When you’re learning to write, never start with your most important story. My advice is: Point the camera at anything else. Don’t panic. Anything you choose is still you.
This landscape will unfold more like collage than any highway printed on a map. My point is: It’s not what’s inside your clothes, it’s how you take your clothes off.
Case in point, a student of mine tends bar in Tacoma, Washington. He says that when locals get together, they break the ice by always playing the same game. One will say, “I grew up down the street from Ted’s first house.” Another will say, “I used to walk to school past his second house.” While others will say, “My sister went to school with Ted at Woodrow Wilson.” Or “My mom helped his mom pick out a dress at Macy’s one time.” By “Ted” they mean Theodore Bundy. By his “first” house they mean the little blue Cape Cod he lived in when his family moved from Philadelphia. By “second” they mean the blue Craftsman-style house he moved to later, when he’d most likely killed an eight-year-old neighborhood girl. The first of his thirty-plus murders.
In short, people in Tacoma echolocate themselves by how Ted-adjacent they are.
Likewise, at a book signing in Seattle, a hale, smiling young man told me he was from Enumclaw, Washington. I’d never set foot there, but it rang a bell. His smile fell. “It’s because,” he said, “we’re the animal sex capital of the world …” As much as city fathers try to push Enumclaw as the “Gateway to Mount Rainier,” its ambassador will always be Kenneth Pinyan, a.k.a. “Mr. Hands,” best known for the viral video “2 Guys 1 Horse.” The man who died with mare pheromone smeared all over his butt.
In Spokane, Washington, people play the Tacoma game, but using the serial killer Robert Lee Yates.
In Milwaukee, you can guess what game they play. A reader wrote to describe how he’d once worked in a rental store. He mostly rented chainsaws to people, string trimmers, big cases of champagne glasses, and the floral canopies for weddings. He’d been a teenager at the time, and his job was to log the tools in and out. To clean and lube them and provide a spare can of gas mixed with motor oil for their two-stroke engines. He’d wash the dirty stemware. A boring job until around 1991. In July a big story broke. Some guy living at the Oxford Apartments was accused of murdering and even eating people. The picture in the newspaper, he told me, filled him with dread. So he’d paged back through rental records, and you can guess who he found. Need a clue? The man in question had rented a power drill and, later, a reciprocating saw.
This reader, at the time a senior in high school, took the logbook to the owner of the store. The drill and saw in question were still for rent. They’d cycled through months of home improvement projects. At the moment, the drill that had done the dirty work was sitting on a shelf in the warehouse, next to a chocolate fountain and white satin tablecloths sealed in dry-cleaner plastic.
Of course, the accused cannibal murderer had signed the logbook. And written there was his address: unit 213 of the Oxford Apartments. My reader said how his boss took one look, turned the page and read the signature again, and promised to take action. The day after, those pages in the logbook were torn out. The drill and saw went missing. The business owner deadpanned that Jeffrey Dahmer had never, ever set foot in his store. End of story.
This reader was writing to me because he couldn’t just tear the pages out of his head.
Here, let me reel myself in. We’re already in Milwaukee. Like a rookie, I’ve come too far too fast. Let’s backtrack to where we started.
For a beginning writer, the danger comes when you combine limited writing skills with a story you’ve stoked with emotion. Too much emotion. Too often I’ve seen beginning writers break down in sobs while reading their work aloud while the audience squirms in embarrassment. My point is: The emotion is supposed to land out there.
Another stumbling block: Newbie writers need to constantly prove that they’re beyond the trauma—are recording it from some enlightened new self. This impulse cuts the drama. Case in point, a good friend of mine worked for years to write out her childhood abuse. She unpacked and unpacked, and still found herself blithely tossing off phrases such as “Around the summer of my seventeenth rape …”
Badly told tragedy comes off as comedy. Pure truth doesn’t carry enough authority. It’s how you deliver the truth that matters.
Excerpted from Palahniuk’s Scribd Originals essay, "People, Places, Things: My Human Landmarks."