Booker Prize winner Damon Galgut on the time he changed his mind – about writing this piece

By Damon Galgut

Writing to the brief threw Damon Galgut into a spiral of self reflection. Credit:Illustration: Nhung Le

In the beginning, I thought this was a great topic, but then I changed my mind.

It takes a few days before the above sentence occurs to me. It seems like more than just a sentence; it seems like a solution. I’ve been struggling in ways I didn’t expect to with this particular subject, chasing my own tail, and can’t even figure out why I’m finding it so difficult. The notion of sending in that one lonely sentence as my sole comment on the matter feels elegant and subversive – and not untruthful either.

What it suggests, I think, is that changing my mind is something I do all the time, lightly. Where small decisions are concerned – tea or coffee? this door or that? – I can vacillate, back and forth, without even noticing. I change my mind, as it were, mindlessly. What’s the big deal?

But it isn’t long before I change my mind again. My clever little sentence would be a rude response, I think, to a sincere request…and anyway, I’ve already agreed to write a thousand words.

Besides, I know what’s being asked of me is to find another sort of moment, not a light or arbitrary one. I need to speak about a significant internal shift, where beliefs lined up along one axis somehow moved to another. My road to Damascus experience.

The time I changed my mind…

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The trouble is that, no matter how I scour my brain, I can’t find any moment like that in my life. On big, important matters, I honestly cannot think of a single instance where my mind has jumped from one track to another. No religious conversions to speak of. No major leap of ideology. No sudden flowering of the conscience, no scales falling from the eyes. My internal changes have all been of the slow and evolutionary kind, creeping towards Bethlehem to be born.

At first, I feel a little tormented by my narrowness. Other people, surely, have these bright, transformative moments; what’s wrong with me that I don’t? Why am I always so rational and stubborn and brain-bound in my thinking? (On the other hand, personality is fate. As Samuel Beckett put it, one is what one is. Nothing to be done.)

But then I think about it some more and I change my mind again. Isn’t what’s true of me also true for others? I’ve heard lots of political arguments at dinner tables, but never heard anybody alter their position as a result; not once. That’s because beliefs are an extension of personality, and personality doesn’t easily transform.

There it is, the problem I can’t get past. On the one hand, people change their minds lightly and easily about decisions that do not matter, and on the other hand, where questions of principle are concerned, they seldom change their minds at all. I’ve got stuck on this paradox, the truth of which seems incontrovertible, though I’m afraid that if I consider it for too long I might change my mind again.

Damon Galgut and his Booker-winning novel, The Promise.Credit:AP

Instead, I decide to vary my approach and shake up my brain. Think differently, I tell myself. Come at the topic from a different angle. There are ways and ways to change your mind. Don’t be so literal! Wouldn’t it be an off-beat and provocative solution to write about your first experience with acid 30 years ago? And the more I consider it, the more interesting this idea seems. I had taken LSD in order, quite literally, to change my mind…and my mind had changed.

Very quickly I feel sure of my choice; so sure that I take a day out to sit down and write the piece. This is how I describe tripping in the forest:

About 45 minutes after setting out, my mind began to change. Or rather, I started to become aware of my mind changing, and of what that felt like, and what it might mean. Things were not the way I’d believed them to be. I rose against gravity, lifted by a warm updraft. The colours of the leaves around me became brilliant and intense. Boulders bulged with their own inner life. I felt great kinship with the world.

Not the way I usually experience reality! Now I feel even more sure I’m on the right track at last. Feverishly, I describe how, after going to a friend’s house and smoking a joint with him, my hallucinatory experience suddenly changed again:

I felt a current go rushing through my head, not unlike the initial rush of the acid a few hours before, but whereas that had been an upward, golden force, this felt down-going and horrible. I leaped up in panic. To calm my brain, I went out into the little back garden but the fear and the sense of a rushing bad energy didn’t go away. Instead they took very specific form when I looked down into an arum lily and saw inside it a tiny evil face, leering up at me.

Yes, this is the way to write the article, no doubt about it. Behind the personal anecdote, I’m actually making a serious point: that our minds are just chemicals in combination, fizzing and churning. Change the chemicals and you change the mind, in a good or a bad way. No arguing with the biological facts.

Nobody really changes their mind, except everybody does it all the time. We want desperately to escape our own heads, so we’re always trying, with various substances and practices… but in the end, you’re always yourself.

I go smugly to sleep, but when I wake the next morning and read the piece again, I’m forced to change my mind. How unserious my take on this important subject is; how cheaply I have risen to the challenge. Who cares about my long-ago drug experience, which wasn’t that visionary or remarkable anyway? No, it won’t do. Try again.

The main thing, I decide, is to be clear and honest. Stop avoiding the topic. Now I see that, if I set my obfuscations aside, the only sense in which I have ever changed my mind about something that truly matters is in connection with certain relationships. Friendship or romance – a profound change in affections is like a profound change of mind. Everything is suddenly different when you fall in or out of love; nothing feels the way it used to; every perception has altered.

So… if I tell the story of an important relationship in my life, how it moved from friendship to love and then back to friendship again… and if I’m open and simple in my telling, if I stop trying to be clever… maybe then I will at last get at the truth of things.

Yes, yes, yes, I think… till I think, no, no, no. Relationships are, in fact, changes of heart. Nobody decides to fall in love, or to stop loving; it’s something that happens to you, which doesn’t involve your will. Okay, scrap that idea, then. Go back to feeling like the freak, the one solitary person who has never made a major decision to alter his thinking about anything.

Should I fake it? “The time I changed my mind about Apartheid”? That would be easy to do and set a good moral example in the process. But I had never felt okay about Apartheid, not even when I was silent about it. Learning to speak your mind isn’t the same as changing it. (Likewise with several alternatives, such as “the time I changed my mind about eating meat” or “the time I changed my mind about Israel”. In all these cases, my mind was already changed before I changed it.)

It’s becoming more and more obvious that I should go back to my magic sentence. In the beginning, I thought this was a great topic, but then I changed my mind. Well, doesn’t that sum it up? To start with, the topic did seem important and exemplary and universal. Of course I’d changed my mind, many times – it’s what people do at significant moments. But when I tried to find such a moment myself, it wouldn’t hove into view. Too slippery to grab. Nobody really changes their mind, except everybody does it all the time. We want desperately to escape our own heads, so we’re always trying, with various substances and practices… but in the end, you’re always yourself.

Yes, my sentence is the answer. And in the morning I’ll write it down and send it to Spectrum. For sure, one hundred per cent. That’s final now. My mind is made up.

But in the meanwhile, I’ll sleep on it one more time. Just in case.

Damon Galgut is the author of The Promise, which won the 2021 Booker Prize. He is a guest of the Sydney Writers’ Festival, whose theme this year is Change My Mind. The event runs from May 16 to 22.

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