8:56 PM: The nice helper at the after-hours ticket outlet aka Festival Information Desk is holding the last two tickets to Jeanette Winterson and Susie Orbach’s Pop-up session, cash only, hoorah, I’ve got the cash, and we’re off with minutes to spare, slaloming around a few clumps of festival goers enjoying their Bill Oddie afterglow, just enough time to grab a wine, and, what’s this? The bar is closed! What?
No no, someone says, the bar is IN the room, and points the way. Swerve, final stretch, we push open the doors, and there it is -- the bar, and a room bursting with women (okay I guess there were a couple of men). The widest range of hair colours ever yet seen at an AWF session, reds of all shades, white, blond, black, a variety of hats, all stylish, one shawl with a baby being marsupialled in it. Two front row seats for us and our wines, just behind some happy couples ensconced on double beanbags which have been laid out in the space between the dais and us, heightening my feeling that we’re taking part in a giant slumber party, about to call the radio station to request our favourite songs, all through the night. The buzz is palpable.
It’s time. Our Miss Clavel appears and it’s Festival director Anne O’Brien in person, and you can see right away she’s not going to tell us to go to sleep, she’s exhilirated too, presenting Jeanette Winterson, author and memoirist (Oranges are not the only fruit), and Susie Orbach, psychotherapist (most famously to Lady Diana) and writer (Fat is a feminist issue), together since 2010 and soon to celebrate their first anniversary as a married couple, ready to riff tonight on the theme of madness and creativity.
Once the wild applause fades, the first thing -- and the second -- they do is ask for the lights to brought up so they can see us. They want to see us! How many guests from their places on the stage have mumbled about how they can't see anyone but who ever asked -- twice -- for the lights to be brought up?
“How many people here think of themselves as creative? Raise your hands!” Winterson throws out. Hands everywhere you look.
“How many people here think of themselves as crazy?” Almost as many.
“Creativity is our birthright as human beings" she pronounces. "Every child is born creative and then we knock it out of them. Not everyone will be an artist but we’re all involved in the creative response.”
“It’s interesting you say that because I’m not sure I agree,” responds Orbach calmly, in the first of several instances of endearing married couple-style banter, mentioning "Winnicott’s theory" that creativity is born of babies searching for a relationship with their mother.
“Yes”, Winterson concedes, it’s clearly about relationships, “not the the lone white male they want you to believe.” But who is to say which relationships? “The thing about artists is you can’t trust them, you have to trust the work. I’ve always thought a creative work is first and foremost a lie detector.” Her “autobiographical” novel Oranges are not the only fruit comes to mind, the one of which she once said, “I wrote a story I could live with. The other one was too painful”.
She wonders how we are doing, could we see them well enough, considering that we are going to be spending an hour together, and invites Orbach to join her in perching on the backrest of the ottoman instead of sitting on its seat. Marvellously, they suddenly go from being talking heads to being individuals in flesh and blood, Winterson looking a bit like a mischievous chimney sweep in her black stovepipe-ish jeans, shirt and leather shoes with stitching around the toes which managed to suggest a certain elfin upturning, and Orbach like a sexy Parisian concierge with her black silk chemisier and skirt, and head of untidy curls.
The role of anxiousness is touched on, with Orbach describing the psychoanalyst’s “50 minute hour” as a place of both anxiety and extraordinary creativity. Winterson agrees, replying eloquently, “What is home? Where do I belong? What is my culture? These massive questions: the creativity we make is a sort of an answer”. And, “It’s not just a personal answering, it’s a gift -- we want it to enter into other people.”
“Why do we get so damn scared?” Orbach asks, turning to the question of bravery, of daring.
Winterson talks of when she was writing Why be happy when you could be normal, and how the question emerged for her of how much to reveal. In the end, she says, you need to find the "place you have to access in order to do the work you have to do”.
“In my generation,” says Orbach, who will turn seventy next year (Winterson is in her fifties), “daring to express yourself sent women into breakdowns”.
Something creative people must have, agrees Winterson, is enough confidence to risk bringing out another part of themselves. “Often what we call creativity is recklessness or ruthlessness,” she acknowledges.
Towards the end, they reminisce about their youth. “The search I was in could have led to depression or psychosis but the women’s liberation movement came along,” says Susie Orbach. “That’s how I got out of being crazy” -- not counting the craziness of youth, of course!
On Winterson's part, even with the hard childhood she’d had, locked repeatedly in the coal cellar for punishment by her missionary adoptive mother, not allowed to have books at home (she hid them under her mattress, where her mother found them and burned them), she has something almost romantic to say about the escape route she had created. “My best friends were dead. When I needed them I went and got them off the shelves of the public library.” And launches into an effusive description of a chance reading of TS Eliot on the library steps, aged 16, as Orbach smiles benignly. Generously. "I think that's wonderful," she says.
Kiwi author Joanne Drayton, another brave front-rower sitting a few seats down from us, asks if they think creative opportunities are diminishing in today's world.
Orbach allows as how she thinks there’s been a democratisation of creativity, even as we live under an economic structure that dictates where we are to find satisfaction. Although the first of those postulates could be seen as positive (and in fact Winterson is enthusiastic about the idea of democratisation and takes it as a sign that things are improving), she can't however ignore the alarming fact that 24 million people follow someone on youtube who shows you how to make yourself up so you look like Barbie.
Yes, says Winterson, “The best and the worst is now visible, it’s in your face all the time”. But, she concludes, “I’m optimistic, I think people will sort it out.”
Sometimes I feel that way and sometimes not. And I have to wonder if, brainy as she is, that isn’t true for Jeanette Winterson too. But right then, there was no doubt that she was speaking from her heart. That was what was so wonderful about the evening: the standing up (or perching on a backrest) for spontaneity, in a medium like the literary festival circuit where spontaneity is regrettably, if perhaps inevitably, in short supply.
As I’m writing, all I can think is how glad I am I got to see them like this, in their own orchestration, turning a crowd of curious admirers into friends for the hour, rather than watching a film of them walking around the Auckland Art Gallery peering at creative works and dropping bon mots about creativity as some guy from TV3 followed them around with a videocamera, as I chanced to see a short clip of. Actually, I couldn't have seen more if I'd wanted to, as it was on the Auckland Art Gallery's facebook page, and as I'm not a facebook user, the view was obscured by a banner inviting me to join facebook today.
What a happy privilege to have had the Orbach-Winterson experience live and off the network!