Jonathan Franzen: Physical Writing Process
Updated: Jun 24, 2018
Destroy the Internet
In a recent post I wrote, “I tend to type my novels directly into GoogleDocs so that they are constantly backed up on Google’s servers” and I realized that my writing process being so entwined with the internet is the exact opposite of Jonathan Franzen’s, who wrote (in his top ten rules for writing), “It's doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.” The Time Magazine article “Jonathan Franzen: Great American Novelist” details how he must be absolutely free of distractions when he writes, so he rented an empty office where he can work alone. That workspace on its own wasn’t distraction-free enough – he had to cleanse his computer too – so he uses an old Dell laptop that doesn't have a WIFI card, doesn't have any games or other distractions installed, and he literally destroyed his Ethernet port so that he wouldn’t be tempted to connect online. As he explains in the article:
“What you have to do is you plug in an Ethernet cable with superglue, and then you saw off the little head of it."
I’m in no position to judge his idea of the correlation between internet access and the quality of fiction writing because A) I’m too biased against my own appreciation for having internet access and B) I’ve barely read anything by Franzen. One day when I was killing some time at the Borders in the Garden State Plaza I picked up his book How To Be Alone and read a few of the essays in it, which I found quite fascinating. Then I left the Borders without having bought anything for my time spent there, and recently that very Borders went out of business (this makes my mind swirl with thoughts about the underlying themes I’m crafting in my novel The Bookstore Hobos as well as of the nature of capitalism). I also have a hardcover copy of his novel The Corrections on my bookshelf that I bought used at Brier Rose Books, but it’s way back in line behind a bunch of other books I’m going to read. I imagine his comments about the internet reflect what works for him, and I think that’s very cool. It reminds me of something Woody Allen said, “For instance, take someone like Kafka. He couldn't stand any noise. It was a very delicate muse that he had. There are other people like Fellini who thrive in chaos. There's nothing delicate about it at all.”
Another interesting thing Franzen did to facilitate writing his latest novel, Freedom, involved chewing tobacco. The Time article mentions some of the difficulties Franzen had working on his latest novel (he threw out an entire year’s worth of writing at one point) and then touches on the grief that he went through after his friend and fellow writer David Foster Wallace committed suicide (another writer I’m not very familiar with. I’ve only read his essay “Laughing With Kafka” and all I’ve heard about Infinite Jest is that it’s very long). From Lev Grossman’s article:
“Wallace was a big tobacco chewer … the morning after Wallace's memorial service in New York City, Franzen did something he'd never done before: he walked into a bodega and bought some chewing tobacco. Then he went to his office, closed the door, put a plug in his mouth and started chewing. It was so revolting, he almost threw up. But he kept chewing. Then he started writing, and he didn't stop. He finished the first draft of Freedom on Dec. 17, 2009, a little more than a year later.”
I wonder if chewing tobacco in memory of his friend became part of his writing ritual. At the end of the article Grossman mentions that he’s still chewing it. ---Other Entries in this Series--- The Physical Writing Process: Octavia Butler - Inspiring Oneself The Physical Writing Process: Jack Kerouac – Typewritten Scrolls The Physical Writing Process: William Gibson – Hemingway’s Typewriter The Physical Writing Process: Neal Stephenson – Fountain Pen and Malfunctioning Typewriter The Physical Writing Process: James Joyce & Jorge Luis Borges – Writing with Eye Trouble The Physical Writing Process: Franz Kafka - Quartered Onionskin Paper The Physical Writing Process: Donna Tartt - Multicolored Pencils, Polychrome Paper The Physical Writing Process: Writing in the Bathtub - The Duality of Dalton Trumbo as Screenwriter and Novelist ---------------------------------------------------------- You're reading this, so it's time to admit it: You’ve been one–a bookstore hobo. Lingering too long among shelves of books. Sitting between the aisles reading a book you know you don’t have the money to buy, and thinking to yourself, “Oh, if I could only stay here forever.” So why don't you read my novella The Bookstore Hobos? Published in the Eunoia Review, The Bookstore Hobos is the story of Zaid, who tries to live in a bookstore when he finds himself unemployed. His adventures will take him to New York City, where he must attempt to apply what he's read to the real world.