Fellow illegible scrawler Jennifer Egan read from her newest novel, A Visit From the Goon Squad, then discussed her writing process with fellow writer Glenn Kurtz.
I showed up about a quarter to seven and frowned at the house. Almost turned around and went home; one of those nights where a beer and a couch sounded better than a discussion about the craft of writing. Glad I didn’t.
Egan reads with a soothing voice, a good handle on the “ups” and “downs” in tone and speed that quite a few authors surprisingly lack. Her voice reminded me of the “folk storytellers” who eke out an existence on the grade school circuit, somehow convincing principals that helping keep alive the DYING ART OF STORYTELLING is worth more than a new computer or more crappy plastic playground material to replace the entertaining wooden death structures of my playground youth. I loved those storytellers even though they were unabashedly lame, and all the video games in Tokyo couldn’t get me to say otherwise. The stupid over-enunciating, the bombastic movements and vocalized sound effects. Usually silk scarves, beads of some sort, like they mixed up “Gypsy” and “Hippie” as children and never quite resolved the differences. Were they dressed as the lovable, sagacious scamp from their stories or was that just the way they dressed? I’ll never know. But their voices were pure peanut butter, and Egan’s was Skippy Lite.
I focused on voices because I sat off behind a wall of books. Wouldn’t I focus more on words relying on voices only, I thought? This ended up being mostly true, though I did end up trying to imagine Mrs. Egan and Mr. Kurtz looked like during their back-and-forth. If Egan is the storyteller, I saw Mr. Kurtz as the writer’s version of John Clayton. My mind’s eye bought into this image completely to where I had a bit of a shock meeting him. He looks nothing like John Clayton.
Notes From the Reading
Egan’s process, basically, is to turn on both taps, dump words all over the paper, and sort it out later. 1/3 of her writing process is the “dump” phase, followed by 2/3s of editing, rewriting, etc. She takes her material to a “reading group” with whom she has exchanged stories and bits of novels for many years. Rather than a typical workshop setting, the author of each piece brings in the work cold, stands up in front of everyone, and reads. Mrs. Egan says you “hear” the story in a new way when reading in front of a crowd. You can tell immediately when something bombs, when something floats.
Part of writing is learning when to let go. Much of Mrs. Egan’s and Mr. Kurtz’s questions ended up revolving around either her “reading group” or when and how she knows when something in her writing is worth pursuing. When she’s surprised by what she’s written — something I can very much identify with, like “I wrote this!?!” — she knows she’s on the right track. But one has to steel one’s self; there’s a “mourning period” when she goes over her hand-written manuscripts — most of what’s written is “very bad and going to need a lot of work.” Reminds me of a former teacher who told me that writing is like composting, you keep dumping shit on top of shit, but months later you’ll return to find some fertile soil to work with.
Mrs. Egan said she didn’t really “find” Goon Squad until she “completely abandoned chronology as the organizing principal” of the novel. How did she organize it? Was it haphazard? Well, she chose the chapter order by thinking about “which (chapter) would be the most surprising but also most inevitable” step to make after the previous. Mrs. Egan seemed very focused on the idea of surprising a reader, and surprising herself. Numerous times she used those words. “Give the reader an answer to a question he didn’t even know he was asking.” But also make sure to “shock” them with it. She enjoys writing without really thinking about what she’s writing so when she goes back to read, she’s often surprised at what she wrote. It’s like reading something for the first time, despite being the author.
She was a little unclear about when she’ll “let go” a piece of work and how that relates to searching for vs. giving up on finding something in an early manuscript worth pursuing. Mrs. Egan’s advice about character development was to to find if you’ve fleshed out every character by printing out a manuscript containing only the parts of the novel where the character does something. If nothing much happens, consider adding more or cutting the character entirely.
Best line of the night came from Mr. Kurtz: “At the very end, I feel like I finally learned how to write a book, but realize I only learned how to write that book. I’ve only gotten better at managing the process, finding the voice.”
Finally, Mrs. Egan identified herself as one of my own — the lost tribe of hand-written manuscript writers with horrible hand writing. No matter how hard I try, I often write with a semi-legible scrawl that degenerates into nonsense scribbles when a salmon of thought tries to rush through my brain-to-hand-to-page ladder too quickly and ends up dying and forgotten on the side of the page, gasping for legibility.
Fellowship of the Illegible, my precious. Mrs. Egan joins Mr. Mitchell and Mr. Moody in the pantheon of “fundamentally nice people who’ve insulted me.” Great reading.