A Masterclass in Creative Living and Dangerous Writing | Chuck Palahniuk on The Tim Ferriss Show

 Check out The Tim Ferriss Show Episode Page & Show Notes

Key Takeaways

  •  One of the best things you can do to improve your writing is to read it aloud to people. You can tell what parts are engaging, funny, boring, etc., by the mood and reaction of the audience.
    • This works much better in person than on Zoom:
      • “Right now I’m still trying to conduct my writers’ workshop, and we’re doing it on Zoom and it is death. Because as you read your work on Zoom, you’re not getting the ongoing, the laughter, the groans, the inhales, the fantastic silence of terror. You’re not getting any emotional feedback.” – Chuck Palahniuk
  • Hook your reader within the first paragraph, or even better, the first sentence:
    • “I would argue that right from the get-go, from the first sentence, you’ve got to engage the audience. And that goes back to journalism, that your lead has to be really strong.” – Chuck Palahniuk
  • Engage the reader on a physical level, not just an emotional or intellectual one:
    • “That’s why so many of my stories really involve either sex, or violence, or illness, or drugs, about something that heightens the physical awareness of the characters.” – Chuck Palahniuk
  • Write your story in a way that the audience knows something before the characters do so that the audience keeps reading to find out what happens:
    • “When you have a character who’s making an ongoing mistake, you keep the audience really engaged because the audience feels superior…and wants to see the character come to enlightenment.” Chuck Palahniuk
  • Although Fight Club eventually became a cultural masterpiece, it only sold 2,000 copies in its first year
    • “It was a big bomb at the beginning.” – Chuck Palahniuk
  • When Chuck writes, he is at peace with himself and the world. If he’s not writing a book, he starts drinking, getting emotional, and picking fights.
    • “Because when I’m writing, all of that negative, all that anxiety goes into the work and my life is so peaceful and so productive.” Chuck Palahniuk

Intro

  • Chuck Palahniuk (@chuckpalahniuk) has published twenty-three national and international best-selling books. These include fifteen prose novels, a collection of short stories, two graphic novels, two coloring books, a travel guide, a collection of essays, and a memoir about his life as a writer. 
  • Host: Tim Ferriss (@tferriss)

Books Mentioned

Writing Advice From A Pro

  • A lesson from Chuck’s book Consider This:  
    • “If you’re going to work on something as long as a novel, it has to explore some unresolved aspect of you, so that even if it never sells, never makes any money, never gets any attention, you still have a therapeutic benefit of fully exploring and exhausting that unresolved part of you.” – Chuck Palahniuk
  • While a novel lets you explore an unresolved aspect of you, a short story lets you explore an idea
    • If there’s more to the idea, then you can turn it into a novel. Fight Club was originally a short story.
  • Writing tips:
    • Don’t use thought verbs 
      • E.g: Realized, believed, wondered, etc.
    • Stay away from abstractions 
      • E.g: He was a six-foot-tall man
        • “You have to stay away from all abstractions because a six-foot-tall man is somebody different to everyone who meets him” – Chuck Palahniuk
  • Chuck’s definition of dangerous writing:
    • “Dangerous writing is effectively about taking an idea, something that is unresolved and threatening to you, and blowing it up and exploring it and making it worse than you ever imagined it could be. And in doing so, really exhausting your emotional reaction to it. And typically, that makes the problem itself go away entirely.” – Chuck Palahniuk
  • One of the best things you can do to improve your writing is to read it aloud to people. You can tell what parts are engaging, funny, boring, etc., by the mood and reaction of the audience.
    • This works much better in person than on Zoom:
      • “Right now I’m still trying to conduct my writers’ workshop, and we’re doing it on Zoom and it is death. Because as you read your work on Zoom, you’re not getting the ongoing, the laughter, the groans, the inhales, the fantastic silence of terror. You’re not getting any emotional feedback.” – Chuck Palahniuk

The Art of Storytelling

  • “You want to not just tell a story, you want to completely reinvent the act of reading every single time.” – Chuck Palahniuk
  • When writing a story, remember you don’t have to resolve every issue:
    • “You don’t have to resolve the entire world. You just have to resolve one aspect of the world and that’s enough to give people a sense of reward.” – Chuck Palahniuk
  • The best stories make people lose track of time:
    • “The idea is to keep people engaged on such an intense level that they lose track of time, they are so completely involved in the story. And so time doesn’t really matter as long as people’s butts don’t hurt and as long as they stay really deeply immersed in the story.” – Chuck Palahniuk
  • Hook your reader within the first paragraph, or even better, the first sentence:
    • “I would argue that right from the get-go, from the first sentence, you’ve got to engage the audience. And that goes back to journalism, that your lead has to be really strong.” – Chuck Palahniuk
  • Engage the reader on a physical level, not just an emotional or intellectual one:
    • “That’s why so many of my stories really involve either sex, or violence, or illness, or drugs, about something that heightens the physical awareness of the characters.” – Chuck Palahniuk
  • Write your story in a way that the audience knows something before the characters do so that the audience keeps reading to find out what happens:
    • “When you have a character who’s making an ongoing mistake, you keep the audience really engaged because the audience feels superior…and wants to see the character come to enlightenment.” Chuck Palahniuk
      • “But there is a kind of condescending sympathy and nurturing that the audience feels for a character who is making a constant mistake.”

More Writing Advice

  • When writing characters make them original but don’t worry about making them new. They likely fall into an ancient archetype:
    • “Seeing how your character falls into this ancient tradition of these archetypes is so important because it allows you to really write accurately and effectively…You realize you’re not kind of inventing something entirely new. You’re reinventing something really ancient.” Chuck Palahniuk
  • It’s worth taking the time to study ancient stories and archetypes. When Chuck wrote his short story Pheonix, he realized he had rewritten the tale of Isaac and Abraham.
    • “The more you understand about this ancient thing, the better you’re reproducing it in its fullness.” Chuck Palahniuk
  • When Chuck writes, he is at peace with himself and the world. If he’s not writing a book, he starts drinking, getting emotional, and picking fights.
    • “Because when I’m writing, all of that negative, all that anxiety goes into the work and my life is so peaceful and so productive.” Chuck Palahniuk

Your Golden Creative Years Are 31-33 

  • Chuck had an epiphany after reading Generation X by Doug Coupland
    • “It was such a unique, fantastic book.” – Chuck Palahniuk
      • Doug told Chuck that the last sort of physiological changes in the human brain occurs around the age of 31 and that’s when people can create something beautiful
        • “So it tends to be between the age of 31 and typically 33 that people who have studied in a field, create their breakthrough, or create their masterpiece.” 
          • Chuck started writing Fight Club when he was 31 and finished when he was 33
  • Although Fight Club eventually became a cultural masterpiece, it only sold 2,000 copies in its first year
    • “It was a big bomb at the beginning.” – Chuck Palahniuk

How Narratives Drives Business

  • About 100 years ago, everyone wanted a beaver hat and beavers were on the edge of extinction because they were constantly being killed for a fashion item
    • However, then the British created the silk top hat and all the sudden silk hats became the new it item:
      • “And suddenly beaver had no value whatsoever as a commodity. And so suddenly, beavers were left unmolested for 100 years, and now, beavers are everywhere.”  – Chuck Palahniuk
  • In the 1990s, fur was a status symbol for the rich and famous 
    • Then the fur industry decided they wanted to expand their market so they started financing furs to the middle and lower class so that they could afford it
      • For a brief moment, the fur industry exploded but when rich people saw poor people wearing fur, they stopped buying it
        • The fur industry never recovered since then

Cults, Social Models, & Halloween

  • Chuck is fascinated by cults and social models:
    • “I’m always fascinated by different social models. The kind of games that people invent for how to conduct their lives, that somebody has created all these rules, and everyone has agreed to play by these rules.” Chuck Palahniuk
      • Think of Burning Man or Occupy Wall Street:
        • “They get together with a sense of communitas where the social hierarchy is flattened, everyone is equal. And they kind of experiment to see if they can come up with a different way of being together.” – Chuck Palahniuk
  • Liminoid events are a temporary break from society, such as Halloween where people dress up as whoever they want
    • Chuck says that Halloween used to be a “major shit show. People used to tear down fences, they used to slash tires. They used to really destroy a lot of property.” 
      • However in the 1920s, newspapers got together with insurance and candy compies to change the narrative around the event and said that if you go to someone’s house, they’ll give you candy
        • “And that was basically just a way of saving a huge amount of insurance claims.” – Chuck Palahniuk
  • “Christmas was kind of the same way that Christmas carolers would go around. And caroling was a really menacing thing. Caroling meant either you come out and you give us booze or food or gold, or we will break your windows.” – Chuck Palahniuk

Additional Notes

  • Chuck’s newest book, The Invention of Sound, is about someone who goes around killing people in order to record and collect human screams
  • Books are like dairies of an author’s life at that point
    • “In a way, every one of my books is a diary of what I was going through at that point in my life, and also kind of a diary of things that my friends were going through.”Chuck Palahniuk
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Notes By Alex Wiec

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