Stranger Than Fiction: True Storiesby Chuck Palahniuk
At the Rock Creek Lodge Testicle Festival in Missoula, Montana, average people perform public sex acts on an outdoor stage. In a mansion once occupied by
Chuck Palahniuk's world has always been, well, different from yours and mine. In his first collection of nonfiction, Chuck Palahniuk brings us into this world, and gives us a glimpse of what inspires his fiction.
At the Rock Creek Lodge Testicle Festival in Missoula, Montana, average people perform public sex acts on an outdoor stage. In a mansion once occupied by The Rolling Stones, Marilyn Manson reads his own Tarot cards and talks sweetly to his beautiful actress girlfriend. Across the country, men build their own full-size castles and rocketships that will send them into space. Palahniuk himself experiments with steroids, works on an assembly line by day and as a hospice volunteer by night, and experiences the brutal murder of his father by a white supremacist. With this new direction, Chuck Palahniuk proves he can do anything.
The New York Times
"Step into Palahniuk's dark worldview and watch for what crawls out. These stories are true to him and no one else." The Oregonian
“One of the oddest and most oddly compelling collections to come along for some time.” —The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
“In Chuck Palahniuk’s world, the ride is fast, often disturbing, and there is never any holding back.” —The New Orleans Times-Picayune
“Eccentric, idiosyncratic, and often entertaining.” —The Onion
"Priceless grace notes from an exceptionally droll and sharp-eyed observer." The New York Times
“Rarely does a collection of essays continually resonate with a main theme and accumulate a weight that would lead you to call it a great book. . . . This is a pretty great book.” —The Seattle Times
"The book's lurid appeal rests largely on being let in on Palahniuk's secrets, the raw material for much of his fiction. . . . Acts that give spice to his novels are made more menacing when encountered in the real world." Black Book
- Books on Tape, Inc.
- Publication date:
- Edition description:
Read an Excerpt
You Are Here
In the ballroom at the Airport Sheraton Hotel, a team of men and women sit inside separate booths, curtained off from each other. They each sit at a small table, the curtains enclosing a space just big enough for the table and two chairs. And they listen. All day, they sit and listen.
Outside the ballroom, a crowd waits in the lobby, writers holding book manuscripts or movie screenplays. An organizer guards the ballroom doors, checking a list of names on a clipboard. She calls your name, and you step forward and follow her into the ballroom. The organizer parts a curtain. You take a seat at the little table. And you start to talk.
As a writer, you have seven minutes. Some places you might get eight or even ten minutes, but then the organizer will return to replace you with another writer. For this window of time, you’ve paid between twenty and fifty dollars to pitch your story to a book agent or a publisher or movie producer.
And all day, the ballroom at the Airport Sheraton is buzzing with talk. Most of the writers here are old—creepy old, retired people clutching their one good story. Shaking their manuscript in both spotted hands and saying, “Here! Read my incest story!”
A big segment of the storytelling is about personal suffering. There’s the stink of catharsis. Of melodrama and memoir. A writer friend refers to this school as “the-sun-is-shining-the-birds-are-singing-and-my-father-is-on-top-of-me-again” literature.
In the lobby outside the hotel ballroom, writers wait, practicing their one big story on each other. A wartime submarine battle, or being knocked around by a drunk spouse. The story about how they suffered, but survived to win. Challenge and triumph. They time each other with wristwatches. In just minutes, they’ll have to tell their story, and prove how it would be perfect for Julia Roberts. Or Harrison Ford. Or, if not Harrison, then Mel Gibson. And if not Julia, then Meryl.
Then, sorry, your seven minutes is up.
The conference organizer always interrupts at the best part of the pitch, where you’re deep into telling about your drug addiction. Your gang rape. Your drunken dive into a shallow pool on the Yakima River. And how it would make a great feature film. And, if not that, then a great cable film. Or a great made-for-television movie.
Then, sorry, your seven minutes is up.
The crowd out in the lobby, each writer holding his story in his hand, it’s a little like the crowd here last week for the Antiques Road Show. Each person carrying some burden: a gilded clock or a scar from a house fire or the story of being a married, gay Mormon. This is something they’ve lugged around their whole life, and now they’re here to see what it will fetch on the open market. Just what is this worth? This china teapot, or crippling spinal disease. Is it a treasure or just more junk.
Then, sorry, your seven minutes is up.
In the hotel ballroom, in those curtained cubicles, one person sits passive while the other exhausts himself. In that way, it’s like a brothel. The passive listener paid to receive. The active speaker paying to be heard. To leave behind some trace of himself—always hoping this trace is enough to take root and grow into something bigger. A book. A baby. An heir to his story, to carry his name into the future. But the listener, he’s heard it all. He’s polite, but bored. Hard to impress. This is your seven minutes in the saddle—so to speak—but your whore is looking at his own wristwatch, wondering what’s for lunch, planning on how to spend the stipend money. Then . . .
Sorry, your seven minutes is up.
Here’s your life story, but reduced to two hours. What was your birth, your mother going into labor in the backseat of a taxi—that’s now your opening sequence. Losing your virginity is the climax of your first act. Addiction to painkillers is your second-act build. The results of your biopsy is your third-act reveal. Lauren Bacall would be perfect as your grandmother. William H. Macy as your father. Directed by Peter Jackson or Roman Polanski.
This is your life, but processed. Hammered into the mold of a good screenplay. Interpreted according to the model of a successful box-office hit. It’s no surprise you’ve started seeing every day in terms of another plot point. Music becomes your soundtrack. Clothing becomes costume. Conversation, dialogue. Our technology for telling stories becomes our language for remembering our lives. For understanding ourselves. Our framework for perceiving the world.
We see our lives in terms of storytelling conventions. Our serial marriages become sequels. Our childhood: our prequel. Our children: spin-offs.
Just consider how fast everyday people started using phrases like “fade to black.” Or “wipe dissolve.” Or fast-forward. Jump cut to . . . Flash back to . . . Dream sequence . . . Roll credits . . .
Then, sorry, your seven minutes is up.
It’s twenty, thirty, fifty dollars for another seven minutes. For another shot at connecting with the bigger world. For selling your story. To turn that misery into big money. Book-advance money, or movie-option money. That big mega-jackpot.
A few years ago, only a few of these conventions shipped industry players from New York and Los Angeles, put them up in hotels, and paid them a stipend to sit here and listen. Now there are so many conventions that organizers must scrape the barrel a little, looking for any producer’s assistant or associate editor who can spare a weekend to fly out to Kansas City or Bellingham or Nashville.
This is the Midwest Writers Conference. Or the Writers of Southern California Conference. Or the Georgia State Writers Conference. As a hopeful writer, you’ve paid to get in the door, for a name badge and a keynote lunch. There are classes to attend, lectures about technique and marketing. There’s the mixed comfort and competition of other writers. Fellow writers. So many of them with a manuscript under one arm. You pay the extra money, the seven-minute money, to buy the ear of an industry player. To buy the chance to sell, and maybe you’ll walk away with some money and recognition for your story. An experiential lottery ticket. A chance to turn lemons—a miscarriage, a drunk driver, a grizzly bear—into lemonade.
Straw, but spun into gold. Here in the big storytelling casino.
Then, sorry, your seven minutes is up.
In another way, this hotel ballroom, it’s filled with people telling about their one awful crime. Spilling their guts about how they aborted a child. How they smuggled drugs stuffed up their ass all the way from Pakistan. Here’s how they fell out of grace, the opposite of a hero’s story. Here’s how they can sell even their bad example—how it can help others. Prevent similar disasters. These people are here to find redemption. To them, each curtained booth becomes a confessional. Each movie producer, a priest.
It’s no longer God waiting in judgment. It’s the marketplace.
Maybe a book contract is the new halo. Our new reward for surviving with strength and character. Instead of heaven, we get money and media attention.
Maybe a movie starring Julia Roberts, bigger than life and pretty as an angel, is the only afterlife we get.
And that’s only if . . . your life, your story is something you can package and market and sell.
In another way, this is so much like the crowd here last month, when a television game show was auditioning contestants. To answer brain teasers. Or the month before, when producers for a daytime talk show were here, looking for troubled people who wanted to air their problems on national television . . . fathers and sons who’ve shared the same sex partner. Or mothers suing for child support. Or anyone getting a sex change.
Then, sorry, your seven minutes is up.
The philosopher Martin Heidegger pointed out how human beings tend to look at the world as a standing stock of material, ready for us to use. As inventory to be processed into something more valuable. Trees into wood. Animals into meat. He called this world of raw natural resources: bestand. It seems inevitable that people without access to natural bestand such as oil wells or diamond mines, that they’d turn to the only inventory they do have—their lives.
More and more, the bestand of our era is our own intellectual property. Our ideas. Our life stories. Our experience.
What people used to endure or enjoy—all those plot-point events of potty training and honeymoons and lung cancer—now they can be shaped to best effect and sold.
The trick is to pay attention. Take notes.
The problem with seeing the world as bestand, Heidegger said, was it leads you to use things, enslave and exploit things and people, for your own benefit.
With this in mind, is it possible to enslave yourself?
Martin Heidegger also points out that an event is shaped by the presence of the observer. A tree falling in the forest is somehow different if someone is there, noting and accenting the details in order to turn it into a Julia Roberts vehicle.
If only by distorting events, tweaking them for more dramatic impact, exaggerating them to the point you forget your actual history—you forget who you are—is it possible to exploit your own life for the sake of a marketable story?
But then, sorry, but your seven minutes is up.
Maybe we should’ve seen this coming.
In the 1960s and ’70s, televised cooking shows coaxed a rising class of people to spend their extra time and money on food and wine. From eating, they moved on to cooking. Led by how-to experts like Julia Child and Graham Kerr, we exploded the market for Viking ranges and copper cookware. In the 1980s, with the freedom of VCRs and CD players, entertainment moved in to become our new obsession.
Movies became the field where people could meet and debate, like they did over soufflés and wine a decade before. Like Julia Child had, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert appeared on television and taught us how to split hairs. Entertainment became the next place to invest our extra time and money.
Instead of the vintage and bouquet and legs of a wine, we talked about the effective use of voice-over and back story and character development.
In the 1990s, we turned to books. And instead of Roger Ebert it was Oprah Winfrey.
Still, the really big difference was, you could cook at home. You really couldn’t make a movie, not at home. But, you could write a book. Or a screenplay. And those do become movies.
The screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker once said that no one in Los Angeles is ever more than fifty feet from a screenplay. They’re stowed in the trunks of cars. In desk drawers at work. In laptop computers. Always ready to be pitched. A winning lottery ticket looking for its jackpot. An uncashed paycheck.
For the first time in history, five factors have aligned to bring about this explosion in storytelling. In no particular order the factors are:
The first seems simple. More people have more free time. People are retiring and living longer. Our standard of living and social safety net allows people to work fewer hours. Plus, as more people recognize the value of storytelling—but strictly as book and movie material—more people see writing, reading, and research as something more than just a highbrow recreation. Writing’s not just a nice little hobby. It’s becoming a bona fide financial endeavor worth your time and energy. Telling anyone that you write always prompts the question “What have you published?” Our expectation is: writing equals money. Or good writing should. Still, it would be damn near impossible to get your work seen if not for the second factor:
Technology. For a small investment, you can be published on the Internet, accessible to millions of people worldwide. Printers and small presses can provide any number of on-demand hard-copy books for anybody with the money to self-publish. Or subsidy publish. Or vanity publish. Or whatever you want to call it. Anybody who can use a photocopy machine and a stapler can publish a book. It’s never been so easy. Never in history have so many books hit the market each year. All of them filled with the third factor:
Material. As more people grow old, with the experience of a lifetime to remember, the more they worry about losing it. All those memories. Their best formulas, stories, routines for making a dinner table burst into laughter. Their legacy. Their life. Just a touch of Alzheimer’s disease, and it could all disappear. Besides, all our best adventures seem to be behind us. So it feels good to relive them, to share them on paper. Organizing and making all that flotsam and jetsam make sense. Wrapping it up, neat and tidy, and putting a nice bow on top. The first volume in the three-volume boxed set that will be your life. The “best of” NFL highlights tape of your life. All in one place, your reasons for doing what you did. Your explanation why, in case anyone wants to know.
And thank God for factor number four:
Education. Because at least we all know how to keyboard. We know where to put the commas . . . kind of. Pretty much. We have automatic spell-checking. We’re not afraid to sit down and take a swing at the job of book writing. Stephen King makes it look so easy. All those books. And Irvine Welsh, he makes it look like fun, the last place you can do drugs and commit crimes and not get arrested, or fat, or sick. Besides, we’ve read books all our lives. We’ve seen a million movies. In fact, that’s part of our motivation, the fifth factor:
Disgust. Except for maybe six movies at the video store, the rest is crap. And most books, it’s the same. Crap. We could do better. We know all the basic plots. It’s all been broken down by Joseph Campbell. By John Gardner. By E. B. White. Instead of wasting more time and money on another crappy book or movie, how about you take a stab at doing the job? I mean, why not?
Then, sorry, your seven minutes is up.
Okay, okay, so maybe we’re headed down a road toward mindless, self-obsessed lives where every event is reduced to words and camera angles. Every moment imagined through the lens of a cinematographer. Every funny or sad remark scribbled down for sale at the first opportunity.
A world Socrates couldn’t imagine, where people would examine their lives, but only in terms of movie and paperback potential.
Where a story no longer follows as the result of an experience.
Now the experience happens in order to generate a story.
Sort of like when you suggest: “Let’s not but say we did.”
The story—the product you can sell—becomes more important than the actual event.
One danger is, we might hurry through life, enduring event after event, in order to build our list of experiences. Our stock of stories. And our hunger for stories might reduce our awareness of the actual experience. In the way we shut down after watching too many action-adventure movies. Our body chemistry can’t tolerate the stimulation. Or we unconsciously defend ourselves by pretending not to be present, by acting as a detached “witness” or reporter to our own life. And by doing that, never feeling an emotion or really participating. Always weighing what the story will be worth in cold cash.
Another danger is this rush through events might give us a false understanding of our own ability. If events occur to challenge and test us and we experience them only as a story to be recorded and sold, then have we lived? Have we matured? Or will we die feeling vaguely cheated and shortchanged by our storytelling vocation?
Already we’ve seen people use “research” as their defense for committing crimes. Winona Ryder shoplifting in preparation to play a character who steals. Pete Townsend visiting Internet kiddie-porn websites in order to write about his own childhood abuse.
Already our freedom of speech is headed for a collision with every other law. How can you write about a sadistic rapist “character” if you’ve never raped anybody? How can we create exciting, edgy books and movies if we only live boring, sedate lives?
The laws that forbid you to drive on the sidewalk, to feel the thud of people crumbling off the hood of your car, the crash of bodies shattering your windshield, those laws are economically oppressive. When you really think about it, restricting your access to heroin and snuff movies is a restriction of your free trade. It’s impossible to write books, authentic books, about slavery if the government makes owning slaves illegal.
Anything “based on a true story” is more salable than fiction.
But, then, sorry, your seven minutes is up.
Of course, it’s not all bad news.
There’s the talk-therapy aspect to most writers’ workshops.
There’s the idea of fiction as a safe laboratory for exploring ourselves and our world. For experimenting with a persona or character and social organization, trying on costumes and running a social model until it breaks down.
There is all that.
One positive aspect is, maybe this awareness and recording will lead us to live more interesting lives. Maybe we’ll be less likely to make the same mistakes again and again. Marry another drunk. Get pregnant, again. Because by now we know this would make a boring, unsympathetic character. A female lead Julia Roberts would never play. Instead of modeling our lives after brave, smart fictional characters—maybe we’ll lead brave, smart lives to base our own fictional characters on.
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.
Meet the Author
CHUCK PALAHNIUK’s six novels are the bestselling Diary, Choke, Lullaby, Fight Club—which was made into a film by director David Fincher—Survivor, and Invisible Monsters. He is also the author of the nonfiction profile of Portland, Fugitives and Refugees, published as part of the Crown Journeys series. He lives in the Pacific Northwest.
- Portland, Oregon
- Date of Birth:
- February 21, 1962
- Place of Birth:
- Pasco, Washington
- B.A. in journalism, University of Oregon, 1986
and post it to your social network
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews >
Chuck Palahniuk's 1st attempt at non fiction leaves much to be desired. I am usually blown away by his fictional novels. Lonely, odd characters with sometimes skewed perceptions of the world around them. However, with Stranger than Fiction - which is made up of short stories, a few small glimpses inside his own life, the rest written about people he has met and places he has been - leaves me wanting. I will say that each story is written uniquely, some more captivating than others. To be honest, after reading Confessions in Stone, and Not Chasing Amy, I went online and pulled up additional information on them. Always well written, Chuck has a very appealing voice. I have to tell you, though, i am hungry for more of his fiction.... Stick to what you're best at Chuck!
Typical Palahniuk. Some of the stories were ¿creepy¿ and others just bizarre, but all were brutally honest. The more I read Chuck Palahniuk books, the more I begin to consider changing the order of my ¿top-five favorite authors.¿ He is starting to rank up there, with Vonnegut, and Heller, just to name a few. I would recommend this book to anyone that is interested in the bizarre or weird parts of life. This book is complied of a bunch of stories the authors put together that he personally observed over the years as he was reaping in the fame of Fight Club. It is my opinion that Chuck Palahniuk has a great eye for observing the stranger things in life that most of us would probably miss, and he details it in a way that lets the reader re-live the moment as if the reader had been there when it happened. The book I would sum up has entertaining!!
As an avid reader of Palahniuk's fiction, I wasn't sure how to feel about this non-fiction collection. However, I was blown away by this book. Palahniuk's voice is an honest, hard-hitting force that cannot be stopped. He tackles harsh topics [sex festivals, the use of steroids], interesting stories [men who make castles, the life of amateur wrestlers, marilyn manson's interpretation of tarot cards], and intensely personal experiences [his father's murder, his volunteer work at a hospice]. Even the introduction, a short essay about writing techniques, is brilliant. This collection of extremely interesting, often disturbing true stories is a masterpiece - add it to your reading list.
The book is twenty-three random stories, all different, mostly boring, with a few gems. One story that almost put me to sleep is about a demolition derby where they use combines (tractors) instead of cars?? Another snoozer around thirty pages long about men who build castles and live in them, really???? If you want to read the best of the bunch, here are a few worthy of at least reading once: "The People Can", "Reading Yourself", "Bodhisattvas", "Almost California" & "Monkey See, Monkey Do" Chuck's other stuff is much, much better!
I enjoyed this book. It was a quick read. The book is full of entertaining short stories. I especially enjoyed the chapter on Marilyn Manson. I would have given the book 5 stars, but the 5 stars go to Mr. Palahniuk's works of fiction.
I just bought Chuck's book 3 days ago, because of work i could not finish it in one sitting, but after reading half-way through it i could not put it down, i think this book teached me how to be a good writer, you need to connect with your surroundings, and if you want to be a better writer, you need to live life 110% percent more than you are know. by doing that, youll recolect experiences as cool and life enduring as him, if you dont already have them you just dont realize it. Chuck would be surprised at the amount of hungry fans he has in Mexico, especially in the border El Paso Texas, Juarez Mexico.
This is yet another great book from Chuck Palahniuk. If you have enjoyed other works of his, than you will love this. Also, if you are a first-time reader this is a great one to start with. Also, a note, don't look for the much talked about piece, 'Guts', in this book. It will not be out until 2005 in a book called 'Haunted.'
I specifically bought this book for the contraversal piece named 'Guts'. To my dissapointment, it is absent in the actual novel. That is the only negative in this suprisingly engaging collection of works.
A couple shocking stories. A few sweet stories. Mostly, I was bored and disappointed.