These questions are about the short story “The Glass Is Empty, But You Can Reach The Tap”, and definitely contains spoilers which, once seen, cannot be unseen. For the actual short story itself, please go here.
I believe this was another of the ten stories you wrote in ten days for the Swinburne Microfiction Challenge in 2017, is that right?
And you didn’t win this one either?
It’s another one of your teenaged emo musings on suicide and meaninglessness, right?
Yeah, I guess so. I do tend to orbit this kind of stuff, because of my own struggles with meaninglessness and nihilism, I suppose, as well as my own intermittent battles with depression. I don’t get overwhelmingly depressed very often, but when I do, it does feel, well, overwhelming.
What was the prompt word this time?
The word was “point”. So of course my mind went directly to “what’s the point?”, as it tends to do. Everything that the caller in the story says to the Lifeline lady is shit that I wholeheartedly believe. There is no meaning to existence, and it is all incredibly temporary, and none of it means jack diddly foobah squat. But everything that the Lifeline lady says in response I also wholeheartedly believe, which is that because it’s all intrinsically meaningless and temporary, and it’s just complete blind stupid luck that we exist at all, it’s our struggle for meaning that in the end gives our lives the meaning we’re struggling for. So the whole story is like this conversation I have in my mind regularly, and each party is me, and it turns out my nihilism is actually narcissism and my teenaged emo musings are just my inner child reaching out to my inner adult for an inner hug and maybe a biscuit.
I actually thought that the biscuit-eating Lifeline lady was going to talk about how shit don’t mean shit, and he might as well kill himself, and I thought that he’d actually kill himself on the phone, and then she’d realise in shock and horror that saying “go kill yourself then” is a whole different kettle of fucking fish to hearing someone actually kill himself in real-time over the phone, and the shock would kinda smash her flippancy and casual ease and make her realise that life and death are actually mega-serious topics, and that her flippancy and casual ease were just masks, protecting her from the gaping void that is the ineffable truth of oblivion.
Interesting that you say that, that was very close to the original idea I had for the story.
Woah, really? Maybe we have some psychic connection!
So what stopped you writing that dark and horrible original version, and made you turn it into the hope-filled light-hearted G-rated life-affirming glib motivational poster version that it turned into?
Well, I feared that by writing a man killing himself over the phone, I was actually turning tragedy into entertainment, almost in exactly the way you describe, taking these heavy nihilistic horrors and turning them into a 500 word competitive short story (which, win or lose, was still being entered into a competition). Sex and death are the easiest and in a way most flippant topics to write, they are automatically lowest common denominator stuff, because we’re all interested in them. So, as I was writing it, it felt like maybe having the Lifeline lady be all biscuit-eating and flippant and having that lead to the man’s actual death and having that shock the Lifeline lady into some kind of nihilistic terror, maybe that was just not very nice and too easy and maybe irresponsible and exactly the kind of flippant biscuit-eating attitude that I was trying to critique in the story. It became this circular vortex of vortexual disappointment for me.
And so everyone lived, and ate Butternut Snaps?
Exactly. Because, for me, whenever I’m in the life-cancelling self-obliterating nihilistic eye of the storm that is Depression, the only thing that helps me is knowing that life is temporary and meaningless. I’m sure I’ve said this before, but knowing that everything is temporary and meaningless – including this desperately anti-happy black veil of existential despair – knowing that everything is temporary and meaningless actually brings me hope. Because my internal tragedy actually just doesn’t matter, to the universe. My heavy emotional weights don’t mean anything, in the bigger picture. I could exist, or not exist, and the net difference to the universe is so minimal as to hardly even happen at all. It doesn’t matter if I live or die, so I might as well live.
You don’t think that maybe the fact that you implied that depression can be cured by eating biscuits could be seen as maybe a little flippant itself?
Yes. I do think that. In fact, I’m constantly gripped by the fear that everything I’ve ever written can be interpreted in some terrible way that I never intended, and that I’ll be socially-pilloried for some unintended consequence of something I’ve inadvertently said in my writings. The constant paranoia of being a straight white male writer in the current aeon is real.
See, that last line is the bit that will get you socially-pilloried, dude.
One more thing: the title?
I tried out a bunch of stuff before I settled on that one. In the end, I thought of that thing of “an optimist says the glass is half full, a pessimist says the glass is half empty”, and I thought that, when you’re horribly crushed by the feelvoid of brutal depression, it’s like the glass is completely empty. But then I thought, well, that’s not a problem if you can reach the tap and fill it up again. So I thought of it like that: life is the glass, and inevitably it ends up empty, but if we can find some way to generate meaning, we can temporarily fill it up again. It’s a struggle sometimes, but one I heartily recommend. Not that I have anything against suicide, of course-
Let’s just end it there. Thanks!