An Evening With Chuck Palahniuk: Postmodern Creativity and How To Write Dangerously As An Academic

One of the benefits, or sometimes disadvantages, of studying new media and popular culture is that every entertainment experience has the opportunity to become relevant to my research. This is, of course, how last week’s article ended up being about Mad Max: Fury Road, and how my MA Thesis ended up being about the use of videogames in the writing classroom. Intentionally or not, most of the media I consume or engage with tends to inadvertently relate to something I’m working on in the critical academic sphere, and the advantage this creates is, of course, that I can do things like play Minecraft for five straight hours and call it research.

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Technically this is research for a future article, I swear.

 

In all seriousness, when I discovered that renowned postmodern author Chuck Palahniuk was coming to Atlanta on tour for his latest short story collection, I wanted to attend for a multitude of reasons. I wanted to attend because I’d been reading his books since high school, because Fight Club is my favourite movie, and his book Haunted is the only fictional work that’s successfully disturbed me in the last ten years. I wanted to attend as a creative writer, because nothing’s more interesting than hearing about another writer’s process and gleaning ideas to grow and improve in my own fiction work. I especially wanted to attend as a teacher, because I’m preparing the reading list for the summer class I start teaching at the end of June and I had a feeling that a Palahniuk short story would very effectively fit into the class theme (Millennials).

So I talked a friend into driving me to Atlanta on Wednesday of last week so I could attend an Evening with Chuck Palahniuk at SCADshow (thanks Walter).

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It was an author event that included two signed works as part of the ticket price: Palahniuk’s latest anthology of short stories, Make Something Up: Stories You Can’t Unread, and the first issue of the comic Fight Club 2. The structure of the event was unlike any other author event I’ve attended, but I’ll get to that later in the article. What I want to explore first is the writing advice Palahniuk gave during the course of the evening, and how I realised that it was relevant not only to my writing process as a creative writer, but also as an academic. Turns out, my writing process isn’t that different whether I’m working on a piece of fiction or a critical essay, and this week’s article focuses on that, because the further I delve into the depths of academia, the more I see that the tools we use to write creatively are the same tools we use to write critically.

When speaking about his writing style, Palahniuk makes reference to a method known as as Dangerous Writing. He learned this method through workshops and classes with Tom Spanbauer, who encourages his students, and those who wish to improve their writing, to write their truth. To find the raw place within and write from the wound, to really dig down and address what it is that scares you, to find that truth that would change a reader’s perception of you, and to write the story you would, say, tell someone at a bar after a few too many drinks.

Saying Palahniuk makes use of this method is a gross understatement: his fiction explores disturbing and transgressive places that make people angry, sick, or sometimes even pass out. In my experience, however, writing your truth isn’t necessarily about shock value. We don’t all have stories about homemade sex toy accidents or nightmare day jobs, but we do all have raw truths within us. There’s nothing that says we have to share those stories as writers – Spanbauer and Palahniuk both say that their method is not the Only Way (and I tend to distrust any writer who says their way is the only way – not all of us can wake up at seven AM and write two thousand words before breakfast, and not because we’re lazy but because we physically or mentally are straight up unable – more on that in another article I think). However, investigating those raw places DOES lead to a different kind of writing, and often results in something unexpected.

Take last week, for instance. I wrote a very personal article about my experience with Mad Max: Fury Road. I didn’t go into full dark detail about my own past, but in order to explain the impact that film had on me, I had to investigate and probe into a wound that’s over ten years old, that still affects me today. It was difficult. It was painful. It triggered my PTSD and I spent large chunks of last weekend locked in my room reliving what most only experience in nightmares.

Last week’s article also got hundreds of views.

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No seriously, thanks for stopping by my blog, it really means the world to me that y’all read what I have to say.

 

It’s frightening to write your truth. For me, it led to the opening of some very painful wounds and revisiting of intense psychological issues. But I’m proud of that article, and I found another way to grow past my tragedy by writing it. Let me be clear: I don’t advocate writing yourself into panic or trauma. I’ve been receiving professional medical help for my PTSD, anxiety, depression, and a whole host of other neurodivergences and traumas since 2007. I advocate this kind of self-exploration only when it’s done carefully, and don’t want to encourage anyone to harm themselves. It’s not a writing style, or creative style, that works for everyone, so please be careful and kind to yourself as you explore your art.

I’m not telling people to trigger painful experiences, only sharing what could work for you, and what has worked for me. For me personally, delving into those dark places and taking those risks, brought forth new ideas and some of the most real writing I’ve ever been capable of. For me, writing should be dangerous. It should be challenging. If we write the same thing over and over again, nobody wants to read it. I’d rather write – and read – something raw and risky than something dull and safe.

Which brings me to writing for academia.

My final semester of my Masters program I enrolled in a seminar on critical theory. It met once a week and focused on adaptation and fidelity, and we spent the semester reading books like The Butcher Boy, Eddie and the Cruisers, and Watchmen, and discussing their film adaptation counterparts. It was a theoretically dense class, and we read theory by scholars like Walter Benjamin, discussed principles posited by Jacques Lacan, and really interrogated the idea of remaking stories for new audiences and what this really means for culture and society as a whole.

I had a love-hate relationship with this class. While much of the theory we read made sense in the context of book-to-film adaptation, I couldn’t make it mesh with my own preferred area of scholarship: new media and videogames. A lot of the theory that came out of the Cold War focuses heavily on the passive nature of mass media and culture, the ideas of consumerism, and the lack of critical awareness that comes with watching mindless remake after mindless remake. The theory made sense by itself, but comparing it to all of the reading I had done over the course of the previous six months in preparation for writing my thesis led to me having a major bone to pick with some of the biggest Marxist scholars of the twentieth century.

The end of the semester approached and I had an idea for a term paper forming around a videogame I couldn’t stop playing no matter how many times I died horribly: Alien: Isolation. I had some ideas about how interactive mediums like videogames could combat passive media consumption, but even as I found more information to support my theories, I couldn’t help but hesitate.

Because positioning myself using the argument that videogames allow for critical and active consumption of media placed me in direct opposition to my instructor’s favourite scholar: Fredric Jameson.

I spoke with my classmates and they told me it was suicide. Writing against the instructor’s favourite theorist is definitely up there on the list of things graduate students probably shouldn’t do.

Then, funnily enough, it was my instructor who pushed me to take the risk. The class before our final paper was due he gave us a talk not unlike the advice Palahniuk gave to his audience last Wednesday. He told us that he didn’t want to read something safe and boring, didn’t want a pile of dull papers that didn’t do anything to push our limits as scholars. He told us to take risks. To fail spectacularly, not succeed with something banal.

So I wrote a nineteen page paper arguing against a principle put forth by Fredric Jameson. I took the risk.

I got an A in the class.

(Well, an A minus, but that was because I had to miss a bunch of class for conferences, not because of my paper. Whatever, an A is an A).

It’s one of the better papers I’ve ever written, I’m intending to revise it for publishing, and a version of the research I did for that paper will be appearing on this blog in a discussion of the Alien franchise at a later date.

As an academic, I’ve discovered that I am so much more successful when I take risks, and that my research and writing is more interesting and more relatable when I take a risky and new position that has the potential to blow up in my face. I did it with term papers, I did it with conference papers, and hell, I even did it with my master’s thesis.

As academics, we never get anywhere unless we push ourselves. If you join the conversation with the sole purpose of agreeing with a popular opinion without bringing in anything new to contribute to that conversation, or to disagree but offer no constructive alternative or counterpoint, you’re just perpetuating this air of self-indulgent navel-gazing that every discipline, academic and creative, critical and analytical, needs to move away from if we ever want to get anything real done.

My evening with Chuck Palahniuk was enlightening in how it reminded me of how alike my creative and academic processes have become over the last ten years. The evening itself was a joy and a delight.

I’ve been to many author events, lit nerd that I am. I’ve been to geek conventions, stood in line for signatures, attended Q & A sessions, and met some of the greatest minds in both academia and popular culture.

This event was like nothing I’ve ever attended in my life.

The first novelty was in the gift bag. Every attendee received one, and it contained the two books that came with the ticket, a blow-up translucent beach ball, and two glow sticks. The event organizer from Acapella books told us to blow up the beach balls, insert the glow-sticks into the little plastic cavity on one end, and then write our full names on the balls with a sharpie marker. The room quickly filled up with glowing plastic beach balls and nonplussed audience members. We were excited but inquisitive: what the fuck were these beach balls for?

Before the event started, Palahniuk himself appeared with no ceremony or announcement, standing near the front of the auditorium wearing a red velvet smoking jacket and sparkly cravat, holding a pipe and two sets of Playboy bunny ears. He offered to take pictures with people, but only if they posed with him wearing the bunny ears.

The only reason I don’t have a picture of that for you, dear readers, is by the time I figured out what was going on, the line to get a picture was out the door. My apologies.

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But here’s proof that he was actually wearing that.

 

When the event began we finally learned the mystery of the beach balls. At given points during the evening, the lights in the auditorium would dim, music would start, and everyone would throw the beach balls to the center of the auditorium until the music stopped. Then the helpful gentleman from Acapella books would pick two of the beach balls, and those people would win special hardbound signed copies of Palahniuk’s books, the fancy limited edition kind.

Most author events, you show up and everyone sits down, the author reads either an excerpt from their latest novel or a couple of short pieces, they take questions and give answers, and then either they leave or there’s some kind of signing that requires hours of standing in line.

This was, so to speak, a whole different ball game.

As well as the ball toss, Palahniuk would ask the audience questions. Amusing and inane things, most of them, like ‘who here has a dog?’ or ‘who has a birthday today?’. Those folks got prizes. Anyone who asked a question during the Q & A sessions won a prize (a signed book). At the beginning of the event, he threw the audience entire bags of candy.

He also read three short stories. The first and last came from his newest anthology: The Facts of Life and Zombies. The middle story was the now-notorious Guts, and while nobody passed out during this reading, there were a couple of walkouts.

At the end, after applauding the organizers of the event, Palahniuk informed us that since we had been so great giving them a hand, that as a surprise, he wanted to give everyone in the audience a hand.

So they did.

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Give me your hands, if we be friends…

 

As I said, it was like no author event I’d ever been to. It was a cross between strange postmodern performance art and a hilarious literary party. It reminded me a lot of what I encourage my students to do, and what my theory professor had instructed us to do.

Do something different. Take risks. For me, that’s genuine postmodernism, and we need more of it.

The thing that impressed me the most at this event was not only Palahniuk’s clear practicing of what he preaches — not just writing dangerously, but running an author event dangerously — was the answer he gave to my question. I raised my hand during the Q & A and, since I really did genuinely want to use the experience as a teaching moment, asked him about using one of his stories in the classroom. Told him I taught freshman composition and I wanted to assign one of this short stories, and I asked him which he would recommend.

And he got this pained expression on his face, pausing for a good twenty to thirty seconds, before finally answering with a question:

“Does it have to be one of mine?”

Palahniuk didn’t want to recommend one of his stories. Instead he recommended short stories by other authors, stories he had taught in his own writing classes. He talked about how much The Bridges of Madison County truly fucked him as a fictional work. He talked about the works that inspired him and inspired his students. It was both humble and humbling. It was funny. It was useful: I plan on assigning the stories in question (Strays by Mark Richard and Ysrael by Junot Diaz) in my summer class.

It was also slightly ironic, because after he read the final short story – Zombies – I knew I HAD to assign it to my summer freshmen.

His attitude impressed me, his recommendations impressed me, and his writing impressed me. I was impressed. The event left an impression. I was entertained. I was educated. I took a ridiculous amount of notes. I spent fifty dollars on books.

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I thought a lot about writing, and teaching writing. I found another connection between my academic process and my creative process. I found some teaching moments, and had some learning moments.

I remembered that I write dangerously every time I make an academic argument.

And I wouldn’t want to write any other way.

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Also he has a really cool signature. I approve. 

 

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3 thoughts on “An Evening With Chuck Palahniuk: Postmodern Creativity and How To Write Dangerously As An Academic

  1. That sounds super cool. 🙂 And I agree, risk-taking is sort of inherently valuable, I think. Most of my work tends to be along the lines of “let’s see what happens if I do this!” more than anything else, and I just sort of drag my students along with me, to varying levels of complaining. It’s sometimes distressing how much prodding we have to do to get them to try new things, and I suspect it’s because the system is stacked against them (and us) so much. :/

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