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Why Writing Fiction Is So Difficult

Question: Do you prefer the process of writing either fiction or non-fiction?

Jonathan Safran Foer: Well they’re totally different in every way.  The thing that I value most about fiction is how free it is.  That anytime there’s something that I want to pursue, I can.  If I become curious about something or, you know, something catches my fancy or seems interesting, I just do it.  I follow it.  There’s no question about usefulness or unnecessary destination and with non-fiction I always felt bound, both to reality, you know, my book has something like I don’t know, 80 pages of footnotes, but also to a conversation I wanted to have.  

So every morning I woke up when I was writing "Eating Animals," I knew what I was going to work on.  Every morning when I wake up to write fiction, even if I’m at the end of a book, I in a very fundamental way, don’t know what I’m going to work on.  Each subsequent sentence feels like a mystery or possibility anyway.  So, I was grateful to have that certainty of sort of a line of thought that I was pursuing, but it was also very difficult because I felt so constrained.

What’s your creative process for fiction? Where do you begin?

Jonathan Safran Foer: Well, I begin with nothing and I unfortunately usually end with nothing in terms of the day-to-day process, but you know, it’s just a blank page.  I’ve never had characters before I started writing.  I’ve never had a moral.  I’ve never had a story to tell.  I’ve never had some voice that I found and wanted to share.  Auden, the poet, said, “I look at what I write so I can see what I think.”  And that’s been very true for me in my process.  I don’t have a thought that I then try to articulate.  It’s only through the act of writing that I try to find my own thoughts.  So, it can be quite scary because you know, it’s... there’s a kind of faith, I guess, that you have to have either in yourself or in the process that something good will come from filling blank pages.  

And it very, very often doesn’t feel that way, but every now and then you stumble upon something.  Some idea which you didn’t know you had, or a feeling that you didn’t know that you had.  And there’s nothing like that revelation and I don’t know of anywhere else in life to find it.

Question: What’s the hardest part about writing fiction?

Jonathan Safran Foer: Zadie Smith wrote an essay about humor in The New Yorker, and she talked about the experience of going out with a bunch of stand up comedians after a show.  They went to a bar and she said they were asking each other, was it funny?  Was it funny?  Was it funny when I held off on the punch line for that extra second?  Was it funny when I pointed at that guy in the audience?  Was it funny when I delivered that joke with a straight face?  And she said, you know, they’re neurotic and it’s crazy and very annoying.  It just "was it funny?," “was it funny?”  But as a writer she felt jealous of them because at least they knew what the question was.  

And that’s the hardest thing about writing.  You don’t even know what good would be.  You know, is a good book an entertaining one?  Probably not alone, otherwise, you know, Danielle Steele might be the greatest author that ever lived.  Is a good book one that conveys some kind of moral imagination?  Probably not.  Is it one that is artful?  Well, it’s hard to even know what that means, but there are very, very artful books that very few people can ever get into.  Is it to be funny; is it to be sad; is it to be new; is it to be familiar; is it to describe life as people now live it; or is it to do just the opposite?  You know, there isn’t any one answer, but the scary thing is that there might not be any answer.  And investing all of your days toward a question that might not have an answer or that might not have an answer that you would ever had access to, is very scary.  And that’s the hardest thing about writing.

Recorded on August 26, 2010
Interviewed by Max Miller

Comedy may be difficult to pull off, but comedians can at least gauge their success by the audience’s laughter. For writers, there is no similar criterion by which to judge the success of a novel.

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