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Novelist Nathan Englander on how ritual fuels his writing


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: Religion and its effects permeate the work of novelist Nathan Englander. Raised in a highly observant Jewish family, Englander turned away from religion and made a decision to live a secular life.

But the rituals of religion stayed with him, not in prayer, but in the way he lived his daily life.

Tonight, Englander shares his Humble Opinion on the discipline and focus he found, and joy that comes with it.

Nathan Englander: When I left the religious community, I left it with a vengeance. Like a rubber band stretched to breaking and then released, I shot off in the other direction, landing as far as I could from the Orthodox Jewish world in which I had been raised.

Instead of being faithful about faith, I turned super faithful about fiction. And for a long time, I saw it as a zero sum game. But the more I wrote, the more I began to realize how the religious rituals of my childhood, they fed the creative routines of that writing life.

That is, I may have left the fold, but I seem to have brought two pillars of Orthodox Judaism, sacred time and sacred space, along with me.

The time element was an obvious fit. I adopted the six days for creation and a seventh for rest model. I figured, if it worked for building this world, it should work for fictional ones as well. As the writing years piled on, I noticed something else: how I would wait to sit at the same table at the same coffee shop every day, how I would stake out my spot in the library, and I can hardly express how much I now cherish my chair and my desk and my unchanging office window view.

This is where the sacred space comes in. I finally understood the bigger idea behind what I was doing. It related directly to the notion of what's called in Hebrew the makom kavua, one's set place.

It reminded me of sitting next to my dad in synagogue, how we sat in the same seats in the same row every week, in front of these little brass tags with our last name engraved upon them. I thought that reserved space for my father was about respect. I thought it was about honor.

But it was more about engaging with worship or the writing from a fixed place, because it's the combination of those two elements, the daily rituals and the physical routines, that I am convinced are key to whatever kind of transcendence it is you're after.

Whether you race to a 6:00 a.m. yoga class or morning mass, whether you need the window seat in your own coffee shop or your shoes kicked off so you can better feel the floor under your feet, providing that kind of continuity for the body is the best way to free up the mind.

For the writer, honestly, it helps you build up a kind of creative reflex, so that those synapses fire off, and the images come. And from there, all you need to do is sit back and watch your fingers fly.

Judy Woodruff: Nathan Englander, we thank you.

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