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Turning fear into fiction: an exploration of ‘dangerous writing’

For writer and tutor Tom Spanbauer, writing is about putting your fear, heartbreak and shame on display.

Spanbauer calls the technique he teaches in his home in Portland, Oregon ‘dangerous writing’. And when you discover that one of his most famous students is Chuck Palahniuk, a man who once kept a tally of people who fainted during his readings, you might think the title is literal.

But the danger lies in exploring the more uncomfortable parts of your own mind. Confronting your grief and shame; writing about what disturbs or embarrasses you. Creating, as Spanbauer puts it, “an invention through which you can understand your own humanity”.

To understand why this is ‘dangerous’, one must first consider the protection that fiction affords a writer. Stories, we believe, come from within, but develop outside us. They may depict ideas and images that are shocking, but these are not personal to us. They are allegories, dramatic devices, or observations of the horrors of the world.

To find and cultivate transgressive ideas inside yourself, to bridge that convenient gulf between the thought and the work, is to put yourself on display. It is to invite judgement.

This is not to say that a ‘dangerous’ novel is merely a salacious roman à clef or bleak piece of semi-fiction. Spanbauer discusses the importance of giving his students “permission to lie”. He discusses Francis Bacon’s Study After Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, in which Bacon reinvents the dignified subject of the original work as a howling monster. The scream is Bacon’s own invention; his distortion of a distinguished holy figure into something repressed and twisted and more than a little frightening.

This is the end goal of dangerous writing. Spanbauer encourages his students to start with something raw, and then “say it backwards”. Distort it, twist it, turn it into something difficult and dizzying. Begin with something truer than most writers would dare to handle, and then turn it into its own distinct lie.

Dangerous writing has its roots in minimalism

Spanbauer developed what would become dangerous writing at Columbia University in the 1980s. Studying the structure of language, he took influence from the infamous editor and writer Gordon Lish.

Lish is renowned for his thorough editing. His papers, which are on display at Indiana University, show that Lish revised and in some cases rewrote huge chunks of Raymond Carver’s early oeuvre. Some, Lish included, believe that Carver owes his success to Lish’s ruthless amputation of his prose.

These principles of minimalism underpin the technical side of dangerous writing. Dangerous writing repudiates abstractions; it does not accommodate adverbs or clichés. It even dispenses with measurements, preferring relatable benchmarks for age, distance or time.

A student of Lish’s, Amy Hempel, features heavily in Spanbauer’s dangerous writing course. Her eight-page story The Harvest is the first thing that Spanbauer’s students read. Chuck Palahniuk describes her style of writing as “a lawyer [presenting] her case, exhibit by exhibit”. Without the forgettable details that strangle more extravagant fiction, each sentence demands the reader’s full attention. Each is a distinct vignette that carries its own power, and at the same time is a linchpin in a far more complex and elegant mechanism.

(As a side note, The Harvest is available to read in full online. Because the collection is now out of print – and because it is such a fine story – I recommend doing so.)

Dissecting The Harvest, Palahniuk first talks about ‘horses’. “If you drive a wagon from Utah to California”, he writes, “you use the same horses the whole way.” Horses are the musical figures that make up the melody of a minimalist story. In The Harvest, Hempel fears losing her leg following an accident, so we read of kidney donors, severed heads and unfaithful husbands. Each mote of language, each passing character, each set piece is a reminder of disintegration and transience.

Palahniuk then talks about ‘burnt tongue’. Hempel’s prose is more than a conveyor belt that spirits the reader in comfort from story point to story point. The architecture of her language jars at points, forcing the reader to slow down and take a closer look.

The final aspect of minimalism Palahniuk discusses, he calls ‘recording angel’. Minimalist writing, and by extension dangerous writing, avoids telling the reader how to feel. It presents details without judgement, inviting the reader to form their own emotional response.

“I leave a lot out when I tell the truth”

The first part of The Harvest, Hempel tells the story of her accident and subsequent recovery. In the second part, she tells the story of the story. Channeling John Fowles, she examines the relationship between herself and her work. She describes what details she omits and what details she exaggerates.

“There was only the one car,” she writes, “the one that hit me when I was on the back of the man’s motorcycle.” (There was no motorcycle in part one; Hempel instead wrote of two cars.) “But think of the awkward syllables when you have to say motorcycle.”

This is the first instance of artistic licence that she relays. It disarms the reader, making them think that the writer’s narrative choices are cosmetic. But the story is still continuing. How she chooses to relay it, what facts she keeps and what facts she distorts, is part of it. Earlier, she planted the seed for her confessions of misrepresentation: “What happened to one of my legs required four hundred stitches, which, when I told it, became five hundred stitches, because nothing is ever quite as bad as it could be.”

We later discover that the number was three hundred.

Turning her pain into a fiction was part of Hempel’s recovery. By sharing in the process of dramatisation, we are sharing too in both the recovery and the pain that preceded it. This is why, after reading what Palahniuk calls “a laundry list of details”, we are wrapped up in her trauma without quite knowing why.

Through reliving trauma, a storyteller can reinvent it

Even as an autobiographical story, The Harvest is more than a retelling of events. Through misrepresenting her story, Amy Hempel “tells the truth truer”. She digs into her wounds to produce something personal and real, and then bends it out of shape.

The digging is the first stage of dangerous writing. The dangerous writer wades into the most inhospitable region of their consciousness in search of its ugliest fragments.

The second stage is expressing these fragments in lucid, minimalist prose. It might be autobiography or semi-fiction, like The Harvest. Or it might be a near-complete fiction, built around the kernel of that first painful introspection. (One example of this is Chuck Palahniuk’s Lullaby, a supernatural horror that he wrote to process the grief of his father’s murder.)

In either case, the technical precision of minimalist writing forces the author to consider with great care how they express themselves. Quite organically, quite surgically, they disentangle their heartache. They autopsy it to tease out the drama, the excitement, the ‘danger’. In turning it into something that can shock and entertain they observe it not as a sufferer, but as a craftsperson.

“…by disengaging”, Spanbauer says, “it’s not you anymore, and things can become much more interesting and dramatic and closer to the real truth”. The initial stage of writing dangerously is when the writer’s trauma is at its most powerful. But by the end of the second stage, the power is reversed. To write dangerously is to explore your suffering on your own terms, and the end result might be the most exciting writing you’ve produced.