Ask Me Something Hard

Try something new and learn something new.  Did I make that up or just steal it from somewhere? I don’t know. Never mind. 

Last weekend I got to do something that was quite new to me and I learned a little something new as a result. I’ll tell you about it, if you like, but I haven’t fully reached a concrete conclusion about it yet. Perhaps you might be able to help with that.

The thing? It was nothing earth-shattering. Probably not for you anyway. But, for me, it was quite exciting and I was looking forward to it and quite nervous about it for days before.

I got interviewed, you see, on camera.  This was the new thing for me. 

They’re making a TV Documentary about Ireland’s love affair with The Cinema. It will go out on Irish Television on Easter Monday next, apparently. I had showed them my ‘First Night of Alien’ story (click on the title if you’d care to see it for yourself) and they asked me to come and tell it to them for the programme. This doesn’t make me special or anything (well… no more special than I was before), lots of people are being interviewed for this programme. Lots and lots. So I’m not bragging or anything.

I figured the set-up would be that me and about twenty other people would roll up to the cinema in Westport on Saturday morning and we would file in and say our piece to camera and then go home again and that was perfectly fine. But it wasn’t like that at all. When I got there, it soon became clear that I was the only one being interviewed. They were all set up, ready to go, and the next hour was for me and me alone. I was radio-mike-ed up and black coffee-ed up and positioned in a nice cinema seat facing a nice cinema screen. There was boom mikes, glamorous assistants, the whole shebang. I was hugely complimented at their interest and also a bit anxious about what I could think of to say for, like, an hour.

Of course, I needn't have worried about that. The interviewer was obviously a fellow movie fan and seemed  by turns interested and amused by my answers to his questions. It was really a lovely experience. To be honest, I felt like a bit-of-a Megastar, what with all the crew working hard just to get my feeble musings down in digital form. Our discussion ranged across quite a lot of stuff and I got far too comfortable and probably defamed a few people along the way not to mention throwing in a few confessions which will probably result in criminal prosecution at some time in the future. It was fun, though, it was great fun and I know I’ll probably end up on the cutting room floor where I belong but, if not, I will let you know.

Now, here’s the learning bit. See what you think.

Near the end of the hour, the interviewer started to ask a new question. It was a difficult question. I won’t get too specific but it was something along the lines of the contribution which cinema-going had made to Irish Society down through the decades. The question took quite a long time to ask and, as it was unfolding, I became rather clinically aware of my own unfolding thought processes.  They went something like this:

“Oh, God, what’s all this now?”

“I don’t know this. I don’t know anything about this.”

“What’s he saying? Keep focused. You’ll have to answer all this in a minute.”

“What the hell are you going to say?”

“I don’t know, do I?”

“He’s reaching the end. He’s stopping talking. It’s your turn now. He’s stopped. He waiting. It’s your turn now.”


I didn’t know what to say. I had hardly assimilated the question, never mind formulated any kind of answer. I dropped my jaw in preparation for gabbling a bit and then admitting I was a fraud and shouldn’t be here at all.

And then I answered. 

I said quite a lot actually. Despite my best efforts to stop it, the hard question he had asked had somehow soaked into my brain and, because I had to, I formulated an answer and provided it. And, not to blow my own trumpet, I think the answer I gave was actually quite good. It wasn’t something I had ever really thought about much before but, when I was pressed on it, it turned out that I had some thoughts to share and they were actually almost worth hearing.

I thought about this afterward, as I do. There’s a lesson to be learned. For me at least. I can’t speak for you. I shouldn't be afraid to ask myself hard questions. That was my first thought. I am capable of formulating a response if I put myself in the right place to do so.

Yes, okay, fine, but that’s just too easy. As I found out. I tried, you see, I tried asking myself a hard question. Just in my head, I didn’t do it out loud or anything. That would be disconcerting to passers-by. I just asked myself something hard in my head and I pressed myself for a sensible answer. But it didn’t work. You probably knew that already, you’re usually way ahead of me on this kind of thing. It turns out that I can’t fool my own mind that easily. I can insist that I want an answer to my hard question but my mind knows it’s just me doing the insisting and effectively tells me to sod off.

It doesn't work.

So that’s about as far as I've got. I have learned that if you are asked a hard question in a pressure situation you may surprise yourself by how quickly and well you can collect your thoughts and how much of a revelation those thoughts may be, even to you. But I've also learned that you can’t replicate that pressure situation just because you’d like to.

So there’s the rub. How can I manage to ask myself the hard questions and expect to get a meaningful reply?

Answers on a postcard…


William Gallagher said...

Eerie. I had the same thing happen to me and I just enjoyed it, just thought a combination of phew and (for a moment anyway) how clever I must be. I stopped there and went off into an actually-you're-not riff where you've seen that it isn't a fluke, it's a deeper truth about what we're all like under pressure. And that we should put ourselves under more pressure because of it.

I'll have to think about that.

Jim Murdoch said...

Firstly, let me just say how pleased for you I am that you've had this opportunity. I'm not the slightest bit jealous. I would hate to be interviewed like that. It's why I'm a writer. I like a long time to think about my answers. But I do get the whole 'hard question' thing. It's basically what writing a novel is to me. I have been trying to answer a single question for almost two years now. Like all really difficult questions it's not an especially long one—let's face it probably the hardest question on the planet is, "Why do you love me?"—but it's got me stumped. I've never tried articulating this question before but it would be something like: "How do you choose what you remember?" On a conscious level we don't but some part of us does; we pick and choose what we remember and what we forget. Now, let's say we could move the decision making from the subconscious to the conscious mind: How would you decide?

I think the point you make here about being put on the spot is interesting; I've read about this before. It's not that far removed from a word association test if you think about it. You say the first thing that comes into your head. It does suggest that we have to trick ourselves to get to the truth, that we're basically dishonest with ourselves. I'm becoming more and more aware of the important part my subconscious plays in the writing process. Often I feel like I'm just the scribe and he's the brains behind the operation and that annoys the hell out of me. My conscious mind gets the grunt work to do—the proofreading and the editing—but not the fun stuff.

We don't talk enough, not real conversations. I see my daughter every couple of months—if she doesn't come here we meet in Glasgow and go for a meal—and the time is filled with conversation, catching up stuff, but it's been a long time since we've had a meaning-of-life type father-daughter talk. I'm not saying our chats are completely superficial but you need to be in the mood for a tête-à-tête like that. They're always revealing when they do happen. I have experienced moments of insight when two characters I've been writing get into it on the page—the conversation between Milligan, Murphy and the priest is a perfect example. That opened up the whole book to me and just because it was a conversation going on in my head doesn't make it any less real; it wasn't just me playing chess with myself because I really had no idea what anyone was going to say next. Maybe you should try that.

seoirse mac enri said...

Well done Ken delighted you'll be on the 'box'.Don't be too hard on yourself ,speaking on a subject you love I'd have the utmost confidence in your abilities,looking forward to seeing it.Ihope you'll tweet a reminder closer to time ,I'm 50 now grey cell are becoming extinct.My legal team are on standby lol.. take care Ken GH

Ken Armstrong said...

William: I think we will need some help to apply the pressure necessary to get the diamonds out. :)

Jim: Thanks. I enjoyed it and my dwindling ego enjoyed it too. :) I know that the points I make in these posts are hardly original but I enjoying discovering them for myself and then finding, without surprise, that they already exist elsewhere. As we know, there is little in the world that is new.

auntyamo said...

Wowzers! Can't wait to see that.
I wonder if the point is that someone else asks you the hard question. Maybe asking yourself a hard question doesn't do the trick.
You know me... I've loads of stupid questions :) but they might be hard to answer as well, by coinceidence!

Mummadoc said...

Haha! I was asked a very long-winded question in an important interview once. As I tried to understand the question I did the same as you i.e. listened to my mind panicking. When my time came to speak I opened my mouth and... Started talking about something entirely irrelevant. On and on I rambled until , mid-sentence, I registered the interviewers' baffled faces. So I stopped. Mid-sentence. Mid-word actually. I stared at them, paralysed..... and then did the only thing I could think of to do.... I grinned. Broadly. Then I closed my mouth and just sat there, staring expectantly back at them.
It was one of the most excruciatingly embarrassing moments of my life.
Oddly enough I got the job. I can only imagine that I was the only candidate.

hope said...

I think it's the old "Flight or Fight" syndrome kicking in. Answer the question and save face :)

It's amazing what the mind is capable of when we allow it to work without second guessing every word. Well done!

Anonymous said...

The thing you're talking about strikes an odd chord with me, and that's because I have a similar reaction to hard questions, but only when I'm drunk.
The awkward thing here is that I don't much like the answers I give when I'm drunk, or maybe it's more that I don't remember them too well, and therefore distrust them…
Before you ask, I'm not drunk now, no ;-)
Very interesting dissection of your thought process as well!
I'll be looking forward to that footage breaking out onto the internet.