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Monday, January 7, 2013

25 Words of Wisdom From Fight Club to Writers (Part 1)

Part 1

1-15: The Non-Fighty Stuff

[I tried to steer clear of the biggie spoiler here, but minor ones abound.  If you haven't seen Fight Club yet, you really should before you read this article.  I mean it's like one of the best all-time best movies on any critic's list--watch the damn thing already.]

A toxic masculinity opus about white men being super pissed that they aren't actually entitled to EVERY-thing from one of the last generation's most cult-classicy films as a useful parable for writers? Anything's possible.

"Oh my god you think it's about toxic masculinity? You've totally missed the point of the whole movie! Watch it again, n00b. See that it is cleverly hidden satire...."

Yeah, I was already there the first time around. I got it. There's a bigger metaphor going on and I talk about it in the second part of this article. Plus the idea that it's satire of this stuff and Tyler is the bad guy...blah blah blah. And actually there's a pretty powerful (and shitty) thing being said about mental illness taking over people's lives and alienating them. But as poorly as Fight Club did, it did not become a cult classic among people who consider it biting satire of male fragility but rather folks who think we need a little more of this stuff in our lives. They revere Tyler and his plan and quote him often. And satire will always walk the knife's edge of risk that without a strong enough "tell" of actually BEING what it purports to be skewering, it really is either not satire. Or poorly done.

Trust me. Ask Sarah Silverman about it. She'll explain it.

And maybe after watching legions of dudes run to the "just satire" defense and enough others say "Hmmmm, this is kind of fucked up," let's just accept that it's going to sting when I punch your sacred cows, that it is a movie with at least some imperfections worth pointing out, and move on to the writer stuff.

Of course, a writer could learn a thing or three just by listening to the writing in Fight Club.  (Yes, I know it was a book first, and yes I've read it, but most people have only seen the movie, so I'm trying to make this accessible.)  The visceral descriptions on each of Edward Norton's voice overs are fantastic examples of the kind of concrete imagery that every writer should be going for.  Comparing someone with a "Glenn Close skeleton" or the smell of sweat to fried chicken is exactly the sort of detail that pops off the page and grounds your reader enough in the scene to be able to dig at those big ideas.

But it turns out that a writer can get a ton of good stuff from this movie without even creative reading.  Tyler and company have gems spilling out of their mouths almost every scene.

Don't worry, I’m not going to tell you that you have to make a conscious effort hit bottom, throw lye on yourself, blow up your apartment (though blowing up your TV wouldn’t be the worst thing an aspiring writer could do), blackmail your boss, engage in urban terrorism, or beat the shit out of each other to be good writers.  The actual antics of Tyler Durden aren’t blueprints for anything but getting arrested with a ruptured pancreas on about day two...or shot.  He was, after all, the antagonist in the movie. But Fight Club does have its words of wisdom that the aspiring writer can take to the bank...so to speak.

1- “When people think you’re dying, they really, really listen.”  “Instead of just waiting for their turn to speak.”   

Have you ever noticed how everyone in a Tom Clancy novel is either a hawkish yet intellectual type who knows how important violence is at times against intractable enemies, but always has reasonable measured responses when it happens to be the right thing to do, and loves democracy for all its flaws....or is a terrorist, a hippy who compromises all the security ever, or a nuke-happy putz practically salivating at the chance to destroy big chunks of Earth?  All the "right" characters are sort of Jack Ryan clones (and Jack Ryan is such a Clancy fantasy fulfillment that I would be surprised if you told me he didn't bring tissues  and lotion to a writing session). If you’re going to have real characters, with variety and depth and nuance, you have to step out of your own paradigm.  Literally, you must not simply understand a person through the filter of your point of view but step into theirs.  You must grok them. To do this, you must listen.   Listen like they’re dying.

A lot of writers struggle with the curse of “flat” characters.  No matter how colorful they try to make them, their existence within a universe of the writer’s bias is apparent.  They end up characters with an iguana and rainbow socks who are still flat.  You will already have your real worldview seep into your art without having to have your characters be mouth pieces or making your plots into morality plays.  You have to get into the mindset of people who completely disagree with you and not portray them as the ideological equivalent of keystone cops.  You have to understand them--not why they’re wrong, or why they think they’re right (but aren't), but why they really are right.  That means, as an artist, you can’t just be waiting your turn to speak--you can’t just be dying to tell people YOUR story, your interpretations, your opinions.  You can't just be burning with the moral imperative to get your take on the record and school some ignorant prig who doesn't do life right.   You have to listen.

There is absolutely no accident in the fact that this story comes full circle and this line happens at the end.  "Tyler, I want you to really listen to me."  Because as you can see below, one of Fight Club's main ideas is that everyone is dying.  Everyone.  Always.

So listen.

2- “This is your life.  And it’s ending one minute at a time.”  

Mortality is a huge theme within Fight Club, and this won't be the last quote to remind you that you're worm food.  Carpe diem!  If you live your life waiting for your ship to come in or that one last thing to finally be perfect, you will spend your life waiting.  You don't have time to live by someone else's yardstick for success or happiness, and you certainly don't have time to put off writing until some mythical tomorrow when there will be no strife or difficulty and you can just focus.  Your life is ENDING right now.

3- “On a long enough timeline, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero.”  

There's a reason this line and the last one are within a minute of each other.  You are going to die.  You are GOING to die.  You are going to DIE.  Get it through your head.  You may not have time to put off writing until after the next big career shift or until after little Timmy doesn’t take so much of your free time (yeah right).  You can’t just get through the next thing before you get going.  There will always be one more thing.  Always.

Well....actually that's not entirely true.

There is one thing there will not always be one more of: tomorrow.  Eventually you will run out of tomorrows.  When you're in the ground and rotting, will you say "I lived!" or will you say "I spent my whole life getting ready to live, prepared to live, knowing that any second now, I was going to live.  Holy flaming Cardinal BALLS, my life was nothing more than the Blair Witch Project of fulfillment--just when I was sure I was about to hit the good part, the credits are rolling."

And like the Blair Witch Project, you'll just get a sour look if you demand a refund.

4- "We are consumers.  We are byproducts of a lifestyle obsession."

For writers, this quotation has a dual insight.  One, we need to be able to question the hum of culture and dissect the invisible assumptions.  We have to see the lifestyle obsession for what it is, for agree or disagree, we lack a degree of artistic integrity if we are unaware of it.  But perhaps more importantly, it is only when we step away from this obsession that we will really find the time to write.  We have to know that we might need a blanket, but buying a bunch of "duvets" might make the difference between being able to write most of the time (maybe even write for a living) and having no choice but to keep working that job we hate. If we can't possibly turn down overtime, take a job with fewer hours and a pay cut, work part time, or refuse to take work home because we don't have the privilege to do so, then that sucks and capitalism sucks, but if that shit is true because of our endless quest to quench an insatiable lifestyle thirst, it is unlikely that we will have the time to give writing the effort it demands.

5- "The things you own end up owning you." 

When you expect a certain lifestyle, and feel like all your things define you, they exert a power over you.  You think you've got it under control like Luke did in the throne room, but--like the Emperor--they won't shut up, and eventually they own you.  Consider how hard someone will fight to keep something vs. how hard they will fight to get it in the first place.  When you have the big house and the lawn and the fence and the plasma screen TV will you be willing to give it up for a job with fewer hours?  Or will you work all the harder because "a matching bedroom set would look really nice in the guest bedroom"?  How many decisions do most people make based on stuff?

Who really thinks, "You know, I should cancel my gym membership, the bottled water service, going out three times a week for dinner and nearly every day for lunch, move us into a smaller place, switch to generics if I can't really tell the difference, use rags instead of paper towels, and iron my own shirts," instead of thinking "Man, that promotion sure would help make ends meet around here even if it is a few more hours a week"?

6- “So I graduate, call him up long distance.  I say “Dad, now what?’  He says ‘get a job.’  ‘round 25 I make my yearly call again.  ‘Now what?’  He says, ‘I don’t know.  Get married.’”  

There is a formula for happiness in our culture.  It’s not codified, but everyone seems to know it.  No one acts like they “really” believe it because it's cool to know it's "all bullshit," but most people pretty much live their life by it anyway.  That or they seem really devastated about the fairness of "playing by the rules" but ending up divorced or in a crappy job. The thing is, when you're that pissed off about the outcome of something, it's because you had an expectation in mind.  (Very Buddhist, I know.)  You can't have an expectation if you're not buying in to the formula--at least on some level.

The best thing a writer can do is take that formula and burn the fucker (after driving a stake through it's heart and cutting off its head), scattering its ashes to the four winds.  Then, grab a spelunking helmet (with the light on it) and a pick axe and go find your own fucking happiness.  And if you end up doing the same thing, great, but it'll be because you wanted to--not because it was what you were "supposed" to do or because some great cultural myth told you if you did it, you would have all your Disney dreams come true.

7- “Reject the basis of western civilization.  Especially the importance of material possessions.”  

There is literally no way you can avoid the bombardment from every corner of your life telling you what you need to be happy and what possessions will define you as a person.   Not without living in a cave and then you'd probably be offered some free lichen and batwing recipes if you just watch a thirty second commercial for the new elegant cave condos. You can't even read that Chris guy's blog without seeing fucking commercials. The engines of commercialism would grind to a halt if we ever realized that the cheaper pair of jeans don't actually make us worse human beings.   And even though most of us are pretty sure WE figured that out, we don't want others to judge us, or god forbid even make their decision about whether or not to put their mouths on our junk based on it.  When is the last time you didn't make some pretty unflattering assumptions about someone wearing second hand clothes (but not as a trendy fashion statement)?

You can't get away from it.  But you can reject it.  It means becoming aware of it, and then realizing it is totally bullshit.  Material possessions beyond a certain point are completely unimportant.  Nice?  Maybe--no one is saying you can't have a nice meal or buy a sofa ever again.  But not important.  Not something you should care about more than the other things you think you would like to do before you die--which...you will....possibly soon.

8- “Sticking feathers up your butt does not make you a chicken.”  

So I'm not here to judge whether or not you're a writer. I'm just NOT. That's not a job I want. That's not something anyone should be doing about anyone else.

Buuuuuuuuuut.....there are a lot of people who think they're writers. Some even go beyond dreamy fantasy and list that as their job on FB or something. The problem is....they sorta don't write very much. If you want to be a writer, you have to earn your ER. You have to sit down and write. You have to do it a lot. You can’t call yourself a writer and not write. Well, you can, but you're not fooling anyone. Eighties movies aside, posing as something you are not doesn't really convince people for very long.  I used to work with two "actors." You haven't heard of either of them (though you might hear about one of them, someday). One made it to an audition every month or two and got an extra part in something tiny maybe every year. He talked a lot about saving up for new headshots and the trouble with finding an agent in today's market. He always had a reason he hadn't really done much lately. The other left his shift every day to some audition or another and was constantly in theater, or getting roles as an extra, and even got a tiny line in some local commercial. No one had any problem calling the second person an actor even though he made every penny through waiting tables and had never been in a thing anyone had ever seen. He WAS an actor.  To the other they would say "yeah, but you're not REALLY an actor."

I can't even count the number of people who I've seen get shot down by friends or family when they call themselves a writer--sometimes in really hurtful ways.  (There was this one mother who just laughed and said "Oh honey, no you're not," and then went on to reveal that the person fancied herself a writer but really only wrote for an hour or two a week if the mood struck her. That was her MOM. It was The Harsh Exit off The Harsh Highway into Harsh City.)  So either be a chicken or don't, but pull the feathers out of your butt.

9- “First you have to know--not fear, know--that you’re going to die.” 

When you really, honestly, truly, genuinely, absolutely, positively, without a doubt get it through your head that you are working with a finite number of "I'll start later"s, you won't even need to consciously reevaluate your priorities.  They'll reevaluate themselves.  Waiting to live is the hallmark of a person who hasn't accepted that they really, honestly, truly, etc... might die while still waiting.


10- “Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need.”

Don't forget that we're buying that shit we don't need, often with money we don't actually have, to impress people we don't really like.

When you really start to simplify your life, you might be blown away by how much you can cut out.  I'm not trying to be privilege denying dude here and say that everyone can cut their budget in half or some fucking bullshit like that.  Some people are barely scraping by.  Some people really aren't getting by--with a scrape or otherwise.  But a lot of people living paycheck to paycheck are living that way because they see wants as needs and the pursuit of material possessions as the entire point of life.  Of course...they would deny that if you asked them directly, but then they spend 10 hours a day, five days a week working a job because the idea of a second hand couch or unmatched furniture offends them.  Don't get me wrong, I like the idea of a yin/yang coffee table--it would really define me as a person--but I'm not going to work 670 hours as a teacher or 82 and a half years here at Writing About Writing to get one.

11- “We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’ll be millionaires and movie stars and rock gods.  But we won’t.” 

Wanna know my personal theory about why so many people want to be writers?  It's because it's the "plausible" shot to fame and fortune.  Sure there are a few people who enjoy writing peppered in the ranks, but a lot of aspiring writers actually admit that they don't enjoy writing all that much.

This will require DOUBLE facepalm to really cover the epicness of the fail.

We all walk out of high school able to write.  (Well, most of us.  Kinda.)  We don't all walk out of high school able to act or sing or play an instrument unless we took "the geek classes with the losers."  (Which, by the way I took 15 semesters of in four years--you do the math.)   Even if we were in band, we don't know how to play the electric guitar or anything.  And the number of rock star bassoonists is just... appallingly low.  But most of the actors an musicians in high school who dream of fame and fortune pretty much DO dream of achieving that fame and fortune through acting and performance art/entertainment.

That leaves everybody else.  Writing becomes the "plausible" path to our dreams of fame and fortune.  People are (finally) getting a sense of how long and difficult it can be to get a break in Hollywood, but writing still looks easy.  I'm not making that up, I have met MULTIPLE people who have said they want to be a director, but they know that's unrealistic to just do so they figure they will start by writing, get noticed from writing, start writing screenplays, and then move into the director's chair later.

Sure...just like that.  Lemmie know how that works out for you.

Get over yourself.  Be pissed off if you want (you can even throw corporate art into a Starbucks if you feel enraged enough) but get over it.  There are a couple dozen household-name-type writers who are rich and famous.  That's out of thousands of published authors.  Most working writers still struggle to pay the bills even after multiple publications, and if they sell anything to Hollywood it is usually with the strictest contractual agreement not to try to involve themselves in what Hollywood does with....it in any way.  Ever.   Hollywood doesn't want mediocre writers.  They have a few of those already.  Maybe you've seen Prometheus?

12- “No fear.  No distractions.  The ability to let that which does not matter truly slide.” 

I once had a sort of stupid fight with a friend.  It was about politics on Livejournal.  We both got stubborn.  We both thought it was really important.  Our friendship faded.  It was still important.   He got cancer, but it was treatable.  It was still important.  Chemo didn't take and he went into hospice.  See if you can guess what wasn't important anymore.

When we view life through a lens of false permanency, it skews everything.  Our priorities.  Our sense of urgency.  Our self reflection.  How much time we think we have to do things.  Even whether we really listen or just wait our turn to speak.  When we start to realize that we exist in a state of absolute impermanence, that's when things get interesting.  That's when we can start letting go of bullshit.   That's when we stop being afraid that people think less of us because of our car.  That's when we start thinking that starting up yet another "100+ Hour" role playing game that friends said was only "okay" (or TV series with mediocre reviews that is "new on Netflix!") might not be the best use of our time.  That's when we stop caring that someone we've never met on the internet isn't using a word in an identical way to us.  That's when the shit gets real.

13- “You are not your job. You are not how much money you have in the bank.  You are not the car you drive.  You are not the contents of your wallet.  You’re not your fucking khakis.”  

Even though every counter culture has its different "elitist snobs" to regard as the enemy (be they tweed sweatered intelligentia, hard bodied gym rats, corporate tools, rich S.O.B.'s in the Hamptons, patchouli-smelling hippies, or those "bitchy runway model types who only care about clothes"), they also have their own elitism.  Further, in every counter culture, no matter how grass roots their inception, there is a way to spend lots of money to rock the "appropriate" accouterment with which to define oneself.  Hundred dollar custom ripped jeans or thousand dollar goth outfits tell the real story of how that machine rage is actually going. Study after study after study shows that people will pay hundreds, even thousands of times more for the same product with a luxury label on it because what we are really buying is the status.  And that is because we exist in a lifestyle where our worth is based on money--not the merit of our ideas, the quality of our character,  the evaluation of our intellect, or even upon the ACTUAL quality of our cars and shoes and bags, but upon their perceived cost. Our entire system is based on the idea that there are things you can buy that will make you appear to be a better person and that you will not--you must not--ever stop consuming.

14- “You are not special.  You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake.  You are the same decaying organic matter as everyone else.”  

Wanna know what the single most common thing I hear from most aspiring writers is?

"I am the exception to that."

"I am the exception to 'read a lot' because I watch quality TV and movies and really think about them." "I am the exception to shitty first drafts absolutely needing revision because I've had this story in my head since high school, and I don't really like revision."  "I am the exception to 'write every day' because I don't want writing to feel like a chore."  "I am the exception to peer review because my friends say it's really good."  "I am the exception to learning grammar because I'm more about ideas."  "I am the exception to ten thousand hours because I'm talented."   I could go on.

Seriously, I could go on for....a while.

But I trust you get the point.  Writers need to stop rationalizing what they don't WANT to do as something they don't have to do or something that won't help them.  Because here's the shitty reality.  The closer you get to "success" when you're talking to writers, the more they stop sounding like this and start sounding pretty much all the same.  Oh there are variations on a theme, but they are all usually singing the same basic song.

Chances are, your creative process is going to work fundamentally like the creative process of everyone else because you have same basic brain structure and geography and biology. Chances are, your linguistic skill is going improve from the same things that improve others. Chances are, your work is going to be just about as shitty as most others' if you don't revise or get peer review, and almost everyone ever who thinks they're an exception to these rules isn't. Chances are you are your sexual attraction is based more on biology than personality. Chance are you will lose your ability to shift focus quickly from near to far right around age forty. There are always some exceptions. Always. But chances are....

15- “You decide your own level of involvement.” 

My most common anonymous email these days says "I don't WANNA write everyday/a lot/so much/10,000 hours/get peer reviewed/revise/etc...  That would make it no longer fun."  Then DON'T.  Jesus Tapdancing Toejamming Tittyfucking Christ, just DON'T!  It isn't figuring out the physics of nanobots doing brain surgery on rocket scientists while travelling faster than relativistic speeds through an area with 148,000 gravity wells.  This is just shit we do because we love it and those that have come before know how to do it well.  (Because it isn't shit you do to get rich or famous--I promise you that.)  If it's shit you love enough overall to weather some crummy parts and try to scrape out a living, have at, but it's going to involve some real work.  If it's so fucking horrible to face the idea of writing daily/a lot/10,000 hours/whatever that you feel the need to scold some two-bit blogger about why the revision burnses your skin, why in the name...of all the buttholes of the Greek Pantheon (not just Zeus's), and additionally the butt holes of all the mythical creatures of Mount Olympus, would you POSSIBLY want to be a professional writer?

I don't even... I can't.

The advice to write every day is given to people who say things like: "Dear Mr. King, I want to be a novelist like you.  I want it more than all the unicorn pudding in Atlantis. What do you recommend?"  It's for people who want to write for a living.  It is for people who want to be the absolute best at their craft as they can possibly be.  It is for people with some sense of being a Writer with a capital W.  If that's not you, then you don't have to be that involved.  You can decide just not to do that.  But if you're on a local community baseball team, don't get all wanked when the pros tell you their training regimen.  Don't pretend like a couple hours on Sunday afternoons (when you aren't missing too many players to some BBQ) is going to make you just as good.  It isn't and it won't.  No one cares if you don't love baseball enough to workout and practice everyday.  They just care if you whine about your dream of playing in the major leagues.

Not everything fun will be as fun if you do it as a job.  Not every hobby needs to be exploited for a paycheck.  If you want to just come to Fight Club once a month and not blow up any banks, that's cool, bro.  You decide your own level of involvement.

Part 2: The Fighty Stuff


  1. So....am I going to die?

  2. Good stuff. When can we expect part 2?

    1. This Friday if I'm on the ball. I'm usually on it.

  3. You missed some really great quotes. What about dying with scars?

    1. Generally, when I write an article and title it with "Part 1," it means there's more coming.

  4. It's so ironic how popular this movie is.

  5. This is excellent, and so apropos to so many pursuits besides writing. Thank you!

    So question: you love it. It excites you. You work at it every day. But parts of it are a drag and exhaust you. How do you keep from getting burned out?

    Keep writing. I'll keep reading.

    1. You're very welcome. And thank YOU for the compliment.

      My best answer to your question would be that you either work around those parts or you find the finished product worth the struggle. I think the best thing most authors suggest when talking about that barrier is to just power through like it's a job. I'm not sure that answers your question very well.

      Maybe this should be a question I try to answer fully in a Mailbox.

  6. Brilliant! Thank you Chris, simply brilliant.

    I have struggled a long time with the "do it every day" mantra. (I first heard it from Robert Anton Wilson.) What I have not done is pretended to be what I am not.

    I've recently taken a step in that direction that has worked for me in other bits of life which I want to get past my own "do it every day" barrier in. I've taken a 1,000 day vow (my third) to write every day. Today is day 40 and I ran across your blog from a Facebook friend. I am glad I did. Thank you!

    1. Thank you! 1000 words seems like a good goal. Reasonable for a non-vet, but with definite potential for progress.

  7. Incredibly brilliant observations about the decay of civilization.

  8. I love this! Fight Club is my favorite book/movie! It's crazy how Chuck Palahniuk is infinitely quotable. Love how you eloquently summed up some of its genius in a post so people would get a taste of its brilliance.

  9. I want it more than all the unicorn pudding in Atlantis.
    I'm gonna be using this. Often.

  10. So I thought you had two entire articles on how writing every day is not always plausible...