7 things about writing I learned from Jonathan Franzen

7 things about writing I learned from Jonathan Franzen

Jonathan Franzen

I spent the day at the Budapest Book Fair listening to Jonathan Franzen talk about birds and writing, and making jokes that nobody laughed at because they were waiting for the translation to come through their headphones.

I jotted down a few pearls of wisdom that should be useful to writers everywhere.

#1. Writing is an experience, not a performance

This was in response to a question about outlining – If the author didn’t have an experience writing the book, then readers won’t have one either. This is perhaps also the difference between literary and popular fiction, and Artist vs Artisan (too bad there isn’t a similar split for Author/Authorant or something).

Writing is a process of becoming. A writer who isn’t changed during the course of writing the book hasn’t done the job. You set yourself a task that you are currently not equal to, and try to become the person who is equal to that task.

And I agree with Jonathan’s rebuke to “performing” authors – you don’t want to show off how clever or good at writing you are, it’s pretentious. You don’t want to get in front of the story. If you have an outline, you are just filling in the gaps, but there is no discovery, no process.

That said, this is dangerous territory for people trying to write popular, trade fiction in bestselling genres – most of those genres need to be templated to be satisfying to the readers who enjoy them, and letting you discover yourself in the writing process is an easy way to have a flop on your hands.

#2. Need to let good characters do bad things

“In Freedom,” the Hungarian interviewer asks, “the whole book rests on Patty going into the bedroom, but she’s half asleep. Why? Is it a metaphor for writing – that good writing is like being in a dreamlike state, not 100% conscious or in the moment?”

Franzen is incredulous that he’s being asked to interpret his own work so bluntly, but answers, “Fully awake, Patty couldn’t allow herself to do a bad thing. But there’s a bad thing she really wants to do.” As writers, you MUST let characters dig their own graves, and get themselves into trouble, and take action that will have negative and complicated consequences – otherwise the story is dead. But you also need to account for the character’s personalities – they can’t be stupid or do things randomly with no explanation, or things that are against their character. So they may need little excuses sometimes.

#3. Don’t deform a story to make use of some little thing you found

The question was about research; what’s the ideal ratio between factual research and imagination?

Reality and research are the enemy, not the friend. You want to be responsible to the STORY, not the facts. What matters in the story.

Jonathan continues to tell the story of how he purposely wrote a cruise ship scene just before a cruise ship trip because he didn’t want the reality of the cruise ship experience to warp the scene he needed the story to have. Don’t observe little phrases you overhear or scenes you’ve captured perfectly and try to cram them into the story, it won’t work – it’s showing off. Let the story speak.

#4. Write books that people like

Jonathan started out writing books from top down; beginning with a principle or Big Idea. His first two books flopped. He realized, he doesn’t like to read difficult, challenging books – he likes reading books with a story, where something happens. Of course he’s not arguing for writing popular fiction, but even within literary fiction, you can’t ignore the reader experience or write something so high brow and intelligent sounding that nobody can endure it. Although my interpretation of his statements may be looser than he intended, and I’m paraphrasing this section from memory, I’m certain of his disdain for excluding readers.

Likewise, he doesn’t like hipsters or upper class snobs who make cultural references just to exclude people. If you’re going to write a book, why not make it something that more people can appreciate? It can still have meaning and symbolism and layers, but at least give it enough story and momentum to make it enjoyable, so it isn’t a chore that excludes a wider audience.

#5. Be patient with yourself

When asked how quickly he writes, Jonathan said a book takes him an average of 1000 words a day for a year; but is preceded by 5 to 7 years of zero hours a day.

When asked how he knows it’s time to being writing, his answer:

When I write a page that doesn’t suck.

“A lot of what’s happening in those lean year is trying to write, but it doesn’t sound right. It’s a problem of tone. Once you get the tone, once you get in, all the thinking you’ve been doing for 5 to 7 years has a place to go.”

So if you’ve been trying to write a novel for a year, or two, or three… don’t give up or feel like a failure just because it isn’t coming together. You are learning how not to write it. Your brain is working on the problem. Keep at it, and someday things will come together.

Think of it like Fight Club or another secret society: you have to prove your determination by just standing outside the door and refusing to go away. Don’t be discouraged, and someday the door will be open for you.

#6. Learn to be efficient

Jonathan says he used to be a jealous writer who wouldn’t share his work until it was done, but has learned to get feedback earlier on in the process. Don’t wait till the whole book is written to get some feedback. Address the problems early on, so you don’t need to do major rewriting.

With increasing confidence comes a willingness to show stuff that has problems.

I see this also as a shift away from the Art and towards the Business of writing. The creative process is often frustratingly inefficient. If you want to make a career out of writing, you need to find ways to produce more, better quality work with less time and effort.

7. Have an excuse to get out into nature

The interview veered off course when Jonathan mentioned his passion for bird watching, and the host asked him, “But I don’t get it, what’s fun about watching birds?”

He answers with:

They’re beautiful.

They fly, that’s cool.

They sing.

They build nests.
They take baths.

It’s fun to go and try to find them, it’s like hunting but you don’t kill things.

There’s kind of a collector’s mentality. But I also find it’s a way to experience the landscape. A landscape with birds in it is doing something right. It becomes a pretext for travelling to the parts of the world you wouldn’t normally go to. I spent half my life, we’ve already in Tuscany, and now I will go to the museum, and the Duomo and I will do all of these things, because now I don’t have to do that anymore, because I say, Now let’s go to the Sewage Treatment Plant, because that’s where the interesting birds are in Florence.

So all the tourists are going this way, and the birdwatcher is going this way…

It’s a different way of experiencing the world, it’s a different way of experiencing landscape.

A big, and important, part of writing, is doing something else and letting your brain rest and put pieces together by itself. You can’t always force what you want to happen. Sometimes the ending seems impossible to grasp and you think you’ll never finish.

You need to learn to take breaks, have an excuse to get outside and let your brain and body do different things: especially in nature and isolation.



  • Antara Man Posted

    A lot of readers are still hipsters or snobs, especially in my country

  • John Smith Posted

    Write books people like; that’s great if you want to write popular fiction or pulp fiction or write for Donald Trump’s campaign. Novels can be a treasure and in themselves; not written to sell or to cheapen to appeal to the common denominator

    • Derek Murphy Posted

      Thanks for your comment John; I understand where you’re coming from. It’s mostly the artistic, literary approach to novel writing that’s become the passionate ideology of millions of would-be writers. Here’s the problem with it:

      1) being afraid of pleasing people.
      There are billions of people in the world. Why don’t you want to write a novel that people enjoy? Why would you deliberately choose to avoid something that a lot of people are going to like, and write something that only a few people are going to like?

      2) But if you do decide to do that, how in the world could you possibly expect your novel to do well, make any money, or even get published these days? Publishers are businesses producing products for consumers. 20 years ago, those consumers would all buy whatever the literati recommended, so they could prove how clever they are. People are becoming more honest these days. They read what they enjoy, not what they feel like they should be reading. You should read Story Grid – there’s a whole bunch of great quotes on what writing actually involves, and why most writers can’t sell manuscripts to agents or publishers. It’s not because your work is too brilliant. It’s because it doesn’t properly fulfill reader expectations, because it doesn’t hit all the essential scenes of a particular genre. It’s disappointing. A let down.

      It isn’t artistic purity that forces you to transcend genre expectations; it’s laziness and fear. You want to write a book, great. Do whatever you want. You want to write a book, and get someone to buy it? Better. But you seem to want to write books without giving a damn whether anybody appreciates them. Who are you writing for – yourself? Why? Isn’t that a little self-centered? Again, that’s fine. Writing can be amazing therapy. Write your book. Exorcise your demons Heal thyself. But if you want to be a career author you need to write books that people like to read. This is “selling out” to the “lowest common denominator” (if by that you mean, figuring out who will actually read your book, and caring enough about them to make sure they are satisfied with it, rather than disappointed.)

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