Learning from a Pulitzer Prize winner

I recently finished the prize-winning A Visit From the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan’s (right) structurally groundbreaking book of 13 linked, yet stylistically unique, stories that have the arc of a novel. Those styles, by the way, include a pitch-perfect celebrity profile and, most famously, a 70-plus-page PowerPoint presentation.

Since Goon Squad’s publication in hardcover last July, and especially in the wake of this year’s paperback release and awards, Egan has written and spoken about her evolution as a writer, her pen-to-paper writing process (first drafts by hand on legal pads, 20 redos of each individual part), the thinking that went into the creation of Goon Squad and much more. Tracking this material online is like taking a self-directed seminar in the craft of writing from the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award. It is illuminating and inspiring.

Below are a few of the themes that Egan articulates, with samples of her words. First, here are links to three of the many sources of her wisdom: an article she wrote for The Wall Street Journal; a long Q & A at thedaysofyore.com; and a video of an on-stage conversation with salon.com’s Laura Miller at the New York Public Library.

Commitment: “I was absolutely dogged.”

Writing badly: “My first drafts are filled with lurching, clichéd writing, outright flailing around. For me, the bad beginning is something to build on. It’s no big deal. It won’t hurt you. Forget it! You can’t expect to write regularly and always write well. . . .Maybe good writing isn’t happening, but let some bad writing happen. Let it happen! It seems writer’s block is often a dislike of writing badly and waiting for writing better to happen.”

Outlining: “I write so blindly I don’t see what’s coming in my first draft. I outline everything in revision. Some of my revision outlines are 50 pages long.”

Revision: “It’s all about re-writing.”

Routine: It is “a gigantic part of it.”

Writing groups: Before joining her first group years ago, “I was in a vacuum. . . .I had lost track of. . .what makes something interesting to read. . . .What I lose by not listening is much greater than what I lose by listening to bad advice. . . .What’s bad falls away.”

Submitting: “I started sending work out, right away. . . .And as soon as something came back, I would immediately send it back out, the same day. So I would sort of convert disappointment into hope, right away.”

Reading: It is “the nourishment that let’s you do interesting work.”

Perseverance: It’s “huge. That is my biggest gift.”

Storytelling: “If you don’t have people that the reader cares about and stories that are gripping, you’ve got nothing.”

—Alex McNab


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