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The Power of Persisting: An Introduction

The Power of Persisting: An Introduction

by Chuck Palahniuk

'Burnt Tongues: Stories' edited by Chuck Palahniuk, Richard Thomas and Dennis WidmyerMy favorite books are the ones I’ve never finished reading. Many of them I hated the first time through: The Day of the Locust, 1984, Slaughterhouse-Five. Even Jesus’ Son occurred as something so odd that I balked and set it aside. High school spurred me to hate The Great Gatsby and the stories of John Cheever. I was a fifteen-year-old pimple factory. How was I supposed to swallow the embittered disillusionment of a thirty-year-old Nick Carraway? Growing up as I did, in a trailer house sandwiched between a state prison and a nuclear reactor, Cheever’s genteel world of country clubs and commuter trains seemed more make-believe than the Land of Oz.

After a few years of such false starts, I picked up an almost-forgotten copy of Bret Easton Ellis’s The Informers and read it cover to cover in one sitting. Since then I’ve bought copies to give to friends, copies and copies, with the caveat: “You’re going to hate this at first . . .”

Not to be a name-dropper, but I had dinner with Ellis, and referring to Fight Club, he asked me, “How does it feel to have a good movie made from one of your books?” He was also referring to the film adaptation of his book Less Than Zero, which everyone disliked at the time. Oddly enough, I recently watched it—The Bangles singing “Hazy Shade of Winter,” oh, the skinny neckties and huge shoulder pads, oh, the pleated pants—and I wept, it was so moving. Part of that effect was the nostalgia. But part was my becoming smart or old or open enough to appreciate stories that aren’t exclusively about me.

Young people want mirrors. Older people want art. If I couldn’t see myself, my world, in Cheever or Gatsby, I rejected them.

To illustrate my point in another way, I didn’t always wear eyeglasses. Through my first three years of school, I cursed the idiot who’d hung the clocks so far up on the walls. Really, what was the point of putting a clock so high that no one could read the time? The same went for basketball hoops. The game involved heaving a basketball at something almost invisible, it was so far off. This was a pointless game invented by lunatics.

But at the age of eight I got my first pair of glasses, and suddenly the world made sense; clocks were no longer a blurred smudge of white near the ceiling. The inexplicable swooshing sound that came when someone scored a foul shot—I realized it was a net I’d never been able to see hanging below the hoop. There were some headaches at first, but I adjusted.

The good news is that we all grow up. Even I grew up. Every year, I open Slaves of New York or The Day of the Locust or even Jesus’ Son and enjoy it as if it’s a wholly different book. Of course it’s not the book that’s changing. It’s me.

What’s considered tasteful and readily acceptable to one era is easily dismissed by the next, and while the audience for bold storytelling might start small, as time passes it will continue to grow.

I’m the one who still needs rewriting.

Don’t we all?

For the sake of argument, I hereby reject first impressions of “good” or “bad.” Over time, readers will remember strong writing; time passes, and the reader changes. What’s considered tasteful and readily acceptable to one era is easily dismissed by the next, and while the audience for bold storytelling might start small, as time passes it will continue to grow.

A hallmark of a classic long-lived story is how much it upsets the existing culture at its introduction. Take for example Harold and Maude and Night of the Living Dead—both got lambasted by reviewers and dismissed as distasteful, but they’ve survived to become as comforting as musty back issues of Reader’s Digest.

We return to troubling films and books because they don’t pander to us—their style and subject matter challenge, but to embrace them is to win something worth having for the rest of our lives. The difficult, the new and novel establish their own authority. The impulse of young people is to complete ourselves as quickly as possible—with the objects we can easily acquire, with fast food, and to fill our heads with printed/downloaded/secondhand information as if we’ll never need to buy, eat, or learn another thing until we die. Reaching that goal is, in itself, a kind of death. By middle age our lives are burdened with cheap, easy everything. Like Nick, the narrator in Gatsby, most of us are trapped within our hastily built selves by the age of thirty.

By middle age we’re striving to declutter and to diet. Oh, if only I could get cranial liposuction to extract all the trivial facts still crowding my brain.

Think of every movie you treasure. On closer inspection there are still parts of each story that you fast-forward through and parts you rewind to watch over. These parts change as your moods shift, but the extreme is what endures. What we resist persists.

To give credit where credit is due, that last line is something they used to teach in the old est Training. At least that’s where I first heard it. Nonetheless, it bears repeating.

What you resist persists.

The worst thing you could do is read this book and instantly enjoy every word. This book, the book you’re holding, I hope you gag on a few words—more than a few. May some of the stories scar and trouble you. Whether you like or dislike them doesn’t matter; you’ve already touched these words with your eyes, and they’re becoming part of you. Even if you hate these stories, you’ll come back to them because they’ll test you and prompt you to become someone larger, braver, bolder.

Among the writers I’ve known at the beginning of their careers—in workshops or classes—their most-common weakness was an inability to tolerate any lasting, unresolved tension. Beginning writers will shy away from escalating and maintaining discomfort in a story. They’ll set the stage for glorious potential disasters—but quickly sidestep them. Most of these writers come from shitty backgrounds. Nothing drives a person to the secret, internal world of writing fiction as effectively as a miserable childhood, and after those early years of coping with erratic parents or violence or poverty, the smart kid has no tolerance whatsoever for further conflict. Such a kid develops a skill for smoothing out upsets and avoiding confrontations. Imagine an airplane bouncing down a runway, never going faster than thirty miles per hour, never staying airborne for more than fifty feet. Now ask yourself: Would you take such a flight from Los Angeles to New York? Unless writers can come to embrace and live with suspense, their work will always stay flat.

Among the rewards of writing fiction is the opportunity to reacclimatize yourself to discomfort but in the best possible way. You’re no longer that child victim. You get to create and control the conflict. Over weeks or months, you heighten the tension, and ultimately you get to resolve it. On the other hand, your reader is expected to experience the finished product in a fraction of the time you took to create it. It’s no wonder some books take as long to consume as they did to produce. It might’ve taken Fitzgerald a couple years to write The Great Gatsby, but it took me over a decade of rereading it before I could empathize with the narrator’s heartbroken tone.  

Whether you take days or years to read them, these stories wouldn’t be in this book without the community of writers created by Dennis Widmyer, Mirka Hodurova, Mark Vanderpool, and Richard Thomas. For over a decade they’ve led an online support system that has given writers from around the world a place to workshop their fiction, to meet fellow writers, and to improve their storytelling. Subjected to the feedback of hundreds of peers, these stories have survived and improved. Even my own suggestions didn’t ruin them. One of my favorite writers Joy Williams once said, “You don’t write to make friends.” I fully agree, but somehow you do. You do make friends along the way.

I hope you love their stories. Some I already love; some I’ll love in the future. Tastes change. If you want instant gratification, look in a mirror. For the rest of my life a different me will pick up this book again and again, read every page, and never feel as if I’ve finished it—because I, myself, am never finished. Eventually, you and I, we’ll both love it—all of it. These stories can show us new worlds like a dozen pairs of eyeglasses. The future is always a headache at first.

Pre-order Burnt Tongues: Stories today.