What is Big Think?  

We are Big Idea Hunters…

We live in a time of information abundance, which far too many of us see as information overload. With the sum total of human knowledge, past and present, at our fingertips, we’re faced with a crisis of attention: which ideas should we engage with, and why? Big Think is an evolving roadmap to the best thinking on the planet — the ideas that can help you think flexibly and act decisively in a multivariate world.

A word about Big Ideas and Themes — The architecture of Big Think

Big ideas are lenses for envisioning the future. Every article and video on bigthink.com and on our learning platforms is based on an emerging “big idea” that is significant, widely relevant, and actionable. We’re sifting the noise for the questions and insights that have the power to change all of our lives, for decades to come. For example, reverse-engineering is a big idea in that the concept is increasingly useful across multiple disciplines, from education to nanotechnology.

Themes are the seven broad umbrellas under which we organize the hundreds of big ideas that populate Big Think. They include New World Order, Earth and Beyond, 21st Century Living, Going Mental, Extreme Biology, Power and Influence, and Inventing the Future.

Big Think Features:

12,000+ Expert Videos


Browse videos featuring experts across a wide range of disciplines, from personal health to business leadership to neuroscience.

Watch videos

World Renowned Bloggers


Big Think’s contributors offer expert analysis of the big ideas behind the news.

Go to blogs

Big Think Edge


Big Think’s Edge learning platform for career mentorship and professional development provides engaging and actionable courses delivered by the people who are shaping our future.

Find out more

Nathan Englander and The Myth of the Tortured Writer

February 17, 2012, 12:11 AM

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



Nathan Englander and The My...

Newsletter: Share: