HOW I GOT JONATHAN FRANZEN TO STOP STEALING THINGS FROM MY BRAIN

by Sara Crosby

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.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Sara Crosby writes and teaches in New York City. Her little brother, Paul, a 2006 graduate of Webster Groves High School, just successfully managed to stack not one but seven tires around the flagpole outside the high school’s main entrance.

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