Skip to content
Culture & Religion

Nathan Englander and The Myth of the Tortured Writer

The point is that being tortured isn’t the point at all – it’s about transforming existential anxiety into clarity, energy, humor, and hope.

What’s the Big Idea? 

The “tortured writer” has been Woody Allen-ized into a kind of embarrassing caricature. We picture him in a bare studio apartment, hunched over at a collapsing, secondhand card table, surrounded by crumpled up pieces of paper and possibly clutching at his furrowed brow. Alternatively, he is horribly out of place at some cocktail party, raving at bemused, wine-sipping guests about “society” or “the muse” or “the process.” 

We laugh at the tortured writer for the same reason we laugh at most of the things we laugh at –  because she makes us uneasy. In her monkish devotion to craft, she seems threateningly at odds with the sort of ironic resignation that the modern world seems to demand. How else is an intelligent person to deal with the Roman coliseum of Western Culture without jumping out of a window? 

Nathan Englander Writes So Obsessively That He Thinks it May Be Pathological

The glaring, leonine publicity photo for then 29-year-old Nathan Englander’s first published collection of short stories definitely communicated the passion and intensity that we associate with the tortured writer, along with a defiance that suggested some measure of victory in the battle with whatever demons had driven him to produce For the Relief of Unbearable Urges. These nine stories (the number immediately brings to mind the famous collection by Salinger – the prototypically tortured American author), set in Jewish communities past and present, from New York to Stalinist Russia, immediately blew the collective mind of the literary world. 

Nathan Englander recently visited Big Think on tour for his new collection of painfully funny, arresting cross-sections of (mostly Jewish) people’s lives, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank. In a very real sense, Englander is the obsessively serious writer who, in Woody Allenesque moments of weakness, we fear most. Friendly and good-humored in person, he’s nonetheless deeply passionate about and devoted to his craft, spending 9-10 hours at a stretch, for months at a time, following the elusive threads of character and circumstance that will eventually resolve themselves into a story or a novel. He expresses an almost mystical faith in the “writing process” – the daily discipline of drafting and rewriting that always, eventually, results in a finished work. 

Nathan Englander: The point is, there are scary jobs in this world and there are real dangers that people face, you know, running into burning buildings and things like that; I’ll go straight for the firemen. 

But is [writing] personally terrifying to me?  Often.  Is it all-consuming?  Often yes.  And I think that’s the idea.  Personally, I’m generally always worried and always afraid.  That is my nature – terrified is sort of my Zen balance. My resting state is terror.  But I think that’s what I love about the work – I mean I could really go on for nine hours.  I kind of want to pull out a whiteboard behind me and start making circles for you and graphs and things like that – I love that the brain is working. As a kid who was raised deeply religious, to me, there’s something about belief systems.  I really love this hard work idea that if you sit and you focus and you put in the hours, you will work through it.  There is no book that cannot be written and that cannot be written the way you want it to be written.  

What’s the Significance? 

The secret anxiety behind the caricature of the tortured writer is this: our awareness that suffering is universal, but most of us don’t have a reliable process for wrestling with it directly. The point is that being tortured isn’t the point at all – it’s about transforming existential anxiety into clarity, energy, humor, and hope.

By example and in his advice to would-be writers, Englander is the opposite of intimidating. He’s reassuring proof that the kind of single-minded devotion (to anything) that seems so at odds with our disposable culture is actually the only solution to a universal human need – to come to terms, one day at a time, with the unanswerable questions that trouble us all from childhood on.

Enter the Big Think, Short Fiction contestjudged by Nathan Englander

Follow Jason Gots (@jgots) on Twitter


Up Next
In the form of a spray can, a small Utah company may have revolutionized how data is transferred over long distances. Forget ugly antennae towers, that tree over there will do.