I am contractually committed to Tablet Magazine to write 800 to 1,000 words about writing each month, specifically about the writing of a novel, which is why many of the 800 to 1,000 words this month are about shit. Specifically, about potty training. It is also going to be about the Holocaust, because Tablet is a Jewish publication, and all Jewish roads lead to Birkenau.
First, though, the potty training.
If it comes as a surprise to a child that he is supposed to shit in a porcelain bowl of water (and it does), it comes as even more of a surprise to his parents that the process is such an unnatural one. What seems so simple and obvious in fact takes months of trying, cajoling, and unhappy accidents for a child to finally learn to do it properly.
That is not the analogy to writing.
I remember quite clearly the day my older son finally, after much fuss and panic, made it to the toilet in time. He was extremely proud of himself, perched up there on the seat, kicking his legs in excitement as he talked about all the wonderful toys (Buzz Lightyear) he was going to get as a reward for all his hard work. Then he jumped off the toilet, turned around, and looked at what he had created.
“Yuk,” he said, stepping back from the bowl. “That was inside me?”
That’s the analogy to writing.
Three months ago, after two and a half years of fuss and panic, I completed a not-quite final draft of my novel. I was extremely proud of myself, and I talked about all the wonderful toys (wine) I was going to get as a reward for all my hard work. I put the manuscript aside for a few months and then, two weeks ago, went back and looked at what I had created.
“Yuk,” I said, stepping back from my desk. “That was inside me?”
Which brings me to the Holocaust.
I think the first question you need to ask yourself when writing a book about the Holocaust is this: Who wants to read another book about the Holocaust? About any Holocaust. Because I sure as hell do not. I was once asked to review a book about the Holocaust, and I couldn’t even do it then—and that was a paid gig. If a Jew can’t even bring himself to read a book about the Holocaust for money, then, folks, something has gone terribly wrong. And so I set out not to write a book about the Holocaust but to write a book about the endless talk of genocide, about the glorification of suffering, about the possibility that “never forgetting” and “shutting the hell up about it for one god-damned minute” aren’t mutually exclusive.
What if a family had suffered more than the Jews? What if one of them wanted to move on? Is it wrong to want that? Is it wrong to want to hope for something better? And yet is it not understandable that a sufferer would want that suffering to be remembered? Is remembering a form of defense? Can it become a form of continued suffering? Et cetera. And so, after two and a half years of writing, I turned around, looked into the bowl, and saw the book I had written: another god-damned book about the Holocaust.
Another “They hate us” book.
Another “They’re going to kill us” book.
Another “Last Jew” book.
I went to Amazon, and I did a title search for “The Last Jew.” I got 56 returns. And that’s just titles. If Amazon had a text search and I’d used that, I would have brought the entire system crashing down; there would have been a mushroom cloud over Seattle, and millions of desperate Americans would never get their Snuggies. Jews are one of the oldest peoples on the face of the planet; dozens upon dozens of other peoples, cultures, and civilizations have been born and vanished in the time we’ve been here, and still we piss and moan about our “last one.”
What bothered me most wasn’t that I had written something I didn’t want to write, or something I didn’t believe, or something that wasn’t truly me. What really bothered me, more than anything, was that my mother would have loved that book.
“That was inside me?”
But of course it was. Beckett once said he could never father a child because he couldn’t condemn a person to death (although anyone who screwed around as much as he supposedly did was obviously less concerned with condemning someone to death than he was with condemning himself to monogamy). I have two children now, and my wife is continually amazed at how certain I am that I have not only condemned them to death, but to horrible deaths—to a gas chamber, to an oven, to a brazen bull, a fire pit, a mass grave. This was what I was told happened to my ancestors, and my great-ancestors, and my great-ancestors’ cousins, and their cousins, and their dogs and their cattle. And it would, I was told, happen to me; if it didn’t, and it hasn’t yet, then it would definitely happen to my children; there’s no way we’re going two generations in a row without some sort of extermination. See how that works? Even if I live, my kids die. We’ve sort of painted ourselves into the corner of a gas chamber, haven’t we?
I’ve spent the weeks since this realization in something of a fog, watching my children playing on the carpet and thinking that maybe, just maybe, despite everything I’d been taught and told and promised, they weren’t going to die at the hands of their fellow man. Maybe they’d die of old age! Maybe they’d die in their sleep! Maybe the future I had given them was the one that had been given to me, based on some yesterdays that, however tragic, foretold nothing about tomorrow.
I smiled at our children and put my arm around my wife.
“Maybe,” I said to her, “they’ll die in their sleep.”
“That’s beautiful,” she said.
The difficult part of writing, at least for me, isn’t the writing itself. It’s getting to the truth, it’s scraping away all the years of programming to find out what and who you truly are. To find out, in a way, what that programming was, because it’s possible to be aware of it while still letting it control you. Sometimes, to do that, you have to write a few hundred pages of something so off, so utterly un-you, something so catastrophically wrong your fucking mother would like it, that it makes you stop and ask yourself, “That was inside me?” And then you hold your nose, flush, and start all over again.
Does that mean that writing is always like taking a shit?
But if you work very, very hard, and are very, very lucky, it can be.
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.