Essays > Published on September 17th, 2011

Establishing Your Authority

It was after basketball practice, my sophomore year in high school.   We were all in the locker room, opening padlocks, getting towels, when the coach asked me back out to the gym floor.  To practice a few more foul shots.  Or lay-ups.  Something.  So I left my locker open, and went.

At the time, I had two friends: Fred Rutz and Robert Krause, and they seemed like enough.  None of us three were popular.  Fred and I, because we were terrible at sports.  Robert, because he’d just transferred to Columbia High School, and we’d all heard his parents made him take ballet.  Wearing tights.  Still, if any of us three could move up the ladder, it would be Robert.

Back in the locker room, everybody had already taken their shower and got dressed.  I took mine.  And stepping into my shorts, these are tighty-white briefs from Sears or Penney’s, the white fabric inside the crotch looked a little dark.  A little stained.  Blotched a faint, faded yellow.

Both my bare feet stuck through the leg holes, the elastic waistband pulled up to around my pale, hairy knee caps, this is really what went through my mind:

Mom must not be using bleach.

We lived in the desert, where the well water was so “hard,” so dense with dissolved minerals, that everything white you washed – your underpants or T-shirts or gym socks -- would soon enough turn a rusty color.

So in that moment, as my shorts pulled up past my knees, that was my answer.  Not enough bleach.  My shorts on, I pulled on my pants, my shirt and socks.  I tied my shoes and combed my wet hair, going fast, not aware the locker room was still full of guys, fully dressed, not going home, waiting for something.  Quiet.

By now, it was dark outside.  It was basketball season.  Winter.  The time when local dogs ran in packs to stay warm.  Our dog included, a border collie.  Down along the river, you could find the bloody tugged-apart hides of mule deer or rabbits the dog packs had caught.  It was dark, and I had to walk home across the sagebrush and prickly pear cactus of the desert, wading through snow and low sand dunes.  There you could hear the dog packs barking and snapping in the dark.  Those nights, when there was no moon, and the air was so cold it made your lungs cough big white clouds, so cold the snarling dogs sounded close by, those nights it was three-thousand-six-hundred and twelve steps from the back door of the gym to my family’s kitchen porch.  Give or take a step.  The size of my stride.  Or if I ran.

If my own dog would attack me, I didn’t know.  But running with that baying, rolling, biting tide of teeth and fur – my dog just might. 

So I didn’t notice how the whole basketball team was still standing around.  Not going home.  Just waiting.

Of course Fred and Robert were waiting.  They were my friends.  Together, we schemed to buy Spanish Fly from the ads in the back of Hustler magazine and somehow get it into the school’s water supply.  We talked about driving south all night, the thousand miles to and from the Mustang Ranch in Nevada.  In a school where the upperclassmen stood around my locker in the hallway, every morning, waiting for me to arrive, so they could chant:  Paula-Nick Suck My Dick…   Loud as the school cheerleaders yelled during pep rallies.  Well, two friends wasn’t a lot, but they were enough.  Two was better than none.

Then I was dressed, then just shutting my locker, snapping the padlock.

Then, my nuts were on fire.  My testicles.  My balls were burning hot, and the locker room was everybody laughing.

My pants tore off, inside-out… my shirt tore off so fast the buttons went flying, gone… my shoes kicked off with the socks still inside them, I jumped into the shower and started scrubbing.

The stains in my shorts, the yellow that needed more bleach, it was a joke.  It was a sports analgesic cream – the hot-kind like Ben-Gay that got hotter and hotter the more you rubbed, the greasy kind that wouldn’t wash off, wouldn’t scrub off with soap and water, the super-strength kind the school had sitting around the locker room in white plastic tubs.  While I was flubbing foul shots, someone had rubbed the crotch of my shorts full of this.

Everybody laughing, I scrubbed.  Everybody dressed and zipping up their coats, pulling on knitted hats and grabbing their backpacks, I stood in the shower, naked and scrubbing my nuts.  Everybody gone, and the coach shutting off the lights, I was still scrubbing.  My balls still on fire.

The three thousand six hundred and twelve steps through the dark still ahead of me.  My dog lost, barking in the pack out there, tearing something apart.

It was Robert Krause.  He put the hot in my shorts.  To curry favor with the upperclassmen.  Somebody I’d trusted.

After that, he was popular.  Everyone in school heard the story.

The next winter, I didn’t go out for basketball.  I got a job at a movie theater, tearing tickets, popping corn, splicing film, so far away that no one knew me.  Every night, the drive took twenty songs on the radio or a whole eight-track tape, heard twice.  The world is a bigger place than just Burbank, Washington, and after graduation I just kept going.

This year, I got a letter from Texas.  From Robert Krause, who runs a garage and wrote to say hello and ask what I’ve been doing for the past twenty-three years.  On his letterhead, it says he’s a member of the Better Business Bureau.  So I sent him a copy of Fugitives and Refugees, the travel book with the short “postcard” essays.

A friend of mine, Bob, makes soap as a hobby, homemade soap molded and wrapped to look exactly like the Paper Street soap used in the Fight Club movie.  Bob had just delivered a box of soap, all the bars perfect and smelling like cloves and cinnamon, but he said not to use it.  The soap still needed to age.  As it was, the lye was still too caustic, and it would burn the skin off of anyone who washed with it.

So, I sent it to Robert in Texas.  Two bars of it.  In the copy of Fugitives and Refugees I wrote:  “To Robert, Wash your balls…”

This, the first essay in this series, is about “Establishing Authority.”   Once you establish your authority, you can take the reader anywhere.  The reader will trust you, believe you, and you can do anything with the plot.

This authority is arguably the most important part of starting your story.

The two most effective ways – that I use – to establish authority are:

Honesty and frankness.

Or demonstrating knowledge.

Heart versus Head.

In the first method (as demonstrated in the preceding essay) you risk revealing something that makes you look bad.  You allow yourself to become the fool instead of the hero.  And by doing so, you allow your reader to risk becoming involved, emotionally involved, in your story.  In a way, your honesty proves to the reader that the story will not be about proving your glory.  You admit your failures and weakness, and doing so lets your reader admit and accept their own.  You prove a story – and life -- doesn’t have to be about looking good.    

The second method for establishing authority is through knowledge:  Prove to your reader that you’ve done your research.  That your narrator is the best, most-qualified person to tell this story.  This method won’t engage the reader emotionally, not like the Honesty method, but it can be impressive and compelling.

To illustrate, the story above is the Heart Method. 

This essay that follows is more the Head Method.

Emotion versus Intellect.

In my book Survivor, Chapter 46 is the Heart Method.  It shows how the narrator is running a fake suicide hotline in order to meet people as damaged as himself.   But Chapter 44 – with its chorus of obscure household hints – is the Head Method.

Again, the Heart Method impresses the reader with honesty and vulnerability.

The Head Method impresses the reader with its knowledge.

You could argue that Stephen King uses the Heart Method mainly.  The way each character is introduced, slowly and carefully, to prompt the reader into bonding and feeling sympathy.   It’s not often you run across dense thickets of statistics and facts, insider knowledge and data in a Stephen King novel.

Among my favorite books, Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson has moments of such brutal, unflattering honesty, that I will read it again and again.  And feel shocked and touched each time.

You could also argue that Tom Clancy uses the Head Method.  The way military and government procedures and technology are used to assure a reader that the protagonist is smart and trained – and therefore worth spending time with.  This includes wonderful insider, jargon-y language.  Another form of impressing the reader with knowledge.

Among my favorite books, Ill Nature by Joy Williams is filled with such a burden of horrible data about the destruction of the natural world, that reading it is addictive. 

Craig Clevenger’s book, The Contortionist’s Handbook, also uses a wealth of information to establish the narrator’s authority as a forger – a criminal so adept at his job that we can forgive his crimes because we’re so impressed by his obsessive, methodical work habits and skill.

Still -- Heart or Head --  both methods establish the writer or narrator’s authority.  They engage the reader, and help prove the authenticity of the story.

With authority in mind, this series of essays is not the perfect way to write fiction.  This is only what works for me.  So, please, take or leave anything you read here.  If it helps, use it.  If not, thank you for considering my view.

This isn’t about you, the author, looking good.   Or me looking good.  This is about serving the reader with your most effective storytelling.   Over the next year, this series of essays will cover a few basic rules that I wish someone had taught me in my first writing workshop.  A few rules that – if applied – will make your writing tighter, more immediate and more effective.

There are other possible ways to establish your authority.  The most popular is being Clever.  But after a few minutes, you can tell cleverness is someone hiding.  Someone scared and dishonest and trying to distract you from the truth of anything that matters.  We all know glib, silly people like that and it’s amazing how fast their banter can become tedious and cruel.  Maybe for short stretches, clever is entertaining, but it won’t convince the reader to suspend their disbelief and follow you anywhere. 

Another method to establish authority is to just bully the reader.   To constantly tell the reader how to feel, how to react.  To spoon feed the reader every thought and insight.  If you provide the reader with every thought, soon they won’t be able to think and might trust you completely.  This is that bland, third-person, voice-of-God writing you see so much.  But, God, that kind of story can get boring.

Another method is to charm, but again -- even the loveliest, most lyrical language gets boring after a few paragraphs.  It still becomes a hero story, because it showcases the writing and the writer.  Before that point, you need to make something interesting happen.  Convey concrete information. 

So, for now, let’s concentrate on establishing authority with either Heart or Head methods. 

For homework, pull a few books down off the shelf and look for examples of the Head or Heart scenes where the author is establishing authority.  They tend to be early in a book, where the authority is most needed.  And where establishing it won’t slow down the escalating plot.

For homework, write an anecdote that establishes your authority with honesty and vulnerability.  For this, risk telling a painful, embarrassing story.  The story of a scar or a humiliation.  The glory of this risk is how it prompts other people to risk telling their own stories, and gives people an instant feeling of freedom and relief.

Then, write an anecdote that establishes authority using knowledge and data.  You might have to do some research to establish a “body of knowledge.”  One good method is to meet and casually interview someone about what they know best – typically, what they do for a living.  You’ll notice that people always look wonderful -- open and animated – when they speak with the authority of their profession. 

If you have questions, please submit them.  Mid-January, I’ll respond to the ten most-common questions about establishing authority.

A personal note:  My thanks to everyone who wrote me in 2003.  I’ll be answering the letters postmarked before Dec. 15, 2003.  This year, 2004, I’ll answer letters sent between two dates I’ll announce later.  If you’d like a personal response, please keep checking the website for the future mailing “window,” and make sure to write between the two dates.

And thank you for reading my work.

About the author

Chuck Palahniuk is author of the novels Fight Club, Survivor, Invisible Monsters, Choke, Lullaby, Diary, Haunted, Rant, Snuff,  Pygmy, Tell-All, DamnedDoomed, and the upcoming Beautiful You. He also has two non-fiction books, the Portland travel memoir Fugitives & Refugees and the collection of true stories, essays, and interviews, Stranger Than Fiction.

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