It’s Wednesday again. Imagine that.
One Wednesday, not so long ago, Jonathan Safran Foer (author of, among other things, Everything is Illuminated, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and Eating Animals) joined Guardian books editor, Claire Armitstead in conversation at Milton Court. The two touched on topics such as: teaching writing, returning home, wrestling with gods, and the masturbatory possibilities of door knobs. Foer spoke throughout with a quiet assuredness and open-hearted sincerity that I imagine in England might have come across as both extremely loud and incredibly close1. He answered questions as best he could, and when faced with an impossible question, he often answered an entirely different question that, in its own peculiar way, somehow answered the original impossible question.
On more than one occasion, I cried.
After the event, EG turned to me and said, “I see why you love him. Sometimes it felt like I was watching you. Or like you had already seen this and gone back in time and decided to live your life based on what you heard.”
Here are some of the things we heard Jonathan Safran Foer say that night…
On praise and criticism:
I don’t want praise or criticism. I want engagement…when people strongly disagree with my books that’s great. That means we both agree there’s something vital here.
Every review review is bad in its own way. A bad review, I think they’re a schmuck. A good review, I think I’m the schmuck.
On his latest book, I Am Here
I am happier about this book than any other…I finished this book without caring any less about it than I did when I started.
It took eight years to begin to be with these characters.
On caring less over time:
I think that’s one of the big problems with living. Figuring out how not to care less over time. About anything. Inertia moves towards getting used to things and, along with that, a diminishment of concern.
On writing books:
Each book, a voice is telling me that this is the last book you’ll ever write. And by that, I don’t mean that I will stop writing. Or get hit by a bus and die. I mean that the next book will be written by a slightly different version of me.
There’s been a lot of novels that have never happened…My response to not caring about something is not to persevere but to change.
I pursue what makes me feel alive.
There’s an old story that often gets used in philosophy classes. It is the story of a ship that leaves one port and, slowly along its journey to another, every part of the boat is replaced. Now, the question is: Is it the same ship? We think, no it can’t be, because everything about it is different. And we think, yes it must be, because it doesn’t make sense to say that it’s not. I discovered when moving several boxes of manuscripts. One of these manuscripts, fairly thick was titled, The Zelda Museum. I had completely forgotten it. I wrote this book to be my second novel. But somewhere along the way, in the same way as that ship, each piece, each word, was replaced. And that became Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.
Writing is a leap of faith. A belief that something good will come from pursuing what I care about.
When I turned thirty, I started having birthday parties again. At one, I had a magician. I asked the magician what happened if a trick went wrong. If someone lied about the card they picked or something. This magician that looked at me. He said, ‘I don’t perform tricks. I perform a process.’ That’s how I think about writing.
I have no idea why some things feel true to some people and not to others.
And it’s not that it just feels right. It’s more than that. It’s that you feel known. Almost exposed. It’s a very intimate relationship between a reader and a book. It’s a singular kind of intimacy.
I could tell you what I think, but I don’t necessarily trust what I think.
There is an enormous category of things you have seen but which you aren’t aware of having seen. An enormous amount of thoughts or feelings which you have thought or felt without being aware that you thought or felt them.
On writing and thinking
How do people who don’t write, think? I walk down the street thinking: Hungry. Unseasonably warm.
I believe the only time I have thoughts are in conversation or when writing. In response, or in creation. Writing creates thought and changes thought.
Something that is sustained by choice seems richer than something sustained by habit. But choice leaves you open to choosing to not do it.
On wrestling with god and writing
I wish I was a more ritualistic person.
Max says, Basically we lose everything over time. Except the things we wrestle with. Embedded in that is a kind of hopefulness. Despite all the inconsistencies. The contradictions. It remains in my life.
I don’t have a problem coming up with ideas. I have a problem coming up with good ideas. Ideas that move me.
I want my book to be the news of the world I live in. Not the world outside. The world inside.
I want to be as sure as I can that I am working on what I want to work on. A real and direct and sincere expression of who I am. That I’m not trying to fulfill an idea of myself.
(You move between more and less realistic modes of writing. Fiction and non-fiction. Do you think you’ll settle into one or the other?) Life is long enough. I can do both. I can do neither.
Closing our eyes allows us to open our eyes. In the same way, humor primes sadness, and sadness primes humor.
There’s something about writing and the commitment to a book that is similar to a relationship with a person. There’s the first burst of excitement. And then the learning tapers off. You have to move into a different kind of being.
Every writer I’ve ever met with battles with the question of stopping…The conversation about how to persist inspires me.
In my experience, writers, artists, in general maybe, face two kinds of despair.
- I will never make something good.
- Nobody can make something good.
The answer to the first is to get back to work. The answer to the second is to go out into the world. To a movie. Or an art show. A concert or a play. Oh yeah. There are good things out there.
There are many reasons, perhaps, listening to Foer moved me as much as it did.
One is that, of late, I have often felt both kinds of despair of which he spoke.
That night helped with both.
Another is that, Donald Trump and his ‘locker room talk’ reminded me of growing up as a boy uncomfortable with locker rooms. Of growing up as a boy uncomfortable, often, with groups of boys of any kind. Of growing up as a boy uncomfortable with being and becoming a man. Of growing up a boy who endeavored not to fantasize about girls he knew because, bless that boy, he worried that using even the idea of someone amounted to a kind of violation2.
Junior year in high school3, I remember accidentally knocking a bit of money off my desk. A girl, on whom I had a crush, bent over to pick it up. I looked away. My friends whispered at me with much indignation. How could I have looked away from the sight on offer? What was wrong with me? I didn’t know how to answer them. But, I felt like they must be right. I felt ashamed. I felt ashamed for not looking. I felt ashamed for being seen as weak. I also felt ashamed for being ashamed. And for having wanted to look, even if I didn’t.
Here’s the thing, I thought about listening to Jonathan Safran Foer say thoughtful things in his quiet, assured, and open-hearted way.
As much as it stressed me out. As much as it may have been needlessly shameful. My boyhood self was right to worry about how he imagined other people.
Most of being human concerns how you imagine yourself and how you imagine others.
As a boy, I found it harder to imagine having sex with girls I liked than with girls I didn’t like because somewhere along the way I became equipped with this crazy idea that wanting to have sex with a woman amounted to reducing her to an object. I can’t imagine where I got such a crazy idea.
It is a failure of imagination that, for many men, the only way they can engage with their desire for women is to imagine women, or themselves, as less than human.
When people talk about toxic masculinity this is what they sometimes mean.
I have, as happens, grown older. And, perhaps, I have grown wiser.
I haven’t, as of yet, become a man.
I am still a boy growing up afraid of becoming something unrecognizable.
I am still a boy that believes the thoughts we think, and the words we say, even in private, especially in private, affect who we are. How we are. In public as much as in private.
Because we are always in the company of ourselves, and what we choose to imagine about ourselves, and what we choose to say with and to ourselves, affects how we see, and therefore how we live in, the world.
As Vonnegut said, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be.”
Pretend well, readers.