The Accidental Writer
One of the most fascinating of the many fascinating topics Jonathan Safran Foer discussed with Michael Williams during his recent Wheeler Centre conversation was on his mixed feelings about identifying as a writer. Even after the success of Everything is Illuminated, Safran says he had “no conception of [himself] as a writer”. “To me, it sounded like saying, ‘I’m a lover’. It didn’t seem like something one should say,” he argues, but admits “at a certain point it was just simply true.”
All the same, he contends that “writing is the vehicle and not the destination”. “The ends for me are a kind of emotional experience or a kind of access to thoughts and feelings that I can’t get anywhere else,” he explains.
Safran Foer’s entry into writing was unplanned. Without wanting to be a writer, he took a writing class at university, where Joyce Carol Oates took him under her wing, encouraging and mentoring him. He remembers a comment she made before a class one day as being the moment he realised there was such a thing as “my writing”. The support he experienced under Oates, he says, is the reason he now teaches students of his own. “The difference between writers and non writers is not [that] writers are better at writing,” he later adds. “It’s that writers write.”
He confesses to being a writer whose awareness of historical and critical context is not as keen as some of his peers, who are critics as well as writers. “I don’t think in that language of literary movements,” he explains. When pressed on the question of peers, he reveals his “natural” repulsion to the idea of being a part of a literary community or cohort. “Being a writer, to me, is being individual,” he clarifies, “so thinking about it in the opposite way makes me feel uncomfortable.”