You might be wondering what happened to that live short story. I did it. I just haven’t written about it because I lost the ability to form coherent sentences.
I knew it would be tough. Turning up at the Melbourne Writers Festival with a laptop, plugging into the big screen, and writing a short story from scratch while people watch: that’s not the recommended writing technique. I think that’s the opposite of what you’re supposed to do, which is something about forgetting the rest of the world exists. It’s hard to be creative and self-conscious.
But that was half the fun! Come watch Max struggle! I was already writing an online serial in real-time; how much worse could this be?
Lots. I turned up on the day, ready for action, at the table they’d set up. It was in the corner of the atrium, hidden behind the Festival’s Information Desk. On official maps, you couldn’t see it, because it was obscured by the word “INFORMATION.” This struck me as problematic. There was no signage to indicate who I was or what I was doing. Shortly after I began to set up, a man stopped and asked for directions to a panel. I decided it was time to make up my own signs. I did three, and stuck them to the front of the table: the first said, “Hi! I’m Max Barry.” The second said, “I’m writing a live short story today.” The third said, “Because I’m stupid, that’s why.” This turned out to be truer than I knew.
Half a dozen people had gathered. About this number stayed the entire three hours, and may I say to those people, I’m incredibly touched and grateful, even though you destroyed my sanity. There was nowhere for them to comfortably see the screen and me at the same time, but that didn’t deter them; oh no. They made the best of things, craning their necks and reclining chairs like they were beach lounges. That way, they could see pixelated, perspective-warped words on the big screen while staying close enough to make out the individual beads of sweat dripping down my nose.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. First I had to chase down Festival people, imploring somebody to plug me into the big screen like we had damn well arranged. I hate to knock the Festival, because it’s a great event, but this was really crap. People were waiting.
Once I was on the air, I canvassed my little audience for ideas. I got some great ones, some good ones, and some I still don’t understand today. The two that jumped out at me were both about pregnancy: one about a couple whose due date comes and goes, and goes and goes, and another about renting a baby. In retrospect, I probably should have been wary of both of these, because they’re similar to two other shorts I’ve written: How I Met My Daughter and A Shade Less Perfect. I was already defensive, feeling around for tried and tested tools.
But it was only 11:30am: I was full of energy, optimistic! When people came up and asked for directions, I tried to help them out, then went back to my notes. Sometimes I asked for feedback from the people standing around. Then I realized I didn’t have to: I could hear their reactions.
Let me say that again. I would type a sentence, and hear people inhale, or snicker, or lean together to discuss it. Now, I guess I knew this might happen. And, at first, while I was messing around with notes, it was funny. Even useful. But then I started writing. And it was like they were INSIDE MY BRAIN.
The longest I ever sunk into the story before remembering that people were watching was about 45 seconds. Often I would be halfway through a sentence and someone would stop by to chat or offer suggestions or ask where the bathrooms were. Which is what I signed up for, of course: this was meant to be interactive. But it was like being woken from a deep sleep eighty times an hour. Two parts of my brain that don’t normally meet were knocking into each other and I wasn’t sure which of them was me.
By the two-hour mark, I was flagging. The story wasn’t awful, but it didn’t feel right. It was derivative, of me; like something not new. I wasn’t connected to it. I had honestly tried to do this right, but if I’d been at home, at this point I would have closed the document and checked my email.
Since that would have been inappropriate with an audience, I ploughed on. At 2pm, I finished. I thanked everyone who had stuck around, and I meant it, even though I already knew I would be spending the next few days trying to scrub them out of my brain. Then I left. I felt like someone had beaten the creative part of my mind with sticks. The rest of the day, I struggled to talk like a human being. True, I have that problem normally. But this was even worse than usual.
The next time I sat down in my study, I felt them there: phantom story-watchers. Halfway through my first sentence, I almost braced for a snicker. But it didn’t come. After a while, I forgot about it. I was okay. I was safe again.