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Jonathan Franzen and the psychology of writing

October 14, 2010

A part of me doesn’t want to give Jonathan Franzen even more attention but I listened recently to an interview with him on Terry Gross and felt energized by what he said about novel writing in general, and specifically about the psychology of novel writing, so I’ll devote this post to a couple of the points he made.

Gross asked Franzen whether he, like one of the characters in Freedom, started writing at the suggestion of a therapist. He answered in the negative, adding:

“But having said that, much of the work on a novel for me consists in the kind of work you might do in a paid professional’s office of trying to walk back from your stuck, conflicted, miserable place to a point of a little bit more distance from which you can begin to fashion some meaningful narrative of how you got to the stuck place. And the stuck-ness, for the working novelist – or at least for this one – has to do with not wanting to get into certain intensely fraught or private experiences, finding – having – feeling that it’s absolutely necessary to say things that are absolutely unsay-able…”

Franzen, in continuing to discuss the psychology of novel writing, said that “the writer is too well-defended.” Instead, writers should be open to the most difficult material, material that is upsetting to write about. Franzen explains, ” [I]n the new book, I tried to let go of that [defendedness] or I found myself letting go of it and went to the deeper, more upsetting things, which were much harder to get onto the page, but whose presence I could feel. I could feel like some, you know, pool of magma beneath the crust, that there is heat down there. If I can only find a way to tap into it, it will make the pages hot in the way they have to be.”

I haven’t read Freedom, but from what I’ve read about it, depression is a theme. In the interview, Franzen explained that he believes that depression is a sort of epidemic in contemporary society and that it can be an interesting and even funny subject of writing. He connected that to his creative process, explaining that depression can be instructive and productive. “And, along the way, becoming depressed – although it certainly feels lousy -comes to be a key and important symptom. It’s a flag. And it’s almost as if when I start to crash, I know I’m getting somewhere because it’s being pushed to a crisis. My whole brain is just like on the brink of shutting down because it’s so unhappy with the direction I’m taking things.”

I’m struck by the freshness of what Franzen said, though there isn’t really anything new to it. When things are rarely spoken about, even things that we know are true, they begin to feel like secrets.

He continued in the same vein about how he chooses what to write.

“If I’m just writing about something moderately interesting in using interesting well-turned sentences, it just has no life. It’s got to come out of something that’s – some issue that’s still hot in me, something that is distressing me and there are plenty of things to be distressed about. And for a long time I was able to get a lot of energy onto the page from certain kinds of political distress, environmentalist distress, even aesthetic distress, sort of a war on certain strains in literary fiction that I was opposed to, and that kind of anger has become less interesting to me because it seems like a younger man’s game a little bit.”

Finally, he spoke to the connection between reader and writer, and why we read, again focusing on a sort of psychological imperative.

“…[M]ost interesting people become somewhat depressed at some point in their life, and I’m not writing books for people whose lives are perfectly great. People whose lives are perfectly great probably don’t need to read books like the kind I write. Only if you have some regular connection with some kind of darkness or difficulty or conflict does serious fiction begin to matter. And so it’s simply realistic to let people, as the stories of their lives build toward dramatic peaks, to enter these dark woods from time to time.”

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