"When it comes to writing, how dark is too dark?"
At one point, close to 70 people had fainted during live readings of Chuck Palahniuk’s short story, Guts. The piece focuses on arguably disturbing content, and the narrator instructs readers (listeners) to hold their breath for the duration of the story. I recently listened to a podcast interview with Palahniuk, that dove into the topic of “dark writing,” or a style in which the author explores sides of humanity that deal with questionable morals, corruption, trauma, etc. It all begged the question: when it comes to writing, how dark is too dark?
During the interview, Palahniuk discussed one source of his writing ideas, which is to listen in on party conversations. He does not key into the conversational “mic drop” moments, but, rather, listens for the points of human connection. He argued that when one person tells a story in which others try to “one up” each other with similar stories, the human thread in those moments runs strong. And sometimes, what we share in common can unravel into very traumatic or emotional places.
Writing is an exploratory process and humans are exploratory creatures. However, how much emotional pain and darkness are we programmed to seek in another’s writing before we stop and say, “that’s too much?” This can be a finely balanced scale: a pharmacist’s manual torsion balance, where even a gentle breeze on the measuring plates can offset the finicky dials. If someone is going to write on a topic that society as a whole says, “this is generally off-limits,” I’ll argue that it needs to be done with the finesse and art of a precision writer. And, it needs to work for a purpose, whether it be healing, unification, or even outright-stated shock value.
"There's something empowering to bearing witness to another's pain..."
Palahniuk mentioned that he writes dark so that others can step forward in an alternate “me too” movement. There’s something empowering to bearing witness to another’s pain, albeit fictional in some of Palahniuk’s cases, and and saying, “look at that. I’m not alone.” He described writing not to explore repression in his own mind, but to poke into the recesses of the general “your” mind. Feels a bit invasive, no?
So, what happens when he, or any writer for that matter, nails it? Does that make it too much, or just right? If the dark subject matter is identifiable, do we, as the reader want to revisit the moment, especially if it’s caused trauma or pain? Or, let’s consider that it’s a new event, and not one that’s taken place in our own history. What if the writer has written it in a way that adds humor? Do we feel good about laughing? What if the writer created a stunning metaphor out of a severe trauma? Does beautiful wording offset horror? How about us, as the writers? Should we take on the responsibility of topic censorship?
"Are dark/trauma/emotional topics off-limits because they make us uncomfortable?"
Great writing isn’t all puppies and roses. Palahniuk’s been kicked out of a few writing workshops for taking things “too far” in his writing. What does that mean? I personally draw a hard line at spewing hate. But, are dark/trauma/emotional topics off-limits because they make us uncomfortable? I vote that the line drawn there is in the reader, not the writer. The first rule of Fight Club… eh, it’s an overused cultural meme. But, if no one talks about it, how do we as writers know if we’re doing the right/write thing?