Writing in the Dark, and What it’s Like to Be a Bat

One of the best things about being a writer is getting to hang out in a space of researching these questions.

One of the interesting challenges of keeping this daily practice of posting here, is noticing how often I face a sense of having nothing to share. Earlier this week, I began some early notes for what I think are two distinct coming long-term projects, and I also revised a poetry manuscript. Those are unwieldy and not appropriate for publication here. I thought of sharing something I found this morning, but I had written it years ago and part of my intention in showing up here is with new pieces, ready or not. I want to practice what I am trying to teach myself, which is, among other things: that even when you feel like you don’t have enough, or feel unworthy, there is always something new to share. Just because. It’s hard to learn this because the world is so much. Mostly, I want to avoid walking out there, especially with some creative infant child in my arms.

So, baby steps. I am coming up on forty days into this practice (Hah! I think as I write this, The length of a Biblical desert fast! What’s next, visions?! Hang on!) and after an enthusiastic day one, I have been having plenty of good practice in noticing that every day there’s a block, and every day, something new. By this point, I have learned to expect that the next time I get writer’s block (either in five minutes, one hour or tomorrow morning), I’ll just keep writing through it.  Sort of like breathing through the thing that starts to feel like despair or laughing while crying. 

I feel mostly as though I never have anything to say (if saying means, “All must hear this!”), but I can’t know what I think (and sometimes feel) without writing. As a result, I have lots of backup techniques with which to treat such paralysis. My writing self, I have learned, must be treated like a terrified, sickly child in need of a lot of extra support. I keep books of prompts handy, and bookmark weird news sites and craigslist ads, also photography sites and art books. Many days, I look up “This Day in History” to see if anything kindles there. If I still come up short, it can be fruitful to try an erasure or a found poem of another text. The worst that can happen from that is that I will spend some time reading a text I might otherwise not read. It can teach me something new. 

Juvenile Mariana Fruit Bat by USFWS-Pacific Region on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 2.0 Generic license

Thinking about what to post here today, I checked my usual places and seemed to be coming up with nothing. But then I learned that it was on this day in 1937 that American philosopher Thomas Nagel was born. I’ve been obsessed about questions of understanding and what can’t be understood, thinking and what can’t be thought through, and (always) with the question of how to be––here, in this impossible world.  I jumped at the chance to return to his “What it’s Like to Be a Bat.” The only problem with using this text for found poetry is that I loved so many whole phrases and complete sentences, that I had to leave them intact. I thought about italicizing these sections, as though to give credit to the author, who might very well be appalled at the gross modifications and reductions of this excellent text, the focus of which is largely a question of certain inherent problems in reductionist tendencies. But then, I just italicized the whole thing. It’s an exercise. Consider the words stolen, the arrangement sometimes mine.

But, as I say to the child writer whom I’m trying to coax into writing today’s piece, “Oh, well! It was a good time, wasn’t it?! And no one got hurt!” I highly recommend the process, which if you cut out the time hemming and hawing over what to do, is entirely intuitive and basically involves trying not to think while you pluck out words and phrases of interest. Generally, something like this may be done in 1-15 minutes, which makes it great for a practice exercise. In this case, I made some attempt to honor the spirit of the work, but I took liberties with delivery and nuance. 

Caveat: I still don’t know what it’s like to be a bat. But at least I got to hang out in a space of researching the question, which is one of the best things about being a writer. 

Consciousness, the mind body problem, is intractable. 
Current discussions get it obviously wrong.


Reductionist euphoria is designed to explain, but
problems are ignored. Philosophers share a human 
weakness for what is familiar, hence familiar reductions.


Without consciousness, it seems hopeless. 
Perhaps a new form can be, in the distant future.


Extremists deny this. It is impossible to exclude experience.
Ever spent time in an enclosed space, with an excited bat?


Now there is an alien form of life! Consider echolocation, 
how they whisper with their shrieks, how different from 
any sense we possess. What is it like to be a bat?

We cannot form more than a schematic conception.
If there is conscious life elsewhere in the universe,
it is likely that some of it will not be describable. 
It would be foolish to doubt that there are facts

which humans will never possess, just as it would to be convinced that the bats’ experience, once thoroughly observed, may be known.

What would be left if you removed the viewpoint of the bat? Here is a general difficulty.There is an effort to substitute the concept of mind for the real thing, to have nothing left over which cannot be reduced.  What next? What it is, remains a mystery.

The apparent clarity of the word “is,” is deceptive.
Suppose a caterpillar, locked in a safe, by someone unfamiliar with metamorphosis. Weeks later, a butterfly! One might think a tiny, winged parasite devoured the original, and grew.


Does it make sense to ask what my experiences are really like, beyond how they appear?
Proposal: it may be possible to approach from another direction, separate from empathy or imagination. It would not capture; it’s goal would be to describe.


One might try to develop concepts that could be used to explain to a person blind from birth what it was like to see, and vice versa.  One would reach a blank wall, eventually, but still. Possible. 
Red is not quite the sound of a trumpet. I am indebted to many people for their comments.


If one understood how subjective experience could have an objective nature, one would understand the existence of subjects other than oneself.

Note to artist-child-self: now go look at bats. If none are available, because daytime, birds will do. Watch. Then later, remember to write again. Do this impossible, necessary exercise of making something even if it isn’t sense, of what you may not know. 

Author: Stacey C. Johnson

I am here to wonder out loud. The point is not to get a clear answer, a complete picture, but to remember how incomplete the picture is, to embrace the process once again, of discovery, of questions, to notice the stirrings of wonder. To leave crumbs behind, for the next traveler.

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