These questions are about the short story “The Importance of Lines”, and definitely contains spoilers which, once seen, cannot be unseen. For the actual short story itself, please go here.
So this was another of the ten stories you wrote in ten days for the Swinburne Microfiction Challenge in 2017, yeah?
You didn’t win, right?
No, I didn’t win. Although I never really went into any of these stories thinking “I’ll totally win this one,” I was always a little bit surprised when I didn’t. I thought they were damn fine stories, and, if I’m going to be honest here, which I always try to do, I did always feel a teensy bit like “what, that’s the story that won?” while reading the winners. Taste, huh. You never can tell.
Which is why I think it’s super-important to write for yourself, and not pay too much attention to what other people think or say, with praise or criticism. Because taste is inherently personal, and there’s absolutely no point writing for others. You’ve just got to be as honest with yourself as you can, and make sure you’re proud of your own work, and try to ignore the haters.
I mean, someone will always hate what you do. No matter how well you’ve expressed it, or how well you think you’ve tapped into whatever secret reservoir of true experience your fiction springs from, or how nicely articulated the argument, or how realistic the characters, or how perfect you think the flow of words is, there will always be someone who thinks it’s complete shit. And that’s not a problem, but you can’t let that determine how you approach something. Writing for a committee or a demographic or based on focus groups etc seems like the worst possible way to create something. Because, even after all of that second-guessing and all of those surveys and so on, there’s guaranteed to be several million people who still hate it. And are we playing “who can be popular” here, or are we trying to create art?
Sorry for the interruptions, I really am, and I will come back to your question, I promise, but I just wanna say this one thing first. I was extremely high on magic mushrooms recently, and I had this overwhelming experience, this visual and experiential metaphor, really, where each conscious being is down a deep well, a well that is a metaphor for our own lived experiences and internal thoughts and ponderings etc, each of us are down our own well, and no-one else can ever know what it’s like in our well, what our particular well feels like or smells like or looks like, etc, but we can shout out of our well, and other consciousnesses can hear us. And so although other consciousness can never experience our own personal well, they can hear us describing the well, and they can think to themselves, “wow, that person’s well is very much like my own in these particular qualities, I feel a shared kinship now”, or “wow, that person’s well is so different from my own, that’s really enlightening, I’m a wiser person now”, etc. And it was made clear to me, during this fungi-enhanced experience, that making art is us shouting out the top of our own personal well, and sharing what it means to be the person we are, or how life can be, or something. At the time, I found a piece of paper and scrawled the words “TELL THE OTHERS”. I still have the piece of paper, it’s up so I can see it when I write. That’s the mission of art – not pleasing a particular demographic or playing some numbers game with popularity, but telling the others what the experience of experience can be like, as truly as possible, so as to make all of our wells a little less lonely/dank/small/horrible/isolated.
…honestly, no more interruptions. Look at my hand, it’s zipping my mouth shut.
Okay. So, this story, what was the prompt word here?
The word for this one was “Dirt”. This one came to me really easily, almost fully-formed.
Do go on.
Well, in the early 90s I had a band, we were called gLOBALmINDfUCK (for some young-person reason we were always capitalised that way), we were like this Mr Bungle-meets-Helmet-meets-Hawkwind kinda thing, heavy songs with grooves and psychedelics and cross-genre shenanigans, it was my first ever live band, playing songs I’d written, I was in my 20s, we won a bunch of band competitions, and I was having some of the best times I’ve ever had. Anyway, one of the songs was called Dirt, and the lyrics were some rant about the blinkered nature of nationalism, I honestly can’t remember them now but it as something like “what are these countries you’ve made up / what are these flags that you wave / what are these borders you’ve dotted / in the end everything’s dirt”, or something. And so of course, being a relatively lazy sod steeped in life-long conceptual continuity, I thought about dirt and borders and the imaginary nature of nations, and the story pretty much wrote itself. It’s a narrativised encapsulation of the gist of the song, basically.
I actually thought you’d ripped it off Pink Floyd’s ‘Us and Them’.
Close, but no cigar. Geddit? That was a reference to-
I like how, in the end, no-one won. That, essentially, all that death and violence and horror was all for nothing.
Yeah, me too. Heavyhanded, yes, but also quite nice.
Hey, and I’m no meteorologist, but wouldn’t the sound of the rain drown out the buzzing of the flies?
Not if it was a light drizzle. Incessant, but light, I was thinking. Um.
I know it doesn’t matter, but your protagonist is called Bec – is The Enemy also a woman?
I don’t know. I deliberately avoided mentioning it, because, exactly as you say, it really doesn’t matter.
Well, it does raise additional issues-
Which is why I didn’t mention it. Because, no matter what gender The Enemy presents as, it brings up conceptual baggage. It’s not a gendered story, it’s not remotely about gender or anything associated with gender. I gendered Bec, because it’s from her point of view, and she, as a whole person, has a gender to herself. That’s fine. But if I gendered The Enemy as well, suddenly the story becomes about A Man and A Woman, or Two Women, or something, rather than about The Futility of War. If we don’t know the gender of The Enemy, then we’re not thinking about the repercussions of the gender of The Enemy, and we can focus on the fucking story, rather than the potential meta-aspects of the story-
But you said you should never change your story for others. Remember? Never think of the reader, you said. Thinking about demographics makes you a loser, you said.