Greener Pastures: An Introduction

Remembering the Terror

Let’s start with Ken.  A coworker at Freightliner Trucks.  Years before I sold any fiction, he got wind of me writing fiction and he never missed a chance to step up and ask, “How’s that little writing thing going?”

Ken had become an engineer because it was a sure-thing career, and he loved to lord that over us English and journalism majors now working in grunt jobs.  He goaded me, and that only made me want to sell a book more.  Even when Fight Club was published to middling sales in 1996 he kept up the put-downs, asking, “So when are you going to hit the bestseller list?”

No matter what I got done, Ken would find a new way to twist the knife.  Angry and bitter, he seemed to hate being an engineer, but he’d chosen that career for security not fun.

When the film Fight Club launched, on one of my last days in that job, I overheard Ken telling someone, “Maybe I should’ve gotten a degree in English…”

A weird, sad moment for sure. 


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How’s this for an even sadder moment?  Before I’d written Fight Club my boss took me aside and offered me his job.  He’d worked all his life at Freightliner, from clerking in the mail room to managing his own department.  He’d be retiring in a few years and needed to train his replacement.  The promotion would set me up for life, but it would also eat up my life.  To turn it down would be turning down a position my boss had devoted decades to getting.  Nonetheless, I didn’t dream of managing people.  I wanted to write.

And, no, I didn’t feel superior or vindicated hearing Ken.  Or when telling my boss, no, I didn’t want that promotion.  I just felt scared that I was turning down any secure future with, you know, health insurance and retirement and food.     

This was the basis for the novel I’ll begin serializing next week.  Greener Pastures it’s called.

In Greener Pastures I wanted to write about that part of your life when you’re torn between choosing the sure-thing career versus the risky dream.

My mom, Carol Palahniuk, for example, had been a competent artist in her early twenties.  She filled sketch pads with technically perfect landscapes and studies.  Having four kids in six years derailed that dream, but after she retired she gave it another shot.1  In her sixties she went back to school, and we all asked to see her work, and she politely refused to show us.  After her death we found her newer pictures, and they were a mess.  So sloppy they looked like fingerpaintings next to the work she’d done when a young woman.  

In Greener Pastures I wanted to write about that part of your life when you’re torn between choosing the sure-thing career versus the risky dream.

Seeing those sloppy watercolors and charcoals scared me.  It seemed clear that some ability had faded.  She’d missed an opportunity and could never regain what skill she’d had and had postponed developing.  And I’d come so close to making the same mistake.  Until I was twenty-six years old I’d planned to work and work and wait until my retirement to begin writing.  All my life I’d been reading, so I figured I’d just naturally be able to sit and write perfectly once I could do so full time.

Sure, there are examples of people who waited and wrote successfully.  There’s Alan Bradley who retired after a lifetime of engineering and wrote The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie.  But I’d wager he’s the exception. 

Besides, when you’re eighteen you’re expected to get so much done so quickly.  We forget that terror.  You’re expected to find a spouse, get an education, build a home, begin a career, start a family.  You’re basically still a kid with a kid’s impulses, but the clock is ticking.  And your entire generation is out to win the same prizes.  To flub one detail feels like you’ll wreck the rest of your life.  All the while the only natural powers you have – your youth and energy – are dwindling.

And even if you have a plan, an obvious talent, you’re scared that it might not be enough for you to survive.  Especially if you’re from a working-class family, afraid of sliding back into poverty.  I wanted to write about that, that window of time when you’re torn between the sure-thing career that you’d soon hate, and the risky career that you’d love for years to come.

That’s Greener Pastures.  If at the age of fifteen someone had covertly offered a huge sum of money for you to devote your life to some high-status-but-boring job — would you have sold out?  Your parents would get much of that money.  They’d be set for life.  You’d get a high-profile, powerful position in the world, but it wouldn’t be your choice.

At fifteen, facing all the world’s expectations, would you sell out? 

It’s a one-time offer.  Take it or leave it.

Or could you anticipate the lifetime of frustration waiting for you in that glamorous dead-end career?  Would you trade your dreams and life for complete safety and security and boredom? That’s the basis of Greener Pastures

Look for the first chapters in the next few days.  I’ll drop a chapter each week after that.  The first few are free, just like with heroin. Thank you for giving it a read.   

1

A confession, here. As I began to sell my work on a regular basis I grew horns on my head, and a tail, and I became a raging demon. My mission was to push people toward fulfilling their dreams. If they had a hobby they loved, I’d push them to make it their career. If they enjoyed singing, I aggressively “coached” them to go professional. My own success seemed so surprising and unlikely that I couldn’t see why others didn’t reach out for more. By buying my mom lessons and art supplies, and paying for my friends to take acting classes, I thought I was helping. Really, I’d shape-shifted into a well-meaning bully.