On Writing and Bestsellers—and Lobster and Lizard People

Daulton Dickey.

writer-605764_960_720Encountering lobster- or lizard-human hybrids occurs frequently when you’re an imagination masquerading as meat. I bumped into one or the other at least once a day; and whenever I do, they say, “Daulton, why do you insist on writing easy-to-read bestsellers?” To which I reply, “I am a professional. I go where the people lead me. If they want action, I give them action. If they want spiders hatching in their ears, I cultivate brown recluses on their behalf. If they want corpses to replace rain and blanket the city in a violent storm, then so be it.”

I wrote my latest soon-to-be blockbuster, Flesh Made World, in the midst of a psychic and nervous breakdown. I admitted myself into the psych ward on suicide watch the day after I completed the novel. While I was writing it—experiencing suicidal depression, coming to terms with the sudden death of my father, and in the grip of a months’ long anxiety attack—people and creatures kept saying, “Yo, D, why don’t you write a non-linear, hard-to-read novel crammed with surreal and disturbing imagery, and ambiguous as hell?” I said, “All right, all right. If that’s what you want. I’m already on it.”Despite the circumstances, I’m always writing or thinking about writing. In fact, and believe it or not, I’m writing right now. This moment. Before I hit the period at the end of this sentence, I’m writing.

I paused for a minute but now I’m writing again.

I’m obsessed with writing.

It consumes me.

I can’t point to a time in my life in which I wasn’t writing. One of my earliest memories consists of me holding a note notepad scribbling on it with a pencil, as if I were a journalist covering a press conference—even though, at the time, I couldn’t even read or write. As I learned to read and write, I developed my chops my writing stories using characters such as the Three Stooges and Marvin the Martian. I wrote myself into every story. Perhaps I had a healthy ego or perhaps I was as solipsistic as all children. “Daulton” shared adventures with cartoon characters, dead stars from a bygone era of cinema, or heroes and villains from films such as Star Wars.

The first story I remember writing involved me waking up in the middle of the night, during a storm, and climbing onto the pitched roof of our house to confront Marvin the Martian as he stood on our chimney, detonator in hand, and threatened to destroy the planet. As the hero of the piece, I prevailed by anchoring his spaceship to the ground, provoking him to flee, then watching as his ship crashed into the earth.

the_written_word_by_d_cubed90I wrote comic books, screenplays, songs as I grew into my teens. Then I discovered literature. Books obsessed me after that, and I wrote, wrote, wrote, churning out well over a million words before my twenty-first birthday. Most stories and books were shit and most remain unpublished. Of the few books and ebooks I have published, all became worldwide sensations. One book even has three—count them: three—reviews on Amazon. Despite the money and acclaim, I continued—and continue—to write. It’s in my blood: words long ago replaced the hemoglobin. I’m the partially phonetic man. Words, words, words.

Writing is neither easy nor hard; it simply is. The difficulty lies in detaching myself long enough to glimpse the book or story as it is, not as I perceive it. Sometimes I succeed. Usually, I don’t. Sometimes I care. Usually, I don’t. The book or story I read as I write it is never the book or story I read when it’s finished—and that’s never the book or story someone else reads. For the most part, I’ve given up trying to please or entertain readers, despite my insistence to the contrary whenever a lobster- or lizard-human hybrids enquires about my work.

“I am not an entertainer”—that sentence appears near the end of Naked Lunch. For years, I’ve accepted it as my motto. I took it seriously. And I still do. Too many people demand entertainment. Entertain me, entertain me, entertain me, goddamn it! Generations of mass media have inculcated entertainment as top provider or pleasure, filling our synaptic gaps with dopamine and serotonin. Pleasing us, gratifying us, shutting our brains down so we can relish in the visceral joy of pure and unadulterated entertainment—we demand this of everything, from news to politics, education to loafing. Our overweening desire and demand for entertainment has created generations of functionally illiterate buffoons, morons who cackle at stupidity while accepting whatever they want to accept as fact and voting for celebrities and reality show stars.

nightmare-605933_960_720My goal isn’t to entertain. As a writer, I am to create experiences. Whether readers find my writing entertaining or not is irrelevant. Creating an experience, transporting a person to a hypothetical world and allow them to experience what I’m experiencing as I’m writing the piece, is my aim. Think of it as literary expressionism.

I wrote a novel a few years ago structured logarithmically. The narrative broke down and fragmented as the book progressed. I designed chaotic and manic scenes interjected into the narrative, fragmenting and derailing it, in an attempt to induce a state of anxiety, the kind of which I experienced as I wrote it. My wife read about a third of the manuscript and gave up. When I explained my intentions to her, she said, in an exasperated tone, “Why would anyone want to experience that?”

It wasn’t a question I’d considered until she’d asked it. And it’s not a question I consider now. Entertainment manipulates us to feel good in some respect. Marketing establishes a kind of tension that experiencing the form of entertainment releases—this is why marketing and entertainment succeed. My goal as a writer is to create tension without designing an obvious trigger for its release. I don’t want to make people suffer, but I do want them to approach my books and writings from a different angle. Trigger for the release of tension are embedded into my books. Unlocking them requires reflection. I know it sounds pretentious but it’s not. Pretentiousness implies value judgement. I’m not saying my books are good or bad—I don’t care if they’re good or bad; I don’t think in those terms—but I do want people to interact with my writing in ways in which they don’t typically interact with books.

I sometimes compare my more avant-garde works to a red puzzle in which all the shapes are more or less uniform. Putting it together requires tenacity and concentration. Nothing obvious exists to guide you other than subtle changes in shapes in which you’re forced to deduce which piece fits where.

Such desires spring from a form of didacticism, I suppose, and they also spring from the kind of books I prefer to read. I want and expect a challenge when I’m reading, otherwise, I feel unfulfilled. This predilection developed in my teens and it’s evolved as I’ve aged. I can’t explain why I prefer to read and write these kinds of books; I only know that I do prefer it.

I don’t to imply, however, that I don’t like the occasional work of entertainment. Ofdownload course I do. But I don’t want it all the time. I treat entertainment—superhero films, science fiction series, comic books, video games, lowbrow comedies—as if it’s sugar: it’s fine in moderation. You wouldn’t subsist solely on Snickers candy bars yet many people do subsist solely on mass and mindless entertainment. The more we expect, the more we demand. And people who want to make money or accumulate influence and power are more than happy to oblige.

Entertainment and culture are memes similar to viruses. They’re self-replicating. Once they’re released, many transfer from person to person, person to person. In such an interconnected world, a world in which fewer corporations own more entertainment subsidies, we the consumers are zombies absorbing these memes and helping to spread them. It doesn’t simply come down to whether or not you or I enjoy something. Entertainment is designed for the masses; its designers want to infect as many people as possible. They can control, guide, dictate our tastes, habits, and behavior. And we willingly oblige—as long as we’re entertained.

I’m ranting now, but I’m not apologizing for it. I’m passionate about this, more passionate than almost anything else. I’m a cynic and a pessimist. My world is often dark. But I view art as something that should transcend desire; it should give us what we need, not what we want; it should make us work for our rewards; and it can change the world. Art, for me, represents the only area in the human experience ripe with optimism.

As I said above, I write all the time—but I don’t write to change the world. I write for me and for people like me. I write because it’s a desire I can’t shake. I write in hopes of changing myself every time I sit down to write something new. And I write in the hopes of changing one person, if only a small part of them. I might sound absurd or nonsensical, ambitious or pretentious, but it’s true: writing can change people. Through words, I can alter your neurophysiology to mirror mine. And by attempting to divorce myself from myself and reading my books through hypothetical eyes, then maybe I can glimpse inside your head—and maybe, just maybe, doing so can allow me to see myself in ways I can’t otherwise see me. In writing, I hope to change you. And I hope you can change me. It sounds silly as I write it, but it’s true.

To_Edgar_Poe_(The_Eye,_Like_a_Strange_Balloon,_Mounts_toward_Infinity)_(A_Edgar_Poe_(L'oeil,_comme_un_ballon_bizarre_se_dirige_vers_l'infini))_LACMA_AC1997.14.1.1It works, obviously. When you sell the number of books I do in a month, it’s clear you’re on to something. Like, one week, I sold upwards of ten books. In a single week. People may laugh at those numbers, but the lobster- and lizard-hybrid people understand its significance: to survive, we must retain anonymity. It’s probably not a brilliant marketing strategy, but at least I’m not a member of the alt-right trying to attain notoriety by advocating misogyny, bigotry, and fascism. On that, the lobster- and lizard-hybrid people agree.

img_4466Daulton 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: StoriesStill Life with Chattering Teeth and People-Shaped Things, and other storiesElegiac Machinations: an experimental novella, and Bastard Virtues, a novelRooster Republic Press will publish his latest novel, Flesh Made World, later this year. Contact him at lostitfunhouse [at] gmail [dot] com

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