A couple of weeks ago I attended an author talk with Jonathan Franzen at Sixth and I in D.C. A journalist named Marcia Valdes sat “in conversation” with him and I’m not gonna lie—it was like watching a fawning student desperately trying to impress her professor (who will not throw her a bone).

6 Writing Tips from Jonathan Franzen

Photo by Quentin deEskimo. Modified by The Write Practice. Used with permission.

I understand that even brilliant journalists get star struck by their favorite writers, but my awareness of Franzen’s previous controversies with prominent women made the whole thing a bit cringe-worthy.

Was the author talk worth it?

Definitely. Even though the conversation was a little weird, every once in a while the too-cool-for-school Corrections author would drop these tidbits of wisdom that I loved.

As a feminist, I left still wary of both Valdes and Franzen. But as a writer, I felt connected to Franzen—like we were part of the same tribe. I admit that it was weird for me.

6 Writing Tips from Jonathan Franzen

I jotted down a few notes during the talk, which was focused on his novel Purity. Here are a few things Franzen said (not direct quotes, but the gist is accurate) that writers might find interesting:

  1. The simplest human being will be more complex than the most complex character in literature.
  2. If you’re going to write about something that happened to you or based on personal experience, you must be “far enough away to be responsible.” In other words, you have a “responsibility to the reader” to have moved on, accepted the experience, etc. before you allow it to inform your writing for other people.
  3. The dream ending: when readers are split on whether it’s good or bad.
  4. No Master in Fine Arts is necessary—Franzen learned to write from reading.
  5. Pro tip: If you base an unlikable character on a real person, make sure the character is “extremely attractive.”
  6. Writing about nature is hard, even for Franzen (because readers always expect it to be boring).

Seek Out Wisdom

Ultimately, despite my mixed feelings about Franzen, the author talk was well worth my time. If you hear of opportunities in your area to hear from great writers, I’d highly encourage you to go. Who knows what wisdom you’ll glean from them?

What do you think of Jonathan Franzen? Let me know in the comments.


For today’s practice, you have two choices:

  1. Describe the simplest person you know.
  2. Write about nature. Can you capture it well without boring your readers?

Pick one and write for fifteen minutes. When you’re done, share your practice in the comments. And if you share, don’t forget to leave some feedback for your fellow writers!

Monica M. Clark
Monica M. Clark
Monica is a lawyer trying to knock out her first novel. She lives in D.C. but is still a New Yorker. You can follow her on her blog or on Twitter (@monicamclark).