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Writer's block or existential crisis?

Being a writer is not an easy job on the best of days. It’s a constant tightrope walk between your own vision and that of editors and readers. Add in tight deadlines and the unavoidable fact that sometimes the words just don’t come and, well, it can be a recipe for stress. 

Turns out, though, writing a book about the Holocaust is an especially difficult task for me. I always thought myself pretty well-educated in Holocaust history, but, even so, the stuff I’ve learned since starting this project has disturbed me on a level I didn’t think possible. 

I feel a responsibility to those who experienced the atrocities — especially those who didn’t survive — to make sure their stories aren’t forgotten. But there’s also the expectations of agents and editors who, at the end of the day, see it only in terms of sales potential. “Make it new! Make it interesting! Make it exciting!” But how is it possible to do that without exploiting the victims? Readers want stories of hope and humanity, but when the vast majority of European Jews were tortured and then mass-murdered, how can their stories elicit hope? 

It's an uncanny time to be writing about all this. The section I'm drafting this week includes Dora's time in Auschwitz-Birkenau, a place where upward of 6,000 people were killed each day. Coincidently, this Saturday marks the 79th anniversary of that camp's liberation by Soviet forces, and the pat #neveragain posts that emerge on that date each year seem especially hollow this year for all kinds of reasons. At least we have the images of Elon Musk leading a parade of reporters around Auschwitz (pausing for plenty of photo ops, in some of which he even has the nerve to don a kippah).

I knew that writing a book about the holocaust — the subject of whom I never got to meet, but only know through her stories and her family — would be hard. I guess I just wasn’t expecting such an extreme level of existential angst every time I open the document. It’s no wonder, I guess, that it’s hard to find the right words to use. 

I’ve been watching this orchid slowly unfurl over the last few days. It’s been keeping me company as I try and work through the many layers of complexity that come with writing about genocide and violence (in a world, no less, rife with both of those). To say that writing about Dora Bursztajn and her family, almost none of whom survived the Nazi’s finely-tuned mass murder factories, has given me a case of imposter syndrome is an understatement. Making some kind of analogy about how the book will, over time, bloom just like this orchid (blah, blah, blah) is a little heavy-handed even for me, but maybe it will someday come true. In the meantime, it’s going to keep watch over me as I do my best to get through this serious case of writers block. 

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1 Comment

Jan 25

Super relatable

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