Essays > Published on January 24th, 2014

Nuts and Bolts: Saying It Wrong

You have to know the rules before you can break them. 

In any writing workshop, you should be ready to defend every choice you make.  Every word and comma and line break, if anyone asks why you used it, you should have a strong reason.  What were you trying to accomplish? 

A lot of books will teach you good grammar.  Tons of books.  My favorite is When Words Collide by Lauren Kessler and Duncan McDonald.  It’s clear and practical and very easy to use.  Another favorite is The Associated Press Stylebook.  Between the two, you should be covered for grammar and word usage.  All the stuff you did or didn’t pick up in school.

This month’s lecture is going to disregard all that.  Instead, we’re going to discuss saying things wrong.

In Tom Spanbauer’s workshop, this is called “Speaking with a burnt tongue.”  It means saying something, but in an awkward, interesting way. 

As writers, part of your job is to bend and misuse your words and force readers to read as if they’ve just learned how.

The three good uses of this -- that I can see – include:

One, creating a sense of immediacy and honesty in the story.
Two, slowing the reader and forcing them to pay close attention.
Three, creating interest with poetic or unusual language.

For the first use, so much of Minimalism is always about mimicking the way people tell stories in person, out loud.  Someone rushed and excited won’t sit and calmly narrate a story in perfect language.  No, a sincere, nervous teller will make mistakes.  The way they tell their story will heighten the excitement.  Their sentences may run on too long, or they may be chopped into short fragments. 

For a great example, look at the story “The Annex” in Amy Hempel’s collection, Tumble Home.  She writes: 

Anyway, there is a stone there that has the baby’s name on it.  And there was a week-old bouquet of something all dried up past knowing what it was that was tied with a wide white ribbon out there until the time I came home today.  There was a white ribbon on it…

Here is the story of an anxious, angry narrator.  Her chaotic language builds and builds until you’ll believe the extreme ending.  It’s wonderful.

The point is, “burning” the language a little will create a better sense of someone struggling to tell you an emotional story.  The trouble they have with their words can help you avoid telling the reader how to feel.  Those old chestnuts like, “My words were agitated and tenuous…” or “She spoke in a tired whisper…”

For the second use, you’re trying to slow the reader.  To draw their attention closer and closer.  My favorite tools tend to be jargony medical or science words.  I love those ten-dollar words that trip the reader for a moment.  Subcutaneous squamous carcinomas.  They read like mud -- slow.  Even if the reader fails to subvocalize the long word, they’re still pausing at the spot the word occurs.  The words help build “head authority,” but they also shock the reader awake if the words appear in a passage of otherwise ordinary words. 

For good examples, look at the Amy Hempel short story The Harvest, especially at the lines where she lingers over words and phrases such as “harvest” and “marriagability.”   The first line of that story is one of the best examples of rule breaking, and it works.  In a way, what Hempel’s doing goes beyond rejecting clichés – with her mistakes and slips, she’s inventing new phrases.

This is a reminder of how plastic and flexible language can be.  It doesn’t have to follow the stiff, cold formula you find in “classic” literature.  And as writers, part of your job is to bend and misuse your words and force readers to read as if they’ve just learned how.  You re-invent the world, partly by re-inventing language.

Needless to say, readers may love you for this, but copy editors will despise you.

For the third method,  you can write twisted for twisted’s sake, but keep it short.  You can be pretty and fancy, but keep it short.  Enough said.

Here, I don’t include dialectic language such as Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting or the shuck-and-jive slang used in Gone With the Wind.  Dialectic language is another topic, and not one I’ll write about since I don’t use it.

For this month’s homework

For the time being, listen for how people around you misuse language, and collect the best examples.  My last boss, he used to always use “suspicion” when he meant “suspect.”  He’d say, “I suspicion that someone’s stealing office supplies.”  This drove people nuts, but it was part of his personality.  Those are the “mistakes” you can collect and use. 

*Notes: The below was news from Chuck, at the time of this essay's original publication on, on his career and tour for then, most recent novel DiaryI emailed Chuck and asked if he wanted to update portions of it. So the areas highlighted in yellow below are updates, as of January 2014.

This month, I’m leaving on tour.  But in the time before and after my traveling, I have a special project in the works.

The publisher Henry Holt has sold me 2500 copies of Fight Club, and I’d like to mail them to military personnel serving overseas.  Signed and – if possible – personalized.  If anyone knows of a program that will provide names and accept the books, I’d love to connect and get this done.  Some folks create gift boxes to send overseas, and that might be another good way to get the books delivered. 

A Follow-up Note:  I inscribed all 2500 of those books, and shipped them to an officer stationed in Iraq who distributed them to military personnel.  Recently, a reader told me that many copies had made their way into the hands of Iraqi citizens, and Fight Club had become one of the most popular books in that nation.  That was an unintended consequence, but I can live with it.

So, please, rattle some doors and find a way to get these books to bored folks who might enjoy them. 

To the people who help make this happen, I’ll provide a cash reward.

And YES – I had to buy the books.  That’s another fact of business: you don’t get free books.

Again, after the Diary paperback tour, I’ll answer more letters – but only those sent between two dates yet to be announced.  If you’d like a personal response, please keep checking the web site for that future mailing “window,” and make sure to write between the two dates.

A Follow-Up Note:  The last mailing window generated so many letters that I was overwhelmed.  It took the better part of a year to answer them.  These days, I continue to get mail forwarded through my publishers and the Donadio agency.  If it’s possible – if the return address is legible, preferably typed on the letter itself, and the letter is recent (sometimes letters can languish at the publisher for months) – I’ll answer it.  Over the course of a year, if several of my responses are returned to me as undeliverable due to changed addresses, I tend to lose enthusiasm and quit responding to mail.  I’d prefer to put that energy into staging better events and (go figure) writing better books and stories. 

On that note, look for me in Seattle March 1st.  I’ll be at the Elliot Bay Book Store with Chelsea Cain and Lidia Yuknavitch.  Our “Adult Bedtime Stories” will be helping launch The Moment Before, the debut novel by Suzy Vitello.  In April, I’ll be at the New York Public Library, helping to launch Worst. Person. Ever.. The first novel in four years by Douglas Coupland.   In May, we’ll take our pillows and pajamas to Los Angles, where Skylight Books is helping us launch Willy Vlautin’s new novel, The Free, at a yet-to-be-announced night club or bar.

And again, thank you for reading my work.

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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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