Jennifer Egan: “You can only write regularly if you’re willing to write badly.”

From The Writer’s Almanac:

Today is the birthday of American novelist and short-story writer Jennifer Egan, born in Chicago in 1962. She’s best known for A Visit from the Goon Squad, a novel about rock and roll that ranges in time from 1970s San Francisco to a futuristic New York. The book has several experimental elements, with one chapter even told as a PowerPoint presentation. It took Egan three years to write the book, and she modeled it after Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. . . .Each chapter is told from the viewpoint of a different character.

When asked about how she came up with so many characters, Egan responded: “I don’t use people I know at all. I really value the shorthand, the compression of suggesting a whole life while actually having to render up very little of it. I feel tired of exposition and backstory; the more you can suggest without spelling out, the more you can encompass in the same space. Fiction writing is always about compression and suggestion.”

When Goon Squad first came out, people weren’t sure quite what to make of it, and it didn’t sell very well. A year later, it won the Pulitzer Prize and became an international best-seller.

Egan’s desire to be a writer began when she was backpacking across Europe as a teenager during the 1980s. She was lonely and depressed, and she missed her family. “There was a kind of intensity to the isolation of travel at that time that’s completely gone now. You had to wait in line at a phone place, and then there weren’t even answering machines. That feeling of waiting in line, paying for the phone and then not only having no one answer, but not being able to leave a message so that they would never know you called. It’s hard to fathom what that disconnection felt like. But I’m actually very grateful for it. Because it was extreme. And that kind of extreme isolation showed me that I wanted to be a writer.”

On writing, Egan says: “You can only write regularly if you’re willing to write badly. You can’t write regularly and well. One should accept bad writing as a way of priming the pump, a warm-up exercise that allows you to write well.”


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