Tag Archives: chuck palahniuk

What I Learned From Chuck Palahniuk

Chuck Palahniuk looks like a man from 1960s middle America.  He’s tall, lanky, and clean cut.  His thick glasses make him look like a nerd that plugs away at a boring job for his nice wife, cute kids and white picket fence.

You would never know by looking at him that this is the sick fuck* who wrote Choke, Snuff, Invisible Monsters, and of course Fight Club.

Back in 2012, when he was promoting the redux of Invisible Monsters, he handed out stuffed tigers to anyone who could answer trivia questions about his books, or make a baby out of a balloon.  If he had to swap lives with one of his characters, it would never be Tyler Durden.  He would rather be Denny.  He has infinitely more compassion for sweet, simple people who live normal lives.  There were a few wild stories involving Ambien and sandwich meat, and the Cacophony Society — where a bunch of guys would get together for four hours on a Saturday and the normal rules of interaction wouldn’t apply (known as a liminoid event).

The majority of his talk was not about the strange, the grotesque, or the chaotic.  It was about structure, form, and how to vet ideas for books.

He’s been meeting every Monday with the same group of writers since 1990.  When one of the members was diagnosed with terminal cancer, they even went to the hospice and held workshop there.  I don’t think it’s a cosmic accident that our sister group in Seattle is called “Write Club.”  His ideas resonate and reflect our experience.

His most striking suggestion was to take your idea to a party and see if it resonates with people.  Most people have experienced hazing.  Most people have experienced a horrible boss.  That’s why Fight Club was so successful as an idea.  We all want to escape the normal day-job life.  We’ve all had that roommate who does off-the-wall stuff that makes our lives hellish.

When you’re thinking of an idea for a story.  Tell it to someone else.  If they respond with, “Oh my god, me too!  This one time (blah blah blah)” then you’re definitely on to something.


“Next time you see a narrative, ask, “where’s the clock?”  Our clock is fifty stuffed tigers.  [Or] Peetie the cat can’t die until he eats all this cat food.  When the cat food runs out, you know Peetie is dead.”  – Chuck Palahniuk, 7/16/12 Castro Theater

Comedy is denying the drama of horrific things.”  – Chuck Palahniuk, “Choke” Commentary

If one aspect is good, take that aspect to a party and see if it resonates with people.  Not so people shut down and go “oo!”, but the one that makes everyone tell their own version.  Don’t just work from your own experience.  Exploit everyone around you.” 
– Chuck Palahniuk, 7/16/12 Castro Theater


*so to speak


Birds of a Feather Sometimes Despise Each Other


“What? You said we must bring a sharpie to class!”

Sometimes while looking for a community or mentor, you strike gold. Other times, our fellow writers can be as alienating as the most soulless corporate setting.

Toward the end of my college career, I decided to take a writing class which was far outside my major. The class was described as a place where Writers (published, fancy, mentor-types) would talk to us about writing. They would discuss the process of writing, works they’ve produced, and so forth.

Yes! I thought to myself. A writing class! I can always learn new things! O joy! O rapture!

It was not that.

On the first day of class, three-hundred would-be writers stuffed themselves into a lecture hall to listen to the prof review the syllabus. So far, so good. Certain phrases wafted up to me like sewer fumes.

“Your assignment is to fall in love with a novel this quarter [from a prescribed list].”

Oh no.

Then the prof read four poems to us. Four poems she wrote. She read them at a slow cadence, rising and falling with practiced gravity. They were… not good. She poured her lexicon down over our heads, filling our lungs with artistic sludge, and I knew I was going to suffocate. Flailing did no good. Her premise was too thin to swim through. I’m going to die, I thought. I’m going to drown in bombastic overwrought remembrances of “the parlour games of Tolstoy as a nine-year-old boy.”

We must have been darling indeed, for her to murder us on the first day.

After the intellectual water-boarding, she asked us if there are any questions.

I asked if we’re going to talk about the business side of writing. How do we find an agent? How do we get published? She said that there’s no money in poetry, and I bit back the urge to say, “I can see why!” or “that’s not what I asked you.”

She suggested asking our guest speakers those kinds of questions, and assigned us to “discover a haunting, arresting moment, and write it down in your journal. Nothing really developed, not a full idea, just the seeds of a notion.”

We also had to memorize three poems [from a prescribed list].

Continuing in the angry vein, we went on to do ice-breakers in small groups. With a partner, write your name, year, and major on an index card. On the back, write two reasons you think writing is important. I wrote:

  1. Writing is an important outlet so that you don’t pick up a tire-iron and brain someone.
  2. It is a document to prove that we were here.

Reason #1 is Lewis Black’s explanation for why there’s no such thing as bad language. Reason #2 is a line from the Assemblage 23 song, “Document.”

The only person who laughed at the tire-iron joke was my partner, and she thought my name was Whitney. My name sounds as close to “Whitney” as the name “Katie” sounds like “Azerbaijan.”

“What?” I said to my classmate.

“I don’t know! I told you I’m not good with names!” said my classmate.

“Do you prefer to be called Whitney?” asked the teacher, confused.

“No, my name is not Whitney. I have no idea where she got that from.” I said.

She also didn’t know what year I was. Or what my major was. These were one-word answers that I gave her not two minutes beforehand. They were also written down, plain as day, on the index card sitting on our desk.

Sometimes you won’t fit in. That’s ok. Don’t give up. Your people are out there.