I’ve been giving a shit lately. I’m not sure why.
I tried that Airborne stuff, but it’s not helping. Pot makes it worse, and booze just adds self-loathing and a headache to the equation. One evening, over dinner, I told my wife.
“I…” I said.
She looked at me, worried.
“What is it?” she asked.
I took a deep breath. It would have been easier for me to admit I’m a pedophile. “I’m giving a shit,” I mumbled.
“I’m giving a shit.”
She gave me a look and went back to her menu.
“About what?” she asked.
I tore a slice of bread from the loaf, put it in my mouth and bit its head off.
“Everything,” I said.
“Oooh,” she said as she leaned forward with a smile. “Lobster bisque!”
I am in that dark pit of narcissistic writer’s despair known as “between books.” The memoir is mostly done—all over now but the fighting and finger-pointing and squabbling and accusations of self-hatred and lawsuits and denials and recriminations and guilt and self-doubt—and I am trying to get started on something else. But I’m giving a shit, and that’s deadly. Every idea, every thought is subjected to a thousand comments, a thousand voices, none of them my own and all of them critical. It’s as if a literary Goldilocks has found her way into my head: this idea’s too short, this one’s too long, this one’s too serious, this one’s too funny. Or too shallow, or too self-important, or too Jewish, or too obvious, or too boring, or too desperate, or too clever, or too ordinary, or too traditional, or too experimental. Too everything and not enough everything else. I picture the bears coming home and tearing her little head off.
Too Palahniuk, says Goldilocks.
What if they feel guilty about it?
What if I tell it from the point of view of the bed?
Too Tibor Fisher.
What if they arrest her and because of her criminal record she can never find work and has to spend her days roaming the streets, homeless and starving and delusional, tortured by her own conflicting desires, mania, and existential dread?
Too Hamsun, say Goldilocks. Hang it up, Bro.
“Well?” I ask my wife.
“Well what about the giving a shit? What about the voices? What about the comments?”
She waves me off.
“Fuck them,” she says.
Best writing advice ever.
* * *
“I’m giving a shit lately,” I said to my friend Jack. “I’m not sure why.”
Jack is an accomplished illustrator whose work regularly appears in national magazines.
“Tell me about it,” he replied. Jack takes a sip from his gin and tonic, drops his voice and admits to me that he still stops by the art technique section at the local bookstore and flips through How To Draw books.
“Really?” I asked.
“Swear to God,” he said.
Just that afternoon, I was in the reference section of the same bookstore. I was looking for How to Not Give a Shit, but it wasn’t there. I considered checking with the bookseller.
Can you order it for me?
It’s not coming up in our computer.
Try it with “Damn.”
I almost bought How to Write a Novel in 21 Days, but didn’t, knowing that it would eventually—like No Plot, No Problem and every issue of The Believer I have ever bought—find its way, once I was feeling better, into the blazing wood stove in my living room (nothing against The Believer, but when you’re feeling insecure about your own writing, the last thing you want is a magazine full of positive reviews and glowing reports about the brilliance of every writer but yourself; give me The Unbeliever, where everyone gets crapped on and every book’s a failure—at least then I’ll feel as if I’ve got a fighting chance).
“That is so pathetic,” I say to Jack.
“See?” he says. “You’re not so bad after all.”
The bartender stops by.
“Another,” says Jack.
“Two,” I add.
Three years ago, as I was finishing up the final edit on a book of short stories, I emailed my editor with some last-minute concerns. Did we need more stories? Were they too Jewish? Should I change the names of some of the characters? He was surprised.
“Now,” he replied, “is a bad time to start caring.”
Best writing advice ever.
* * *
“I’m giving a shit lately,” I said to my shrink. “I’m not sure why.”
“But maybe I should give a shit,” I suggested. Maybe giving a shit is the fabric that holds society together, maybe everyone giving a shit about what everybody else thinks is vital to our survival as a species.
“Maybe,” said my shrink. “Or maybe the problem is that you don’t give enough of a shit.”
I silently wondered if all that psychiatrists do is take what you said, mix up the order of the words, add a few modifiers and throw it back:
I’m afraid I’m fucking my dog, Doc.
Or maybe you’re afraid your dog is fucking you?
I think I’m going to kill again, Doc.
Or maybe you think you’re going to be killed again?
Maybe, he continued, I was feeling—having finished the memoir—understandably drained. Emptied. That maybe my problem wasn’t that I was giving too much of a shit about what Goldilocks said, it was that I wasn’t, at the moment—having unloaded so much with my memoir—giving much of a shit about anything else. Soon, though, the well would refill, and there would be something I needed to write about. And then, he assured me, I would not give a shit what anybody said, I would just write.
“After all,” he said, “every hammer needs a nail.”
“I mean some people need something to react to.”
“I know what you mean,” I said, “but I don’t think I like the way you said it.”
“So now I’m the nail.”
“So now I’m a hammer?”
“What’s wrong with being a hammer?”
“WHAT’S WRONG WITH BEING A HAMMER? I just need to bash things in, I just need to smash everything, there’s nothing wrong with that?”
We sat quietly for a while, hammer on one couch, nail on the other.
“Like it’s so great being a nail,” I said. “Like a nail never hurt anyone.”
He stood and went to his desk.
“Ever step on a nail?” I asked him. “Hurts. Hurts a lot. Yes, you’re the nail, okay? You’re the nail. AND I’M THE WOOD!”
I stood, pulled my jacket on, and headed for the door. I grabbed the knob, pulled it open and turned to face him.
“Next Monday at 1?” I asked.
I slammed the door behind me.
* * *
Two weeks later, I traveled with my wife and two-year-old son to a warm, quiet island in the British West Indies. I was looking forward to spending the week with them, and hoping that the time away would help with my now-chronic case of shit-giving.
The first day, my son refused to go in the sand. My wife scooped some up in her hand and showed it to him.
“It’s just sand,” she said. “It doesn’t matter.”
The second day he went in the sand, but he wouldn’t go near the water. My wife stepped into the ocean and waved to him.
“It’s just water,” she said. “It doesn’t matter.”
The third day I was trying to sleep on a lounge chair when my son, still terrified of the ocean, decided he wanted to go for a run on the beach. He grabbed my hand and we raced across the hot sand to the water’s edge, where the sand was cooler. Hand in hand we ran down the beach, screaming “Yahoo!” as loudly as we could and disturbing the other guests. We reached the end of the beach, turned and started running back, and as we did, the water came up high under our feet.
“It’s splashing!” I shouted happily, trying to keep him from panicking.
But something came over him. Something switched on, or maybe switched off, and instead of panicking, caring, or worrying, he just held my hand tighter, ran even faster and raised his other fist in the air as we splashed through the surf.
“It doesn’t matter!” he shouted. “It doesn’t matter!”
“It doesn’t matter!” I shouted along with him, raising my own fist in the air.
“It! Doesn’t! Matter!” he replied, stamping and splashing and laughing through the surf. “It! Doesn’t! Matter!”
Best writing advice ever.
Shalom Auslander is the author of Foreskin’s Lament and the novel Hope: A Tragedy. He is also a frequent contributor to This American Life.
Shalom Auslander is the author of Foreskin’s Lament and the novel Hope: A Tragedy. He is also a frequent contributor to This American Life. His new novel, Mother for Dinner, will be published by Riverhead this September.