Art Imitates Life: Writing Advice from Chuck Palahniuk

Chuck Palahniuk has been a part of my life since high school, back when Fight Club was my favorite movie before I even realized it was a book. Since then I have read almost everything Palahniuk has written. Not everything lands perfectly (though more hits than misses in my opinion), but you can always bet it will be provocative and tantalizing.

Two things that have always stood out to me in Palahniuk’s oeuvre are the strong voice and unique style he employs as a writer; two qualities that I have admittedly often sought to replicate in my own creative writing. This is why I was over the moon when I found out he has recently released a book on his career and experience as a writer (titled Consider This: Moments in My Writing Life after Which Everything Was Different).

In wanting to learn more about the book I came across a podcast called First Draft: A Dialogue on Writing by Mitzi Rapkin. Each episode involves Rapkin interviewing a different author on his/her craft and experience as a writer. I found the recent episode featuring Palahniuk to be compelling, so I thought I would share some of the experiences and advice that he related.

Writing Tips

  1. Write in a good mood, edit in a bad mood

  1. Utilizing “Little Voice” and “Big Voice”

    • Little voice – the “who does what” and the “what happens in story”

    • Big voice – the philosophizing voice that rises above the theme and talks about big thematic things in a brief way (doesn’t involve reader physically so don’t elaborate too long before getting back to little voice)

  1. Allow epiphany to occur in reader’s mind before you state it on the page

    • Reader will have an emotional stake to see if he/she is right or wrong (likened to watching a game show).

    • Reader will feel like he/she knows more than the characters and will want to see them come to same understanding (again, making the reader emotionally invested in the outcome for the characters)

  1. The Concept of Crowd Seeding (my favorite)

    • You start with the germ of an idea or an anecdote from your own life

    • Then you tell it at a party (or somewhere with a crowd of people), and if other people start wanting to tell an identical story from their own lives then it’s a good idea

    • It’s basically field testing to see if people will engage and find relevance in your ideas

    • It also allows for the development of an idea because as people tell their own versions of the idea it can change/mold the original

    • There is power in people’s stories told face-to-face

    • You don’t even have to be the one to start the conversation. Just listen to people at events and parties. People naturally want to introduce topics to receive engagement.

Other Things I Learned About Chuck Palahniuk

When he was younger he wanted to be a priest so he could hear people’s secrets, but he also then wanted to share those secrets with others. This is partly why he became a journalist earlier in his career (he referred to it as “commodifying the intimate”, which I found interesting). Becoming a journalist also helped him achieve a minimalist style (not directly dictating your emotions and opinions to the audience). His practice of “Crowd Seeding” also allows him to be the priest in the confessional, just in a different way.

He wrote Consider This while on oxycontin (also known as “hillbilly heroin”), and while there is a long history of famous authors writing under the influence, this is not something he directly advocates. For him this book contained deeply personal stories from his past, stories too close and painful, and so drugs helped numb the pain and allowed him to write them down. However, he did mention he is ashamed and doesn’t want to promote that kind of behavior. He also doesn’t recommend writing under the influence because you lose the discretion to know what’s good or not.

Finally, he writes his initial notes/ideas in notebooks then transcribes them with the computer, his favorite place to write is on the front row of an airplane, and his favorite word is “tintinnabulation” (coined by Edgar Allen Poe in his poem “The Bells”).

If you would like to listen to the full interview, or interviews with 250+ other authors, please visit http://www.firstdraftwriters.com/.

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