Jennifer Egan’s Writing Process Defines Creativity

Photograph of author Jennifer Egan
Photograph by Cat Hope Photography
by Lynn S. Schwebach Author talks and readings bring together a curious crowd, and during those gatherings when it comes time for questions from the audience, one question always inevitably gets asked: “What is your writing process?” The audience—both readers and writers—want to know how authors work, how they take imaginative thoughts and ideas and work them into story, and how they do it in a way that readers respond to, and appreciate. We desire to know how authors perform the hard work of turning words into art. In other words, we want the secrets of the creatively successful. On Thursday, October 24, author Jennifer Egan spoke about fiction writing to a Denver audience in pursuit of this creative alchemy. I can’t think of a better writer with whom to explore this topic. Denver’s Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop sponsored the event. Egan experiments with point of view, in addition to literary structure, in her novels and short stories. She seeks innovation and novelty, and doesn’t shy away from taking risks that, as she discussed during her talk, might cause frustration during the writing process. I gathered from her discussion that working through these uncomfortable or unsettling challenges engages her, and that is what gives her satisfaction in this often-frustrating profession.

A Visit From the Goon Squad

Egan began the evening reading from A Visit From the Good Squad, a novel that won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2011, and which has an unusual “nonlinear” story structure. Afterward, she sat down with Andrea Dupree, fiction writer, professor, and co-founder of Lighthouse, a community-based literary nonprofit organization. Dupree discussed story writing with Egan, asking her questions about the characters, settings and unusual story structures in her short stories and books. Egan described how she mulls ideas in her mind, and when she sits down to put these thoughts into words, she does it the old-fashioned way of pen to paper. She writes her first draft on pads of paper in her “terrible handwriting.” This differs from when she writes nonfiction, sitting down and writing at the computer.

Handwriting Works for Egan

For some reason, she said, sitting down and writing a first draft of a fictional story at the computer is a complete disaster. It just doesn’t work for her, she said. She writes her novels quickly using legal pads of paper. She doesn’t go back and reread what she has written or try to perform any “analysis” at this point but she goes back and types what she has written into the computer. Only after she has transposed her writing from the pads of paper to the computer does she begin her analysis. It’s then that she reads through her novel and develops an extensive, extremely detailed outline – of what works in the story and what she needs to expand on or fix.
Photo of Jennifer Egan at Writing Workshop
Photograph by Cat Hope Photography
Writing the outline takes longer than writing the first draft. After tackling the first outline, she revisits the story and writes another outline. It’s the going back forth between analytical outline and her story, now written digitally, that brings form to her novel. “I don’t know why this works,” she said, “it just does.” Egan’s writing process is a good example of a creative individual alternating between what creativity experts call divergent and creative thinking. Divergent thinking is the ability to come up with multiple ideas or solutions to problems. It refers to associative and intuitive thought and requires asking simple questions to develop numerous answers without any critical voice preventing brainstorming or idea generation. Convergence, on the other hand, is analytical, logical thought. It’s the “one right answer” for a given problem. (Also see the article, Why Cutting Arts Funding is Lethal.)

Divergence and Convergence Must Meet

Creativity experts state that truly innovative individuals must combine these two thought processes. They use divergent thinking during the tough, problem-solving stage to come up with numerous novel ideas. Then, after composing freely and associatively, they use their analytical-thinking skills to identify the best “workable” solution. Both processes are equally important for creativity to work or be functional. And that is exactly what Egan described to her audience – whether she realized it or not. To visit my Etsy shop, go to Schwebach Arts on Etsy. To visit my fine art website, go to Schwebach Arts. Follow me on Instagram: @schwebacharts

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