Still Processing Franzen…and will be for a long time.

This post is more of a free for all, trying to work this out. Posting it like this also reflects the way I feel, I still don’t know what to say or think about this experience, all I can do is ramble about it and hope someone else gets something out of it.

This guy is no question brilliant, well read, and very, very dedicated. I worry that if I try to recount what he said I will leave the wrong impression, and definitely don’t want to do that. I can see why his words are often misunderstood. Depending on what mood you’re in you could either take offense, or find something to ponder in the things he says.  All I want to do here is show how seeing him up close and listening to him speak made me feel about my own future as a writer of mainstream fiction (aspiring for literary) and ahem, other stuff.

When I got  home last night I cried, which was disturbing to my husband  for two reasons. First, he was trying to finish up an episode of Criminal Minds, and my cracking voice and tears made that impossible. Trying to explain it to him just made me feel worse, he encouraged me to go write it all down, to try to make sense of things*. Second, I told him if I went to all these writing events and he sacrificed by taking kids etc. I would be happier. After this event, he seems to be in doubt.

I don’t think I was ready for this. I wonder if  the same thing would happen  if a man who built a shack  tried to learn from a man who designs skyscrapers.  He would get something out of it but may not know what to do with everything he learned. There is no way to compare Mr. Franzen’s life and process to my own, he is a member of one of the biggest , most elite groups of writers on the planet. What I do isn’t even close to what he does, yet there is no other reason I went to hear him speak. I wanted to hear what it was like to be such a dedicated writer, how he worked, how he came to be, etc. I got that, but wasn’t prepared for the horrible emotional reaction I would have.

Since I didn’t study writers, methods, literary theory and criticism, maybe that is part of it. I feel I am missing some giant piece of the puzzle I need to “get it”. His writing didn’t have the same effect on me that Leon Uris, Stephen King or Anne Rice had when I was younger, Janet Fitch, Pat Conroy or Richard Russo have on me now. Once again I bemoan the fact that I don’t have the time to read as much as I want to really feel comfortable with this circle of authors.  The Big Poo let’s call them.

Also, I wonder if something else is brewing in me and this is just one more experience that highlights it. When I study The Writer’s Portable Mentor,  I see the vast amount of hard work ahead of me, and the pay off- a deeper effect on others, an investment in myself.  When I read Junot Diaz, I know I will never match this man’s wit and creativity, but I don’t care, I just love it and as I read, or listen to him talk about writing, I enjoy it for it’s own sake, and come away feeling expanded.

The more I am touched by great writers, the more I feel the need to pull inward, work harder, get better,  become a better writer, not a better salesman, and self promoter-something maybe I am just not ready for and now wonder, who was I kidding?  Maybe my writing soul is demanding I refocus on writing, not learning the business of publishing (definitely important when I’m ready to pitch my novel again, but now that I am in the writing stage, the information is weighing me down).  

Junot Diaz spoke  once about how genre fiction is more honest than literary fiction at critiquing our  society . Ursula LeGuinn  said something similar in an interview(I think it is interesting then that literary fiction says that is what it does, it’s real purpose right, to show us who we are?)  That man is a giant. His intelligence is understated most of the time, when reading him you note big words, big bad words, unique and exciting words and facts, deftly arranged sentences,  and storylines. His words hung in the back of my head whileI tried to make sense out of the words of this other literary master last night.

The words of a mentor I had as a teenager came to mind too, “Do you want what he has?” (I will answer that question later.)

I want to write like Junot Diaz, not with the same voice, but with the same level of power. I want to appreciate and use language the way  Priscilla Long does, pull people into my world the way Janet Fitch or Edgar Allan Poe  do. I want to tell a story with grace and beauty  like Pat Conroy, write flawed humans with honesty and generosity like Richard Russo.  

I noted several interesting things while listening to Jonathan Franzen speak. Again, almost everything he said had more than one way to interpret it, and he certainly said much more than just these few things.

Loyalty: there were several parts to this piece but the one that stuck the most was how necessary it is to remain loyal to yourself, even when writing at the time doesn’t look like it is paying off.

Change: he spoke about the changes that need to take place in a person’s life in order to write the next book, after using up everything you have on the first.

Sacrifice: he has no family, no wife and kids. He talked about hours and hours spent holed up working. This made me think of a story I heard about a philosopher  who was such a workaholic that he sat with his feet in buckets of ice water to prevent him from falling asleep so he could continue working. Another  writer who struggled with depression and ended up killing himself after writing this huge book that scholars  still aren’t sure they understand.

Guilt: Mr. Franzen spoke  to several of my recent worries, how to balance the commitments to people around us with our work. The part where he talked about being loyal to yourself also spoke to this.

I heard things about his process, the writers notebook, and dumping years worth of work to make a better book. This I found heartening, it seems all writers have to write way more than ends up in a book, that trial and error seems to be part of getting to the best possible place.

One conclusion I came to for myself,  and getting to this may be part of what depresses me about everything: If the price for excellence  is loneliness, depression, and all the rest of it, is it worth it? Definitely not. There is nothing I have to say that is so important the world won’t get on without it. So why do it?** I am not that altruistic as to spend years of my life in solitude (something I’ve fantasized about at other times, now I wonder if I’ve been offered a glimpse of  that life and found that it isn’t what I want after all- a real gift well worth the price of admission.)

There is so much more I could say about this talk but am still trying to keep my posts short, hmmm. Anyone who is interested  will be better served reading his interviews if you want an accurate account of what he actually said.

Once more I have to toughen up, stop making excuses and get on with what I need to do.  Thickening the writer’s skin appears  to  have more to do with figuring out ways to keep going through doubts and fear, than dealing with rejection.


*This same type of unsettled feeling got me writing again when I had Janna come talk to my mommy group over a year ago. I wrestled with feelings of envy, inadequacy, fear, envy, need,  envy, guilt, want, and other stuff I still can’t put my finger on.

**This may be the crux of my problem. I can’t not write, but why am I doing it? Because I can’t stop, but is there a point, really? Why not specialize in building sand castles instead?

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4 Responses to Still Processing Franzen…and will be for a long time.

  1. Jennifer says:

    Maybe there is a compromise. You keep saying you have to write, not that you have to be published. You can write and still devote time to your family if you stop working so hard on the getting published part. You would have less stress and pressure to produce. If the writing is your real need just do that.

  2. Sarah Martinez says:

    Thanks. That’s where I think it is going. We’ll see.

  3. Lisa says:

    Here is my two cents:
    First, your writing has already improved greatly in just the short time I have known you. Second, writing is something that we will (hopefully) all spend a lifetime doing, and as your kids grow and become more independent you will have more time for writing. I think you should keep writing, but take the pressure off. You are still very young. Many authors aren’t published widely–or don’t have great commercial success–until they are much older, and that is okay too. Give yourself credit for what you have already accomplished. Take the really big goals, and break them down into little steps, and don’t worry too much about comparing yourself and your own writer’s journey with others who are on a different trajectory. Also, don’t listen to people (regardless of how good they might be at writing) if they are condescending or arrogant. The truth is that for all of us (the published and the unpublished), writing isn’t magic; it is hard work. But, it can also be a lot of fun, and we can achieve our goals; it just may take us some time. Be patient with yourself. Keep writing; keep working hard, and you’ll get there eventually. 🙂

  4. Sarah Martinez says:

    Thanks so much for this enthusiastic and thorough encouragement. I really appreciated it. I am amazed at how many responses I have gotten from this post.
    I also hope I didn ‘t make him seem like a bad guy, more I wanted to express my reaction to him and what he said about writing and life. My latest analogy, as I continue to turn this all over in my head, is this: imagine going to meet some monk who has been off in the mountains and ask him the meaning of life, then try to compare myself to his spiritual progress.
    You have a great point about not trying to make the big goal the one I try to accomplish now.
    I am in the midst of some sort of “thing” and padding around in the dark trying to find answers when I partly don’t even know what the questions are.
    I am still writing, looking at my short term goals, what is achievable, and what is maybe too much for now. I think I try to do too much then get discouraged when I don’t have enough time to get it all done right away.
    I hope to have something resolved and coherent soon, so someone else can also learn from my blubbering.

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