Meg Rosoff Artsnight


Meg Rosoff

Magazine arts show. Award-winning novelist Meg Rosoff explores the relationship between art and the unconscious mind as she attempts to unlock the secrets of the creative brain.


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Where does a unique artistic voice come from?

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Why do some books, performances and paintings move us when others don't?

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For me, it begins with a powerful connection to the unconscious.

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The unconscious can be a terrifying place,

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home to death and fear and anxiety.

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But you'll also find love, desire, creativity there.

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I believe that without a strong connection between the conscious

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and the unconscious minds, you can't make great art.

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Which brings us, rather surprisingly, to dressage.

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Think of your conscious mind as the rider - rational, directed,

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concerned with the everyday.

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Your conscious mind gets you to work and pays the taxes.

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Your unconscious mind is the horse.

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Big, unruly and wild, the place of dreams and desires.

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When the two work together, the results can be breathtaking.

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In my Artsnight, I'm talking to artists from the world of

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literature, drama, dance and music,

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whose work perfectly demonstrates the power of the connected brain.

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I'll also be meeting a psychotherapist and

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a neuroscientist to discover how we can strengthen the connection

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to our own unconscious.

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So, lie back and let your living room sofa become the Freudian couch

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as we explore the mysteries of the creative brain.

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This is my Artsnight.

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The conscious mind.

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That is the sum total of all the things of which we are aware.

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It's quite a small part of the mind.

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But this is not the total amount of which we're capable.

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But much more interesting than this is what is beyond here.

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What is the unconscious?

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How do artists connect to it?

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By its definition, it's unknowable, the stuff of dreams,

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the part of our brain that governs most of our behaviour,

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but of which we're totally oblivious, unable to control.

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All around the outside area, if you like,

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of consciousness and memory

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there is a great deal more information,

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feeling, thought, past experience, drive and emotion of which

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we're not aware but which can help to influence us.

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An artist might not be aware of the connection,

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but when it's there, you see it straight away.

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It's a certain stillness or resonance,

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and my first two guests most definitely have it.

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Anne-Marie Duff is one of our most acclaimed actresses,

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with a career spanning over 20 years on stage and screen.

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Denise Gough has, in the past 12 months,

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gone from unknown to West End star,

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thanks to a career-changing role as an addict in remission

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in the play People, Places And Things.

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We should say "penis" a lot, because we're in this room.

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Penis, penis, penis.

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Obviously I see a cock.

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Penises everywhere, look at them.

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It was the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud,

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who first defined and popularised the notion of the unconscious.

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So, I've invited them to join me at the psychoanalyst's chair

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for some analysis.

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So, we're here today in Freud's study to talk about

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the unconscious and how that affects performance.

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It's kind of extraordinary knowing that the couch is over there.

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Because Freud calcified a lot of things in the study of

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psychology, and so it had a massive effect on drama.

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So, for us two to be in this room, you know,

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makes perfect sense because the plays... There are, you know...

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You have a real sense of pre-Freud and post-Freud

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in terms of playwrights.

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Do you, even as an actor, you have that pre-Freud and post-Freud...?

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Yeah, we do, because of course we all speak Freud.

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-Don't we?

-Of course, yeah.

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-It's become so much part of our culture as well.

-Yeah.

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Do you think that in order to be a good actor you need to be

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connected to your unconscious?

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For me, the best actors,

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and the ones I have then met afterwards,

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they do seem to have a connection to themselves,

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and when I go to see things,

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I can feel if somebody's telling me the truth or not. So...

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-Telling the truth as opposed to acting the truth?

-Yeah, I...

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There's a lot of performing that goes on,

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and a lot of that is taught, and a lot of that is fear.

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I see a lot of fear onstage.

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You know, people frightened to go to a place...

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..that, personally for me, you have to go to,

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you have to lay it all bare.

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My mother's gone to my flat.

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Boxed up everything - bottles, pills, everything.

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That's good.

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That's a very clear commitment to getting well.

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There was blood on the bathroom walls.

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She'll have seen that.

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There's this great quote, isn't there, by Nureyev where he says,

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"People don't come to watch us dance, they come to watch our fear."

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And I think that's a lot to do with it as well.

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What you do with your fear.

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And that's when it's really thrilling, isn't it, when

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either people button up or just tuck themselves neatly away

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or can't cope with being onstage or are...

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really bold and brave.

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So, it's an element of risk, in a way.

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It has to be about risk, and that's when it's sexy,

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and that's when you're uncomfortable or turned on or connecting as

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an audience member, isn't it? And I think that's it.

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It's the same with poetry.

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-You know, it's the same with...

-It is the same with poetry.

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Every soul-level art-form, I think, really is about that,

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because it's the unspoken stuff.

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SHE SNARLS

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As an actress, Anne-Marie has never been afraid to take risks, with

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roles as varied as the ageing Queen Elizabeth I in The Virgin Queen,

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head of the Gallagher family in Paul Abbott's Shameless,

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and one of the great classical ballet dancers of all time,

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Margot Fonteyn, in TV biopic Margot.

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Does a good part or a good play change you?

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Does the process of doing it change you?

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I think it does, because you have to visit corners of yourself

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sometimes, in order to flesh out a character.

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If you are having to immerse yourself in some darkness, that can

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be quite difficult, because, after a while, you kind of say,

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"Well, I'm full up now. I am full to the brim now."

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But I suppose you still find... which is going to sound ridiculous

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to anyone who doesn't do what we do,

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but you sort of find a weird, screwed-up joy in that and say,

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"Yeah, but...but this is what you really wanted, you see?

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"Because you're really going there."

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-Yeah.

-And that seems extremely vain,

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and I suppose there is a lot of narcissism in it, but...

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There is a lot of narcissism in saying,

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"This is my truth and you should hear it."

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You found it! God bless you!

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You bitch!

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It was Anne-Marie's powerful portrayal of

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a so-called fallen teenage girl in Peter Mullan's The Magdalene Sisters

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that first introduced her to a wider audience.

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You're a wicked bitch, you know that?!

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You're a wicked thieving bitch!

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She had Crispina's St Christopher under her bed!

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The only thing that girl owns in the whole world, and you took it!

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It was similarly dark material,

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portraying an addict in full breakdown, that announced

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Denise Gough as a major new talent,

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and won her this year's Olivier Award for Best Actress.

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I am!

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I am, I'm trying to get myself well.

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Telling a story about addiction and that kind of thing,

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if you're going to take on that, then you better be damn sure

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you research and you tell the truth about that.

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So, I spoke to everyone I could speak to.

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I had access to people at the Priory and psychiatrists,

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and then people who were in early recovery and who are still

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using and drinking, and I...

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I kind of checked in my performance with them.

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I know that the next time I drink or use, I know that'll be it.

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I'll be dead.

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I don't think I knew that until right now.

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Until I literally just said it, but it's true.

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It's going to kill me.

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Yeah, I need help. Please, help me.

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'The year before I did that play, I was out of work.'

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No work, no money. Cleaning jobs, like, looking after kids...

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I had...I was really, I thought, "Oh, my God. Maybe that's it."

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What it has done in the past few months for me is insane.

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Suddenly I'm invited to everything and it's all shiny, and...

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But, because of that year out of work,

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I'm just nicely careful of remembering...

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..what my world is really about.

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Listen to me. Listen to me for a second, OK?

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All right, please, this is important to me.

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I'm trying to do something, for once in my life,

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I'm trying to do something for myself.

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Is it possible to be truthful as an actor if you're not connected

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to your psyche, to your unconscious?

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The thing about it as well, in terms of truth...

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I think creative fields are very forgiving.

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And people are allowed to live their truths.

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They're very egalitarian.

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You're allowed to be gay, straight, black, white, common as you like...

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-Yeah.

-And honourable.

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But we all exist within that work.

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And that world, you know.

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So, I think you can share your truth and it be a safe place to do that.

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Which is a great base camp for then storytelling.

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That's really interesting.

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So, in a way, what you're saying is that it's safe to write

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a book about being, you know, a gay transvestite,

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mad person in a way that you couldn't really do in real life,

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but you can plumb the depths of your unconscious

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and really put it out there.

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-That's the joy of storytelling.

-Yes.

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Channelling the unconscious into storytelling

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is what I do for a living.

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But it took me a long time to get there.

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It wasn't until I was 47 that my first novel was published.

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You might be watching this, thinking,

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connecting to the unconscious is what artists do,

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near impossible for everyone else,

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but I passionately believe we can all do it.

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When I teach creative writing,

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I tell my students that anybody can do it,

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that really it's just a question of being willing to go into your psyche

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and pay attention to what's in there.

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And I get that pretty much from him.

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What I do to make it simpler is to do a drawing,

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and in this drawing I show a big oval

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that represents the unconscious.

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And a little circle next to it, which is the conscious mind.

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Now, here you find stuff like fear, death, anxiety...

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But there's also the good stuff.

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There's creativity and there's imagination and there's dreams.

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There's a bridge between the two of them,

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and it's a narrow little bridge,

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but the more you walk between the conscious mind,

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where you think about taxes and what to have for dinner,

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and the unconscious, which is the big thoughts,

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the more resonance you get in your everyday life.

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It's not easy, but it can be done,

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and really all it requires is practice.

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I want to put my theory to an expert in the field,

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so I've come to talk to Susie Orbach, one of the most respected

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'psychotherapists in Britain.

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'It's slightly daunting entering a shrink's office and asking

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'her to do the talking, but here goes.'

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I'm here to talk to you about the workings of the unconscious brain,

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and whether you think that there are ways that you can

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talk about the unconscious that help people unlock creativity.

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I think I'd probably come at it slightly differently, which is...

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I'm really interested in the things

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that make it hard for people to know what they're feeling.

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Mmm.

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People might be feeling...

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..very frightened, but actually what they feel is vulnerable,

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or they might be angry and what they're fearful of is...

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..intimacy.

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I think it touches what you're probably calling

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unconscious processes.

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We know from our dreams that we're all incredible dramatists

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and have the capacity to create things that we don't

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understand where they come from.

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So, I think it's creating a situation in which

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it's possible to let us be curious about our own imagination.

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-I talk about "writer's magic".

-Mm-hmm.

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People think writers are magic people because we can do

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things like say,

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-"Well, my character wanted to do this."

-Mm-hmm.

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I go to great lengths to explain to people that it's not magic,

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that what it is is it's allowing something to come to the surface.

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Well...the thing about being a creative,

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whether it's a writer, a painter, a composer, a physicist, is...

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There's a massive amount of learning and discipline, isn't there?

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And skill that gets developed,

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that allows you to surrender to another part of yourself.

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So, you have to be able to hear what's emerging.

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And what I tell students all the time is that all you have

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that differentiates you from the writer sitting next to you...

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maybe, might be talent,

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but really it's the nature of what's in your head.

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-Well, it's the "you" of you.

-The "you" of you.

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And if there is no "you" of you in whatever you're working on, your

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painting, your book, your music, then there's...then it's dead.

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I think what can happen is that the "you" of you comes out in the work,

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and then you've got to catch up with the "you" of you in your life,

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and putting those two things together

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-is really quite interesting.

-It is interesting.

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There are moments when you're writing where, suddenly, you

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don't even know where the writing's coming from, but it's there.

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And that's what feels like magic.

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Well, I'm not opposed to calling that magic.

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-I don't think it is magic.

-No, it isn't, but I'm not...

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-What you're describing is that harmony.

-Yeah.

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Again, I would use the word "surrender" because you're

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both actively producing, and yet not knowing that you're doing it.

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It's a very deep engagement.

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For me, this deep engagement with the unconscious is never

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clearer than when I see a really great dancer in full flow.

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When your brain and your body are very familiar with a sequence of

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choreography, you don't think ahead at all, and you're just right there,

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you do things that you didn't realise you were capable of.

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You enter into this sort of zone.

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Your mind really focuses, and suddenly you're, like,

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pouring with sweat.

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Edward Watson is principal dancer with the Royal Ballet,

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and has a reputation for capturing emotional intensity.

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He's currently working on a new collaboration with

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renowned choreographer Wayne McGregor.

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Yeah, that's it.

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That's nice, and then when you get to here, it's just...

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It's a funny thing that happens when you're just

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so concentrated on trying to pick up what somebody's asking you to do.

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You're trying to interpret their vision.

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There's a point where it feels like

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it's just the two of your brains kind of working together.

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There we are.

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It's not really a relaxed state,

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but it's a much more physically aware state.

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That intensity can be quite fragile.

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You feel like you're stretched to your limits quite often.

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It's sort of like a therapy to do it.

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I think you've sort of nailed it in ways, when you're conscious,

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the things that you're aware of, and the unconscious things which,

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when they come together and there's sort of this unknown joining

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of those two things.

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It is a little bit spiritual.

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That feeling of...

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It's a little bit beyond your control,

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even though you are controlling it and doing it.

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At some point in our lives,

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we all will have experienced something like this feeling,

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where we're engaged with something creative and time seems

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altered somehow.

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Those moments of sudden insight, of being in the zone.

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But what's actually going on in the brain when this happens?

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I've invited neuroscientist Lewis Hou to join me

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at the point in my day when all my best ideas flow out of my brain.

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My morning walks with these guys.

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So, we've been talking to lots of different people about being

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in the creative zone, and what it means to be in the flow.

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What's the scientific take on that?

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Ooh. Um...

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I think...I mean,

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this idea of being in flow is a really interesting question

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from a science point of view, because it starts tapping into things like consciousness,

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you know, this kind of "in the zone," what is that?

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-Time seems to slow down but also sometimes be faster.

-Yeah.

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And there have been a few really interesting studies looking at jazz

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musicians, putting them in an FMRI, so a functional MRI scanner,

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playing something they've practised before, so they've pre-learned,

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and then comparing that with something when they are improvising.

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And we see some really interesting changes in this kind of network,

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-creativity network or...

-So, it actually looks different?

-It does.

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When you're playing something you know and when you're improvising?

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Exactly, and what seems to be happening is that there's

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a part of the brain called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex,

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so it's kind of...maybe up here, next to your temple.

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And, in fact, this is the part of the brain which seems to be

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really involved in social inhibition and, you know,

0:18:570:19:01

it's the kind of part that really...

0:19:010:19:02

-Doing the right thing.

-Doing the right thing. The regulator.

0:19:020:19:05

It develops over adolescence.

0:19:050:19:07

But there seems to be a temporary disabling of that part of the brain,

0:19:070:19:10

and then actually there's other parts of the brain then actually become more active.

0:19:100:19:14

What interests me about what you just said is that, if that's

0:19:140:19:17

the part of the brain that develops during adolescence,

0:19:170:19:20

that maybe, when people talk about creativity as being

0:19:200:19:24

a child-like state, that you are kind of going back to the...to

0:19:240:19:28

a state where you're less of an adult, you're less inhibited

0:19:280:19:32

in your thought processes.

0:19:320:19:35

I think that's definitely the truth.

0:19:350:19:37

So, perhaps accessing the unconscious is less about

0:19:380:19:42

pinning down the creative connection,

0:19:420:19:44

and more to do with letting go of inhibitions,

0:19:440:19:47

a release or trust in whatever comes flowing out.

0:19:470:19:50

I'm travelling to Norwich to meet

0:19:540:19:56

a writer who mastered this elusive connection aged just 27,

0:19:560:19:59

but it took almost a decade

0:19:590:20:01

to find a publisher brave enough to trust its power.

0:20:010:20:05

You'll soon. You'll give her a name.

0:20:070:20:10

In the stitches of her skin, she'll wear your say.

0:20:100:20:13

Mammy me? Yes, you.

0:20:130:20:15

Bounce the bed I'd say.

0:20:150:20:17

I'd say that's what you did.

0:20:170:20:19

Then lay you down.

0:20:190:20:20

They cut you round.

0:20:200:20:22

Wait and hour and day.

0:20:220:20:24

Eimear McBride burst into the public's consciousness

0:20:260:20:29

in 2013 with A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing.

0:20:290:20:33

It went on to win the Baileys Prize for Novel Of The Year,

0:20:330:20:36

and became that rarest of things,

0:20:360:20:38

a literary bestseller.

0:20:380:20:40

The prose was stream of consciousness, almost pre-conscious,

0:20:410:20:45

a coming-of-age story about a young woman coping with sexual

0:20:450:20:49

abuse and her brother's terminal illness.

0:20:490:20:52

The connection between your conscious and your unconscious mind seems particularly strong.

0:20:520:20:56

Where does it come form?

0:20:560:20:58

I had an idea about trying to write

0:20:580:21:02

from a different kind of perspective,

0:21:020:21:05

trying to capture that part of the consciousness which is unrecognised.

0:21:050:21:11

So, it's almost like the step between consciousness

0:21:110:21:15

and subconsciousness.

0:21:150:21:17

It's the part of life that you experience,

0:21:170:21:19

but the minute you try to verbalise, becomes degraded.

0:21:190:21:24

That's how I felt when I was reading Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing,

0:21:240:21:28

that it was things coming from a very dense and deep place.

0:21:280:21:34

It was trying to capture all of that part of life,

0:21:340:21:36

which is hugely significant to us all, it informs so much of

0:21:360:21:40

how we live, of the decisions we make, of how we react to people,

0:21:400:21:44

yet not in control of.

0:21:440:21:46

When I started writing,

0:21:460:21:47

I really didn't know what I was going to be writing about.

0:21:470:21:51

I certainly didn't feel that I was in control of that process.

0:21:510:21:54

Now, you say outside of yourself, I would say here,

0:21:540:21:58

outside of your conscious mind.

0:21:580:22:00

Yeah. Certainly.

0:22:000:22:01

I dream of creeping under. I dream of underground

0:22:010:22:06

where the warm earth is

0:22:060:22:07

where the fire goes,

0:22:070:22:09

where we're sleep creep

0:22:090:22:11

you and me in holes.

0:22:110:22:12

Who's there? There's no-one.

0:22:120:22:15

You and only me.

0:22:150:22:17

We sing.

0:22:170:22:18

We lilt our chamber.

0:22:180:22:20

No-one coming.

0:22:200:22:21

And we lie a thousand years of sleep.

0:22:210:22:24

Both of your parents were psychiatric nurses.

0:22:260:22:28

Presumably, an interest in the unconscious was in your...

0:22:280:22:34

family?

0:22:340:22:35

Growing up,

0:22:350:22:38

there was never any taboo in talking about mental illness or

0:22:380:22:44

mental ill health or learning difficulties.

0:22:440:22:47

Those, you know, were sort of normal parts of our life.

0:22:470:22:50

What about things like sex and death

0:22:500:22:53

and the big things families don't talk about?

0:22:530:22:55

I think, you know, in common with most Irish families,

0:22:550:22:58

sex was not much on the menu as a topic of conversation,

0:22:580:23:02

and death was frequently on the menu as a topic of conversation.

0:23:020:23:06

-One of the favourites.

-Yes.

0:23:060:23:08

And I think this is a good thing about Irish culture,

0:23:080:23:10

is that death is close to us, all the time.

0:23:100:23:15

It sits on the surface of our lives,

0:23:150:23:17

it's not something that's hidden or concealed,

0:23:170:23:20

and I suppose part of the reason why I was so interested to write about

0:23:200:23:24

female sexuality was because that is not something that I grew up hearing

0:23:240:23:30

people speak about or knowing even how to speak about myself.

0:23:300:23:35

There is no Jesus here these days,

0:23:350:23:38

just Come all you fucking lads.

0:23:380:23:41

I'll have you every one any day.

0:23:410:23:43

Breakfast dinner lunch and tea.

0:23:430:23:46

The human frame the human frame

0:23:460:23:49

the human frame requires.

0:23:490:23:51

Give them something.

0:23:510:23:53

A good hawk spit for what it's worth.

0:23:530:23:55

They'll say my name forever shame

0:23:550:23:58

but do exactly what I say.

0:23:580:24:01

Isn't there a parallel between coming of age sexually and

0:24:010:24:05

-coming of age as a writer?

-Yes, I think so.

0:24:050:24:08

-Realising that I was allowed to be angry...

-Yes.

0:24:080:24:12

..as a writer, as a woman,

0:24:120:24:14

and I could write about that in a brutal way,

0:24:140:24:17

that I didn't have to make nice, that there were terrible things

0:24:170:24:21

in the world and the best thing to do was to write about them terribly.

0:24:210:24:24

Isn't it extraordinary how women feel they have to make nice?

0:24:240:24:29

Because, for me, I was 46 years old and my agent said to me,

0:24:290:24:33

"Don't worry about the rules of writing.

0:24:330:24:35

"Write as fiercely as you can."

0:24:350:24:36

And I thought at that moment, "This is the first time in my life

0:24:360:24:40

"anybody has said do anything as fiercely as you can."

0:24:400:24:43

There is tremendous, you know,

0:24:430:24:46

ferocity and violence in women

0:24:460:24:51

that is so untapped, that is

0:24:510:24:54

so unspoken, that is so forbidden to us, even within ourselves.

0:24:540:24:59

And it's hard. Hard to get to, but when we see it, it affects us.

0:24:590:25:05

Now Eimear is poised to return with her second novel,

0:25:050:25:08

The Lesser Bohemians,

0:25:080:25:10

again tackling female sexuality but from a very different perspective.

0:25:100:25:15

Could I grow up in a night? Grow up in this day?

0:25:150:25:18

Curled here with him on his small bed,

0:25:180:25:21

in the cradle of our arms and wrap of our legs watching him deep

0:25:210:25:26

in his deep dream,

0:25:260:25:28

far from the threat of what he's been while I lie here, in love.

0:25:280:25:33

So much and sooner than I thought I'd be.

0:25:330:25:37

Years off, I'd thought and not like this.

0:25:370:25:40

But I have come into my kingdom where only pens and pencils were.

0:25:410:25:45

It's about a relationship between an 18-year-old drama student

0:25:450:25:50

and a 38-year-old actor.

0:25:500:25:53

And it's about exploring the nature of love itself, I suppose.

0:25:530:25:57

What I discovered is you can write a whole book about despair,

0:25:570:26:00

and Lesser Bohemians is...

0:26:000:26:02

I wanted to write a book about joy.

0:26:020:26:04

You can't write a whole book about joy,

0:26:040:26:06

but you can write quite a lot about joy.

0:26:060:26:09

Love, sex, death...

0:26:090:26:11

-Joy.

-Yeah.

0:26:110:26:13

That about covers...

0:26:130:26:14

LAUGHTER ..the contents of the unconscious.

0:26:140:26:18

HE PLAYS A SLOW MOURNFUL MELODY

0:26:220:26:28

The final artist I want you to meet

0:26:420:26:44

is one of the world's finest cellists.

0:26:440:26:48

For Steven Isserlis, finding truth means not only connecting to his

0:26:480:26:52

own psyche, but to the unconscious desires of the long dead.

0:26:520:26:56

You have to look deeply into what the composer's written.

0:27:010:27:05

You are trying to be sort of

0:27:090:27:11

the vessel through which the music comes.

0:27:110:27:14

And these are messages the composers are sending you across the ages.

0:27:150:27:20

Through their music,

0:27:200:27:22

they're telling you their deepest feelings and thoughts,

0:27:220:27:25

and it's coming straight to you.

0:27:250:27:27

You know, it's almost better than meeting them in the flesh.

0:27:280:27:31

Speak to me.

0:27:330:27:35

I think these instruments have souls.

0:27:380:27:41

I mean, they're works of art to start with.

0:27:410:27:42

Stradivarius made these incredible instruments, and then they

0:27:420:27:45

live through these hundreds of years to get played by different players.

0:27:450:27:49

Somehow, I feel it affects their soul.

0:27:490:27:51

In our journey through the creative brain,

0:27:560:27:59

we've heard artists define their connection to the unconscious as

0:27:590:28:03

finding their truth,

0:28:030:28:04

entering the zone,

0:28:040:28:06

or surrendering.

0:28:060:28:07

But they all boil down to the same thing -

0:28:080:28:11

releasing your inhibitions,

0:28:110:28:13

listening to your dreams,

0:28:130:28:15

connecting to the part of ourselves we've learned to tuck neatly away.

0:28:150:28:20

I passionately believe that anybody can do it.

0:28:200:28:23

It was only 12 years ago that I wrote my first novel

0:28:230:28:25

and started paying attention to what was on the inside of my head.

0:28:250:28:28

Yeah, it's scary and sometimes it's really difficult,

0:28:280:28:31

but the rewards are amazing, so why not give it a try?

0:28:310:28:35

You never know where it might take you.

0:28:350:28:37

Meg Rosoff is an award-winning novelist and author of the international bestsellers How I live Now, Just in Case and Jonathan Unleashed. For Artsnight, she explores the relationship between art and the unconscious mind.

Meg meets Irish novelist Eimear McBride, author of the Baileys Prize-winning A Girl is A Half Formed Thing to discuss translating the mysteries of the brain to the page. She talks to actors Anne Marie Duff and Denise Gough about how performers tap into their unconscious on stage, and questions psychotherapist Susie Orbach and neuroscientist Lewis Hou, as she attempts to unlock the secrets of the creative brain. With contributions from renowned cellist Steven Isserlis, and principal dancer with the Royal Ballet, Edward Watson.


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