This blog post is going to serve as nothing more than a thinly veiled love letter to Chuck Palahniuk.
This week, I devoured his book on writing titled Consider This: Moments in My Writing Life After Which Everything Was Different. Simply put, this book was amazing. You know I’m always looking for signs from the universe, and I firmly believe that the cosmos put this book into my hands at the right time for the right reasons. One of my favorite passages reads:
Was it Kierkegaard? Was it Heidegger? Some egghead pointed out how people decide the nature of their world at a very young age. And they craft a way of behaving that will lead to success. You’re praised for being a strong little kid so you invest in your strength. Or you become the smart girl. Or the funny boy. Or the pretty girl. And this works until you’re about thirty years old.(64).
Damn, Chuck. Just @ me next time. I think a lot of the uncertainty in my writing life comes from uncertainty in life in general. Last year was tumultuous; I lost friends I thought I’d have forever and essentially had to find my new identity. It was never a good idea to allow myself to be defined by other people, but I did it and here I am, reconstructing myself one piece at a time. I’ve finally come to accept that people will enter and exit my life at various times for all different reasons, and every entrance and exit does not necessarily have anything to do with me. “Through our lives, our relationships are based on proximity. We attend the same school. We work at the same company or live in the same neighborhood. And when those circumstances change, our friendships dissolve” (146). Those changes and dissolutions do not have to be earth-shattering. They do not have to be moments after which everything is different. But when they are, I think it’s more than important to stop and take note. Losing my friends and thereby upending the woman I thought I was led me to the dream of Ireland.
I want Ireland to be a part of my rebuilding, maybe even the foundation upon which I can build my writing life, and though that journey has been delayed, the desire is there and it is as strong as it ever was. Palahniuk writes, “Perhaps this is why people dream of traveling a lot at retirement. Seeing the world and recognizing one’s own insignificance makes it okay to come home and to die” (117). That’s depressing as hell, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true. To be comfortable with myself, and that includes being comfortable with my mortality, I think I have to be uncomfortable first. I’m happy to admit I’ve been uncomfortable as hell for nearly four years. So something’s gotta give soon, and I think this book by Chuck Palahniuk has prepared me for the moment I’ve been waiting for: the moment after which everything is different.
So much more than some bestselling author pontificating about craft, Palahniuk’s book is entertaining as hell. He includes entertaining anecdotes from his writing life that validate a writer’s many insecurities and intuitions, balancing humiliations with small victories. For example, Palahniuk recalls when he was a participant in Tom Spanbauer’s writing workshop and Tom gave him a book to read after his “…work had been rejected by some magazine or ten magazines or yet another agent had written to say he only represented ‘likeable’ fiction” (57). Tom chose the book and told Palahniuk it would help his work “enormously” (57). Palahniuk writes:
The following week I read and reread it. An easy job because it hardly topped a hundred pages, but a tough read because the characters were hard-pressed and put-upon cornpone hound-dog types just scraping by in the burnt-over backwoods hills of wherever. They lived on a farm, eating the same grits for breakfast every morning. They did nothing exceptional, and nothing happened to them. Each time I finished it I felt angry about wasting more time for so little return. I hated the author for wasting my time. But mostly I hated myself for being too backward to appreciate this work of art documenting the lives of folks interchangeable with the folks I’d been raised next door to(58).
So when Palahniuk brings the book back, he’s hesitant to admit he hated it because he’s afraid that makes him dumb, too stupid to appreciate a book praised by anyone and everyone who knows anything about literature. Palahniuk lies “to fit in with the smart people” (59), which is a pressure I completely understand and have barely survived. I usually do the same thing Palahniuk did. “If all else fails among the literati, always claim the language is beautiful” (59). Throughout the course of the evening, however, Palahniuk finally cracks and admits he hated the book and that he’s probably stupid. But Tom smiles and reveals his true intentions. “This book is awful…. I wanted you to see how terrible a book could be and still get published” (59-60). I give Palahniuk credit for not naming the book and shaming anyone (“If you don’t have anything nice to say…” and all that) and for being honest. He’s acknowledging that being published and successful can have very little to do with talent. And I think it’s important to note that Palahniuk found his writing tribe, a suggestion stressed by all different kinds of authors time and time again. Writing is a lonely job, so it is crucial to find people who share your writing philosophy and tastes and work ethic. It’s crucial to have a community, and I think Palahniuk is starting one with the publication of this book. In a cosmic coincidence, I am in desperate need of a tribe, so let this book be my calling card/open invitation.
I wrote a somewhat scathing review of John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction because it wasn’t accessible. It was condescending. It didn’t inspire me. Palahniuk echoes these sentiments and goes on to explain, “I’ve found that most writers fall into one of two camps. The first rise from academia and write gorgeous stuff with very little plot momentum or drive. The second camp of writers emerge from journalism and use simple, clear language to tell stories rich in action and tension” (192). I think, organically, I come from the first camp. I was an English major, am now an English teacher, and will earn either my Master’s or MFA in the near future. But I’m drawn to the second camp. A perfect paragraph or scintillating sentence is great, but I’m afraid that’s not what sells. Readers want stories rich in action and tension that are also accessible because they use simple, clear language. That’s why Her Beautiful Monster was a joy to write and earned positive reviews, I think – because I enjoyed writing it. I think I need to get back to basics and not overthink my creative process.
Palahniuk does not spend valuable space romanticizing the writing life or going on and on about some abstract, academic approach. He gives real, practical advice. For example, he writes, “Once you’re published and trying to scratch out a living you’ll find these regional bookseller associations are a great ally” (1). First paragraph of the first page, and I’m learning something new. I was so disappointed when my first novel didn’t go flying off the shelves, but in hindsight, I realize I was doing nothing to help. To be fair, I didn’t know where to start. Thanks to Palahniuk, now I do.
He does discuss the act of writing itself and gives great tips and tricks without singing his own praises. For example, he suggests that “Instead of writing about a character, write from within the character” (47). He recommends avoiding common units of measurement and instead, using units of measurement unique to a character, like “a man too tall to kiss” or “a man her dad’s size when he’s kneeling in church” (47). This idea may not seem revolutionary, but it hit me like a ton of bricks. This is a wonderful and unique way to give a story texture and to really develop my writer’s voice.
Palahniuk attributes some of his most followed advice to other writers, and it lends him a great deal of authenticity. That was my favorite aspect of the book, how real Palahniuk is. It reminds me of a sentiment expressed by Stephen King, that all writers come to drink from the same pool, so it’s only natural that all writers beg and borrow and steal from one another. Hence why I salivated over this book from one of my most favorite writers.
Palahniuk writes, “If you’re dedicated to becoming an author, nothing I can say here will stop you. But if you’re not, nothing I can say will make you one” (xv). Palahniuk shares advice he received from Bob Maull, founder of the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association. Maull told him, “If you want to make a career out of this you’ll need to bring out a new book every year. Never go longer than sixteen months without something new because after sixteen months people quit coming in that door and asking me if you have another book yet.” Fuck. Shit. Balls. My book came out nine years ago. Is it too late for me? Do I not have enough time to write because I’m a full-time teacher? Palahniuk doesn’t think so. He describes, in detail, how one writing approach solves the struggle for time. For all the dark human truths he exposes or touches upon, he is not a fatalist. He writes, “But if you hold a full-time job, have a family, and have to juggle every other duty in life, this scene-by-scene experimentation will keep you sane” (135).
So where do I go from here? I become a fucking writer. I carve out time for writing. I truly and fully believe I am one. I get to work.