I gave my first public presentation of my fiction since college the other day. Those twenty-five hundred words, on a per-word basis, probably went through more time and revisions than any other work of fiction I’ve written. I even practiced running through it all several times, honing my dramatic delivery. In the end, I stood up in front of an audience of about twenty, and did pretty well. A few folks came to me and said they appreciated my performance.
Why do I feel so empty, then? Well, that’s just it. They basically said they appreciated my performance and left it at that. I didn’t spark any interesting thoughts or conversations. I didn’t evoke any emotions or personal recollections. I didn’t even inspire a thoughtful and incisive criticism. I was hoping for a deep validation, exploration, and celebration of my work, and presenting to this audience was only marginally better than presenting to a brick wall.
Maybe I’ve set you up for this next paragraph. “Of course that was too much to hope for” you may be thinking. Of course you are right. As tiny individuals on a colossal world stage, we put our lives into works that mean the world to us and very little to everyone else. When I play a video game I enjoy myself during and then when it is finished I feel briefly bereft, no longer enjoying my mastery of the fictional world and knowing that now that it’s done, as far as the real world is concerned I may as well have done nothing at all. I had assumed that spending time on a “productive” activity would be different, but naturally it is not. My estimated twelve hours writing a story is the audience’s five minutes, so I’ll always get back a tiny fraction of what I give. This is the plight probably of all artists, also of the frustrated political activist, and the friend who gives too much and receives too little in return.
Next question, “So why bother?” This is a question, perhaps ironically, that I explore in my writing. One theme of The Sympathetic Universe is that the gods have the opposite problem. Rather than being unable to affect any meaningful difference on their world, they are so powerful that everything they accomplish is inherently trivial. They struggle with the fact that, when you are free from all limitations, nothing fundamentally means anything. This is why they hide from their empty divinity in brief human lives fraught with struggle, significance, and purpose. Every time they die and get their immortal memories back they realize again that their exciting, often tragic life was just an insignificant speck in a grand game to distract themselves from the void. The best drama so far in my opinion has come from Ta, the god who refused to admit that the life she experienced meant nothing, and used her near-omnipotent powers to go back in time and illegally alter the universe in which she had lived to better satisfy the needs of the human she had once been. Seem petty? Yeah, when you’re a divine entity, there’s not much else to do.
Ultimately, in The Sympathetic Universe, the gods always go back to being humans because pretending that things matter is addictive in a way that divinity can’t match. The gods envy humanity’s passion just as we envy their ability. We are happiest when we care about things and believe that what we do matters, even if in the end, in a cosmic sense, it will all be for nothing. Just make the most out of your time on this Earth, do what you love, and love what you do. The universe isn’t going to love it for you.