-Or Why I Will Never Be As Good A Writer As Markus Zusak

-Or Storytelling, Part 2

– A Guided Tour Of Suffering –

To your left,

perhaps your right,

maybe even straight ahead,

you find a small black room.

In it sits a Jew.

He is scum.

He is starving.

He is afraid.

Please – try not to look away.

First, some context: The above quote is from Markus Zusak’s brilliant novel The Book Theif, which revolves around a little girl named Liesel Meminger. She lives with her foster parents in Germany, circa 1940 , and fosters a love for reading – a skill which she learns through reading stolen books with her foster father. Also, her family is hiding a Jew in their basement.

There are few words that adequately describe my love affair with this novel. It is quite simply one of the most beautifully written books I have ever had the pleasure of reading (and I am taking my good sweet time reading it.) I use this book for writing inspiration, but probably not in the way you think. I read this book and my self-esteem says:

“Wow. I suck at writing.”

And then I usually respond with:

“Yeah, I do. But I could be better. Let’s get writing!”

This may strike people as weird, but it’s the way I improve – I see someone working in my preferred medium, someone who is significantly better than I am in that medium, and I get this feeling that I need to improve. I need to, in some way, prove to that person that I can write amazing things, I just need to work at it a bit.

This is how I feel with Zusak’s writing. He wrote The Book Thief from the point of view of Death, but he makes Death world weary and haunted. Death takes you on the journey of Liesel’s life because it fascinated him, which, in turn, fascinates the reader. Death points out the horrors of the Holocaust without being heavy handed – in ‘A Guided Tour Of Suffering,’ he merely asks that you don’t look away. That statement resonated so much with me that I nearly cried; how many times do we witness suffering and look away?

Zusak’s writing is beautiful, resonant, relevant, and powerful. He makes his characters into real people – people that you care for – and tears at you with the terrible horrors in their lives. He can sting you with a line and soothe you with a paragraph, make you cry with the turn of a phrase. Zusak’s manages to capture all of the beauty and deformed depravity of the human condition in a way that makes me want to write like him.

I want to be able to influence people the way his writing has influenced me, and that is why I continue to write at midnight each night, because that is the only time I have to myself. It’s why I read my stories out loud to fix tense changes, why I struggle through writers block, why I even bother with the lofty dream of some day being published. I want my writing to matter to someone. I want my characters to come alive on the page, to have a reader make a connection with something that I have written.

These wishes feel very selfish as I write them, but I want to gift my stories to readers. I want readers to dissect, interpret, and attach meanings to my words that I never even imagined while writing them. I want to give people a story, so that they might find meaning in it. Markus Zusak and several other writers have given me the gift of inspiration, and I, in turn, want to give that gift to someone else.

The last line of The Book Thief:

“I am haunted by humans.”

I am haunted by stories, festering in my mind, clawing their way out. I am haunted by the words I want to say, and the stories those words tell. I am consumed by them.