The Lighthouse Writers Top-Secret Blog

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Write it first, figure it out later

A most excellent winter read.

Just spent a weekend sequestered (in between visits with A Christmas Carol and holiday parties) with Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, which is as good as everyone’s saying it is.  For those not in the know, it’s a collection of stories around central characters and themes of passing time (time’s the “goon” of the title), music and the music industry, and of course, love and regret.  Nostalgia hits you several times in stories that refer to other stories, moments expanded and “paused” within. (To understand why “paused” is in quotes, check out the chapter written in PowerPoint, which sounded kind of gimmicky when I read of it, but turned out to be perfect.) I was interested to hear that Egan actually started the book with the first story as it’s now arranged, and thought she’d write backward from that point. (She didn’t, ultimately–the book skips around in time quite expertly.)

In an interview on Frontline, she says she composed the stories in improvisational way: “I found myself following one impulse after another in a very nonlinear way,” following characters and plot points in and out of time. When asked to define where the book fits in the novel-short story continuum, another good line: “I was not sure myself as I went along, and I worried about that. This isn’t a conventional novel and it’s not a really story collection, and then I thought,  Who cares? . . . My goal is that it be exciting and gripping and fun, and if I can do all those things, who cares what we call it?”

Love the bit about writing it first, and not worrying about what it was until later. I was also heartened to discover that some of the pieces of this book were salvaged from failed stories from years ago. This is from the back of BASS 2010, guest edited by Richard Russo.

When I first came to New York, around 1988, I wrote a story called “Safari.” It was told from the point of view of a teenage girl whose family is on safari in Africa–something I’d done with my own family in 1980, when I was seventeen. I don’t remember much about that early “Safari,” except that it was meandering and unfinished…  Then, in 2008, twenty years after the original “Safari,” I wrote a story in which a man in his forties, Lou, tells his seventeen-year-old girlfriend about a trip he took to Africa. Although Lou was a minor character in the book I was writing, I couldn’t resist pursuing him onto his safari…”

Kind of a hopeful notion to those of us who have spent years writing things that are “meandering” and, yes, quite possibly unfinished.


7 comments on “Write it first, figure it out later

  1. mjhenry
    December 20, 2010

    I personally admire the “who cares” attitude. And the meandering, too.

  2. andreadupree
    December 20, 2010

    I keep trying “who cares” with markedly different results. I guess she has to care enough to write so well in the first place. Sigh…

  3. Karen Palmer
    December 21, 2010

    “Who cares?” is really useful, especially if you’re the type who cares too much. But you have to trick yourself into it.

  4. andreadupree
    December 21, 2010

    So true, Karen. Hope to someday figure out the trick… and that it doesn’t involve mind-altering substances. 🙂

  5. tqtyson
    December 21, 2010

    A very hopeful notion! If I had to know what something was going to be before I sat down to write, I’d never sit down.

  6. Robert Schwab
    December 23, 2010

    Glad to see the post, Andrea. Tells me about a book I did not know, and that sounds interesting. I like the lighthouse blog for such. Keep up the good work. I, too, think you have to write first and figure it out afterward.

  7. Pingback: Details, Details… « The Lighthouse Writers Top-Secret Blog

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This entry was posted on December 20, 2010 by in Good Books, The Write Idea, Writing.

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