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.


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6 thoughts on “Thoughts on The Book Thief and Self-Doubt

  1. mark holtzen says:

    Great post, Kate. Don’t know one writer who hasn’t felt/doesn’t feel this way. I certainly do all the time. I like that it keeps me present though. I have to breath and focus on the one scene or sentence in front of me.
    An illustrator friend put it this way about making his art full time, which I have taped above my desk:

    ” in my experience, the fear never goes away. Some days, the terror and self doubt are what drive the process. Other days it’s all inspiration and joy.” (Corey Tabor)

    I’m guessing the fear lurks about a little more often though. Thanks for sharing.

    • Katharine says:

      I hadn’t really thought about the fear as a motivator, but that’s definitely true. I’ll try to embrace it a little more. Thanks for the inspiration, Mark.

  2. Sara says:

    Kate, despair not! Remember that you are reading their finished, polished work that’s been through a great many hands. John Green has a stickler for an editor who marks up his mss with red pen and sends him back to the drawing board for improvements. We all write crappy first drafts but somewhere in the wax on, wax off process, we build the muscle and nerve to stand on the stage with those who came before us and never gave up. Exactly what Martha Graham was getting at.

    “Always believe in yourself. Do this and no matter where you are, you will have nothing to fear.”
    -Hayao Miyazaki

  3. Rebecca says:

    I’ll rewrite too, Kate. And look back at this blog piece next time I’m in the middle of one of those revisions in which I see all the faults in my manuscript, and none of the fun that I swore was in it the previous time I read it!

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