How I Got Jonathan Franzen to Stop Stealing Things From My Brain
Tiny birds called kinglets migrate through the wooded areas surrounding the Central Park reservoir. Kinglets are essentially the size of a racquetball with white-barred wings and a stumpy tail. Most bird experts say they weigh about a quarter of an ounce and struggle to hit four inches from beak to tail. I first saw a kinglet along the reservoir’s jogging path last October. I’d overslept that morning and, as a result, woke up in a grouchy slump that only got worse once I realized that all I needed to do that day was walk my dog, go to the green market, and replace our toilet seat.
I was also in the midst of a six-month, even grouchier writing slump after thirty-four New York publishers had rejected my first book proposal. I’d gotten married the month before, something that in theory seemed too grown-up and scary, but in reality was a happy evolution of my five-year, live-in relationship. But this day, I’d walked home from the green market among business people with paper cups of coffee and newspapers heading to the subway station, and I’d given my dog Hank his midday walk to the hardware store for our replacement toilet seat among dog walkers with their big loops of keys. I’d washed the dishes, and I’d fluffed the pillows as I made the bed. I went for a run around the reservoir to escape feeling domestic, to escape what my life suddenly looked like: a freshly married gal who’d seamlessly fallen into her wifey role, who was settling in for a year or so to get ready for kids. But I didn’t want kids; I wanted to stop feeling like a bad writer who just wouldn’t get the message (from thirty-four publishers) that she was, in fact, a bad writer.
The ruby-crowned kinglet stood on the edge of the reservoir path several feet in front of me, tossing around a crispy oak leaf and displaying his shockingly red sliver of a mohawk, his signal that he was feeling territorial or excited. As I ran by, I envied the intuitive pull that made him bully the oak leaf, that made him dare to eat insects so close to the running path, and, mostly, that made him raise his ruby crown.
Both Jonathan Franzen and I grew up in a suburb about ten miles outside of St. Louis called Webster Groves. At first, being from the same small town as Franzen seemed like a novelty, especially when he started writing about his Webster Groves beginnings in the New Yorker in 2003. When I read his June 2003 essay, “Caught,” about sneaking onto the roof of Webster Groves High School and trying to lasso an old tire around the flagpole outside the senior entrance, I not only knew the flagpole and the entrance’s concrete columns and faded nuclear-fallout-shelter sign, but I also knew plenty of prankster kids like Franzen in my 1994 graduating class—tall, lanky boys with easy, toothy laughs who usually took Advanced Physics with Mr. Wojak.
Two years later, however, when the New Yorker published “The Retreat,” Franzen’s essay about the youth group at Webster’s First Congregational Church, I—in my fourth month of book-proposal rejections—was no longer charmed by the novelty of our commonly experienced childhoods; instead, I began to feel like I’d been beaten to a crucial punch.
As a kid, I spent my summers at a writing camp at Duke University. Writing camp—not to be confused, as it often was during my mumbly adolescence, with riding camp—first introduced me to the unpleasant fact that writing could have a competitive side that I didn’t enjoy. The other campers impatiently wiggled in their seats while waiting to read their work aloud, they raced to scrawl the most pages during the Enya-accompanied freewrites, and they wrangled for the camp newspaper’s front-page articles. Later, I avoided writing contests and withdrew myself from situations in which even unranked comparisons might be drawn. In college, for example, I dated a creative-writing major and stopped writing altogether. When I returned to writing, I involved myself in low-stakes activities like mailing manila envelopes off to literary journals and noting the rejection slips I’d receive on a submission log. It took me more than a year to mentally rev up enough to give one of my essays to a literary-agent friend with whom I walked dogs. He seemed to think I was a good writer, and I thought he was a nice guy, so I stopped writing an essay about longshoremen and spent seven months working up a book proposal for a nonfiction narrative about tobacco farmers.
After my first rejections in February 2005, my agent made me throw away my submission log. When he found out that every time a new rejection arrived I’d take Hank on a walk along the Hudson River and cry, he instated a rule that he would report only good news. For months he and I walked our dogs together, talking about only movies and weather and boyfriends and vacations. But by June 2005, with the proposal still in play with only a few straggling university presses, I started avoiding our dog walks altogether.
So when I read “The Retreat” on a morning subway ride to Brooklyn, I felt like I was being sucked down a drain. I still recognized this Webster Groves, but the recognition felt less like a novelty and more like a rebuke. Franzen’s youth fellowship met at the pale stone church at the corner of Elm and Lockwood. I’d stared at it plenty of times during childhood excursions to the firehouse, which was across the street, and my interviews to be a Camp Webegee counselor were held in an office in the back of the church. In high school, most of my pot-smoking friends were part of the youth fellowship, and Dan Eberhart, the sloppy kisser I dated my sophomore year, almost convinced me to attend one of their Sunday-night meetings.
So what should have happened that morning, if I were an average reader and not a down-on-her-luck writer, is this: I should have looked up at the unrealistically sexy Bud Light drinkers in the subway advertisement across from me and thought, Damn, that’s cool.… That’s where I’m from! I should have felt the way I did when I watched the 1966 CBS documentary Sixteen in Webster Groves in my high-school journalism class, or when I read Time’s 1999 cover story about Webster Groves High School: a little proud and a little amazed that, for example, my best friend’s mother and her beehive hairdo had made national television as the ’66 Friendship Dance queen. (Yes, Webster Groves, for being your average suburb, has gotten its fair share of national attention, probably because it is your average suburb.) I should have just sat there and enjoyed a moment of feeling special simply because I came from a place that a famous writer like Franzen had portrayed so impeccably.
But irrationally, my first reaction was to think, Oh, that seems so easy. The buildings and the quirks Franzen described in his essay were so immediately vivid and obvious to anyone who had lived in Webster Groves, why would it take a person of any particular insight to capture them? This presumed, of course, that I could have just as effortlessly dipped into my own memory pool of Webster Groves oddities—the tradition of telling jokes for candy at Halloween, the annual mountain of free mulch in the Blackburn Park parking lot, or Safety Town, the miniature city that taught road rules to tricycle-riding kids—and created a piece of writing that wormed inside people’s heads the way Franzen’s piece had wormed into mine and then articulated experiences they believed had happened to only them. It presumed, very stupidly, that a shared experience meant an equally shared knack for expressing that experience. Just because I’d ridden my bike past Franzen’s childhood church hundreds of times as a kid, did that guarantee I could match his skills as a writer?
My irrationality, clearly part of the emotional runoff from the rejections, was making it seem like I was losing a writing competition I wasn’t aware I’d entered: the race to evoke Webster Groves. Webster Groves couldn’t support more than one writer’s personal reflections about itself, and so any Webster Groves writer succeeding Franzen would expose herself as a superfluous voice. Writers sometimes speak of “mining their childhoods” for material, but my childhood had already been mined clean by one of America’s most famous writers. What material did that leave for me?
The shame and confusion I felt reading “The Retreat” turned even more paranoiac when, a few months later, the New Yorker published an essay by Franzen called “My Bird Problem.” This time Webster Groves wasn’t involved. Instead, Franzen’s essay touched on two other pet themes of mine, dead mothers and learning how to function in romantic relationships—granted, fairly standard preoccupational fare—but that’s not what turned me into a shifty, suspicious protector of my ideas and of my entire identity. It was Franzen’s confusion between teals, wigeons, and gadwalls. I’d had this exact problem birding in Seattle in 2003; I’d had Franzen’s “giddiness of spotting something”—in this case, an American wigeon, a bird I knew by sight—and I’d confidently declared it a gadwall.
This ornithological coincidence set off an identity crisis. Nothing about me—my thoughts, my experiences, my predilections—was unique. Maybe Franzen also owned a peroxide-blond golden retriever who ate bananas and asparagus. Maybe he loved Graham Greene with equal intensity, or maybe he too had a collection of rocksteady rarities. Maybe soon he was going to write about the way his dying mother chomped on ice cubes and ate raw cookie dough, about his childhood memories of the Missouri Botanical Garden, or about his high-school days of exploring the rat-maze tunnels of St. Louis’s old Checkerdome during Blues games. Maybe next he’d publish a piece in the New York Times Magazine about my longshoring buddies. Or even worse, maybe he was going to write a book about my tobacco farmers. Franzen was very famous and talented, and he was always beating me to myself. Every time he published an essay, another part of my mind was deemed culturally redundant.
So not long after this, on one of the hottest August nights, when my Aunt Sally became the fourth or fifth person to suggest I would just love Jonathan Franzen’s New Yorker essay about birding, I was feeling pretty crazy.
“Oh yeah, you totally gotta read it,” added my childhood friend Peter, who was sitting across from me at the unair-conditioned restaurant.
I could feel my ankles sweating. Something I’d eaten was spicy, and my water glass was empty. Things at the table—my boyfriend Mark’s knife, Aunt Sally’s wavy blond hair, the black cabbage roll on my bread plate—seemed like they were under a strong magnifying glass, and I started to get dizzy.
“You know what?” I said. “I don’t want to fucking talk about Jonathan Franzen.”
“Oh,” Aunt Sally said, as if someone had just poked her with a needle. I wished, as I drank some of Mark’s water and Peter silently aligned his flatware, that I also could have said that I felt like goddamned Jonathan Franzen was zapping little pieces of my personality, little ideas and thoughts and even memories I’d always assumed were specifically mine. I wanted to say that birds—the first wood stork I’d seen in the Everglades that spring and the yellow-bellied sapsuckers I’d recently noticed on Hank’s walks by the Hudson River—had been privately helping me survive my writing problems. And now Jonathan Franzen had snatched that up, too. I wished I could sling my bread plate into one of the restaurant’s white-tiled walls and say that every time someone said I should really read goddamn Jonathan Franzen’s latest New Yorker essay, they were actually, like the thirty-four publishing companies, confirming that I should just stop writing: Here, check out this cool essay: someone’s already thinking your ideas and writing whatever it is you think you need to write and doing it better than you.
A whole collection of things helped coax me down from the top shelf of my literary frustration and paranoia. I saw several pairs of hooded mergansers during another run around the Central Park reservoir. A couple of established writers explained that the jump between writing essays for little literary journals and writing an entire book is a large, often unrealistic one. I discovered a sixty-five-year-old traveling bikini salesman in Florida whom I wanted to write about. The best thing I did, though, was call the Nobel Prize–winning economist Joe Stiglitz. I’d done some research on artists or thinkers who, like Franzen and me, shared similar backgrounds and subject matter. My favorites were Charles Darwin and A. R. Wallace. Wallace’s more embryonic ideas about the divergence of species prompted Darwin to come forward with his theory of evolution. I hadn’t thought about their relationship in years until my botanist father mentioned it—and his own overlapping discoveries about the classification of haplolepidous and diplolepidous mosses with a British bryologist—in a recent email exchange.
But Joe Stiglitz—who shares both an upbringing in Gary, Indiana, and the role of lauded economist with his onetime mentor, Paul Samuelson—is alive and therefore more accessible than Darwin or Wallace. So, on a whim, I called him and asked some questions. Did he ever feel like he would always be overshadowed by Samuelson’s legendary strides in economics? How did he know there was really room for another economist from Gary, Indiana?
Stiglitz, with his combination of Midwestern graciousness and professorial stutter, had no idea what I was nibbling at. Always driven by “curiosity, not ambition,” he has never doubted himself, and he’s never been swayed by failure—the idea seemed completely foreign to him. Moreover, his relationship to Samuelson inspired his confidence rather than crippled it. Though Stiglitz doesn’t think this way, I began to see that the Gary connection could actually endorse a person’s sense of purpose, not quash it. The fact that one Nobel Prize–winner came from Gary, Indiana, meant another Garyite was just as qualified to succeed, at least from the utterly meaningless perspective of geographic coincidence.
After I hung up the phone, feeling both foolish and liberated, I washed my hair and listened to Garrison Keillor wobble through a hymn on the bathroom radio. Franzen hadn’t stolen my brain, but I also wasn’t being totally paranoid in thinking that he had. Simply put, I was suffering from an intense, if fairly routine, case of Harold Bloom’s anxiety of influence. We’ve all encountered writers who have, years and sometimes centuries earlier, done what we wished we’d done or might do, who have already written what we can only hope to write, and who have thought and felt more poignantly and more articulately what we’ve thought and felt ourselves. The fact that Franzen’s background shared certain superficial details with mine meant that I’d literalized this anxiety as a Topic Crisis—in the end, a really silly crisis to have, since everybody knows that if originality is your concern, what you’re writing about (birds or dead mothers or romantic relationships) isn’t as important as how you write it.
I stood in the shower, swiveling the soap in my hands as shampoo foam crept down my forehead. I felt suddenly free from my incarcerating notion that there was only one Webster Groves and that Franzen had laid literary claim to every last acre of it. For while I am peculiarly familiar with people like his family (and people like the Lamberts in The Corrections) because they were my neighbors and the parents of my childhood buddies, I grew up in a family that was conspicuously outside of the Webster Groves norm. My parents, for example, didn’t grow up in Webster—they weren’t even from the St. Louis area—which meant they didn’t revel in or even understand a lot of its cliquey traditions. Instead, before they got divorced and my father moved into the city, they went to hear live folk music at the Webster Grill and took their ever-failing Volkswagens to Walter’s Foreign Car Repair. And the only reason they ever went near a church was to hunt for additions to our dress-up bin at annual rummage sales.
So who cared who would get to write about the old cough-syrup-swigging chemistry teacher at Webster Groves High School? Just because I’d walked through the scene of Franzen’s flagpole caper every day for years, or just because the location of his church established a tiny overlap between my own perspective and Franzen’s, didn’t mean I’d been forever robbed of an original topic to tackle. I squeezed the soap hard enough for it to jump into the air like a fish and started to think about the pictures I’d recently seen of leashed cormorants in China. I caught myself wanting to write about them, and for the first time in months, it didn’t occur to me to worry that Franzen would beat me to it.