There's a Story You Should Know
Where does monologue end and magic begin?
One of my favorite writers, Robert Anton Wilson, introduced me to the concept of “E prime,” a mode within general semantics (which I might describe as a kind of practical linguistics) that eliminates most forms of the verb to be. Why would you want to do that? Well, the theory goes, when you say, “I am X,” or “you are X,” or “that is X,” you are making a claim about the inherent properties of you, me, or that thing—but your claim derives from your perception, and confuses perception for objective reality.
Therapists have picked up on aspects of this concept, so you’ll often see it in the way they teach us to reframe statements. Instead of saying “I am useless,” for example, I might say “I feel useless.” Instead of saying “You are useless,” you might hope that I’d say “I regard you as useless.” (Oh, you might say of me, if only he had such self-awareness!) And rather than “This is useless,” I could say, “I don’t see any use for this” or “I don’t know what I would use this for.”
Reconfiguring your thoughts and statements to E Prime requires no small amount of intellectual labor. I often find it challenging, when I try to write at length in E Prime, to produce sentences that feel as if they would read naturally to you. I’ve attempted it in these first three paragraphs, for example, where a form of to be has only appeared once, in “you are making.” But “are” doesn’t count in that case because it…um, is just a component of an active form of to make.
You see what I mean about the difficulty. And I’m unconvinced… I haven’t quite convinced myself those three paragraphs will strike you as natural rather than stiff, free-flowing rather than overthought.
Okay, I’ll give myself permission to stop now.
I mention E Prime because the ability to recognize how the conscious and unconscious prejudices of our perception prevent us from seeing the totality of those around us—or, sometimes, the totality of our own selves—is key to understanding In and of Itself, a film based on Derek DelGaudio’s off-Broadway theatrical show which you can watch on the Hulu streaming service.
I do not want to reveal too many specifics of what DelGaudio does in this show; I believe you should experience them for yourself, as freshly as possible. I will say this much: It’s a show that combines the raw emotional honesty of a Spalding Gray monologue with a series of magic tricks.
I do not want to say “Derek DelGaudio is a magician,” and you can refer to the opening paragraph for an explanation. I also know, from the research I was able to do since first watching the film three days ago, that DelGaudio has some discomfort with the label—precisely because if you are told that “Derek DelGaudio is a magician,” you will look at him a certain way, and might miss certain aspects of the story he’s trying to share with you.
I’d rather say that DelGaudio uses magic as a dramatic tool, a tool that he can manipulate to guide the audience’s perception in certain ways. Yes, they are stunning technical displays, but they also produce emotional effects—and I’m not simply talking here about the “ooh” and “ahh” of an impressive card trick. If you see such a card trick in the film, it isn’t just an impressive feat of skill, it’s a demonstration of character… or, at least, of the character DelGaudio wants you to see.
Which is, as he says in the one voiceover I’ll allow myself to quote, simultaneously a mask and not a mask:
“You think this is a performance.
You see a man in a theater. There’s an audience.
His lines are memorized; his actions are rehearsed.
It is difficult to see past what this looks like.
Hell, it’s easy to lie on stage—it’s even easier to lie in a film.
I do not expect you believe anything you’re seeing or hearing—
and, knowing you won’t believe me,
that’s the only reason I’m going to tell you the truth.”
I’ve written, in many previous installments of this newsletter, about finding the story that you want to share with the world, and then transforming yourself, over the course of your writing practice, into a person capable of sharing that story. That metaphor carries a particular weight when your story takes the form of memoir, I think, and you can see In and of Itself as an embodied form of memoir. DelGaudio also has a literary memoir coming out very soon, called Amoralman; I’ve just started to read it, and already I’m noting the differences in how he has chosen to frame his experiences one way for a ninety-minute performance and another way for the book.
This underscores one of the key points of that monologue—every story is a construct. And constructs require work. In a way, DelGaudio’s mastery of magic technique, the years of skill-building that went into that mastery, makes it easier for us to recognize just how much work is involved creating a show like In and of Itself—but just as much work went into honing the narrative that elevates the show from an impressive series of illusions to a transformative emotional experience.
One day, after I’ve read all of Amoralman, I should set aside some time to reflect on DelGaudio’s self-imposed discipline, and the intuitive connections I’m already starting to make with the late Ricky Jay, who used his superlative technique to steer audiences in a somewhat different direction… and maybe Penn and Teller, too, for that matter, and the whole matter of that invitation to see something beyond the illusions on stage, and why that feels like it matters more than even the most impressive spectacles.
To what end do we deploy our tricks? is, I’m starting to think, the question writers need to answer for themselves just as much as magicians.
If you’re reading this on the web, or someone forwarded you the email, welcome! “Destroy Your Safe and Happy Lives” is, in its ideal moments, a weekly* newsletter about developing a meaningful and productive writing practice. You can get most of it emailed to you for free with a basic subscription—or, if you’d like to support its ongoing publication, premium plans are available.
*I’m getting better about this! This particular issue is a few days late, mostly because I was processing my thoughts about the film and decided I’d rather write something I felt good about rather than whatever I could whip up on the “due date.”
A big thank you to Cathleen Falsani, whose newsletter steered to this film, which I might otherwise have missed!
Finally, here’s a line I couldn’t figure out how to fit into the newsletter I wound up writing, but which felt too good not to share: “Particularly where our lives are concerned, our stories reveal some things while other things remain overlooked or deliberately concealed.”