Moments we can’t talk about become the rest of our lives

I really believe it’s the moments we can’t talk about that become the rest of our lives. It’s the moments we cannot process by telling a story that destroy us in the end.

-Palahniuk, from an interview with The Guardian

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Learning Plots as a Way of Understanding History (and Ourselves)

In an essay in his book, Stranger than Fiction, Chuck Palahniuk outlines two benefits of writing: 1) It can help you make sense, and take ownership, of your own life and 2) it can help you better understand history (which in turn can help you understand how history is shaped).

One of the money lines from the quote below is, “if we’re too lazy to learn history history, maybe we can learn plots. Maybe our sense of ‘been there, done that’ will save us from declaring the next war.” Aside from that, the idea that forcing yourself to unpack ideas and pictures of the world beyond the detail we’re accustomed to thinking about is helpful. Maybe you really should try to imagine what a happy version of yourself would look like (and thereby try to figure out what you’re lacking in the present).

Controlling the story of your past—recording and exhausting it—that skill might allow us to move into the future and write that story. Instead of letting life just happen, we could outline our own personal plot. We’ll learn the craft we’ll need to accept that responsibility. We’ll develop our ability to imagine in finer and finer detail. We can more exactly focus on what we want to accomplish, to attain, to become.

You want to be happy? You want to be at peace? You want to be healthy?

As any good writer would tell you: unpack “happy.” What does it look like? How can you demonstrate happiness on the page—that vague, abstract concept. Show, don’t tell. Show me “happiness.”

In this way, learning to write means learning to look at yourself and the world in extreme close-up. If nothing else, maybe learning how to write will force us to take a closer look at everything, to really see it—if only in order to reproduce it on a page.

Maybe with a little more effort and reflection, you can live the kind of life story a literary agent would want to read.

Or maybe . . . just maybe this whole process is our training wheels toward something bigger. If we can reflect and know our lives, we might stay awake and shape our futures. Our flood of books and movies—of plots and story arcs—they might be mankind’s way to be aware of all our history. Our options. All the ways we’ve tried in the past to fix the world.

We have it all: the time, the technology, the experience, the education, and the disgust.

What if they made a movie about a war and nobody came?

If we’re too lazy to learn history history, maybe we can learn plots. Maybe our sense of “been there, done that” will save us from declaring the next war. If war won’t “play,” then why bother? If war can’t “find an audience.” If we see that war “tanks” after the opening weekend, then no one will green-light another one. Not for a long, long time.

Then, finally, what if some writer comes up with an entirely new story? A new and compelling way to live, before . . .

Sorry, your seven minutes is up.

You can read the entire essay (entitled You Are Here) HERE.

The Painter Had Disappeared

Chuck Palahniuk has some brilliant essays on writing-craft over at LitReactor. I’ve read through them all multiple times at this point. Palahniuk is giving advice for writing, but it’s amazing how much of it I’ve applied to myself as a preacher as well. I’ve learned as much (maybe more) about communicating from him as anyone else.

In this essay, he is making the point that when the author (painter in this case) applies his craft well, he disappears (I’ll give some counterpoint to that in the next post). I would add that the same is the case for a good sermon – the preacher disappears:

Another Christmas window story. Almost every morning, I eat breakfast in the same diner, and this morning a man was painting the windows with Christmas designs. Snowmen. Snowflakes. Bells. Santa Claus. He stood outside on the sidewalk, painting in the freezing cold, his breath steaming, alternating brushes and rollers with different colors of paint. Inside the diner, the customers and servers watched as he layered red and white and blue paint on the outside of the big windows. Behind him the rain changed to snow, falling sideways in the wind. The painter’s hair was all different colors of gray, and his face was slack and wrinkled as the empty ass of his jeans. Between colors, he’d stop to drink something out of a paper cup.

Watching him from inside, eating eggs and toast, somebody said it was sad. This customer said the man was probably a failed artist. It was probably whiskey in the cup. He probably had a studio full of failed paintings and now made his living decorating cheesy restaurant and grocery store windows. Just sad, sad, sad.

This painter guy kept putting up the colors. All the white “snow,” first. Then some fields of red and green. Then some black outlines that made the color shapes into Xmas stockings and trees. A server walked around, pouring coffee for people, and said, “That’s so neat. I wish I could do that…”

And whether we envied or pitied this guy in the cold, he kept painting. Adding details and layers of color. And I’m not sure when it happened, but at some moment he wasn’t there. The pictures themselves were so rich, they filled the windows so well, the colors so bright, that the painter had left. Whether he was a failure or a hero. He’d
disappeared, gone off to wherever, and all we were seeing was his work.

From Chuck Palahniuk’s essay, Thirteen Writing Tips

52 Novels (12): Survivor

My goal is to read a novel a week in 2015. I’ve made it to 12.

-Chuck Palahniuk, Survivor

Look in my eyes. What do you see? The cult of personality.

From a suicide cult, to the cult of celebrity, to the cult of personality. An ironic and fitting book for someone whose unofficial website is called The Cult.

This book will remain special to me for at least one reason. My wife got an autographed first-edition for me as a birthday present.

For me, it’s a book that will take time to appreciate. I didn’t enjoy it so much in the process of reading it. But, as I take time to reflect, I realize that it’s a very clever story with some interesting pictures of the world we live in.

The plot surrounds one of, if not the only, remaining member of a religious cult that committed mass suicide. We follow him on his journey from cult member, to housekeeper for the stars, to suicide hotline proprietor (who encourages people to commit suicide), to unwitting follower of a young woman with some sort of prophetic gift, to plane hijacker.

Some of the more interesting scenes, for me, involved the main Character (Tender Branson) receiving psychological counseling. Along the way, we learn quite a bit about the DSM (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). I studied the DSM a bit in college (I took 15 hours of psychology), which made it easy to giggle a bit while reading the book. Tender figures out that he can just study the manual and pretend to have the disorders it describes. As long as he does this his therapist will never actually ask him any really significant questions (since she’s obsessed with DSM diagnoses). I suppose that’s the big ’emotional scam’ of the book – Tender acts like everything in the world is wrong with him so that he won’t have to deal with what’s actually wrong with him. In the end it bites him. He’s escaped the life of the suicide cult, but he can’t escape the cult of personality.

He becomes one himself. As the last surviving member of the suicide cult, he becomes a spiritual celebrity and guru – even though he has nothing to teach, or even say. What really happens is that he becomes the puppet of a big corporation who is in the business of making celebrities. He just reads the script and plays the part. (Playing the part, by the way, includes taking steroids, amphetamines, and all sorts of other things).

Finally, as his celebrity is waning, he falls victim to a prophetic crush. The girl he desires turns out to be a dreamer of prophetic dreams. One of those dreams spells his doom, though he doesn’t realize it until it’s too late. Cue Living Colour.

52 Novels (8): Choke

My goal is to read 52 novels in 2015. I’ve made it to 8…

Choke, by Chuck Palahniuk

Choke is not my favorite Palahniuk book (so far that would be Fight Club), but the plot is spectacular. The story is a prime example of what Palahniuk calls an ’emotional scam.’ An emotional scam is basically what a person convinces himself he needs in order to be fulfilled or affirmed or secure. The main character here is a choker. He feigns choking in restaurants so that other diners will perform the Heimlich on him.

This serves several purposes: First, he will experience the embrace of arms wrapped around him. He will enjoy the moment of having others surround him with unwavering attention. He will be told time and time again, ‘Everything’s going to be alright. You’re fine. Don’t worry.’

Second, he is setting up a situation in which dozens of people can become heroes. For the rest of their lives, they will be able to brag about the moment when they saved another human being’s life. He is like a messiah who is saving people by allowing them to save him.

Third, they will inevitably take an interest in his hard luck life. They will send him birthday cards on the anniversary of his salvation; the anniversary of his new birth. And there will be money in those cards.

The problem with all of this is that it is an emotional scam that is bound to be found out eventually. What will happen when two of his saviors meet each other? And what will happen when he really does begin to believe that he is a legitimate sort of messiah? That’s the story in a nutshell. It’s one of the better concepts for a story I think I’ve ever come across.

I’m left asking about my own emotional scam.

On Killing Adjectives and Thought Verbs

After listening to one of my sermons, a good friend pointed me to an article by Chuck Palahniuk on Thought Verbs (hence my current binging on Palahniuk’s books). The application to my own preaching was clear.

For example, Palahniuk writes,

Thinking is abstract.  Knowing and believing are intangible.  Your story will always be stronger if you just show the physical actions and details of your characters and allow your reader to do the thinking and knowing.  And loving and hating.

Don’t tell your reader:  “Lisa hated Tom.”

Instead, make your case like a lawyer in court, detail by detail.  Present each piece of evidence.  For example:

“During role call, in the breath after the teacher said Tom’s name, in that moment before he could answer, right then, Lisa would whisper-shout: ‘Butt Wipe,” just as Tom was saying, ‘Here’.”

Another example:

From this point forward – at least for the next half year – you may not use “thought” verbs.  These include:  Thinks, Knows, Understands, Realizes, Believes, Wants, Remembers, Imagines, Desires, and a hundred others you love to use.

The list should also include:  Loves and Hates.

And it should include:  Is and Has, but we’ll get to those, later.

Until some time around Christmas, you can’t write:  Kenny wondered if Monica didn’t like him going out at night…”

Instead, you’ll have to Un-pack that to something like:  “The mornings after Kenny had stayed out, beyond the last bus, until he’d had to bum a ride or pay for a cab and got home to find Monica faking sleep, faking because she never slept that quiet, those mornings, she’d only put her own cup of coffee in the microwave.  Never his.”

Instead of characters knowing anything, you must now present the details that allow the reader to know them.  Instead of a character wanting something, you must now describe the thing so that the reader wants it.

All this reminded me of something I had read from C.S. Lewis regarding adjectives. Lewis writes,

Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the things you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us the thing is “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”; make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers “Please, will you do my job for me.” (Letters to Children, p. 64)

The application is simple for the writer and the preacher. Stop simply telling and start showing.

In a college literature class I got into a (friendly) kerfuffle with a professor over Jonathan Edwards’ sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. He said it was graphic to the point of being unhelpful. I said Edwards was doing precisely what Lewis and Palahniuk are talking about. That was a great part of the effectiveness of Edwards’ preaching. He was relentlessly imaginative and descriptive. The two go hand in hand after all. Palahniuk gives examples for the writer, let me share a few for the preacher.

Instead of saying, ‘God is sovereign,’ say something like, ‘all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, “What have you done?”

Instead of saying, as I’ve heard so many preachers say, ‘The correct response is faith,’ say, ‘Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory.’

I heard a preacher dealing with Exodus say, ‘You cannot be a Christian and live like an Egyptian.’ Wouldn’t it be better to show us what an Egyptian looks like rather than simply making the assertion? Thomas Watson described them this way: ‘The Egyptians were not a warlike but a womanish people, imbecilic and weak, yet these were too hard for Israel and made a spoil of her.’ That says a lot more about what we are not to be.

One of my great problems as a preacher and a writer is that I tend to unpack the things that don’t need unpacking while failing to unpack the things that actually need it. If you have similar issues, perhaps it’s time to work on killing thought-verbs and adjectives.

52 Novels (6): Doomed

My goal is to read a novel a week in 2015. I’ve made it to 6.

-Chuck Palahniuk, Doomed

Doomed is the second novel in what is going to be a three part series about the character Madison Spencer. I wrote about the first book, Damned, HERE. I am not going to get into any details about the plot. I’ll just share a few of my big takeaways.

The story is pretty much crazy. You have to have a fairly strong stomach to deal with Palahniuk. I happen to like his writing quite a bit, but I would be very careful in recommending him. The fact that I write about something doesn’t mean I necessarily endorse it completely or that I would want someone to rush out and pick up the book.

The book reads like a running blog, with virtually every entry beginning, ‘Gentle Tweeter.’ I found humor in this for some reason.

The series is in some sense following the paradigm of Dante. Damned covers Hell, Doomed Purgatory, and the third volume will deal with Heaven. Purgatory in this story ends up being the earth itself, as Madison doesn’t make curfew on Halloween (the one night out for the souls in Hell) and finds herself stuck roaming the earth.

The big idea of the series starts to take shape in this volume around an interesting thought-experiment. Palahniuk is playing with the idea of reconciling God with Satan. If the two were to be reconciled, his main character Madison hypothesizes, then Hell and suffering would be moot. It’s an interesting thought-experiment. Almost medieval, which is fitting since Dante’s paradigm comes into play.

Of course I wouldn’t recommend taking theology from a novel, though there are some novels that have quite good theology. The idea is about as theologically incorrect and impossible as it could be, but it’s an interesting thought nonetheless. It’s like Parent Trap, only God and Satan are the characters being drawn together. This doesn’t actually happen in Doomed, but the plot begins to take shape. We’ll have to wait for the next book to see how it develops.

Finally, the main plot of this volume is that Satan has used this little girl Madison, whose parents are super rich, super famous, global stars, and religious environmentalists as well, as the figurehead of a new religion on the earth. She is an unwitting Anti-Christ. The idea that someone could be unwittingly dragged into such a position is a fascinating one.

You can listen to Palahniuk talk about the story HERE. He’s always very, very interesting to listen to.

52 Novels (3): Damned, by Chuck Palahniuk

I’m trying to read a novel a week in 2015. I’ve made it to three.

This book is about a 13-year-old girl, Madison Spencer, who goes to hell. It is the first book in what is meant to be a trilogy. So, you get maybe a hundred pages of The Breakfast Club in Hell. It’s an interesting concept. I almost wish that concept would have come full circle throughout the course of the book. It gets dropped at some point. It would have been interesting to see the hellish prisoners raising back to their cells, trying to get back before some demon caught them out frolicking. But that doesn’t happen.

Instead, Madison becomes a telemarketer. Yes, we find out that dinnertime telemarketing calls comes from the inhabitants of Hell. From there, she has a major run in with Satan himself. Her encounter with Satan will shape the rest of the story as it unfolds in the second volume of the trilogy (Doomed) and the third, which is yet to be released.

There’s some unnecessary vulgarity (vulgarity could probably be in all caps). But you expect that from Palahniuk. I call it unnecessary if it doesn’t advance the plot. And there’s certainly one blatant incident that adds nothing to the plot.

The digs at wealthy modern environmentalists are amusing. For instance,

If there was a Hell, my mom said you’d go there for wearing fur coats or buying a cream rinse tested on baby rabbits by escaped Nazi scientists in France…

There are many, many good little jabs akin to that one. The book also provides some jabs at the over use of anti-depressants. So, if you’re a big-time environmentalist or a big-time user of anti-depressants, this book my provide you with some food for thought, if it doesn’t blind you with rage.

The major refrain of the book is,

No, it’s not fair, but what makes earth feel like Hell is our expectation that it should feel like Heaven. Earth is earth. Dead is dead. You’ll find out for yourself soon enough.

This reminded me of something Chesterton wrote:

It is commonly in a somewhat cynical sense that men have said, ‘Blessed is he that expecteth nothing, for he shall not be disappointed.’ It was in a wholly happy and enthusiastic sense that St. Francis said, ‘Blessed is he who expecteth nothing, for he shall enjoy everything.'(St. Francis of Assisi, p. 87).

This book is nowhere near being as good as Fight Club. That almost goes without saying. Would I recommend it? Only if you meet the two requirements I listed above and were mentally equipped to handle some raunchy stuff.

Creating More Energy Than You Demand

Chuck Palahniuk says that writing workshops allow a writer to test his or her stories, to “see if it’s a story that creates more energy than it takes to listen to it.”

I think that’s a good thought for a preacher as well; and for a blogger. Ask yourself if your work is going to create more energy than it takes to attend to it.

52 Novels: (1) Fight Club

Fight Club, by Chuck Palahniuk

I’m trying to read a novel a week. This is number 1. As usual, I will not be writing reviews of the books I’m reading. I am giving my impressions and applications; things I take away from the book. Here’s ten conveniently starting with the letter ‘s.’

1. Sleep: If you know what it’s like to have insomnia, or even extreme fatigue, you can immediately relate to the nameless narrator. That’s the first thing that sucked me into the story. Feeling like you don’t know if you’re awake or asleep; having days, weeks run together in a sort of blur.

2. Sissies: That’s the next big sticking point. Men culturally neutered. Men shopping for furniture. Men living in highrise apartments. Men stuck sitting at desks. Men needing a good fight. This book is a scathing indictment of a culture that suppresses manhood.

3. Schizophrenia: It’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde without the magic and the medicine. The battle of good versus evil in one person; the tendency of the evil to dominate.

4. Sympathy and Sobs: I haven’t read Palahniuk’s book Choke yet, but I’ve surmised it’s about a man who feigns chocking in order to gain human contact and sympathy, as well as money. The nameless narrator of Fight Club is desperate for human contact. He blubbers like a baby in the arms of a cancer-riddled bodybuilder. Support groups, in which he has no real business, support his sanity. This again is a scathing critique of a culture that knows little about true affirmation and community.

5. Shock: Don’t read Palahniuk if you don’t want to be shocked. And not all the shock is good or even needful in my opinion; but sometimes it’s necessary.

6. Soldiery: Project Mayhem. Men are ready to join a cause; better make sure it’s the right one. Here it’s the cult of personality. And HERE it’s often the cult of personality.

7. Salvation: Or perhaps anti-salvation. Rebirth or anti-rebirth. One of my favorite lines in the book has to do with the narrator constantly traveling by plane for his job. He’s awake, he’s asleep. He wakes up and he’s in a totally different place. He says, “If I could wake up in a different place, at a different time, could I wake up as a different person?” It serves as a beautiful foreshadow to the rest of the book. I’ll devote another post to that line of thought.

8. Shrinks: Heaven is a Psych Ward. God is a psychiatrist. At least, that’s what the narrator thinks in the end.

9. Superman: It’s a tale of boredom; of man’s need to rip off his suit and tie like Superman. The only thing is that this ripping off of the suit and tie results in an epic of nihilism that produces exactly the kind of superman Nietzche pointed to – a man wholly of this world. His heaven is a Psych Ward after all.

I would hesitate to recommend this book to someone who isn’t very mature. It’s rough. But it’s also quite disturbingly beautiful. I read it twice. Should I even mention that it’s better than the movie? But the movie is pretty good.