Notes on an Essay Concerning Writing, Performing, and the Nature of Reality
[Author’s Note: This is an unfinished essay I vaguely remember writing, the result, I suspect, of having taken too many meds, which I do by accident from time to time.]
My mind reels. Sometimes I lock myself in my head, in my world, and everything around me—my wife, my kids, my friends and job—vanish. Not literally. Figuratively. Everything slips into the background, sometimes into the deep background. Sometimes the universe transforms into background noise, a sort of visuospatial white noise. Other times, it disappears altogether.
I get so locked into my world, the world mutating and transmutating and exploding in my head, that the world and everything in it almost vanishes.
A strange sensation: living in my head inside, then going outdoors and feeling as if the world itself is indoors, as if the world is a set constructed inside a planet-sized soundstage. Sometimes, when these sensations inundate me, I glance around—at the ground and the sky, cars and buildings and passersby—and marvel at the corporeality of it all. Of everything.
On occasions, when I’m experiencing these sensations, I ask myself two questions, sometimes in conjunction, sometimes in disjunction:
What is imagination?
What is “reality”?
So I’m sitting in a wheelchair on the corner of an intersection, wearing a plaid shirt, overalls, and sunglasses. I’m hunched over in the chair, not moving. Concentrating on steadying my breath, minimizing the expansion and contraction of my rib cage, trying to render it imperceptible.
Try it. It’s a fascinating study, something akin to sociology. People ignore you when you play dead. They amble or scurry past you. Some glance while others act as though they don’t see you. Some joke while others furrow their eyebrows.
I’d probably sell the death routine if “Staying Alive” by the Bee Gees wasn’t blasting from a speaker attached to my phone in my right pocket.
The two-tiered taxonomy of homo sapiens:
A human being is a meat machine, a streamlined biological entity. A person is the result of the cognitive mechanics of the meat machine, what we might refer to as host to “personality.”
As a human being, the meat machine writing this is slightly hirsute, although with a depressingly receding hairline, somewhat overweight—at a little over 5’9″, this machine weighs 177 pounds—and he possesses a penis and testicles.
As a result of certain hardware and software hardwired into the approximately three-pound slab of meat inside this human being’s skull, the person who emerges inherited a name. This human identifies as male—hence the point of mentioning his junk, which, in the new paradigm is a sufficient, but not a necessary condition to identify as “male.”. His parents bequeathed the praenomen “Daulton” and the cognomen “Dickey.”
Daulton Dickey is a person who obtains almost entirely in his head.
As an aside, the person writing this subscribes to Jean-Paul Sartre’s notion of the “I” we invoke when referring to our meat machine obtains only when we are reflecting—i.e., when the human being is writing, the “I” is absent; when the human being reflects on writing, turning its attention inward, conscious of consciousness, the “I” emerges.
Since, a moment ago, I reflected before I initiated the process of writing what I assume will be a single paragraph, since I’m transcribing my reflections ex post facto, I’ll dispense with the third person, which, granted, is weird, and use the first person pronoun, unless, of course, I’m referring to the meat machine, then we’re stuck with the phrase.
I’m on 200 milligrams of Lamotrigine and 1 milligram of Klonopin. The former tempers my bipolar disorder—bipolar I, the worst of the two kinds—and the latter subdues my generalized anxiety disorder. The cocktail makes writing a chore.
Of the two, Klonopin is the worst culprit: it zombifies me, renders me lethargic and empty-headed and uninspired, although “uninspired” isn’t a word I like or prefer. I shun the notion of inspiration—a word procrastinators utter—so writing the word “uninspired” feels inauthentic; however, it’s a shorthand we know, either intimately or intuitively.
A book is an object we take for granted. On the surface, in the ontological sense, of what we might call the object-in-itself, its a rectangle composed of wood pulp illustrated with symbols—Latin and Arabic in origin—to which we associate objects and concepts.
We take for granted the complexities of the activity of reading—and writing. Writers, for example, romanticize their vocation. ‘Writing is a lonely vocation,’ some might say. Hemingway mentioned sitting at a typewriter and bleeding. Other writers discuss the life-affirming nature of their craft. Few, however, discuss the unromantic ontological nature of the activity.
Divide the person from the meat machine and examine what he or she does during the process of writing: he or she strings symbols into clusters and clusters into groups. Through training, other meat machines imbibe these symbols, delivered via the interaction between light and the intricacies of the human eye. The information contained in the light filters to the rods and cones in the back of the eyes, where it’s converted into impulses and distributed to various regions of the brain. In a sense, the brain decrypts this information and constructs, and reconstructs, models—themselves constructed by the meat machine who had arranged symbols into clusters and groups.
So, in a sense, a writer is an architect; a reader, a construction worker. The architect designs the model and the reader constructs it.
Close your eyes and “picture” a nickel. Describing what you “see” approaches the limits of language. The “image” appears more intuitive than visual, unlike staring at a nickel on a table in front of you, but it’s “there” nonetheless.
When you’re staring at a nickel, your primary visual cortex fires on all cylinders, so to speak. But it’s also active when you “picture” a nickel, although the activity is diminished—i.e., the same processes responsible for constructing models based on information relayed via the eyes are also responsible for constructing models rooted entirely in the imagination, although the latter models are vague, almost indescribable, which is how, when we’re reading, we can “picture” characters or vistas and so on. Since our “pictures” of characters, for example, are vague, we tend to superimpose features of people we’ve stored, so a male character in a novel might, in our construction, resemble our father or postman, or a well-known actor, or a vague entity, and so on.
To write is, in a sense, to manipulate a reader’s neurophysiology, to implant images into the mind of the reader.
An image, when implanted in a reader, can stay with them. It can rewire their brains, so to speak. It can even alter them—their perception of x, or even their weltanschauung. And since the convergence of experiences, both internal and external, we call “reality” is a product of the human brain, and if a writer can implant strong imagery, which alters another meat machine’s neurophysiology, then we can literally alter “reality,” at least as far as the altered meat machine is concerned.
“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts […]”
—William Shakespeare, As You Like It
During an ethnographic study of drag queens, sociologists Dana Berkowitz and Linda Liska Belgrave at one point marveled at the amount of work, and the time spent, for a man to transform into a woman. At one point in their paper, Berkowitz and Belgrave articulate an interesting observation—obvious in hindsight, yet profound in its ability to articulate the familiar, which we often, if not always, overlook: the effort these men put into transforming for the sake of performance is similar, if not identical, to the way people get to prepare for, and behave, on an average day.
Translation: we are, each and every one of us, performers. Shakespeare wasn’t writing an empty poetic line when he wrote “All the world’s a stage”; instead, he was articulating something we as people know intuitively. He was teasing out and giving a language to something hard-wired into these meat machines.
Sometimes we choose the tone and tenor of our performances, although our performances aren’t entirely cognitive—i.e., non-conscious; they’re also behavioral, responses to people with whom we’re interacting or to situational interactions.
“Life,” to quote Rimbaud, “is the farce that we all must perform.”
Writers are people who play a game, one which follows rules, in the Wittgensteinian sense. Once we intuitively grasp a rule and its application, we, therefore, understand how to play the game. We shouldn’t take the word “understand,” however, to mean “the conscious ability to identify or articulate the rules.” Sometimes, our “understanding” is mechanical, something we can do without explaining how we do it.
One of the rules writers unwittingly obey, at least in this person’s assessment, is the cultivation of an ability to convert a performance into symbols. Above all else, a writer is a performer, and his or her writings reflect a performance. In a sense, it’s a distillation of playing by rules similar to those we follow in the real world. We call this game, we call these performances, “voice.”
A writer must develop a unique voice to distinguish him- or herself from the scores of people stringing groups and clusters of symbols together.
In the beginning, a writer is an imposter: he or she mimics their influences. Such mimicry is crucial in a multitude of ways, but the two most important results of mimicry is the development of an implicit—and, later, an explicit—”understanding” of the rules of the game they’ve chosen to undertake; the other result is to eventually experience an existential crisis of sorts, what people refer to as “the anxiety of influence.”
At some point in a writer’s development, he or she evolves a self-awareness of the extent of his or her mimicry, which leads to the anxiety. “How can I distinguish myself if I’m writing like [or performing as] writer x?” Such a question gives rise to a crisis in which the writer attempts to distance him or herself from primary influence w/r/t the writers they’re mimicking. Then they break this influence by consciously altering their performances, by tweaking them to reflect performances they themselves partake, or partook.
So I’m lying in bed writing. Beside me, my wife, who’s lying, supine, a laptop on her legs, streaming a television show. If you were to view me right now, in this moment, you would see a meat machine holding a tablet, tapping the bottom of the screen with both thumbs. But you’d see a writer in the midst of a silent performance if you viewed me as a person.
All writing is a performance, all writers are performers, but the performance fades the moment the activity ceases, and the performer—i.e., the writer—shifts his or her performance. The person typing this will transform his performance. To what? Who knows. Probably as husband bidding his wife goodnight. Or perhaps a self-reflective performer turning his performance inward while he lies in bed in the dark, numbed by Klonopin, and contemplating the tenor of his next performance, trying to conceive models worth transmitting to meat machines processing information, meat machines who might one day construct models from instructions telegraphed via symbols of Latin origin.
The above adumbrations bring us to imagination. As meat machines, we process information. Sometimes we reflect on what we see; sometimes we unreflectively experience what we see—”Ineluctable modality of the visible,” to quote James Joyce.
To this writer’s mind, imagination is a convergence of our ability to process information, both reflexively and unreflixively, our ability to retrieve stored information—”memories—and to think strategically, a fancy way of saying “making inferences about future possibilities.”
The models I’ve—hopefully—transmitted to you do not, in any way, reflect reality; they are the sum of my performance and your imagination; they are the sum of models you’ve constructed from instructions I’ve conveyed to you.
Or do they reflect reality? Do they emulate the world, as all writing does, or are they fabrications divorce from anything approximating “reality”?
As a teenager I uttered glossolalia in public, or, on occasion, pretended to suffer from echolalia. In stores, for example, I’d utter gibberish, as if speaking a foreign language, or I’d repeat sentences uttered by people with whom I chose to converse. The point of such behavior, I knew, was to pervert reality, to intentionally affect a performance which altered a person’s perceptions, thereby altering his or her experience of this “thing” we call “reality.”
That I had altered their perceptions, therefore altering their experience of reality, at least in that moment, that I had performed without breaking character, convincing them of my inability to speak their native language or to actively verbalize words or sentences stored in my echoic memory—a performance in response to my friends and the tedium of interactions in environments contrived to perpetuate consumerism.
So what’s real? Are the autobiographical interjections reflections of situations I’ve experienced, or are they part of a performance? Of course, these questions narrow certain parameters, encouraging you to consider answers to interrogatives I’ve provided. Is any of this real? Do any of the autobiographical elements reflect anything approximating the collective hallucination we refer to as “reality,” or is it all, in fact, an illusion perpetrated by a performer?
Life is a series of performances, the tone and tenor of which are dictated by people with whom we interact or situations in which we interact. Although some performances are non-conscious, others are conscious—i.e., we can choose or tweak our performances.
Whether writers or poets, comedians or actors or politicians, we are, each of us, performers, and by performing, and especially by choosing our performances, we can alter a person’s perception, therefore his or her “experience,” of “reality.”
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Daulton Dickey is a novelist, poet, and content creator currently living in Indiana with his wife and kids. He’s the author of A Peculiar Arrangement of Atoms: Stories, Still Life with Chattering Teeth and People-Shaped Things, and other stories, Elegiac Machinations: an experimental novella, and Bastard Virtues, a novel. Rooster Republic Press will publish his latest novel, Flesh Made World, later this year. Contact him at daultondickey[at]yahoo[dot]com.