I recently taught a creative writing course to teenagers and the only real advice I had for them, beyond specific critiques, was to write your obsessions. Let your passions guide your fiction, and not the other way. Be curious, remain open to possibility, and let those things you hold dearest teach you what your novels and stories are about.
I’m not sure if that’s good advice, and I doubt it’s the advice I would give my younger self because I think it’s important I found a winding broken bridge to where I am now, but it’s the idea that drives what I do today. Like probably too many young writers, I thought I had to fit inside a pre-existing category. The goal was to fit in there and then make it explode.
This is a fine enough goal, but only if you already fit in there, and I never really have. I’ve had the same story rejected for being too commercial and too experimental, for being too surreal and for not being surreal enough. I’ve been asked why I wrote all those paragraphs about dust, and that’s what I want to talk about.
Dust is a deep obsession and I don’t know when or why it started. Wolves have been with me since memory began and ravens came soon after. Then came Death and Time and love and gods and demons and mythological structure and monsters and bears and trees and squirrels and the way wind makes you whole and finally the Ocean and the Stars and the way that this chaotic existence is systemic and structured and follows a perfect everchanging pattern. But somewhere in all of that came dust and what it means to me, and why I find it so hard to talk about, so hard to write about in a definitive and clear way.
When I was a child I used to watch the dust. Maybe our home was particularly dusty or the sunlight always came in just right, but I remember the dust so clearly, the way it hung in the air, drifting galactically. We had these big windows that faced the street and the sun filled the whole room, and dust danced across these beams of light, creating evanescent constellations. I mapped them with my eyes, lying on the floor, holding my dog. My brain left my head during those hours, staring vacantly into swirling dust and fading light. I became a ship across oceans of photons and dustmotes. They carried me beyond the human I was. They brought me to worlds that forgot to exist, to stories that somehow didn’t yet exist.
But back then I never thought about dust. I honestly don’t know when I started thinking about dust as something that exists, as something that’s a part of my life, my world. It simply was. It still simply is. It’s everywhere.
When I choose a starting point of when I really took notice of dust, it’d have to be when I moved to South Korea. I had a small studio apartment that I could not keep clean no matter how hard I tried. And I don’t mean I was exceptionally messy. I mean there was always dust. Everywhere. I spent hours washing the floors, cleaning under, inside, and around everything. Sometimes this took me deep into the night and I’d finally go to sleep satisfied that the dust was gone. Invariably, I’d find my apartment coated in a fine layer of dust the next morning, just a handful of hours after I went to sleep. I was fighting a war against the dust, and that’s where the first third of Ash Cinema comes from.
I lost that war. It didn’t make sense. All that effort and nothing changed. The ocean of dust rolled over me. It defeated me. I gave up after a few months and just lived inside that dust, letting it coat me and everything I owned. Dust is what and who we are. Just like a mountain is a desert waiting to be released, we’re creatures sloughing off dust constantly, and when we’re done, we’ll have unleashed an ocean of dust into existence. And that dust will coat the lives around us, and new life will sprout from it.
But I’m jumping ahead.
I used to try to write stories where nothing happened. I was chasing my childhood, I think. The way I just stared and disappeared for hours. Thoughtless, light, drifting, and only returning to my humanness when someone brought me back or the dream danced away. I was showing agency without humanity. How existence isn’t by and for humanity, but is simply a place we exist. We are not the primary agents of reality. We’re just the most indignant and violent. I wanted to show how existence happens without our participation. How the world and existence don’t need us.
While I teenager, I invented a philosophy accidentally, which is hard to describe in words because it hit me hallucinogenically as sensations, sounds, emotions. Like waves of light and sound and touch. Dust was an important feature here, and I watched as the dust created wires between my friends and me in that room. When someone spoke, the dust pulled us towards them, and as conversation moved, the dust followed its energy. I saw a pattern, a motion, a flow. Or rather, I felt it. It revealed itself to me, and even all these years later, it drives my actions and perceptions. I called it unified chaos theory back then, and I still do. It steals from Taoism and quantum mechanics and existentialism, but, like I said, it came through sensation and not intellectually inquiry. It’s not about rationalising the world or defining it.
Unified chaos theory represents a few ideas, each of which could be their own essay: Though everything appears chaotic and random, there is a grander system and pattern at work; we see the infinite reflected in the infinitesimal; we belong to existence, not the other way around; and contradictions are true. But all of that’s for another day.
I changed that day, really. I became a much less serious person, a much kinder, gentler one. I no longer needed to know, to understand. Motion became a natural mental, emotional, and physical state. Life is not about pinning the world and people down. Definitions have little to do with existence. It’s about the patterns we weave together. It’s about connection. The patterns of our individual lives are reflected in the larger fabric of humanity, and the lifecycle of species and planets and stars.
It comforts me. There is no purpose or meaning to life beyond this pattern. And in this purposelessness, this meaninglessness, is comfort and peace. What I choose, I choose for everyone. There is no good or bad, there is no right or wrong. There is simply the behavior I wish to see replicated and reflected across my species, across existence.
If humanity is a virus or bacteria, every choice I make is a characteristic I would like to see in those around me and into the next generations. If I act brutally, I will make a more brutal world. If I act kindly, I will make a kinder world.
But what does this have to do with dust?
Dust was the entrance to sight, though I didn’t realise it then. When I say I changed that day, I truly mean it. I was coming out of an enormous existential and emotional crisis from reading Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment for the fourth time that year. That novel changed the person I was, and the day I saw how life connects to life changed me. I saw the motion of energy and the beauty of this systemic chaotic world, this brief and endless life.
Dust is like the tendon grafting muscle to bone. It’s the connectivity between my deepest obsessions: Time and Death. It’s their handshake and why they hold hands, walk side by side. We’re built of dust, and we become dust. Existence is dust. Matter can neither be created nor destroyed, and that’s what dust feels like to me. This everpresent constant.
It’s probably why dust is a mystical and mythical and surreal aspect to my novels. Dust is the door to the magic of reality. If existence is a stream of infinite flux and we’re just drops of water within that, then dust is cohesion.
I can’t escape it, and so I dump it into all my novels. Even when I started writing this essay, I believed Ash Cinema was the first appearance of dust in my stories, but then my memory opened and I saw years of stories and poems about dust, or dealing with dust. I’ve been talking about it longer than I knew, and I’ll be talking about it probably forever. This morning I wrote that civilisation is dust in waiting, and I feel that’s very true. Cities are built on the ruins of cities, and the future will be built on the brokenness of what we leave behind.
To me, dust is everything. It’s the secret god of earth. It’s right up there with light and dark and Time and Death. These impossible, unfathomable, and eternal bits of reality. It’s the entrance to understanding everything about existence. But it’s deeply personal to me, in an irrational way. I’ve never questioned why dust matters or why I keep writing about it, and so I don’t really know what to say when I’m asked about it because it’s not a rational part of me that’s putting it in the novels and stories.
Writing, for me, isn’t rational or intellectual. And probably that’s why dust appears most often when I’m writing and less when I’m speaking. A novel, for me, doesn’t come from thought. I don’t plan or think ahead. I’m deeply in the moment, in the visions, in the echoes of imagined lives. There’s nothing for me beyond the sentence I’m writing. I’ve described writing before as translating visions, and that’s the best way I can say it. I don’t think in words. I think in images, and writing is just an attempt to translate what I’m seeing, and so I type as fast as I can for as long as I can just to keep up. It’s like trying to hold a ghost tightly in your arms. My brain shuts off and I’ll sit there writing for five or twelve or twenty hours. I forget to eat and sleep and function like a human. I get lost in the invented worlds and get confused out here on the otherside of the keyboard.
I let my obsessions take hold, and that’s when writing works best for me, when it becomes most personal, though the personal is usually miles beneath the dust I kick up to obscure myself on the page. Because it’s all about me. Every character and every word is autobiography.
And dust is the cohesive substance between every aspect of my life. It teaches me how to be human, it teaches me my art, it teaches me to love life and not mourn its passing, it teaches me that the grandness of existence will swallow me always, it teaches me to find this comforting, to find this even hopeful.
So what is dust to me? Why do I keep talking about dust?
It’s who and what I am.
It’s as simple and impossible to describe as that.