In all these activities the ego is not shouting ‘look at me’ ‘listen to me’ ‘like me’ ‘follow me’ ‘friend me’. In all these situations with the self quiet, the imagination has room to range.

The digital world, in contrast, is all about the self.

The self is a greedy, selfishbeast; it might stare at its navel and see an entire world, but it is deluded. While attention is directed at the self, the clouds overhead will pass unnoticed, the eastern rosellas scrabbling in the grass will be overlooked, the boy falling out of the sky and the brilliant lava hitting the sea will not be seen, this music and that novel will be ignored. We are already far too occupied.

The modern self, the sense of who we are and who we wish to be, is a malleable entity regularly made over to elicit approbation from others and satisfaction from ourselves. We shape our Facebook profile, we select our twitter feeds, we create whatever self suits the purpose at hand. The modern self is infinitely plastic.

From politicians to parents, from consumerism to courtship, the modern self has become an all-consuming project: pleasing it, placating it, tending it, polishing it, exercising it, publicising it. Advertisements, more ubiquitous than ever with location services and a wealth of metadata, enhance the process, concerned as they are with making the self look better, feel better, drive better, travel better, drink better, run better. They are all about the ever-improving project that is me.

The self as thehuman project par excellence defines the modern condition. And the self – me – as a fluid creation, an on-going work, has become the primary creative endeavour.


Solitude, privacy, contemplation and above all the muting of self are essential requirements for the imagination to work. Connectivity, sharing, multi-tasking and egocentricity are primary features of contemporary life. But we canhave it all: we can allow for both ways of being. There are digital treasures and digital time-wasting. We need to be selective and we need to be disciplined. It’s not necessary to jettison Facebook, but neither is it necessary to check it hourly. So, too with chat forums and twitter. And rather than do a search on-line for information, dig out that old hard-copy encyclopaedia instead. And don’t bring your mobile phone into your immediate workspace.

Having it all means digital-free time. It means walking in the park or along a deserted ocean beach having left the mobile at home. It’s enjoying an afternoon of music with all digital devices turned off. It’s reading – a novel, poetry, essays – away from your various devices, and should a query pop up in the course of reading, making a note to investigate it later. I take a digital-free Saturday. Every week, from sunset Friday to sunset Saturday I separate from my computer, my iPad and my mobile. I read, I walk, I listen to music, I day-dream.

We can have it all. We can enjoy the best of the digital world as well as the pleasures of the creative mind, this powerful, mysterious imagination, this ego-free resource which combines memory, emotion, knowledge, desire and intellect, this wondrous human property that has guided human progress from the cave to where we are today.