A Traditional Author Event According to Chuck Palahniuk

J. K. Rowling does it this way. Maya Angelou did it this way. John Steinbeck did it this way.

I attended Chuck Palahniuk’s event at the Uptown Theater in Kansas City last weekend. Palahniuk is touring in support of his short story collection Make Something Up: Stories You Can’t Unread from Doubleday and his graphic novel Fight Club 2 from Dark Horse Comics  I had heard of Palahniuk’s shenanigans, but this was my first time witnessing them.

The night began with Chuck, dressed in pajamas and a silk robe, telling us to blow up the clear latex beach balls in our admission packages. Then, we stuffed glow sticks down inside them and wrote our names on the surfaces with a black Sharpie. Occasionally, throughout the night, Palahniuk would stop the event, have the lights turned off, have the music turned on, and have the balls punched in to the air.

Chuck Palahniuk & Rainy Day Books Event “Balls in the Air” at Uptown Theater in Kansas City on May 29, 2015, 41 Second Video. from Rainy Day Books, Inc. on Vimeo.

One or two balls would be plucked by Palahniuk’s publicist for a special price. Leather-bound, gilded, signed first editions of Fight Club and Beautiful You.

Other times, Chuck would hurl bags of Hershey’s Kisses in to the audience with surprising force.

Questions were answered, mostly about Palahniuk’s writing or his suggestions for new writers. He was fairly inspirational and encouraging, saying that writers needed to state the truth in the way that only they can. It was fairly basic encouragement, which is great. But if you really want a heavy dose of Palahniuk’s writing philosophies, you should check out the 39 essays at LitReactor. They provide insight in to his process and in to writing mechanics that can’t be touched in a question and answer format.

Stories were read. I enjoyed his new stories, “Zombies” and “The Facts of Life.” Palahniuk also read “Guts,” which is extremely graphic, and caused two people in the audience to faint. The show continued on, with the red and blue ambulance lights reflecting in the hallway. If you aren’t familiar with “Guts,” you can read it here, but I’ll warn you that it’s not for the squeamish.

The great people at Rainy Day Books were brought on stage. They do a lot of great programming. If you are in the Kansas City area, be sure to check them out. To end the night, rubber hands were thrown in to the crowd.

It was a weird, wonderful night. It fit Palahniuk’s writing style perfectly, and it set a bar for author events. Afterall, Joyce Carol Oates does it this way. At least that is what Palahniuk told us.

Ironically, I had my own signing the next day. It seemed strangely pedestrian after glowing beach balls and the flinging of rubber prostheses. I asked the book manager at my signing about the possibility of throwing plastic body parts at his customers. His response, “Please don’t get me fired,” wasn’t exactly a no per se.

I wonder how many books I have to sell before fans will thank me for beaning them with bags of candy.

You Are Not a Beautiful and Unique Snowflake

Listen up, maggots. You are not special. You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake. You’re the same decaying organic matter as everything else. – Tyler Durden in Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club

Writer’s are a fragile bunch.  We are primarily solitary creatures, except when we are gathering with other writers to talk about writing.  We spend most of our lives dancing to music that exists only in our heads, talking to characters no one else can hear, and trying to effectively communicate what they say to everyone else.

That can be a lot of pressure.  Sometimes it can be overwhelming.  In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott writes about the delicate psyche of the writer and the oppressive gravity a blank page can place upon them.  I think sometimes we let ourselves get frightened by the gravity and scope of what we are trying to do.  There are so many things to worry about.  There is plot, characters, theme, setting, dialogue, grammar, spelling.  We may invest hundreds of hours in a work of fiction that sucks and no one will ever read.  We want to write something special, something that means something.  We want to write the great American novel.

Anne Lamott deals with this by telling herself she only has to write what she can see through a one inch window.  What I do is far less romantic, and likely the by-product of a blue-collar upbringing.  I remind myself that I am not special.  I cannot sit and watch a beautiful masterpiece flow from my fingertips.  I am working.  That requires practice, attention to detail, stubbornness, and the little bit of skill I possess.

I am not special.  Thousands of writers are facing that same blank page at this moment.   Hundreds of thousands of writers have faced millions of blank pages, and amazingly they have managed to be filled.  The Library of Congress has 33 million books, not even a small percentage of all the writing done when you include magazines, screenwriting, playwriting, etc.

I am facing the same problem as everyone else.  My answer will be the only thing different.  When I stopped writing for awhile, a lot of it was about pressure.  Some people around me who had read my stuff said I had talent.  I felt pressure to perform and to do so immediately.  Write a best-seller, my ex-wife used to say, so we can live on the money.  She was trying to be supportive and encouraging, but a few rejection letters later, I stopped submitting.  It was one thing for Ray Bradbury and Stephen King to say to persevere through rejections, they could literally crap on a sheet of paper and a publisher would buy it.  But I am not either one of them.

Lately, I’ve been going to writer’s groups, and that has made the difference.  I realized that I am not special.  I am not the only writer struggling to start a literary career.  I’m not even the only writer in my sub-genre in this city.  Hell, for all I know, I’m not the only writer on my block.  Somehow, that all makes me feel better.  It calms my agoraphobic social phobia enough to get to work.

You don’t worry about mowing your lawn correctly because everyone does it.  You don’t worry about shoveling snow the right way.  You just shovel it.  If you are working on a car, you know other people have done the same repair before and you just go do it.

When I approached writing this way, suddenly the blank page wasn’t near as offensive.  Writing is just another thing I do.  I love doing it, but in the end, it’s just another project.  A blank page is nothing.  I’ve filled them before.  My colleagues are out there filling them right now.  My fellow writers of the Dead Horse Society, the Writers of the Weird, and the Lawrence Writer’s Group are out there punching keys along with me.  Some of our stuff will be good, some of it great, some of it God awful, but it will be there.

I’m not a beautiful and unique snowflake, and that is fine by me.