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An Almost Religious Faith in “Process”

When author Nathan Englander visited Big Think, I had one major question for him, which I asked in about six different ways. How, I wondered, do you dare to embark on a new work of fiction? How do you trust that when you walk out on that imaginative tightrope, it isn’t going to snap?

The question has been on my mind in light of The Pale King, the late David Foster Wallace’s unfinished work, its promising bits stitched together by an editor after Wallace’s suicide into a kind of monument to unrealized ambition. The Pale King is full of flashes – torrents, even – of brilliance that indicate what an important, definitive novel it might have been, if only its creator had won the battle with the demons he was attempting to exorcise in the writing of it. 

Englander downplayed the riskiness of writing fiction: “there are scary jobs in this world,” he said, “and there are real dangers that people face, you know, running into burning buildings and things like that.” But he agreed that, for him, the process is always terrifying, always a matter of life or death. He manages it by committing to “the story as a whole” and placing an almost religious faith in the writing process. Along with other successful writers, Englander believes that no matter how many false starts he makes along the way, perseverance will always lead him to a final draft. And while experience has confirmed him in this belief, each new act of putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) requires a new leap of faith.

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