Yesterday I spoke at the Council for Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences’ inaugural national forum. The theme was “What Makes Us Human?” The following is the speech I delivered.
A couple of years ago I attended a Robert McKee seminar on comic screenwriting. Now, if you haven’t heard of Robert McKee, he’s a profane, gruff guru of scriptwriting who, perversely for his critics, has never had a screenplay produced.
McKee attracts the inexperienced and desperate—the category I fell into—as well as celebrities. David Bowie, Julia Roberts, Kirk Douglas and Joan Rivers—to name just a few—have all taken his course. In fact, in the seminar I took, Geoffrey Rush was sitting just in front of me.
John Cleese has taken his course at least three times. McKee considers him a mate. Cleese’s great film A Fish Called Wanda was shown in its entirety in the seminar I took, and was dissembled by McKee afterwards.
And it’s John Cleese I want to talk about. However unlikely, John Cleese gives us our springboard for this talk.
Stay with me.
At the time of the seminar I was working in Canberra as a speechwriter. I would work in our capital for three years—mostly as a speechwriter, later as a communications advisor—adding to the year I had previously spent writing for the then-Western Australian premier, Alan Carpenter.
My work in Western Australia was political, my work in Canberra was departmental.
At that point I had long abandoned my West Wing pretensions of serving in some Australian Camelot. I was jaded, emotionally scorched, and desperately trying to transpose my bottomless contempt for middle-managers into a pilot for a political sit-com.
I thought if I could put my dread, my disgust, my doom-heavy leadenness in the service of comedy then I might be able to hold off the dogs of existential despair.
Every day was an awful confirmation of George Orwell’s fabled essay “Politics and the English Language”. In it, Orwell writes: ““prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house”.
When a culture of timidity accommodates the inadequate and inarticulate, a powerful storm of jargon breaks out.
Given that good writing is predicated on clear thinking, a culture swamped by jargon begs the question: how well are we thinking?
Colleagues were thinking in the babble of corporate speak. Their cognition—or at least the clarity of their thought—was harmed by it.
In addition to Orwell, the journalist Joan Didion came to mind. In her 1967 essay “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” Didion turned her stern eye to the drug-addled dropouts of San Francisco. She wrote:
“They feed back exactly what is given them. Because they do not believe in words—and a thought which needs words is just one more of those ego trips—their only proficient vocabulary is in the society’s platitudes. As it happens I am still committed to the idea that the ability to think for one’s self depends upon one’s mastery of language.”
The same casual idiocy, the sub-conscious contempt of language is alive and well within communications teams throughout our government departments.
So anyway, here I am in McKee’s seminar. I’m in Melbourne, but I’ve taken Canberra with me. I’m angry.
And it happens. Sublime vindication. An appreciation of language I still possess. And I have John Cleese to thank.
Great comic writing, McKee said, is written from a point of disturbance. Take Cleese, he says. Cleese has been in therapy for years.
Because John Cleese detests being English. He has a hatred of Englishness.
McKee went on: Cleese writes from that point of disturbance. From his fear and loathing of English reticence and rectitude.
Its pathological fear of embarrassment.
Its belief that the worst social crime is earnestness.
Now, you may disagree with Cleese’s diagnosis of the English character, but either way it’s gifted certain therapists many thousands of dollars over the years.
And here’s the other thing: McKee thinks, and I’m paraphrasing, that Cleese’s funniest, most cherished writing springs from his belief that England is one large and vulgar neurosis.
Cleese writes from this disturbance.
And here’s what I thought, and still think, and implore you to consider:
That if this is true, and not just true for Cleese or comedy, but true for great works of art constituted by language, then you must also consider this as a triumphant and awe-inspiring trapeze act.
Let me explain.
Disturbances—trauma, anger, indignation and depression—have a cruel way of making its owner narcissistic.
I can unhappily speak from experience, and I’m sure most of you can too.
For a writer to mine this—to be motivated by loathing, for instance, or indignation—is risky. The work—not to mention your social relationships—can very quickly collapse under the ugly weight of righteousness, repetition and self-absorption.
If we are disturbed, we aren’t often graceful.
So imagine writing from this point. Writing something that’s both inspired and threatened by your demons. Pause on that. Consider the delicacy of that internal negotiation.
How to write something that speaks to strangers? That is universally—or as close to that ideal as you can come—funny or interesting or poignant or true? That goal, to move or exhilarate strangers, is surely threatened by the disturbance that sponsored it in the first place.
And so I think it’s a triumph that our culture is touched by great works inspired by disturbance.
It’s a triumph that we are capable of dangerously mining our trauma to create work that is elegant and funny and charming and instructive.
That’s a jaw-dropping act of deftness and discipline.
My disturbance was indignation—a sense that my skills were being powerfully and systematically ignored—and I battled the sickly snobbery and righteousness this cultivated.
But amongst that I learnt that it was okay to be disturbed, provided I had the balance and self-awareness to create rather than destroy with it.
And no, I haven’t finished my script yet.