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Hearing Voices

When a writer sits down to work, a cacophony of personalities sits down with him

Shalom Auslander
July 01, 2010
(Jonathon Rosen)
(Jonathon Rosen)

The Icarus Voice: I think I can do this!

The Daedalus Voice: I told you that you couldn’t do this.

My Mother’s Voice: Why must you do this?

My Father’s Voice: Do this and you’ll be sorry.

My Sister’s Voice: This is going to kill Mom.

The Ghost of Genocide Past: Your grandparents didn’t die in ovens so you can do this.

The Ghost of Genocide Future: One day when they’re forcing you and your children into ovens, you’ll regret having done this.

The Derogatory Scholar/Marshall McLuhan from Annie Hall: You don’t know enough to do this. You don’t know enough about anything. To do this, you should have gone to college. You should have gone to graduate school. You should have gone to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. You know who knows more than you? Everyone. One of those people, those people who know everything, they can do this. But you? Please. Stick to (insert loathsome writing job here: i.e., copywriting, sitcoms, etc.).

The Garrison Keillor Writer’s Almanac Voice: This thing you’re doing is not nearly serious enough. You should do something more serious. Do you know how I pronounce “literature”? I pronounce it “litch-ri-chur.” Litch. That’s because I’m serious, and books are serious, and you are not serious. Make this more serious. If you do enough serious things, for a seriously long time, I might someday mention your birthday. But this? This is not of birthday-mentioning caliber. Keep this up and I won’t even mention the day you die.

The Bombastic Post-Publication TV Interviewer Voice: What do you say to people who might say that other people said that you wrote this just for shock value?

The Ron Jeremy Voice: Wouldn’t you rather be watching porno than doing this?

The Joel Gott Cabernet Voice: Wouldn’t you rather be drinking wine than doing this?

The Marijuana Voice: Doing this would be so much easier if you were stoned.

The New York Times Book Review Voice: I don’t know what this is, but I know what it isn’t; it isn’t the voice of the author’s generation, it isn’t an important new work, it isn’t a bold new voice, it isn’t the future of American fiction, and it doesn’t limn anything; I’ve read it twice now, and it doesn’t limn a fucking thing.

The Huffington Poster Voice: I didn’t like this very much, not as much as I like Wittgenstein, and I didn’t like the last thing he did either, or the thing before that. I went to college. I think he should write more about Palestinians. Why doesn’t he write more about Palestinians? You know who I’ve read? Wittgenstein. That was in college, where I went. I have a book I wrote, and it’s better than this, much better, but of course the publishing industry is too afraid of it and so they won’t publish it because they’re scared of it, I scare them, but soon the dead-tree industries will be gone and we won’t be subjected to books like this and we’ll get better books, that aren’t this. Books like mine. (Insert irritating, desperately hip quotation signature line here.)

The Writer’s Digest How-To-Write-Books Voice: To do this, you should start with an ending. You should end with a beginning. You should start at the middle and write backwards. You should start backwards and write sideways. You need a hook. You need a good story. You need a stronger theme. Nope, nope—now the theme is too strong. You need to start over. You need a more dimensional villain. You need a more dimensional protagonist. You need to know more about your character. Is he tall? Is he short? Where did he go to school? Is he well-hung? What’s his favorite ice cream? What makes him break out in hives? What gives him explosive diarrhea? What’s that rash on his neck? Is he for or against a two-state solution? What kind of car does he drive and what’s the bumper sticker and which scent air freshener does he hang in the car, or is it not a hanging one at all but rather one of those little plastic bottles that sits on the dash? Until you know all of that, this is just never going to work.

The Voice of American Express: This better sell well, you’re carrying a tremendous amount of debt.

My Publisher’s Voice: This was done once, and it didn’t sell very well.

Phillip Roth’s Voice: I probably did this once already.

My Psychiatrist’s Voice: This should be more about your mother.

James Joyce’s Voice: This should be more incomprehensible.

David Foster Wallace’s Voice: This should be longer and have more footnotes.

Dave Eggers’ Voice: This should be more socially relevant and have a funny index.

The Prize Committee Voice: This should be more about a dying old man, lying in bed and looking back on his life.

Adolf Hitler’s Voice: This is finishing what I started.

The Ron Jeremy Voice: I really can’t believe you’re doing this instead of watching pornography.

The Fuck This Fucking Shit Voice: Fuck this fucking shit.

And the next morning, once again, there is the damned desk, and the damned chair, and Icarus, that pain in the ass, and the riotous ridiculous racket begins all over again.

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, Hope: A Tragedy, and most recently Mother for Dinner. His new memoir, Fehwill be published this July. He writes The Fetal Position on Substack, so make that seven Nazis.