Thursday, 28 July 2022

Letter to my unfulfilled idea

This week, I was invited to speak at the In Your Dreams: Letters Aloud salon. In these monthly events, being run by Pirate and Queen, five people are asked to write a letter and read it aloud for the first time in front of a live audience. For the July event, the theme was Letter to my Unfulfilled Idea.

* * *

Years and years ago, I was acquainted with the idea of a “manager’s manual” – a guide for your new staff on how to operate you, their new boss. I took on this idea, and one of the statements in my manager’s manual is: I am an ideas fountain. 

My 30s seemed to be a particularly rich period for generating ideas. 
I went through a stage of riffing on a range of condiments enriched with alcohol, which I never pursued: peanut butter and rum, cheese whizz and tequila. 

There was a time there where I was promoting the idea of a week-later newspaper: a newspaper that re-presented stories from the previous week, edited down the ones that had turned out to actually be important. 
I invented a product where you could upload your Powerpoint file to an online provider, who would turn them into analogue 35 mil slides, and send them back to you with a slide carousel, so you could give pretentious illustrated lectures. 

Then there was that period when everyone was doing "My year of X, Y, Z". You remember - you set yourself a daily task or development challenge, blogged it, then turned your blog into a book and the book into a speaking career, fame and glory. In that period, I had the idea I'd spend a year training as an adult gymnast. That idea definitely remains unfulfilled. 

And my best, worst, unrealised idea: a service where your order personalised statement condoms. You go online, design your condom logo - days of the week, happy 21st, be my Valentine - and get the printed item delivered to your door. I never took that idea anywhere, and deservedly so. 

On the other hand, I have some ideas from that period that I'm still very fond of. The Museum of Emotions is one of these. 

It was inspired by my job, and my life, and a poem titled 'William and Cynthia' by Charles Simic: 

Says she'll take him to the Museum 
of Dead Ideas and Emotions. 
Wonders that he hasn't been there yet. 
Says it looks like a Federal courthouse 
With its many steps and massive columns. 

 Apparently not many people go there 
On such drizzly gray afternoons. 
Says even she gets afraid 
In the large exhibition halls 
With monstrous ideas in glass cases, 
Naked emotions on stone pedestals 
In classically provocative poses. 

 I had been thinking at that time about how the English language felt impoverished. How we had a dwindling number of words for love, for friendship, for our feelings. How words have become watered down over time - words like melancholy or chivalry once had entire schools of thought built around them, rather than meaning ‘a bit depressed’ or ‘holds doors open for women’. And how when our language is impoverished, our ability to describe or share or face our emotions is likewise diminished.
The Museum of Emotions was not about collections, civic pride, or community involvement. It would be a place that you could go to, to experience emotions that have fallen into disuse, emotions that are foreign to your everyday life, or emotions that have not been part of your life yet. 

It’s not a place to learn about emotions. It’s a place to feel them

I had a conversation at the time with a friend about my idea. He talked about a museum where you programmed exhibitions and performances explicitly designed to elicit emotional responses. I talked about a room that you went into where someone would radiate an emotion towards you, like perfume rising off warm skin. Where you could, as the kids came to say a little while later, catch feelings

Say you'd never had a broken heart. Say you'd never held a baby you'd given birth to. Say you'd never gambled a pay cheque away. Say you'd never punched your bully. Say you've never cheated. Or been cheated on. Say you'd never lost a job. Or an election. Or a parent. Say you could go somewhere, and try those feelings on for size. Say that’s a Museum of Emotions 

Let's go back to Simic’s first line: Says she'll take him to the Museum / of Dead Ideas and Emotions. 

I never noticed that 'dead ideas' bit until last Friday, when I sat down to write this letter. I had always focused on the emotions. 

This idea might be unfulfilled, but it's far from dead. It's more like its simmering on a back element in my brain, a pork bone in a stock pot, flavouring my thinking. It was originally presented in a conference keynote lecture. It lives on in a couple of blog posts I wrote at the time. I occasionally go back and visit those posts, just to remind my idea that I still care about it. This last week, I’ve brought it forth, and played with it some more. 

So let's not say "unfulfilled" ideas. Let's say: still cooking.

* * *

My letter was a challenge I set for myself in trying to write something good, without reaching for easy emotions (a crutch I lean on too readily when trying to connect with audiences). In the (very, very good) Q&A after the event, run by organiser and impresario Claire Mabey, I got into a lot more of the background behind this piece of writing:

I wrote up that powerpoint / slide carousel idea in November 2012. A lot of my thinking that year was shaped by things like the digital/analogue flip-flop (eg via Dan Catt) and experiments like Berg's Little Printer.

The Museum of Emotions was written towards the end of 2012 too. That was the year my husband died. I was stripped bare that year. Art meant something very different to me. The Museum of Emotions was especially inspired by a particular visit to Michael Parekowhai's On first looking into Chapman's Homer.  

The Museum of Emotions was a small part of a keynote talk given in late 2012 at the National Digital Forum conference, titled Going back to Gallery Land

Here's the final stanza of that Charles Simic poem

Says she doesn't understand why he claims
All that reminds him of a country fair.
Admits there's a lot of old dust
And the daylight is the color of sepia,
Just like this picture postcard
With its two lovers chastely embracing
Against a painted cardboard sunset.

The next Letters Aloud event is on 31 August, is on the theme 'Letter to the Future' and features Karlya Smith, Clementine Ford, Paddy Gower, Emily Writes, and Anthonie Tonin.

Anna Rawhiti-Connell was part of the first Letters Aloud event, 'Letter to my Biggest Failure'. Her letter about not becoming a parent is published on The Spinoff, who are partners in the series (thanks for the tote team :)

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