Thoughts on The Book Thief and Self-Doubt


I’ve been reading The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak. Well, listening to the audiobook, actually, narrated by Allan Corduner. It’s fantastic. I sneak in bits and pieces of it, on a five-minute drive to the grocery store, through headphones when I’m running, over the kitchen speakers as I chop bell peppers and sauté onions. I crave it, and miss the world of it when I’m away from it. The imagery! He describes the Jewish street in a town in Nazi Germany as looking like a broken arm, the burned-out shops as lacerations and bruises. I marvel over the perfection of his words.

The flipside to this love of Zusak’s words is that, unfortunately, it correlates to a loathing of my own words. I am so humbled by his beautiful prose that I cannot write any myself.

I felt this way after The Fault in Our Stars, too. Fine, I thought. You’re so damn good, John Green, you write all the books. Toni Morrison makes me feel this way, and Laurie Halse Anderson, and Kate DiCamillo. What right have I to dare think my words have a place in a world that contains writers like these?

I shared this in a conversation with some writer friends. And they, like good writer friends do, immediately swooped in with encouragement and support. One told me that Zusak himself gave the following advice to new writers: “Don’t be afraid to fail. I failed thousands of times writing The Book Thief, and now that book means everything to me.” It took John Green ten years to write The Fault in Our Stars. John Steinbeck (John freaking Steinbeck!) said, “Although sometimes I have felt that I held fire in my hands and spread a page with shining – I have never lost the weight of clumsiness, of ignorance, of aching inability.”

I am comforted by these. Well, I admit when I read that about John Green, my initial thought was, Good! At least it was painful for him! But once the schadenfreude faded, what stayed with me was that these writers had to toil away for years, unsure whether they were up to the task they’d set themselves, just like me. We’re all just fumbling along in the dark, right? Going down wrong paths, scratching away at walls, hoping a beam of light shines through. Maybe the distance between me and Markus Zusak isn’t so impossibly large. Maybe we are on the same journey.

The way through this, I think, is humility. Martha Graham said of art, “It is not your business to determine how good it is; nor how valuable it is; nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours, clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.” Or, as my writer friend said, “Back to work, Kate!”

So, I will trudge on. I will wade through my imperfect prose. I will write and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite. I will rely on my wonderful writer friends to bolster me when I need it. I will keep working, hoping for a moment to hold fire in my hands.