The Unchartered continent of the imagination. 14/11/08


I have been inspired (or at least intrigued)by a wonderful article In the New Scientist(8 nov.) entitled Private life of the Brain by Douglas Fox, which is an investigation of the findings by neuroscientists that the brain appears to be more active and burn more calories doing absolutely nothing (ie daydreaming, staring vacantly out of the window onto the window box or nature etc) as opposed to solving mathematical problems –or working on complex plots for novels perhaps. Some called it the neural dynamo of daydreaming (don’t you just love that – sounds like a 90’s hypno band) while others suggest it might be a mechanism to select memories and weave them up into personal narratives. Certainly the latter resonated for me. I’ve often been aware in my writing process that the period between drafts is often more important than the actual writing of the work. There’s a kind of fermentation that takes place when the work, now sounded out in actual hard copy, lingers on in the mind when you’ve stopped labouring each line, metaphor etc. And one finds oneself waking up at three am with a plot solution dangling tantalisingly in mid-air.

Dreaming has the same effect and I’ve been known to ask a question to myself before sleeping hoping the problem will effortlessly be turned over, sculpted and formed into a comprehensible solution by the magic of dreaming. Perhaps there is a great unchartered continent within our brains full of tiny scribes pulling out the various experiences of the day, some unexpressed desire that has been transferred on an innocent friend from the past, that strange cake you ate at four, the cat you nearly ran over a week ago – seemingly arbitrary meaningless encounters and events  – all mixed up then refiled and rewritten into a magical text through which we re-live our lives with a different meaning – sometimes less frightening, sometimes far more colourful and passionate than our waking lives. And I wonder whether dreaming is also part of this massive (recorded and real) activity in the resting mind.

Interestingly they have also recorded same levels of activity in heavily anaesthetised monkeys, which makes me suspect that the divide between conscious and unconscious is a gross simplification. As a writer I have also become aware of the notion of the imagination as a muscle and that in individuals such as writers (particularly fiction writers who use their imagination a great deal) this muscle is often over exercised. Certainly when I don’t exercise this muscle, my imagination tends to spill over into my real life, which is probably why I’m happiest when writing; it keeps me sane.

I escaped grey London and went to Paris for two days. It was a public holiday (a celebration of the end of the First World war) and the Luxemburg gardens were full of Parisian families celebrating through simple things- sailing wooden toy yachts on the pond (some with tiny flags flapping in the breeze) three young people playing volley ball with no ball (couldn’t work out whether they were mime artists or serious athletes such was the concentration).

I’m waiting on the galleys of my new novel Sphinx which has been over two years solid work. A thriller set in Alexandria, Egypt in 1977, it is located in the European Diaspora that existed before Nasser and still had the remnants of the community in those years. French was the Linga franca and the astrolabe that my protagonist discovers is linked to Napoleon via Sonnini De Manoncour, an naturalist who travelled with the Emperor’s troops during the Egyptian campaign (there is a letter he has left at a Coptic monastery describing the mechanism – a fictional predecessor of the Antikythera mechanism – www.nature.com/nature/videoarchive/antikythera a cheeky literary device of my own) So, despite this time being one of the rare breaks between full-time writing – enforced by other people’s timetables (thank God, otherwise I’d be a workaholic) I still felt linked to the book but hopefully this time of reflection will get those tiny scribes frenetically seeding unconscious landscape of my imagination before I’m back at the desk next week.