Essays > Published on September 17th, 2011

Using “On-The-Body” Physical Sensation

To make a palm tree, you draw two curving lines that meet at a sharp point.  That’s the tree trunk.  Then, you draw some zigzag lines between the two lines, to suggest the bark of the tree.  Then, you draw long curves that branch from the point, and some zigzag lines that hang off those long curves.  For the palm fronds.

My brother and sisters and I, we could draw a palm tree because our Mom had a big floppy, paper book called:  How To Draw Trees.   She had another book, big and thin, with almost nothing but those sketchy pictures – none of them colored-in, just drawings – but this other book we couldn’t look at.  It was called:  How to Draw Human Figures.  Her third book was How to Draw Animals, and she could sit down and draw you a horse as fast as your eyes could follow her pencil.

She had these books from before she had us kids.  These books and a box of pastel crayon stubs and a few charcoal pencils.  After we were born, the only time she drew was to make us hook-nosed witches riding broomsticks that we would cut out of black construction paper and tape to our bedroom window on Halloween.  Every Halloween, we cut tombstones out of gray construction paper and twisted trees out of brown paper.  Pumpkins out of orange paper.  Flying bats out of black paper.  And we taped all these, and the witches, to our bedroom windows.

After she had kids, our Mom took a class in sewing.  A night class way, far away in town, and she kept her car doors locked and called home to let our grandma know when she’d arrived safe or was about to leave for the long drive back home. 

Those nights, our grandma would stay with us.  Or Aunt Ruthie would.  Our Dad was… we didn’t know where.

Instead of drawing trees or horses, after that our Mom sewed clothes.  All year round, we’d drive to big, cold fabric stores with concrete floors.  Bolts of fabric, tall as you were, stood on tables or leaning into wood racks painted white.  Giant picture books showed nothing but page after page of people wearing clothes you could make if you bought the right patterns by Butterick or Simplicity.  Long, skinny fashion-model drawings.

Every visit, Mom took you to the table of fabric, the table with the “Clearance” sign standing way-high in the middle, and she’d say to choose a fabric for your shirt. 

The smiling, skinny fashion drawings – they never wore clothes made from any fabric you’d find under that “Clearance” sign.

No.  No matter how cool the shirt or vest or pants might look in the Simplicity Jiffi-Pattern catalogue, you’d never look that good.

But still, Mom would drag us to look at fabric.  To look at patterns.  My sisters, excited, saying, “Please, please, please!”  whenever Mom stretched something silky or velvety between her hands, saying, “… this might be nice…”

On the clearance rack, the patterns were always some kind of pollen photographed under an electron microscope, like illustrations in a school science book.  Blobs.  Germs.  Bacteria.  Internal organs.  Livers and kidneys.  Paisleys.  The colors muddy and dark.   “So they won’t show dirt…”  Mom would say.

My brother and me, we prayed for hand-me-downs from our uncle John.  He got striped T-shirts from the rack of clear-plastic hangers at Sears or J.C. Penney’s.

For us, school shopping meant new shoes and underwear.  And looking at fabric. 

Our Mom’s fashion year had three seasons:  Christmas, Easter and Back-to-School.

Christmas and Easter were…  I have to groan, here.

Inspired by brother-sister singing groups, mostly the Partridge Family and The Brady Bunch, Mom would design us kids matching outfits.  My brother and me in matching red-and-blue plaid jackets with Nehru collars.  Or embroidered Cossack outfits.  Or bright, blousy shirts with puffy, leg-o-mutton sleeves that ballooned down to long, tight, three-button French cuffs.

My two sisters got the same colors and general theme, but in miniskirts or Nancy Drew jumpers or Bo-Peep frocks. 

One Christmas or Easter, we were paraded to Mass at St. Patrick’s, wearing identical vests made of fake suede, each vest with a brass buckle in front and a knee-length fringe of suede strips our Mom had stayed up, night after night for weeks, cutting with her chrome sewing scissors.  Each vest, each long, thin ribbon of fringe, hours of breath-holding, careful work under a bare light bulb in her little sewing room.

These were outfits we wore once.  One time.  All of us lined up in front of the flowering almond bush at Easter, while our Dad took a picture.  Or, lined up with the Christmas tree.  After that, we wore the outfits to church.  Then, by noon of whatever High Holy day, those outfits were history.  Shed and forgotten.  Existing only in some old photo.

Every evening, year ‘round, she’d call us into the sewing room, kid-by-kid.  For fitting after fitting.  Her mouth full of pins, she’d pinched the fabric tight, at the waist, at the ankle, marking it with fast slashes of tailor’s chalk.  Through the pins, telling us:  “Stand up straight.”  Then sticking in a pin.  If you’d jump, she’d always say, “Sorry, did I get you?”

Then, with the pants or shirt still bristling with pins.  Your skin stuck and bleeding a little, here and there, you’d have to get undressed in careful slow-motion.

Then, she’d say:  “Now, send in your brother…

The other kids, they’d all wait their turn, watching television in the basement.  Not saying anything.  On Tuesday nights was Happy Days and Three’s Company.  On Friday nights was The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family.  None of these shows were ever funny, but we’d sit and watch while the television talked to itself, laughing at its own lame jokes.

No, the rules in our house were:  No yelling.  No cussing.  Stand up straight.  And Go outside and DO something; nobody is ever going to pay you to read or write books…

Every holiday, we’d be a different band.  The Beatles.  The Turtles.  Paul Revere and the Raiders.  Back-to-School meant big Halloween costumes.  One year, Mom spent nights latch-hooking an afro wig of red yarn so my sister could be Raggedy Ann.  Another year, she pieced together a full-body dog costume so my brother could be Snoopy.

This is what she did instead of drawing.  Because:  Nobody would ever pay you to just draw pictures…

About that time, the television in our basement, the picture got smaller and smaller.  Not a lot smaller, but enough that we noticed.  The tube was going out, our Dad said.  We’d have to run a newspaper ad and sell it, fast.  To people who didn’t know it was doomed. 

For a few days, people we didn’t know came to look at the old television, but nobody was dumb enough.

While they squatted in the basement, monkeying with the color and contrast knobs, I’d sit in my Mom’s sewing room, watching her little portable television as it laughed at its own stupid jokes.  My legs, so short they dangled from the edge of her sewing chair, my bare feet kicking above the blue-green shag carpet.

That one night, I was alone.  Mom was in the kitchen, washing dishes.  Dad was in the basement, showing the old television to stupid strangers.  My brother and sisters were…  I can’t remember.

Then, I jumped down from the sewing chair.

And there, dropped, forgotten, poking straight up from the carpet was a needle.  A thick mattress needle, silver-sharp and long as your baby finger.

The needle point popped out the top of my foot.  Into the sole, and all the way through the meat of my bare foot.

Looking at it…  Staring at it… even before it started to bleed, I knew this wasn’t my fault.  It was Mom’s fault.  She’d dropped the needle. 

This meant, for right now, I could do anything I wanted.  For just this moment, I could get away with breaking a rule.

I’d never screamed inside the house.

Nobody ever screamed inside our house.

So I screamed.

As loud and long as I had breath, I screamed.  I screamed until Mom stood in the sewing room doorway, her wet hands holding a dishtowel.

Pushing her face at me, her eyes popped out, round as the perfect circle-pumpkins she could draw, she said:  “Those people just might buy that old TV.  Do you want them to think we’re a bunch of crazy people?  Be quiet!”

And then she was gone.

She didn’t even see my foot.  The needle.  The blood now squirting out the top and bottom of my bare foot. 

So I went hopping after her, hopping on my one good foot, all the way to the kitchen, sprinkling blood with every hop.  Hop.  Spray.  Hop.  Spray.  The needle, I couldn’t feel.  But the trickle and drip of blood off my toes felt warm as bathwater.  There, standing behind her, waiting until my foot leaked a juicy, big red puddle around me on the fake-stone linoleum of the kitchen floor, I told her:  “Look!”

Then, she looked.

Then, she’s lifting me.

She’s sitting me on the kitchen counter.  She’s got a pair of rusty pliers from the junk drawer, by the back door.  From where she’d stashed her old pastels and paint brushes.

The blood still everywhere, the floor still smeared with sticky red, she’s trying to yank the needle out of my foot.  She’s trying, but the blood makes the needle and the pliers so slippery.  So slick.  She can only wiggle the needle.  Or twist it around and around.

Then, from the doorway to the living room…

The strangers come around the corner, carrying our old television that they’ve just bought.  Dad helping them, their check is stuck in the back pocket of his store-bought blue jeans.

And when they see this kid bleeding, the woman weeping, these red footprints everywhere…  When they smell all that blood…

When they slip in that puddle, they drop the TV.  Blood and broken glass, everywhere.  True story.

This third essay is to demonstrate physical sensation in a story.

This physical sensation is what the Minimalist writer Tom Spanbauer would call “going on-the-body.”

In fiction writing, there’s an old saying:  When you don’t know what happens next, describe the inside of the narrator’s mouth.

Or the soles of their feet, or the palms of their hands.  Any physical sensation that can evoke a sympathetic physical sensation from the reader.

It’s one thing to engage the reader mentally, to enroll his or her mind and make them think, imagine, consider something.   It’s another thing to engage a reader’s heart, to make him or her feel some emotion.  But if you can engage the reader on a physical level as well, then you’ve created a reality that can eclipse their actual reality.   The reader might be in a noisy airport, standing in a long line, on tired feet – but if you can engage their mind, heart and body in your story, you can replace that airport reality with something more entertaining or profound or whatever.

That’s why each of my books involves some intense physical sensation.  Whether it’s violence in Fight Club.  Or plastic surgery in Invisible Monsters.  Or sex in Choke.  Or illness and self-mutilation in Diary.  With each of my books, the goal is to make the story occur in the reader’s mind, heart and gut.

In the recent short story, “Guts,”  this effect goes almost too far. 


Note, this doesn’t happen with abstract words that describe pain or pleasure.  You can’t just order a reader to feel a sensation.  It happens when you create a tangible situation, detail by detail, and let the events happen in the reader’s mind.

Words like “searing pain” or “sharp, stabbing pain” or “throbbing headache” or “ecstatic orgasm” don’t evoke anything except some lame-ass paperback thriller book.  Those are the cliches of a cheating writer.  Little abstract short-cuts that don’t make anything happen in the reader’s gut.

No, you want the pain – or whatever physical sensation – to occur in the reader, not on the page.  So un-pack the event, moment by moment, smell by smell.  Make it happen, and let the sensation of pain occur only in the reader.

The same goes for sex.  But with sex, it helps if you re-invent the language of sex.  Most people have their own pet vocabulary for sex organs and sex acts.  To make an orgasm fresh and unique – even if it’s just words happening on a page – invent a way that only your narrator would talk about sex.  That special nickname for their genitals.  Their euphemism for intercourse.

I like to say:  “When a regular person gets sick, they take an aspirin.  When a writer gets sick, they take notes…”

The next time you get a headache or diarrhea or poison ivy, sit and inventory the physical details you experience.  Put them down on paper for some future use.  Because the toughest job you’ll have as a writer is to give your character a headache.  Still, you should do it so well you give your reader a headache. 

Another method is to inject medical language – the almost-poetry of surgical jargon or diagnostic terms.  Anatomical vocabulary.  Chemical names.  All of those build their authority in a “head” sense, proving you’re smart.  Plus, they evoke a physical discomfort or pleasure in the reader.

Plus, odd language can slow the reader and focus their attention on the moment.

Plus, medical language gives people a way to discuss topics they couldn’t because they never had the language.  So you’re engaging the reader on a mental and physical level. 

So, when you don’t know what happens next:  Have sex.  Get sick.  Get hurt.  Or hit somebody.

To date, we’ve discussed “establishing authority” and “horses or themes” and “physical sensation.”

To review the previous topics, look at this essay and find how it establishes authority and what the “horses” or themes are.

Then, create a character’s headache – without using any words such as “headache, pain, migraine…”   This might force you to do some research into the cause of headaches.  Or into how other cultures explained headaches.  Or how a headache changes your total perception.  Or headache cures – true story: my old doctor used to swear by masturbation, to lower your blood pressure and cure headaches.  The goal is to re-invent the tired, cliched idea of a “headache” so well that you can create one in your reader.

For another exercise, write out an event from your past that involved a strong physical sensation.  Un-pack it, detail by detail, and create the sensation in the reader’s gut.  Again, without using abstract short-cuts that describe the sensation.  Always, create the sensation.

The story, Guts, is now out in the March issue of Playboy magazine.  It will soon be published in The Guardian newspaper in England.   Next month’s topic will be “Dissecting Guts.”  A break-down of all the little tricks I used to put that story across. 

Special thanks to everyone who said hello in Las Vegas and San Francisco, in February.

One man was over-whelmed by “Guts” at the Clark County Library (Las Vegas) event.  Now the total is 40 people.  And the editor at Playboy is asking for another extreme short story.   Wish me luck.

So – love and kisses to the Clark County Library for hosting a great event.  And more love and kisses to the Academy or Art College for hauling me into town for their event.  Oh, their private jet is sweet.  On my birthday, no less.  And the birthday cards were a great surprise.  I left stock signed at Stacey’s and Alexander’s bookstores, downtown.  And Border’s bookstore on Union Square.

Again, thanks to everyone who wrote me in 2003.  I’ve answered almost all of the letters.  Only a few are left, most of those are requests that I must decline.  I hate saying No, so those letters always filter to the bottom of the stack.  On a few other letters, the return addresses are hand-written, and I just can’t read them.  For now, my time is stretched thin, and I can’t accept any new opportunities.  The magazine Sports Illustrated offered me a very cherry story assignment, and even that got shot down because there’s no time left in my life.  For now.  Until the first draft of Haunted is done.

Later this year, 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.

And again, 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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