Consider This

Moments in My Writing Life after Which Everything Was Different


By Chuck Palahniuk

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Renowned, bestselling novelist Chuck Palahniuk takes us behind the scenes of the writing life, with postcards from decades on the road and incredible examination of the power of fiction and the art of storytelling.

In this spellbinding blend of memoir and insight, bestselling author Chuck Palahniuk shares stories and generous advice on what makes writing powerful and what makes for powerful writing.

With advice grounded in years of careful study and a keenly observed life, Palahniuk combines practical advice and concrete examples from beloved classics, his own books, and a “kitchen-table MFA” culled from an evolving circle of beloved authors and artists, with anecdotes, postcards from the road, and much more.

Clear-eyed, sensitive, illuminating, and knowledgeable, Consider This is Palahniuk’s love letter to stories and storytellers, booksellers and books themselves. Consider it a classic in the making.


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Author's Note

This book contains the best advice and stories of many brilliant people. Most are credited, two are not. Those two are Wes Miller, who edited the manuscript for Grand Central; and Scott Allie, who edited the manuscript a year before Wes saw it, and later arranged for the tattoo illustrations. What works here works with their considerable help.

A second helping of my appreciation goes out to Sara Reinhart for helping manage the illustrations, and to the artist Toby Linwood at Tattoo 34 in Portland. Don't just get inked, get Toby.


For most of my life I haven't balanced my checkbook. The result was too depressing, to find out how little money I'd saved. What little the years of my life had amounted to.

So long as my checks cleared, I'd no interest in figuring down to the penny how poor I always was. For the same reason, I've put off writing a book on writing. I didn't want to be faced with how little I could offer on the subject. How stupid I remained after all this time and practice.

My education consists of a kitchen-table MFA, earned sitting around Andrea Carlisle's kitchen, then Tom Spanbauer's kitchen, then Suzy Vitello's and Chelsea Cain's. My program began in 1988 and continues to this day. There's no graduation ceremony and no diploma.

The first writing workshop I joined was Andrea's, and it consisted of nice people. After a couple of years Andrea took me aside. That week I'd submitted a scene depicting a young man who struggled to complete sex with a slowly deflating sex doll. A scene I'd eventually use in my novel Snuff, fifteen years later. On behalf of the other writers Andrea told me I wasn't a good fit for the group. Due to my fiction, no one felt safe around me. As consolation she suggested I study with another writer, Tom Spanbauer. He'd recently moved to Portland from New York.

Tom. Tom's workshop was different. We met in a condemned house he'd bought with plans for renovation. We felt like outlaws just by violating the yellow UNSAFE DO NOT ENTER notice stapled to the door. The previous owner had been a recluse who'd lined the interior with sheets of clear plastic and kept the air constantly warm and misted so he could grow a vast collection of orchids. The house had rotted from the inside out, leaving only a few floorboards that could still support a person's weight. The writer Monica Drake recalls the first time she arrived for a class there and found that all the porches had collapsed. She wandered around the outside, stumped as to how to reach any of the doors that hung high above the junky, overgrown yard. For Monica that impossible leap over broken glass and rusted nails has always stood for the challenge of becoming a professional writer.

About the yard, Tom told us that cutting the blackberry canes and carting away the heaps of garbage would bond us as a team. It wasn't enough to arrive with manuscripts for review. We should also spend our weekends digging up the jagged soup cans and dead cats and carting all of these to a landfill. What did we know? As twenty-somethings we played along, and Tom made us soggy tuna fish sandwiches for lunch. His actual workshop sessions were more conventional, but just slightly. If we found ourselves stuck creatively he might break out the I Ching coins or refer us to his favorite psychic in Seattle. He brought in writers, among them Peter Christopher and Karen Karbo, who could teach us what he could not. What took place was less a class than it was a dialogue. And that's what I'd like this book to be: a dialogue. This isn't just me telling you this. To give credit where it's due, this is my teachers and their teachers' teachers, going back to the caveman days. These are lessons that daisy-chain into the past and the future. They should be organized and curated, by me or by someone.

Still, I'm torn.

One factor pushing me to write this book is a memory of The Worst Writing Workshop Ever. It was taught by a West Coast editor who solicits students by mail. His glossy pamphlets tout him as a sort of Editor to the Stars, listing the legendary dead writers he claims to have groomed from sows' ears into silk purses.

The grooming costs each aspiring student several thousand dollars, payable weeks in advance. The Editor to the Stars swans into the host city for a three-day weekend, staying in a luxury hotel and teaching in a hotel conference room. Needless to say, the only people who can afford his rates are wealthy. Mostly they're the wives of wealthy men, with a couple of tenured college professors thrown into the mix—and me. At each of our three sessions students assembled, read their work, and waited. Everyone looked to the Editor to the Stars, who would sigh deeply and ask us to comment on the work in question.

This strategy allowed the other students to feel smart while it ran out the clock. Opinions flew, but not much practical advice. Usually no practical advice. Opinions collided, and the cross talk ate up more time. During this heated gabfest, the Editor to the Stars was updating his own mailing lists, glancing at messages on his phone, nodding sagely.

In the final moments of debate, the Editor would weigh in with some variation of, "This amusing piece shows a great deal of sensitivity, you should expand it into a novel." Or, "Your work is as promising as [insert some dead writer the Editor claims to have discovered and nurtured to greatness: Hemingway, Faulkner, Harriet Beecher Stowe]. Please keep at it."

Lots of hand-holding. Loads of flattery. By Sunday afternoon each of his twenty-five students had gotten a nice pat on the head but no useful information. And the Editor to the Stars left town forty thousand dollars richer.

After witnessing that racket I'd resolved to write a book. Someday. A tough-love manual with more practical information than a dozen price-gouging writing gurus would typically provide. Still, I'm conflicted.

Holding me back are the dead people. As I take stock of the people who've helped me, the booksellers and fellow writers, I find so many have died. I love knowing a lot of people, but the downside is that means going to a lot of funerals. To write this book would be to pay a debt to those people. But it would be a sad task.

Another reason not to move forward is my best teacher. At this writing, Tom Spanbauer has given up teaching. He tells me that he feels like a fraud. For three decades he's held out the idea that regular people, people with daytime jobs, people from blue-collar families, could write stories that would reach the world. Many of his students have succeeded, including Monica Drake, Stevan Allred, Joanna Rose, Jennifer Lauck, and myself. But Tom's own career has languished, and to him the fiction-teaching routine has begun to look like a scam.

There's more to it. Tom's health isn't the best. But that's too personal to tackle here.

Tom teaches students practical, effective techniques that instantly make their work better. Many of these he learned from the famous editor and writer Gordon Lish. Tom steers readers toward the best writers to emulate. He helps connect his students with agents and editors. And he did this in his own condemned home, every week, since 1990, when he charged each of his students twenty dollars each session. Yet he's honest enough to worry about their chances for success in the bookselling world.

Contrast that with the Editor to the Stars who charges thousands. Ignores his students' work. Knows them for three days. Tells them they're brilliant and that the publishing world is their oyster, then skips town, never to be seen again.

If I'm going to write this book, I want to err on the side of pessimism.

If you're dedicated to becoming an author, nothing I can say here will stop you. But if you're not, nothing I can say will make you one.


That said, if you came to me and asked me to teach you everything I'm able, I'd tell you that the publishing industry is on life support. Bret Easton Ellis tells me the novel is no longer even a blip in the culture. You're too late. Piracy has destroyed the profits. Readers have all moved on to watching films and playing computer games. I'd say, "Kid, go home!"

No one is born to do this job. Storytelling, yes. But when you become an author you seek out other authors the way an Anne Rice vampire seeks vampires as mentors. I was lucky. My first book was endorsed by four great writers: Robert Stone, Katherine Dunn, Thom Jones, and Barry Hannah. Under the pretense of thanking them, I stalked them. Stone came to Portland as part of a panel discussion about Zelda Fitzgerald. When I met him at the Heathman Hotel he told me, "For anything to endure it must be made of either granite or words."


Robert Stone

This book is, in a way, a scrapbook of my writing life. From shopping the cathedral flea market in Barcelona with David Sedaris to having drinks at Cognac with Nora Ephron just months before she died. To the years of sporadic correspondence I had with Thom Jones and Ira Levin. I've stalked my share of mentors, asking for advice.

Therefore, if you came back another day and asked me to teach you, I'd tell you that becoming an author involves more than talent and skill. I've known fantastic writers who never finished a project. And writers who launched incredible ideas, then never fully executed them. And I've seen writers who sold a single book and became so disillusioned by the process that they never wrote another. I'd paraphrase the writer Joy Williams, who says that writers must be smart enough to hatch a brilliant idea—but dull enough to research it, keyboard it, edit and re-edit it, market the manuscript, revise it, revise it, re-revise it, review the copy edit, proofread the typeset galleys, slog through the interviews and write the essays to promote it, and finally to show up in a dozen cities and autograph copies for thousands or tens of thousands of people…

And then I'd tell you, "Now get off my porch."

But if you came back to me a third time, I'd say, "Kid…" I'd say, "Don't say I didn't warn you."

A Postcard from the Tour

Bob Maull scared the crap out of me. He stood maybe chest high to most people and had a mop of white-gray hair and a walrus mustache. He owned 23rd Avenue Books in Portland, Oregon, and had founded the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association. Once you're published and trying to scratch out a living you'll find these regional bookseller associations are a great ally. In August 1996 when Fight Club was published in hardcover I signed copies at his shop. He took me aside and said, "Kid…"

I was thirty-four and still working full-time at Freightliner Trucks. On the truck assembly line, where I'd started the swing shift in 1986, vendor reps—from Rockwell, Cummins Diesel, Jacobs Engine Brakes—would bring us doughnuts. To curry goodwill, they'd set out suitcase-size pink boxes packed with Bavarian crème doughnuts, jelly doughnuts, everything filled and covered with jimmies and shredded coconut. A favorite prank among my friends was to insert the nozzle of a grease gun and fill certain doughnuts with axle grease. Then to watch from behind the wire-mesh parts bins and wait for someone to bite into a doctored one. It never got old.

I'd graduated with a degree in journalism in 1986, and so many of my fellow assembly-line workers had the same degree that we used to joke that the University of Oregon School of Journalism ought to teach welding. Line workers who could weld got an extra three-dollar welding differential for every hour on the clock.

After my first book tour I'd given up any dream of escaping that factory. Two people had attended my event at the Barnes & Noble in downtown Seattle. In San Francisco, where I was driven two hours to a Barnes & Noble in Livermore, no one attended my reading. For that I'd squandered my annual week's vacation, and then it was back to Portland and Freightliner Trucks.

At 23rd Avenue Books, Bob said, "If you want to make a career out of this you'll need to bring out a new book every year. Never go longer than sixteen months without something new because after sixteen months people quit coming in that door and asking me if you have another book yet."

A book every year, I got it. The die was cast.

Bob knew his business, and being an author is nothing if not a small business. Requiring a license and…everything. The city once contacted me to request an inventory of my existing stock. I explained I was a writer, and my stock was ideas. The city asked if I had any pens or pencils on my desk. Yeah, I told them. They said I needed to count any pens and pencils lying around and file an annual report listing them as current inventory. They weren't joking. Neither am I. Neither was Bob.

"And another thing," he cautioned me, "don't use a lot of commas. People hate sentences with lots of commas. Keep your sentences short. Readers like short sentences."

Bob retired and moved to Cape Cod, he followed the Red Sox fanatically, and he died.

Twenty-Third Avenue Books closed.

Bless you, Bob Maull. May one of your many, many graves always be inside my head.


Let's get started.

Think of a story as a stream of information. At best it's an ever-changing series of rhythms. Now think of yourself, the writer, as a DJ mixing tracks.

The more music you have to sample from—the more records you have to spin—the more likely you'll keep your audience dancing. You'll have more tricks to control the mood. To calm it down to a lull. Then to raise it to a crescendo. But to always keep changing, varying, evolving the stream of information so it seems fresh and immediate and keeps the reader hooked.

If you were my student I'd want you to be aware of the many different "textures" of information at your disposal. These are best defined by the examples that follow.

When telling a story, consider mixing any or all of the following.

Textures: The Three Types of Communication

Description: A man walks into a bar.

Instruction: Walk into a bar.

Exclamation (onomatopoeia): Sigh.

Most fiction consists of only description, but good storytelling can mix all three forms. For instance, "A man walks into a bar and orders a margarita. Easy enough. Mix three parts tequila and two parts triple sec with one part lime juice, pour it over ice, and—voilà—that's a margarita."

Using all three forms of communication creates a natural, conversational style. Description combined with occasional instruction, and punctuated with sound effects or exclamations: It's how people talk.

Instruction addresses the reader, breaking the fourth wall. The verbs are active and punchy. "Walk this way." Or, "Look for the red house near Ocean Avenue." And they imply useful, factual information—thus building your authority. Look at Nora Ephron's novel Heartburn, and how she plants recipes within the story.

In my own short story "Guts," I lapse into a long passage of instruction: "…go buy a pack of those lambskin condoms. Take one out and unroll it. Pack it with peanut butter. Smear it with petroleum jelly. Then try to tear it. Try to pull it in half." The shift from moment-to-moment description to an instructional aside creates tension because it cuts away from the action for a beat. Then, boom, we're back in the description of events.

Granted, most of what you ever write will be description, but don't hesitate to shift to instruction. Likewise, onomatopoeia shouldn't be limited to the "pow" and "blam" we see in comic books. In my novel Pygmy, every time I needed a mid-sentence beat of something to accentuate the end of the passage…"Trapped all day, then could be next walk to toilet, pow-pow, clot knock out brain." I get a greater effect at the end of the sentence by interrupting the flow with a beat of special-effects noise.

In closing, my freshman year in college, before an early-morning German course, a guy was telling a story that went, "…so we're going around this long curve—skreeeeech! vrooooom!—and we pass this police car…"

A listening girl leaned close to me and whispered, "Why do men always use sound effects in stories, but women never do?"

An excellent observation. Learn from it.

Everyone should use three types of communication. Three parts description. Two parts instruction. One part onomatopoeia. Mix to taste.

Textures: Mix First-, Second-, and Third-Person Points of View

Think of a good joke. "Yesterday I walked into a bar. You know how it goes. You walk into a bar, and you expect a bartender, maybe some video poker. A man needs his distractions. No guy wants to get off work and go into some bar and see a penguin mixing drinks…"

In conversation we switch between first-, second-, and third-person points of view. The constant shift controls the intimacy and authority of our story; for instance, "I walked" has the authority of first person. Second person addresses the listeners and enlists them: "You walk." And the shift to third person controls the pace, "No guy wants," by moving from the specific "I" to the general "guy."

Arguably, first person carries the most authority because it gives us someone responsible for the story. As opposed to the third-person narration by some hidden, unknown godlike writer. Second person worked well in Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City. It can have a hypnotic effect, but it can be tricky. Unless a story is well plotted, fast paced, and short, constant second person can annoy.

The rub is that using all three POVs means the story must ultimately be told in first person. But even second and third can be mixed to create a sense of some undeclared narrator. In Bright Lights, Big City the narration is second person, but every time it depicts something other than itself the narration is effectively third person.

So much of this book will be about recognizing what good storytellers do intuitively.

If you were my student, I'd tell you to shift as needed between the three POVs. Not constantly, but as appropriate to control authority, intimacy, and pace.

Textures: Big Voice versus Little Voice

You've seen this in a zillion stories. Every time Carrie Bradshaw hunches over her laptop to write her Sex and the City newspaper column…Every time Jane Fonda spills her guts to her psychiatrist in Klute…a story lapses into big voice.

The camera is little voice. The voice-over device is big voice.

Little voice (also called Recording Angel because it seems to hover and watch) depicts the moment-by-moment action. Big voice comments on it.

Little voice remains objective, giving us the smells, sounds, flavors, textures, and actions in a scene. Big voice muses.

Little voice gives us the facts. Big voice gives us the meaning—or at least a character's subjective interpretation of the events.

Not many stories exist without both voices. On Star Trek it's the captain's log. In Flashdance it's the confessional in the Catholic church. In the film The Social Network, the big voice expository sequences are the legal deposition scenes. At regular intervals a character is going to discuss his life with a therapist. Or she's going to write a letter or diary entry, but she's going to rise above the meat-and-potatoes reality of physical verbs. He's going to ask rhetorical questions on behalf of the reader, à la Carrie Bradshaw's "Am I the only one who's not enjoying anal sex?" Amy Adams in Sunshine Cleaning will use a citizens band radio to talk to her dead mother. Margaret will ask God, "Are you there?" Or Charlize Theron in Young Adult will lapse into the coping mechanism of writing as the teen narrator of her character's YA books.

In my own books, the device for introducing big voice is usually some nonfiction form that emerges from the character's life. In Invisible Monsters it's the "postcards from the future" that the characters write and discard. In Survivor it's the cockpit flight recorder of the doomed airliner. In Choke it's the Fourth Step, the written history of an addict in recovery. It begins the novel, but quickly shifts to a physical scene.

That said, consider that big voice might not be your strongest way to hook a reader at the beginning of a story. In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald devotes much of the first chapter to a rambling description of the narrator's broken heart. As does the opening monologue in The Glass Menagerie. Both stories have to establish that the events will take place in hindsight. They ask us to care about the narrator's regret and lost innocence. Only then do they go into flashback and specific detail to demonstrate how that heart was broken.

Yes, the Victorians loved to "put a porch" on the front of a novel. For example, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…yada yada." But that's a tough sell nowadays. My apologies to Nick Carraway, but few people will be hooked by a soy boy's mansplaining about his self-professed broken heart.

These days a good story is more likely to begin with a physical scene—people finding a dead body or being menaced by zombies. Little voice, not big voice. Blame this on movies. It mimics the opening "gripper" scenes in movies. As Thom Jones told me, "Action carries its own authority." The audience will engage with action. An aside: Your overseas translators will adore you for using concrete verbs. Like the action in action movies, verbs in fiction play effectively in other languages. A kiss is still a kiss. A sigh is just a sigh.

Thom Jones

In the second scene or the second chapter, then you can risk big voice. Remember: First we see Indiana Jones rob a tomb and fight to escape past poisonous snakes and rotting corpses. Snakes, skeletons, and poison darts trigger our physical reaction. Once we're flooded with adrenaline, then we see him giving a boring lecture in the classroom. It's only in porn that the talky parts work better at the beginning.

Also consider that big voice might not always occur in words. Look at the stories in which a vast art project serves to comment on or clarify the main character's thoughts. In The Day of the Locust it's the huge mural that Todd is painting in his apartment. Called The Burning of Los Angeles, the work in progress depicts all the novel's characters involved in a classically inspired inferno of ridiculous architecture. Similarly, in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Richard Dreyfuss externalizes his obsessive thoughts by spending much of the film sculpting a room-filling replica of the Devil's Tower in Wyoming. In the film version of my book Choke the past accumulates as yet another mural.

And yes, a small amount of big voice goes a long way. It works great for setting a scene. And it works great for underscoring a plot event. If you were my student I'd tell you to keep your big voice philosophizing to a minimum. Each time you shift to big voice you bump your reader out of the fictional dream, so too much commenting can slow the story's momentum to a crawl. And it can annoy by being too clever or too preachy, dictating how the reader should react.

However, switching to big voice for short stretches will allow you to imply time passing. And it can also buffer between scenes in which lots of physical action takes place. And it allows you to briefly summarize preceding action and deliver a witty or wise meme about life.

Textures: Attribution

By attribution I mean those little signposts inserted in dialogue that tell us who said what.

For example: "Don't make me stop this car," she said.

Or: He asked, "Who died and made you Ross Perot?"

Too often we see page-long cascades of unattributed speech. Characters exchange quips without a hint of gesture or action. Soon enough we're confused and counting backward to establish who said what.

In silent pictures actors flailed and mugged to communicate, with only an occasional line of dialogue flashed on a card. The early talking pictures became the opposite. The crude microphones required everyone to cluster in static groups near them. No one dared to move. It was years before filmmakers could combine the huge physical vocabulary of the silent era with the smart, stagy dialogue of the early sound era.


  • Praise for CONSIDER THIS

    "Reminiscent of Stephen King's On Writing in never failing to entertain while imparting wisdom, this is an indispensable resource for writers."
    Publishers Weekly
  • "[Palahniuk] reveals surprising humility [with] fresh and accessible ideas. Fans will appreciate the insight into his own work, especially Fight Club (1996), his tributes to friends and forebears, and how he delivers gracious and encouraging wisdom in his characteristically conversational style."—Booklist
  • "For that author who wants to expand his or her horizons and try something new, Consider This by Chuck Palahniuk is the book to pick up. Laugh-out-loud funny[...]there is a world of information in this small book."—p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; font: 12.0px 'Times New Roman'}New York Journal of Books
  • "A book for those who want to learn to write dangerously, or perhaps just learn about the man who pioneered 'dangerous writing.' [It'll] inspire you try take a stab at telling your story."—p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; font: 12.0px 'Times New Roman'}Booktrib
  • "Tried-and-true practical advice for aspiring writers."—p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; font: 12.0px 'Times New Roman'}USA Today
  • "A savvy teacher. [Palahniuk's] advice is highly detailed and practical."—p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; font: 12.0px 'Times New Roman'}Kirkus
  • "Grade-A prime Chuck Palahniuk."—p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; font: 12.0px 'Times New Roman'}Publishers Weekly
  • This book from Palahniuk is insightful."—p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; font: 12.0px 'Times New Roman'}Dallas Morning News

    "Chuck Palahniuk's stories don't unfold. They hurtle headlong, changing lanes in threes and banging off the guard rails of modern fiction... With his love of contemporary fairytales that are gritty and dirty rather than pretty, Palahniuk is the likeliest inheritor of Vonnegut's place in American writing."—San Francisco Chronicle
  • "One of the most feverish imaginations in American letters."
    The Washington Post
  • "Like Edgar Allen Poe, Palahniuk is a bracingly toxic purveyor of dread and mounting horror. He makes nihilism fun."—Vanity Fair
  • "Dark riffing on modernity is the reason people read Palahniuk. His books are not so much novels as jagged fables, cautionary tales about the creeping peril represented by almost everything."—Time

On Sale
Jan 5, 2021
Page Count
256 pages

Black and white headshot of Chuck Palahniuk

Chuck Palahniuk

About the Author

Chuck Palahniuk has been a nationally bestselling author since his first novel, 1996’s Fight Club, was made into the acclaimed David Fincher film of the same name. Palahniuk’s work has sold millions of copies worldwide. He lives outside Portland, Oregon.

Learn more about this author