Writer’s Toolbox

Author Q&A

Here we present our exclusive collection of Q&As with a long list of illustrious authors.

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Jonathan Franzen

Jonathan FranzenJonathan Franzen is the author of several novels such as Freedom and The Corrections.

What is your method for overcoming writer’s block?

Although it's terrible to go through, I have great respect for blockage, and I've learned to listen carefully to what it's saying. In my experience, it happens when I'm trying to write something that I'm not ready to write, or that I don't really want to write. And there's no way to discover my unreadiness or unwillingness except to try and fail.

At a certain point, often after months of failure and frustration, I'm forced to stop and undertake a self-analysis through note-taking and conversation with trusted friends. I might then discover that I'm trying to write about a character I don't actually like, or that I'm trying to live up to someone else's expectation of my writing, or that I'm not yet pyschologically prepared to enter the emotional territory I've staked out for myself. Whatever the problem is, the solution is always to find my way back to love, to desire, to pleasure.

What are your favorite or most helpful writing prompts?

Deadlines often help, but for me the most reliable prompt is to find a great book to read— to be reminded of that pleasure.

What is the most valuable advice you received as a young writer?

When I was in college, a Californian writer named Tom Farber came to visit. He read one of my stories, and when I met with him he spent our entire hour together taking apart the first page of it, questioning word choices, pointing out every unclarity and evasion of meaning, and demonstrating how a sentence is not an end point but the first step down a path of self-discovery and narrative possibility. His refrain was, "Shake it. Shake it and see what falls out." He was talking in part about losing unnecessary words, but mainly about shaking the trees in the orchard of the imagination.