Award-winning author Jonathan Franzen visited the DC Jail last month for a special Book Club session with the Free Minds members as part of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation’s Writers in Schools program. Prepared with a long list of insightful questions for their guest, the young men on the juvenile unit discussed a range of topics with Mr. Franzen including overcoming writers’ block, the grief of losing loved ones, and pursuing your future.
After a brief round of introductions, many of the young Free Minds members asked for pointers and advice on their work. “Don’t be afraid of the page,” Franzen coached. “There’s nothing scarier than a blank piece of paper. But if you write just a few lines down, suddenly you have something to work with.” For award-winners and amateurs alike, Franzen assured, writers’ block is a constant challenge.
One member delicately asked about the loss of Franzen’s close friend and fellow writer, David Foster Wallace, who committed suicide in 2008. “Part of me is angry,” Franzen answered, “but when I’m confused or have a strong mix of feelings, a way for me to work it out is to write it down.” With these words, Franzen echoed a core message that Free Minds encourages in our young writers: that using writing as a means of working through complex feelings is both constructive and empowering.
At the close of the session, one Free Minds member stood up to ask, “What advice can you give us about the future?”
“Find something you love,” Mr. Franzen replied. “Find something that feels right to you and pursue it.”
Born in Illinois and raised in a suburb of St. Louis, Jonathan Franzen published his first novel in 1988 and has since written a variety of novels, essays, and short stories, including The Corrections, winner of the National Book Award in 2001.
Franzen’s visit to the DC Jail reaffirmed Free Minds’ vision and inspiration, demonstrating the power of writing and reading can create bridges between people of even the most disparate of backgrounds.