Creative Writing Tutorials
Tome Spanbauer

Tom Spanbauer

Dangerous Writing is a minimalist approach to writing taught by Tom Spanbauer. Chuck Palahniuk is probably Spanbauer's best-known student.

Dangerous Writing is a brand of minimalism that utilizes many literary techniques pioneered by Spanbauer and other Gordon Lish-influenced writers. The emphasis is on writing "dangerously"—that is, writing what personally scares or embarrasses the author in order to explore and artistically express those fears honestly. Most "dangerous writing" is written in first-person narrative for this reason and deals with subjects such as cultural taboos.

Key Elements[]

Chuck Palahniuk's source article


Substitute the word "themes" with "choruses" and you get the idea. In minimalism, a story is a symphony, building and building, but never losing the original melody line. All characters and scenes, things that seem dissimilar, they all illustrate some aspect of the story's theme. In The Harvest, we see how every detail is some part of mortality and dissolution, from kidney donors to stiff fingers to the television series Dynasty.

Burnt tongue[]

A way of saying something, but saying it wrong, twisting it to slow down the reader. Forcing the reader to read close, maybe read twice, not just skim along a surface of abstract images, short-cut adverbs, and clichés.

In The Harvest, Hempel writes, "I moved through the days like a severed head that finishes a sentence." Right here, you have her "horses" of death and dissolution and her writing a sentence that slows you to a more deliberate, attentive speed.

Recording angel[]

This means writing without passing any judgments. Nothing is fed to the reader as fat or happy. You can only describe actions and appearances in a way that makes a judgment occur in the reader's mind. Whatever it is, you unpack it into the details that will re-assemble themselves within the reader.

Amy Hempel does this. Instead of telling us the boyfriend in The Harvestis an asshole, we see him holding a sweater soaked with his girlfriend's blood and telling her, "You'll be okay, but this sweater is ruined."

Less becomes more. Instead of the usual flood of general details, you get a slow drip of single-sentence paragraphs, each one evoking its own emotional reaction. At best, she's a lawyer who presents her case, exhibit by exhibit. One piece of evidence at a time. At worst, she's a magician, tricking people. But reading, you always take the bullet without being told it's coming.

This relates to Show, Don't Tell.

Going on the body[]

Hempel shows how a story doesn't have to be some constant stream of blah-blah-blah to bully the reader into paying attention. You don't have to hold readers by both ears and ram every moment down their throats. Instead, a story can be a succession of tasty, smelly, touchable details. What Spanbauer and Lish call "going on the body," to give the reader a sympathetic physical reaction, to involve the reader on a gut level.

Other Elements[]

No adverbs or measurements[]

In minimalism, no abstracts. No adverbs like sleepily, irritably, sadly. And no measurements, no feet, yards, degrees years-old, ext. The phrase "an 18-year-old girl" -- what does that mean?

No received text[]

In minimalism, clichés are called "received text."

From an Amazon book review:

The thing I can't take is diatribe and cliché - or, as writers politely put it, "received text."

Received text unfortunately found its way into _Desert Solitaire_ when Abbey decided to wax egotistical about industrial tourism and his facetious suggestions for a blazing, light bulb ridden sign over the entrance to the park. In those places, the writing's not just irritating, it's not original. Anyone can go off about how stupid mass culture is and how people should change their couch potato, gas guzzling ways, but if you're going to include it in a book, it should fit seamlessly into the design.


  • Amy Hempel's short story, "The Harvest," employs many of the minimalist concepts taught by Spanbauer in his workshop.