Goatbusters, Or How The Writerly Mind Works

When people find out I’m a writer (and if those people are not writers themselves), then, nine times out of ten, their next question will be about where I get my ideas. At one stage, this became a running joke with a writer friend of mine, as neither of us ever seemed to be able to come up with a good answer to this question. It may have been truthful to say “From everywhere!”, but this never seemed to satisfy our questioners, so we invented a lot of really silly responses that we were never brave (or rude) enough to use in real life. The problem was that I was assuming that everyone had a mind that worked in a similar way to mine – that is, that given an old photograph, a piece of historical trivia, an anagram, an unusual occupation or even an oddly shaped cloud, anyone’s mind would instantly use that to spin off into half a dozen questions, some jokes and, given enough time, a novel-length story. Working on that assumption, asking where writers get their ideas was, to me, like asking most people how they managed to breathe. Why would you require an explanation of something so obvious and instinctive?

Of course, people’s minds don’t all work in the same way, which is a good thing, because we need a variety of human skills and talents to make society interesting and productive. I remember having a conversation with a very intelligent, articulate and polite teenager who asked me ‘Where do you get ideas for writing?’ with genuine bemusement and some anxiety, because her curriculum required her to do lots of ‘creative writing’ and she was finding it a struggle. I think part of the struggle was due to the poor girl being forced to produce pieces of writing following strict guidelines, in a limited amount of time, in the hope of pleasing her teacher, in order to attain a good assessment mark, which would count towards her final Higher School Certificate score, which would define her ENTIRE FUTURE1. However, I suspect it was also because she had the sort of mind that did not instinctively and incessantly ask questions such as, “Are there really only two options here? Can I do both? Or neither? Why did you do that? Why didn’t you do this? What would happen if . . .?” That is, she did not have a mind that was constantly flying off at (possibly unproductive) tangents. Or perhaps she had once possessed that sort of mind, but ten years of formal education had trained it out of her.

I don’t mean to suggest that only writers have minds that constantly ask “What if . . .?” Research scientists, for example, are brilliant at asking those sort of questions. Anyone who has a job that involves identifying and solving problems needs to be able to think this way. And I don’t mean to suggest that having an enquiring, imaginative mind is the only quality needed to produce, say, a hundred-thousand-word novel. You also need organisational skills, persistence, self-confidence, an ability to ignore distractions when necessary, time, money and a lot of other things that may not be easy to acquire. But I do think that most writers, of fiction or non-fiction, are especially attuned to those tiny details in everyday life – things that are slightly odd or amusing or mysterious – that have the potential to be transformed into a poem, a story or a book (or a blog post).

For example, on Saturday, I was browsing the pages of the weekend edition of The Sydney Morning Herald when I came across an article intriguingly entitled Cemetery Calls in the Goatbusters, with an even more intriguing photo of some blurry white goats posing on some tombstones. It appears that four “white Boer goats” have been spotted in the Jewish section of Rookwood Necropolis2, Sydney’s largest cemetery, and they are now stubbornly avoiding capture. Fiona Heslop, the cemetery’s chief executive officer, was quoted as saying,

“I have looked out of my office on numerous occasions to see the goats leaning against headstones, only to look back a moment later to find they are no longer there.”

Ms Heslop added (possibly in ominous tones),

“They are not doing any harm at this stage, but they do show up in the strangest places at the strangest times.”

Surely even the most unimaginative reader would be wondering by now about how the authorities managed to identify the exact number and breed of the goats, if the goats are so amazingly elusive. CLEARLY THE AUTHORITIES ARE HIDING SOMETHING FROM US. (The idea of animals living at Rookwood, on the other hand, is not all that mysterious, given that Rookwood Necropolis consists of three hundred hectares of mostly untamed bush, including a entire ironbark forest. It would not surprise me to learn that somewhere in the depths of Rookwood, there’s an elephant that escaped from a circus in the 1970s, or a couple of Tasmanian tigers, or a flock of pterodactyls.) But what are the goats doing there? As I read the article, several possibilities immediately sprang to mind:

1. They are highly trained lawn-mowers, being used by the authorities to keep the grass under control after budget cuts forced the redundancies of most of the human gardeners. (Then why would the authorities claim to be trying to catch the goats? Well, obviously, some cemetery visitor saw them and made an official complaint, so the authorities now have to pretend to round up the goats. Then, whenever the RSPCA inspectors arrive, the gatekeeper blows a warning whistle and the goats sprint off to the café, where they don aprons and caps and pretend to be waitresses until the coast is clear.)
2. They are patrolling the cemetery with webcams strapped to their horns, because the authorities are worried that modern-day bodysnatchers might be using the cemetery to supply the anatomy labs at Cumberland College of Health Sciences, which is right across the road from Rookwood.
3. They are the descendants of the original scapegoat, which was unfairly burdened with the sins of humans and banished to the wilderness by a long-ago Jewish high priest, and now these modern-day goats are hanging round the Jewish section of Rookwood in order to have their revenge, by pushing over a rabbi in the dust or some such nefarious action.

Feel free to leave your own theories in the comments. It is obvious the goats are up to something, anyway. Goats are always up to something. You only have to look into their eyes to see that they’re very suspicious characters. Or maybe it’s only people with overly vivid imaginations writerly minds who think that way.

Portrait of a goat
Portrait of a goat. Creative Commons Licensed image by 4028mdk09

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  1. For any senior high school students reading this, I’d like to emphasise that the success or failure of your life does NOT depend on the marks you achieve in the HSC or VCE or whatever exams you have to do at the end of high school. I know you won’t believe me, but it’s true. I am speaking from experience here.
  2. In keeping with this blog’s everything-is-related-to-books theme, I should point out here that Dorothy Porter wrote a Young Adult novel called Rookwood, set in this cemetery. Unfortunately, the book’s not very good, so I can’t recommend it, but she did write some really interesting verse novels for adults.

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