Writers are a Funny Breed

Nathan Leslie

“Writers are a funny breed,” the Jane Siberry song goes.  Indeed.

I’ve always admired writers willing—or forced to—abstain from writing for extended periods of time, who go through spurts and then return to the world of the living.  I think of Jean Rhys (who didn’t write for years).  I think of Toni Morrison—who has talked at length about writing when she could—as a mother.  I think of Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams, the two best known “working poets,” squeezing in writing when they could.  I think of Ralph Ellison and Harper Lee—one hit wonders who had to struggle with the next thing.


Every writer is a person first.  At times we can easily forget this, overly concerned with the writer’s oeuvre, their brand.  Yes, Toni Morrison is, in a sense, her own little corporation, but she puts her pants on one leg at a time, also.

Perhaps this has something to do with my own approach to writing, as well as my lived reality (it’s nearly impossible for me to write every day).  These days I write when I can, not usually because I have to.  It used to be the other way around when I was a bit younger and more energetic, but at a certain juncture in life you get sick of listening to your own writerly voice.  You don’t run out of ideas so much as you run out of the enthusiasm to always bring those particular ideas to light.  You realize not every thought must be verbalized.  That said, I still write a whole lot…so perhaps the sense of compulsion is still dormant and I’m simply in writerly denial.

There’s this moment at the end of the good-but-not-great Woody Allen film Bullets Over Broadway (1994) when John Cusack (the protagonist and Woody Allen figure in the film), realizes that he no longer wants to be a writer.  The Cusack character proclaims his liberation from serving the muse.   It’s an interesting juxtaposition to Cusack’s most famous street scene, the one in Say Anything when he famously woos Ione Skye with “In Your Eyes” blasting from the (very 80’s) boom box planted on his shoulder.

What I most like about this throwing-in-the-towel moment from Bullets is the human fingerprint which Woody Allen put upon the figure of the writer.  He knows.  Cusack’s character has witnessed the mishandling of his play, his baby, his opus and now he realizes that the literary burden is actually artificial, one of his own making.  Throwing off the shackles of his fame quest, he is released back into the world of the living.  It’s a beautiful moment, and one which many writers have in their darkest hours fantasized about.  It’s also a step which many writers I know have taken.  They can’t or don’t want to manage it any longer.  As a result they chuff off their identity as writers.  It is a kind of giving up, obviously, but on the other hand does everyone have to write all the time and forever?  Even Philip Roth retired eventually.  I applauded him for it.

When I’m in full-blown writing mode I can think of little else.  Everything I read or see or overhead or experience is potential material.  I’m constantly analyzing, constantly probing for some psychological insight, some Pandora’s Box of character will open before me at any moment.  Yet, as the Siberry goes:  “You said someday when we’re pure and high/We won’t need to capture and describe/The Things we see or don’t see/We’ll let things be.”  There is something deeply possessive about writing.  We writers think of our craft as noble or pure or artistic—yes, yes, yes; true all.  However, by writing we also attempt to capture something, to lay our claim to it, and to do so in an innately unique and original manner.  We are explorers setting forth for the City of Gold.  We are ill at ease with others who might find a hidden passage unbeknownst to us.

This is one of the reasons writing conferences are often so uncomfortable (everyone is talking around their next, new original project—so as to not find their notions swiped by another author—while simultaneously trying to create a sense of excitement about what’s coming down the pike).  At writing conferences I feel other writers constantly sizing me up, trying to figure out where I fit in the pecking order, the hierarchy of “fame,’ if that word is even still applicable to writing.

I fantasize about flicking the off switch, a la John Cusack, all the time.  It certainly would be liberating not to write or think about writing.  However, despite my own admiration for writers who comfortably fit their craft into their life, I am not such a writer.

Forget what I said earlier:  Writing is a need for me (just not all the time).  To simplify, writing is my way of making sense of the world, constructing order, comprehending.  I turn the world over in my head and hope I can do so in such a way that it might project a similar understanding into the noggin of a hopeful reader.  It ain’t easy.  There are times when writing feels like walking over hot coals.  Other times—and often—it’s the only thing.  The world is words.  It’s nearly impossible, I’ve found, to capture the world in exactly the way I want, all the time:  as a result, I keep trying.  If perfection doesn’t exist, perhaps it’s all in the attempt.

Nathan Leslie’s seven books of short fiction include Madre, Believers and Drivers.  His latest collection is Sibs, just published this spring by Aqueous Books.  He is also the author of Night Sweat, a poetry collection.  His first novel, The Tall Tale of Tommy Twice, was published by Atticus Books in 2012.  His short stories, essays and poems have appeared in hundreds of literary magazines including Boulevard, Shenandoah, North American Review, South Dakota Review, andCimarron Review.  He was series editor for The Best of the Web anthology 2008 and 2009 (Dzanc Books) and edited fiction for Pedestal Magazine for many years.  His website is www.nathanleslie.com.

Anthony Tremmaglia is the North American Review‘s featured artist in today’s post. He is an Ottawa-based illustrator, artist, and educator. His clients include WIRED, Scientific American, Smart Money, HOW, and San Francisco Weekly. His art is available at Saatchi Art. Anthony is featured in issue 299.1, Winter 2014 and will be in the upcoming issue with "Ordinary Things"" in 299.4, Fall 2014.