Jennifer Egan, LOOK AT ME, and the Stomach for Craft

So you get all excited about a story idea.  You write some notes or scenes and work your way into the characters and events.  Everything is flowing well and then you get stuck.  Or you let someone read it and they don’t buy it.  What then?

One thing I like about Jennifer Egan is she doesn’t put on airs when it comes to talking about writing.  She’s no silver-spoon literary star.  Her stories and novels come from trial and error and hard work, and reading about her challenges is, for me, a little light in a dark tunnel.

In Salon, she describes what writing Look at Me was like:

Working on “Look at Me” was the most painful experience I’ve had as a writer. It was a huge struggle. I’m not quite sure why I suffered to the degree I did while working on that book, but I do know that my work up to that point had been fairly conventional, and I didn’t know if anyone would accept this kind of book from me. It was almost as if I thought I’d be punished for it. I felt afraid as I worked on it. I thought it was terrible, that I was reaching too far.

At the same time, some of the most exciting moments I’ve had as a writer were during the writing of that book, even with all those worries and that feeling of doom. One day I read the first six chapters of the book in one sitting, and I tore out of the house and went running, and I had this sense that I’d never read anything quite like that before, that I’d done something really different. That was such a thrilling feeling — a rarity as I was working on it.

So many writers–myself included–just give up. Hours, days, weeks, months, years–there are plenty of stories from writers who give this kind of time to their stories before they get the results they think they’re after.  And sometimes, of course, they give years and don’t get the results.  I recall Walker Percy saying after Kennedy was assassinated he went on a two-year digression in a novel he was writing and didn’t use a word of the 200 pages he produced.

Knowing that the writing more often than not won’t come out fully formed, we have to be ready to give it time.  To let it “cook” as the literary agents like to say.  Egan was ready for this with Look at Me:

One of my strengths as a writer is that I’m a good problem-solver. I write these unthinking, ungoverned first drafts. The project for me always is to turn that instinctive stuff into pages that work.

I want all the flights of fancy, and I can only get them in a thoughtless way. So I allow myself that. Which means that my next step has to be all about problem-solving. My attitude cannot be, Gee, I wrote it, it’s good. I’d never get anywhere. It’s all about seeing what’s wrong from a very analytical place. It’s a dialectic.

Once I have a draft I make the plans, edit on hard copy, and make an extensive outline for the revision. The revision notes I wrote for “Look at Me” were 80 pages long.

Egan’s account of the process of writing offers a message of persistence and work ethic and a need to believe in your self and the vision you have for the story.  It’s a healthy message for any writer.  Thanks for letting us see behind the curtain, Jennifer.

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