Discover more from Shalom Auslander's Fetal Position
1: The Assholes In My Head
There are others, of course.
There's Hitler, telling me my writing is bad for the Jews.
There's my mother, telling me more or less the same thing, only angrier and without the German accent, which you might think makes it better but actually makes it worse because at least the German accent is hilarious.
There's my high school English teacher Mrs. Mayefsky, who's disappointed in me no matter what I ever achieve, and there's James Joyce who sneers at my uninspired prose, and there's Sam Beckett who mocks my derivative plays, and there's Shakespeare who knows I haven't read most of his work and lately, since his death, there's Harold Bloom, whom I disagree with on just about everything but whom I think is right because everyone says he's right and because he has jowls.
But the assholes pictured above, those are the Big Four.
I remember the first time I saw Statler and Waldorf on The Muppet Show. I was young, just a child, but my first thought was, "I know those guys. They sound like the guys in my head." My second thought was, "Why is everyone laughing? They're fucking assholes." To this day I dream of the episode where Miss Piggy creeps up behind them in the balcony with a .45 in her hand and goes full John Wilkes Booth on them. Pop-pop, pop-pop.
The muppets cheer.
God, well, he's the OG of negative voices. Furious, judgmental, narrow-minded, vengeful – a bilious mix of Tony Soprano, Rush Limbaugh, the homeless guy who lives in the alley behind our apartment and Fred Flintstone.
And then, reader, there's you.
And you are, by far, the worst:
I mean, look at you. What do you want, I wonder? What do you like? What are those books you’re carrying? Are they mine? Any of them? Probably not. Of course not. They’re probably something Important, aren’t they, you dick. House of Leaves? You liked House of fucking Leaves? Don’t bullshit me, you didn't make it past page ten. Yeah, how’s it end? I thought so. Tell me something, Professor Claus, does it bother you that your glasses slip when you look down your nose at me, because if it does I'd be happy to STAPLE THEM TO YOUR FUCKING FACE.
That was bad.
But you see, I have a love/hate relationship with readers. I love them when I've written, but hate them when I'm writing. I just can’t have you in my head, it kills everything. I firmly believe that a writer’s fabled struggle to find their voice (or anyone's struggle to find their true selves) is not so much about finding something as it is getting rid of all the other damned voices in your head so you can actually hear what your own has to say. In that regard, I am fortunate to have never attended college; I don't have professors or teachers assistants or a cacophony of Literary Criticism voices in my head, shouting, mocking, disapproving. But I have other voices.
I have you.
And lately, there are more of you than ever.
2: A Tyranny of Others
Writers, artists and even some sane people have long had to deal with readers, patrons, customers, publishers and curators. But today is different. Today we live today in a brutal, oppressive Tyranny of Others - endless Others, Others on our phones, on our laps, on our screens, in our heads, a deafening army of Others laying siege to our minds and our thoughts and our selves. It’s a nightmare.
And so, to defend the village of Me, I build walls.
I don't watch news. I don’t watch much TV at all. I don’t follow politics, and I avoid people who do. I don’t stream, I don't binge watch, I don't Netflix and chill, I don't listen to podcasts.
It's not that I don’t care what's going on in the outside world, it's that I care more about what's going on inside my head (all politics is local, right?), and I believe that if more people did, perhaps what’s going on in the outside world wouldn't be as awful as it is. If you have a problem with cocoons you can downvote me, but cocoons are where wriggly worm-like things become magnificent butterflies.
Which is why until roughly thirty days ago, I had never once been on any social media of any kind – not Facebook, not Twitter, not Insta, not Snap, not nothing.
But then I launched a Substack.
And the walls came tumbling down.
And now, thirty days later, there’s a new voice in my head.
A different voice.
A louder and more corrosive voice.
It pretends to be my friend. It says it wants to help.
It appears in my Inbox with a gentle ping – Tinkerbell with a Hitler moustache - and it tells me if you subscribed, and it tells me if you unsubscribed, and it tells me if you commented, and if you followed, and if you liked.
It has friends.
There's the cackling Subscriber Graph of Doom, the raging Newsletter Traffic Bar Chart of Misery.
And I've been listening to them.
I’ve been taking note of the number of people who read my posts, the percentage that open them, what percentage of the post they read, the number of times they chuckled, Average Nods of Approval vs Average Head Shakes of Dismissal. Good news or bad, the information stops me. If it’s bad, what should I do to fix it? If it’s good, what did I do so I can do it again?
“And the people shouted with a great shout, that the wall fell down flat.” - Joshua, 6:20.
Substack is a marvel - the writers and the readers, the community, the posts and the comments. It's truly a digital oasis. But there's no denying that for all it affords me, it’s brought with it a new voice. A new asshole. Call it Data. Call it Analytics. Call it Tinkerbell Hitler.
But it's there, and it's a motherfucker.
And so, predictably, after just a month of that voice, the writing stopped.
I wrote nothing.
I hated everything I was working on, and hated everything I had planned to start working on. I connected my clunky old external hard drive and went door-to-door on the files within, killing everything, Gestapo-style, shooting each file dead, and not really knowing why, not connecting it to Substack or anything else, just hating and dismissing and deleting, until I discovered, in a folder of a folder of a folder I forgot I had, this old image file:
4: Hope for a Cure
Get it? Because it's a chicken and wine. They're food and drink! And soon they will be waste products! But these are their early blissful years, before all that, uh… digestion.
Piss and Shit: The Early Years is a cartoon I wrote around twenty-five years ago or so. I was young, and struggling to write, but I was possessed of a youthful defiance and stupidity, and so, as a result, I drew a bad picture of a dinner setting, and underneath it I wrote “Piss and Shit: The Early Years,” and I got an envelope and a stamp, and I put the drawing inside and sent Piss and Shit: The Early Years to the New Yorker.
Yes, that New Yorker.
You’re not going to believe this, but I never heard back. I assume someone else already submitted a shit and piss idea, and you can't really do that joke twice.
But here’s the thing: I genuinely didn't care.
The cartoon made me laugh – it wasn't prose, it wasn’t the writing I was desperate to do, but I recognized something in it that sounded like me. And that was victory enough.
And so when, in the midst of this recent substackophrenic episode, I saw it again, it reminded me of that defiance. It reminded that all that mattered was my voice, not the response to it.
And so I set about rebuilding my walls.
About a month before my first book of short stories was set to be released, I emailed my editor Geoffrey Kloske – still my editor today, twenty-five years later – and told him I was having second thoughts. The book was no good, I said, the stories were silly, nobody would take them seriously, and the people that did take them seriously would take them too seriously. He said something to me I remember to this day:
"This is a really bad time to start caring what people think."
It’s not Rilke, but it’s not bad.
And admittedly, not caring is a pretty high bar.
I’m still working on it to this day. And so, until I attain the nirvana of Not Caring, I toggle. I copied Piss and Shit: The Early Years to my desktop, so it would always be close, so I would remember not to care. Then, knowing I would care regardless, I went to my Substack Settings page, and I toggled off Paid Subscription Email Notifications, and I toggled off Cancelled Subscription Email Notifications, and I toggled off Free Subscription Email Notifications, and I toggled off Email Disabled Notifications, and I toggled off Post Like Email Notifications, and I toggled off Post Stats Emails, and I toggled off Monthly Stats Emails and I toggled off Milestone Notifications.
A quick suggestion to Hamish, God of Substack:
One switch, please, one simple, easy-to-find switch that toggles off everything, and that also hides the Stats tab, and that also hides the Subscriber tab, something quick and easy at the top of the Writer Dashboard, something perhaps like this:
That way we can shut that voice off - for an hour, a day, a month, a year! - and hear our own voices again, and we can get back to the work we need to do, pretending for a few blissful moments that we don’t care what anyone thinks of it.
Yours in the fetal position.
PS: It’s entirely possible that I am the asshole in your head. I apologize in advance.
PPS: I get no money for plugging this, but give it a shot: Freedom. It’s kind of like the switch I’d like to see on Substack, but for the entire internet — it shuts off our whole damned wifi for up to eight wonderful hours. I don’t believe in God - well, not a loving God, at any rate - but this app makes me think that maybe, maybe, He’d like us humans to survive.
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