Creativity and Craziness – Jeanette Winterson and Susie Orbach at the Auckland Writers Festival 2016

Jeanette Winterson and Susie Orbach, Image supplied

This pop-up event, especially added to the programme because of the sell-out popularity of the original, had many points of departure from everything else I have thus far experienced at the fest.

In a dark cavernous room with a bean-bag strewn floor, somewhere down several flights of stairs at Aotea Centre, married couple Jeanette Winterson (of Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit fame) and Susie Orbach (of Fat Is A Feminist Issue fame) were going to “riff with each other and the audience on the subject of madness and creativity.” There was to be no presenter. May the best interrupter win!

Why be happy when you could be normalJeanette kicked off by asking the audience who thought they were creative. Up went the hands (mine too it must be added). Then, who thought they were crazy, another sea of waving arms (not me – I have no truck with this latest fetish for thinking one is somehow special because of being nuts. Most people are bog standard normal from what I can see). Then who thought they were both.

And we were off.

Here are some of the provocations flung our way (and backed up by reading and research I must add):

  • All children are born creative – Winterson
  • I don’t agree retaliated Orbach – the potential for creativity is always there, but for it to develop it requires the gap between the parents (caregivers) and the child to be filled with opportunity
  • Creative work is a lie-detector – it forces you to face your truths – Winterson
  • There is no one true self, there is an adaptive self with kernels of truth – Orbach
  • Therapy is the most creative act that I ever engage in, creativity is not only about making things, it is about the relationship with yourself – Orbach
  • It is a myth that you have to be crazy to create, creativity is actually on the side of mental health – Winterson
  • The internet has exploded the ease with which knowledge can be achieved – Orbach
  • The internet is the democratisation of shite – Winterson

All this happened conversationally with little relationship revelations: who dyes her hair, who can’t stand bright lights, who would never eat on stage. Even though they often disagreed, interrupted one another and are completely different people – there was a palpable respect, acknowledgement and pride in one another’s achievements. There was attraction, there was love.

Towards the end I found my mind returning to that phrase “riff with each other and the audience” and I pictured my darling husband and I up on that stage. I played around with that notion for a bit. Then I shut it right down. Bottom line truth and spoiler alert here:

I cannot abide being interrupted!

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Susie Orbach and feminist issues – Auckland Writers Festival 2016

This afternoon I had the back of my head blown off (in a good way) by a psychotherapist.

Susie Orback
Susie Orbach: Image supplied

Susie Orbach is the author of a number of books, most famously Fat is a Feminist Issue which came out in the seventies and which Orbach refers to as “Fifi”, as if it’s an aggressively groomed poodle instead of a guide through the murky waters of how we feel about our bodies and food.

Despite the fact that Orbach has revisited the book in recent times, adding to it as our issues with our bodies, rather than getting better have only become more expansive and weird, she’s never re-read it because she’s not sure she’d be kind to her younger self. “I’m frightened of it”, she says. Is it a shame that we still need books like this? She thinks so.

Cover of Fat is a feminist issueFifi has unfortunately stayed in print.

The discussion ranged far and wide and touched on so many things – this is mainly what has caused the metaphorical gaping hole in the back of my noggin as all the ideas have tried to escape – but always was grounded in the basic idea that western culture, or more correctly “Vulture Capitalism” is grooming us to view our bodies in completely the wrong way, and making a nice profit out of it, thanks very much.

This session solidified for me, some of the vague disquiets I’ve been feeling in recent years about self-image, messages about food, the beauty industry, and the media.

Orbach is of the opinion that painting particular foods as “bad” or “good” isn’t useful when helping people to learn how to eat well.

Refined sugar isn’t that great, but it’s not poison…They’re making it as attractive as heroin.

Regarding the “obesity epidemic”, she points out that many people of all body types eat compulsively. Focusing only on people on the larger end of the spectrum isn’t really getting to the seat of the problem. Instead of dealing with the problem eating, what you’re really focusing on is the “problem body”, which when you think about it, is kind of the wrong way round of doing things.

She’s also not a fan of dieting and views Weight Watchers and their ilk with a cynical eye, given the combination of incredibly high recidivism rates (in the 90%+ region) and that it’s incredibly lucrative.

If dieting really worked you’d only have to do it once.

Hard to argue with cold hard facts like that.

Orbach herself was anything but cold and hard. She seemed genuinely embarrassed by the applause she received and listened with great patience (occupational hazard, I guess) to an audience question that was so long-winded people were beginning to shuffle in their seats and check their watches.

The session touched on so many big ideas it’s hard to squish it down into a meagre blog post – like globalisation and how that has hastened a merge towards one acceptable version of beauty (the kind that prompts Fijian teenagers to bulimia, Korean women to jaw-shaving surgery, and plastic surgery selfie-apps for 10 year olds).

This is something that Orbach is actively working against in her work with Endangered Bodies.

Orbach also talked about her BBC Radio show In Therapy, in which she has attempted to recreate “the intimacy of the therapy session”. I have never listened to it but it sounds intriguing. Completely unscripted, Orbach interacts with actors as if it were a real therapy session. All she knows about their characters beforehand is a few brief facts and then the rest is her reacting to what the actors create. There are plans a second series and for a book based on the transcripts of the show (due out in November).

When asked for thoughts on how to help young people avoid the unhealthy body obsessions that are so prevalent now that they’re not even considered real mental health problems any more, she offered that when her own children were growing up she made sure never to express disappointment or exasperation with her body because “I wouldn’t want them to think that the way you become a grownup woman is by hating yourself”.

Which, when you think about it, is bloody good advice and it’s a bit shameful that we need it. Challenge laid, Ms Orbach. I’m going to try and follow it if I can.

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