Essential Spiritual Workers

We need them. And we need them to do their jobs. So we should make it easier for them to do their jobs. We can start by not making it hard for them to do their jobs.

I've never been very good at writing fiction. I enjoy trying, and I've managed to construct a few decent snapshots of worlds that I've called short stories. But I know the emotional gut punch that a good story can bring, and the growing tension required to deliver it, and well, I've simply not been able to land that punch. My head gets in the way, and before I know it, I've wandered out of the story's ring and venue entirely and ended up at a 7-Eleven two towns over, tired, uninspired, and looking for the road home.

Maybe the day will come when all that changes. But I'm good with it if it does not. I'm a very happy reader of fiction and an intrigued observer of masters of their craft. Ultimately, it's always been the stories behind the fictions that have interested me most. Such "behind-the-scenes" stories, at least as far as they interest me, take three main forms: first, there's the larger human story that the fictional character's experience moves us through; second, there's the creation story, i.e., the larger human story that the real-life craftsperson's experience moves us through; and third, there's the reverse-engineering of the work itself, i.e., the story of the mechanics behind the well-executed punch.

Earlier this week, I came across around 10 minutes in a podcast interview that hit on all three points. The interview's from a recent Joe Rogan podcast with the author Chuck Palahniuk.

Thirty minutes or so in, the two start talking about the brutal behavior of certain animals in the wild. Rogan eventually asks Palahniuk if he draws writing inspiration from the "cruelty and sadness of nature." Palahniuk answers that he draws his inspiration more from people—and what I think one could accurately call the cruelty and sadness of human nature—and explains how he uses comedy as a tool to lure his readers in.

Here's a transcript of a key part of that exchange, which you can also listen to from about 37:55 to 41:10 here.

Chuck Palahniuk: The way I do it, there's gotta be a lot of laughs on the front end. Because nobody wants to spend their time, typically when they're alone in the waiting room at the hospital or the airport, saying, "Oh, I want some more cruelty and sadness right now." No, you've gotta sell them that this thing is gonna be fun and lighthearted. And then, boom, coat-hanger abortion.

Do you remember the old Whoopi Goldberg routine where she's the only Black surfer chick? And she does it all in upspeak Valley-girl language, and it's very fast. It's from the very early 80s. And she talks about being the only Black beach girl, the only Black surfer chick, and how she really has the hots for this one surfer dude. And the two of them hook up, and she's in love, and she gets pregnant. And the whole thing—people are roaring through the whole thing. And then, she brings it to the point where she's in a dirty public bathroom at the beach, pulling open a wire coat hanger, and then stuffing it inside of herself and giving herself a coat-hanger abortion on this filthy concrete floor. And at that point, she's still [using] Valley-girl upspeak—and the audience is completely silent. The audience is horrified. And the contrast between this low slangy language telling a traumatic story—the disconnect there—makes it even more tragic. And the fact that she's not acknowledging the horror makes it even more tragic, and also, strangely funny in this completely nihilistic, horrible way. And at the end, you can hear a pin drop. And at the end she says, "So y'all gotta come down to the beach and hang out with us, just hang out with us." And she's still a character in so much denial. And she's forcing the audience to carry the horror themselves.

That is what I want to do: where you have them laughing and laughing and laughing, and then, at the moment of the greatest laugh, you break their hearts really badly. And animals can't really do that, Nobody wants to see the cute kitten video where they all get dropped into the wood chipper.

Joe Rogan: Why do you like those deeply uncomfortable moments so much?

Palahniuk: Because they're the same thing. That laughter is the ongoing relief of tension. You're creating tension, and you're resolving it very quickly. And you're allowing people to sort of build up a greater and greater tension because they're trusting you more. And you're getting in under their radar because you're gradually assuring them that you're never going to take them too far. And then, once they're completely on board, then you take them too far. And you completely break their hearts when they're deepest in the story. And then you offer a kind of pale, lame denouement at the end; some silly, sad little bit of comfort, like Whoopi Goldberg does at the end of that beach girl story.

In the eight minutes that immediately follow this, which you can watch in the clip below, Palahniuk illustrates the deeper utility of both telling and hearing such stories, tragic comedies, if you will.

After the story he tells in that clip about the psychic and his father, he concludes:

So I never told anybody my entire life that story. I never told my siblings, I never told anyone. And I had more or less forgotten that story until this woman I had never met said, "There is a man standing over you in a white T-shirt, and he's holding something wooden. And he's really sorry. And it's something about dismemberment. But he was very young. And he handled it the way a very young father would." And I was so shocked in that moment.

And this is where my significance meter goes off the charts. Because that woman was quite literally "creating an opening" for Palahniuk to tell his own story by telling that same story to him. And if we can suspend our disbelief for a moment and imagine that she truly was interacting with Palahniuk's murdered father, then that would make her the opening through which a dead father was able to tell the end of a story, or its "denouement," to his son.

The world needs people who can create those openings for the rest of us. We should think of them as essential spiritual workers. And no, I’m not still talking about psychics. I’m talking about writers and comedians and artists and thinkers and storytellers of all stripes. We need them. And we need them to do their jobs. But to do their jobs well, they need some license to offend, to say things that sting us and make us laugh and make us trust and punch us in the gut and comfort us. That’s all going to happen when humor is a species' most viable vehicle to life's cruelest and saddest and most profound teachings. And we can stand in the way of that vehicle if we want. We have that right, at least in some countries, at least for now. But if we choose to exercise it, we should at least know that that’s what we’re doing: we are standing in the way of our essential spiritual workers, and we are making it harder for them to do their jobs. And that should be enough to make us think again.