In The Commitments, the 1991 movie based on Roddy Doyle’s novel, Jimmy Rabbitte (played by Robert Arkins) interviews himself while taking a bubble bath. Jimmy has envisioned, assembled, and managed a soul band in Dublin, Ireland. It’s a ragtag crew of unlikely musicians who wind up making beautiful music.
Jimmy asks himself questions about the band’s evolution, speaking into the handheld showerhead microphone as he’s addressing an imaginary listening world and dreaming of the group’s success. Each question begins with “Tell me, Jimmy.” Even though he’s asking himself the questions, grammatically Jimmy isn’t the first person. He’s turned himself into the third person.
I think of “Tell me, Jimmy” when I want to get a little distance on a situation. It’s a good artistic strategy. It allows you to look at yourself as if you’re someone else. You’re a step away from the action and able to look back at it. Tell me, why are you attracted to that image? Tell me, do you ever make work from your dreams? Tell me, when did you first know you needed to make art? Tell me, is there a story underneath the story you’re telling? Tell me, is there grief? Tell me, is there joy?
Asking myself the questions doesn’t mean that I know the answers. In fact, I don’t want to have the answer at hand. The interview that engages us isn’t the one where the public figure gives the shaped and polished response, but the one where the speaker is discovering or rediscovering an answer. The listener can sense that truth or vulnerability is being revealed.
Each question you answer can lead you more deeply into another one. I feel the same way when I’m talking with young children, when “why” becomes the driving force in the conversation. A child might ask why there are flowers or why the moon changes shape or water flows downhill. Each answer you give is followed by another why. Answer enough questions, and eventually, you may find yourself at the wonderment of existence.
Going inside yourself for the answers is a way to discover the impulses, images, dreams, and metaphors that have been within you all along, coming from someplace deeper than you knew. You don’t need answers to get started. You need to ask the questions.
Image at top: Susan Webster and Stuart Kestenbaum, Once in a Lifetime, mixed media, 4.5 x 13 in. (image by Susan and stamped text by Stu) (photo: Susan Webster).