Jeremy Siegel, BFR Staff

On a humid September evening, in the astonishingly not-well-air-conditioned children’s section of a cozy San Francisco bookstore, I sat beside my girlfriend in a crowd of unabashedly pretentious literary folk, eagerly awaiting the arrival of my favorite author, Jonathan Franzen, who was to read from his new novel, Purity.

But here’s the thing: As he walked onto the stage (more of a small platform—fitting for the children’s section; an employee literally had to stack children’s books to raise the microphone to Franzen’s level), I realized that I sincerely did not want to be there. This wasn’t because of the unbearable temperature. This wasn’t because of the horn-rimmed glasses-wearing, moleskin notebook-carrying audience that I was slowly beginning to realize I was a part of.

It was because I was terrified of what he might say. Terrified of what I might say when I met him. Terrified that Franzen The Person and Franzen The Author were not compatible. Terrified that by meeting the man whose words I had fallen in love with I would somehow fall out of love.

See, three months prior to this event, I read my first Franzen novel, Freedom. It was nuts: how captivating his emotionally detached, ironic but loving, voice was; how he said so much about modern American life through the story of one, uninteresting Midwestern family; how accessible the narrative was—how unpretentious it was, how real it was.

I was hooked.

After Freedom, I went on to read The Corrections, The Twenty-Seventh City, How to Be Alone—everything I could get my hands on. I watched and listened to innumerable interviews. I found that Franzen had the unique ability to present a pure, honest image of himself when he spoke; he was unafraid to tell interviewers exactly how he felt (the source of most anti-Franzen criticism). I understood him more vividly than I understood myself.

But when I finally saw him, all of that disappeared in an instant. I felt anonymous.

“Hello,” he said, before clearing his throat and drinking from a glass of water—this, I assume, is standard protocol for any author at a book reading. He introduced himself, thanked the bookstore, and went on to comment on the heat: “Perhaps it’s more bearable down there where you’re all sitting.” (It was not.) I recognized his voice from the interviews—deep and round, with the slightest lisp, each sentence said as if he were losing his breath.

Franzen proceeded to read from a chapter of Purity entitled “[lelo9n8a0rd],” which takes the form of a document written in the first-person by a character in the novel, Tom. It chronicles Tom’s dysfunctional relationship with another character, Annabelle. The excerpt Franzen read primarily consists of comical dialogue between a recently divorced Tom and Annabelle as they hike through the secluded woods of New Jersey.

As he read, my discomfort slowly dissipated. He read the excerpt with endearing imperfection, stumbling at times. This was fitting, as Tom and Annabelle are flawed characters: Tom, at times gendered and chauvinistic; and Annabelle, later described by another character as “the kind of ‘feminist’ who gives feminism a bad name.”

Like his characters, Franzen was perfectly imperfect.

After his reading, he took questions. I didn’t ask any—still afraid that anything he or I said might shatter my love of his work. But when audience members asked him about his writing, he answered with such beautifully conversational honesty—a genuinely amused grin always on his face—that it was impossible not to dwell on his every word. (My girlfriend later described this phenomenon perfectly: “He makes you feel like you have an inside joke with him.”)

The book signing followed. And wow, if you’ve never participated in a book signing, it’s an immeasurably humiliating process. You’re only allowed to have your book signed if you bought it from the bookstore ($30) and are able to present your receipt to the staff, you’re called up one row at a time, and you’re forced to stand in a single-file line for what feels like hours. All of this only to spend thirty-seconds-max with the author.

My girlfriend and I only purchased one book, but the staff graciously allowed us to stand in line together (as a “package-deal”). When it was our turn to speak to Franzen and have our book signed, I froze.

I stood at his table and didn’t say a word, my girlfriend close beside me. He signed my book and looked up at us, slightly confused. “We’re a package deal,” I said.

“For now,” my girlfriend said, quietly, then laughed a little.

He stared at us and laughed for what felt like thirty seconds. He seemed so amused by our presence. I wasn’t sure if it was what my girlfriend had said, but he kept chuckling. Perhaps he thought our relationship to be doomed like Tom and Annabelle’s. It was uncomfortable but fun. I thanked him, told him it was a great reading, and left.

At the time, I hadn’t finished reading Purity. But now that I have, I think I understand Franzen’s amusement with our presence a little better. See, “[lelo9n8a0rd],” the chapter he read from, is the heart of the novel. It’s an exploration of absolute dysfunction in a relationship, a comical portrayal of the dire ramifications of Tom and Annabelle’s young love. But there’s another, more hopeful segment of the novel, in which Franzen writes about how Purity, the novel’s central character (who is the same age as my girlfriend and me), finds love—and in this love she discovers a blissful escape from the dysfunctions of modern America.

Perhaps Franzen was amused because he saw in us an escape from dysfunction, a certain kind of purity. Or perhaps this is wishful thinking.

Regardless, our interaction was purely imperfect. And I’m glad I met him.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Alyssa Rochelle White, BFR Staff

There are points in a writer’s life when the creative juices are not flowing. The juices have hit a block, a wall, and they say to the writer, “let us not be productive today.” The writer complies, justifying the lack of output by thinking that motivation will come later. Then the writer gets the idea to go search for that motivation. Stories have been found whilst watching people in the park and meandering through a pharmaceutical store, so the writer questions how difficult it can really be.

We’ve all been there with that hope that the story will just come to us out of thin air. I don’t mean to dismiss the figure of the muse, the fantastical expectation that ideas can appear from nothing, for the world would be a much bleaker place without that creative fall back. However, it is in the wait and the search for creativity that the writer becomes co­dependent on external modes of motivation, forgetting that the only true mode of writing is the act of writing itself. If we strip away the inspiration that every “Ten Steps to become a better Writer” tells us we need, we find that all we truly need is a writer with a will to write.

But with the need for motivation, the writer goes on the hunt. The writer’s mind is still constrained and will be constrained until the simplicity of a pen and napkin is taken up. Before that, the writer will search through writer manifestos, talks on writing, and even print out the fancy posters that say, “You are a writer!” This type of writing advice (and affirmation of one’s writerly status) can help when used in moderation and when molded to the writer’s own style. But the accumulation of tips and tricks that line the internet more often than not creates further boundaries to get through. The advice says, “No! Don’t do it that way! You won’t get published!” And the writer shall digress out of fear. Then the writer reads books about writing and blogs about storytelling and tweets from people that are supposedly writing. And this should all trigger . . . something? Some form of inspiration is expected to burst out of the writer’s chest with every word of a novel ejaculated in the course of one day.

That’s not how it works, though. So, what’s missing? Well maybe it’s the atmosphere. Coffee needs to be made, a rain dance needs to be done, and music needs to be played, matching the tone of the novel and emphasizing the emotion that will prompt the words forward.

And still, nothing.

Not even rain.

After all this is done, the writer still wonders why the words aren’t coming. And the answer is that the writer hasn’t taken the time to mess up, to fail, to create a horrible slosh of words that will need to be edited later. The life of the modern day writer has become a bag full of “when’s.” When I’m inspired. When I’m motivated. When I find the time. When I know the exact thing to write. When it all lines up.

But the art of spilling ink (even at the keyboard) is messy and in turn it’s productive.

Writing a book takes the time that it takes, and that means it takes three weeks or three months or three years. Let it take the time. But don’t let time be something that escapes you. Don’t be the writer that says time cannot be found. Time is everywhere. And when you do find time, don’t be the writer who says, “Well now that I’m here, I have time to write, but I don’t know what to write about.” Write about anything. Write about the fear of writing and go from there. Fail and fail hard because among twenty horribly written stories, blogs, and novels comes a well­-written piece of work. Failure provides powerful lessons. It affords insight. You can feel good about failure. Failure means you did something. And you could do it with all those modes of motivation mentioned above; I know I’ve resorted to using them countless times over my life. But it is important to know that you are not a lost writer without them.

Samara Michaelson, BFR Staff

What is there to say that hasn’t already been felt? I can create nothing new, only new to young eyes. I can create nothing new but can only cut and paste words to tell you something I want to say. What do we tell anyone, and what do we tell the anonymous everyone?

The walls are white, and there is a clothes rack in the middle of the room. The windows are open, and the comforter is damp. The lamp is turned on, and a dog just barked. Is that what I should tell you?

The ink of my pen is blue, but that doesn’t matter does it? What makes it not matter? And what makes anything matter? I use the same words to tell you when I woke up and where I’m from as when I tell you that I’m scared of never getting what I want because I’ve turned my desires into things that could never exist. It’s all the same words, or at least the same letters, or at least the same lines and curves and edges.

Only the ideas of things exist, when these things are not before you. So we live in a world that is swarmed with an infinite number of ideas. Anything is possible as an idea, but that doesn’t mean anything’s possible. Things keep moving as I move my pen across this page, they keep moving and allow me to sit up here and act like everything’s still. That’s a privilege really, most people aren’t allowed to question themselves or the reality on which they are dependent. They can’t risk it, they can’t climb all the way up and hold their tic tic ticking watch off the edge and let it slip to be amazed at how far they’ve climbed or how far they’ll fall.

I heard a homeless couple break up last night out my window. He felt she was selfish because she complained about being hungry after a day of no food while he starved himself for three days just to give her anything he had. He called her selfish, said that she didn’t care about his feelings. It’s strange to think that no one’s immune from feelings. But, it’s the way in which we find and express them that hides that characteristic of universality.

It is that feeling of loneliness in the empty space of emotions that make them ever more potent. Thus it is the very nature of feeling anything to at once feel like an individual, and to feel the duplicity of being a body that others can look upon and think to know and a self that is blind to that very body. It is the privacy of self even to the conscious part of that same self. We are scared to not know ourselves. How could we not when we are constantly having to be so sure and decide where to eat tonight? We are forced to pretend to ourselves that we know every one of our parts. It’s cleaner. The outline is defined, the wood isn’t splintered and the metal isn’t rusty.

Let’s all write what we are supposed to. Let’s all say what we are supposed to. But no, then we would all fade into the outline of these words, of these bodies, and nothing would mean anything if I ever figured out what I wanted to tell you.

Margaret Chen, BFR Staff

In supplication the queen and king had knelt at the bottom of the steps, their foreheads pressed against the cold floor. But now their heads were lifted, their necks cranked back. The queen’s heavy crown sagged into her nest of dark hair, her face appearing all the more ashen. In the king’s arms, the baby shifted sleepily to the side. Below the statues of gods, the priest stood in his ivory robes between two columns of billowing curtains, as silent as the rest.

The frieze held for no longer than a second. Having no part in the prophesy, the queen moved first, extending her graceful arms to tear past the space between her and her husband, to grab at her child. The king turned away on instinct, and the queen collapsed at his feet, anchoring herself to his leg. Her sobs echoed the hallowed room.

Ceremonial blankets shrouded the baby’s young frame. The king parted the fabric where it covered the young, squirming creature’s face and then watched it with some morbid fascination, as one would stare at a fly caught in a web. The queen’s pleas he ignored, perhaps thought them to be a crow’s call. When she clawed at his thighs and gouged out flesh, he did not flinch.

Of course, the king looked and felt disgust at the existence of such a creature. Meat wrapped in bone, more liquid than bones—human children were such soft beings. One slip of the hand: one splotch on the ground. It would not be difficult to do, not at all—the man could feel his own grip slacken then, no doubt, to a point where he could not stop the child from falling even if he tried—give in, let temptation take him by the hand, let gravity guide it to its course—let this small sacrifice secure his own mortality—

The baby must have been feeling quite chilly at this point, because it cried. The wail stuttered at first, then lengthened, piercing through the infected air. It would be surprise, more than anything, that forced the king—clean, smooth-faced, and beardless; altogether shockingly young—to wind his large hands around the baby’s delicate waist. To hold the little thing, gently, against his own chest. To listen to the boy’s screaming declaration of his own life. To feel his son’s small chest flutter with his first intakes of the world. To continue himself of this little soul’s continued existence.

Then, gone.

Then, the queen rocking the baby to her chest clear against the other side of the room—mother and son, both, sobbing blindly. Her fingers shone, wet and red, and bloody little ovals dotted all over the baby’s blanket.

Shame battered the king to the floor; he sank into his pile of white robe. The corrugated curtains above them twisted and sashayed like the dresses of those mad maidens who lived their days in the ancient legends. Together, the humans in this house of the gods breathed, in and out, in and out.