Street Talk

Alissa Nutting

Alissa Nutting is author of Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls and an Assistant Professor of Fiction Writing at John Carroll University. Her work has or will appear in publications such as The Norton Anthology of Contemporary Literature, the New York TimesTin HouseBomb, and Fence. She recently edited “The Grey Issue” of Fairy Tale Review.

"The Commandeered Body" by Alissa Nutting


Writing a novel is kind of like submitting to a surgical procedure every single day, with no sense of what the overall effect of these surgeries will accomplish or when, exactly, they will end. When I’m writing each day, I’m just as inaccessible to others as I’d be if I were laid up on an operating table, which some understand and some do not. The other day someone rang my doorbell while I was writing. I began walking down the stairs and saw him through the front glass—someone from a phone company I don’t use. I was incredulous. I’d left my desk, my train of thought, for this? I gave him a look of rage and judgment that implied he’d just said something horribly vulgar and dishonorable about my grandmother, turned around, and went back upstairs.

​There is also that drugged, spellbound feeling each day, both entering the anesthesia of the book’s narrative and waking out of it. It takes me time to rehypnotize myself each morning back into the main character’s voice—I read over paragraphs I’ve written and let the possession take hold, allow the world I’m writing become more real than the room I’m sitting in. Afterwards, I’m often groggy and disoriented—I have to walk around a bit, usually in circles with no purpose, or go do something physical like fetch the mail. It takes a while before I’m fully myself again.

​As with any cycle of pain and recovery, there are moments of euphoria that feel narcotic and setbacks that seem beyond repair. But it strikes me that part of what’s so difficult for me about writing a novel, so strange compared to short forms like the story and the essay that are quickly completed, is the incessant, daily barrage of the novel that doesn’t give you time each night to properly heal your own identity separate from the book. To my “I,” novel writing can feel like the ocean at its worst: raw concrete waves of otherness that don’t give me time to stand or breathe before another comes in, and then another. I fought this feeling for several months before I saw it for what it was: a struggle to maintain control of “me” in the face of something much larger than myself. A stupid struggle at that.

​Writing, being a writer, is one of the few things that feeds my sense of identity. It’s perhaps for this reason that I feel a type of distress—an ego gash? A demotion of selfhood?—when working on a novel. Because I have to do it every day, because its marathon length forces me to rinse and repeat every morning, I cannot ignore the reality of what happens to “me” when I’m writing good fiction: I go away. I become a typing puppet for other voices and people, and when it’s time for “me” to reenter the physical space that someone else spent several hours inhabiting, it’s not always a smooth transition. I’m often cranky, and my body is usually screaming from neglect: it’s hungry, it’s the wrong temperature, it’s had to go to the bathroom for quite some time.

In the evening it can be hard for me to make conversation at dinner—after all, I’ve been gone all day. Where did I go? I’m not sure. Away. Under anesthesia. It’s also hard for me to make social plans on my behalf; I feel deceptive. Sure, I can show up at a given place at a given time for lunch. But if I spent the morning writing, I probably won’t be entirely me yet when I arrive. And is it even worth it, time wise, to expend a great deal of effort snapping out of a fog for an hour if I know I’m going to return home and go right back under?

​I once dogsat a Golden Retriever who was particularly good at shaming: when she knew you were about to leave, she went into her crate on her own accord and gave you the most pathetic look you’d ever seen. Just go, her heartbroken eyes seemed to say. Just abandon me and get it over with. I have these moments too, now, working on my novel, where I get exasperated at the timeshare going on in my own body. Just take me over completely, I want to tell my main character. Go ahead and cannibalize every freaking blood cell. It’s too much effort trying to stay autonomous. At the root of this anger is my disappointment, of course, that she is writing the novel far more than I am. I’m more a conference room than a writer, a fleshy dry-erase board used by my characters. This truth kind of sucks, but accepting it has made my novel-writing days far easier. It helps, I find, to think of myself like a slave that the voice of the book outright owns. She has imminent domain, and until this book is finished, I have to forfeit my mind and body whenever she wants it. I will likely be very boring, very quarter-myself, or eighth-myself, until she is through.

And when she’s through I’ll also be different. All that time she spends inside, or I spend inside her, will no doubt change me. That fact, too, is frightening but also a little exhilarating. As are most aspects of my life writing a novel, where I’m here but yet, I’m not.