How do you write?

Question: How do you write?

Jonathan Franzen: It’s such a huge question.  I really literally could talk all day and barely scratch the surface. And I think it would interest as many as four or five other people, how that works.

I will say that it’s always about tone. And if the tone is not there, then there is no writing. And so to get anything done, I need a tone and I need some sense of outline and the outline is usually much easier to get than the tone. I don’t have the heart to try to make an outline until I believe that there is a piece of writing to be done and the piece of writing will exist as soon as I believe that there’s a tone to write it in.

So I made the mistake this fall [2008] of spending a lot of time trying to outline a piece I wrote about New York State. And I thought I’d come up with the tone. But I hadn’t looked at those pages when I went ahead and spent a lot of time not only making an outline, but doing research based on that outline, and then went back and the pages were horrid, just terrible. And I hated them and I hated the person who wrote them.

I think for me, I’m in a relatively luxurious position at this point in my writing life where I don’t have to do things that aren’t interesting.

A piece of writing’s not interesting or worth doing if there’s not some personal risk, if it’s not dangerous in some fashion, whether you’re exposing some part of yourself you’d rather not talk about or whether you’re trying to be sincere about something that would be much more comfortable to be ironic about or vice versa, if you’re being sarcastic or ironic about something that people take seriously.

To name just some of the obvious ways in which writing can have an element of risk in it, there can also be some kind of content risks. You don’t want to be seen writing such and such a thing. Or it might even be literally somewhat dangerous to do for a journalist.

But particularly when there’s some element of psychological risk, there’s a discomfort. The first thing you have to know is, can I find a way to write about this uncomfortable thing that will not make people uncomfortable when they read it? And that distance is always navigated by way of the piece’s tone.

Do you like how you sound as you write about it or do you sound like a pompous asshole? And then you can’t immediately know that. But as soon as you start hearing, “Oh this I could read aloud and it would not kill me.” And yet people might simultaneously enjoy it but also be made slightly uncomfortable about it. Well, that’s where I want to be. When you start hearing that, and you have some paragraphs that work like that, you can say, I can write the whole thing in that voice and it will be okay, at which point it’s safe to create an outline and go on.

So that’s my process answer.

Recorded On: April 1, 2008

The importance of tone.

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