That was the extent of bestselling novelist Jonathan Safran Foer’s advice for aspiring writers. Clearly he thought the girl requesting life advice at a public reading was asking a silly question, which she sort of was, so she will remain anonymous here (hint: she may or may not have written this article).
But selfish or not, anyone attempting to write — and we all are, if only to fulfill those darn WR requirements — is always looking for help wherever she can get it. So for those of you seeking counsel more literary and less medical in nature, here are answers to a few more silly questions. They’re compiled from some of what Foer — who published his first novel, the widely acclaimed “Everything is Illuminated,” at age 25 — said about his own writing during his Master’s Tea and public reading on Tuesday. It’s not advice per se, since it’s only the way one (brilliant) person does things, but you might find it nearly as useful as your Nalgene next time you have the authorial urge.
Could I ever be a writer?
If a Princeton kid can do it, so can you. In fact, Foer said he didn’t enter college with ambitions to write. He was open to anything. He’d given up on “the idea of thinking I should,” which is why he didn’t force himself to work for a literary magazine or newspaper. Instead he took a creative writing class on a whim, ended up with Joyce Carol Oates as first a teacher and then a mentor, and thereby discovered something he loved to do and was good at.
Will I find fulfillment?
Foer said that he always felt strongly that there was something he should be doing; he just didn’t know what it was. Becoming a writer “felt not like the thing I was looking for, but a pretty good approximation.” That’s about the best you can hope for. There will always be other activities you love and miss — as Foer put it, “I’m sure that every writer harbors a secret fantasy of being either a visual artist or a doctor.”
Where do I get ideas?
According to Foer, all writing must be in response to a letdown. “Everything is Illuminated” came after a disappointing trip he took to Eastern Europe one summer in college. Unsuccessful in his search for information about his family, he wrote his first novel to create an alternate version of what could have happened. Instead of planning out his novel, Foer was receptive to inspiration in any form; he wound up writing a lot about his family, a topic he said he never would have imagined himself writing about.
What should I say?
“When you write,” Foer told his audience in the Swing Space basement, “it has to feel inevitable. There are no other possibilities.” You have to write what you know urgently needs to be said, and you have to say it in a way that will make you deeply satisfied with the finished product. Foer described the goal as almost fetishistic — “I’m trying to create the object that tickles the very pit of my being,” he explained.
What happens if people don’t like it?
At least they had a reaction. Foer talked about his gratitude for bad reviews as well as good ones, since bad reviews still meant people were engaging strongly with his book. As he said, “The fear is that what you do doesn’t matter,” which makes violent dislike just as reassuring as praise.
What’s the worst way to detangle a kid’s hair?
Start close to the scalp and try to work your way down. By the time you’re halfway there, you’ll be dealing with a nearly unmanageable snarl containing all the knots you’ve pushed together. Ow.
Nonetheless, that kind of seemingly endless but miraculously rewarding process is a pretty good analogy for the act of editing. Though you might not want Foer going at you with a comb, he knows a thing or two about patience bringing results.
How should I behave on my first date with my future spouse?
Have a panic attack and throw up. “It sounds like it’s not a winning strategy,” Foer said, “but … try it!”