Jennifer Egan on Writing, the Trap of Approval, and the Most Important Discipline in Creative Work
“You can only write regularly if you’re willing to write badly… Accept bad writing as a way of priming the pump, a warm-up exercise that allows you to write well.”
By Maria Popova
“Be a good steward of your gifts,” the poet Jane Kenyon urged in what remains the finest advice on writing I’ve encountered. And yet for even the most gifted artists, the practice of that stewardship remains a constant and rather slippery domain of discipline.
Its elusive mastery is what Pulitzer-winning writer Jennifer Egan explores in Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do (public library) — the wonderful anthology edited by Meredith Maran, which gave us Michael Lewis on the necessary self-delusion of creative work, Susan Orlean’s advice to aspiring writers, Isabelle Allende on how to summon the muse, and Mary Karr on the madness and magnetism of the written word.
Beginning with the central question of why writers write — which has wrested some memorable answers from W.H. Auden, Pablo Neruda, Joan Didion, David Foster Wallace, Italo Calvino, and William Faulkner — Egan considers the act of writing as a form of vital self-care:
When I’m not writing I feel an awareness that something’s missing. If I go a long time, it becomes worse. I become depressed. There’s something vital that’s not happening. A certain slow damage starts to occur. I can coast along awhile without it, but then my limbs go numb. Something bad is happening to me, and I know it. The longer I wait, the harder it is to start again.
When I’m writing, especially if it’s going well, I’m living in two different dimensions: this life I’m living now, which I enjoy very much, and this completely other world I’m inhabiting that no one else knows about.
For Egan, as for many artists, this different mode of inhabiting reality embodies pioneering psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow — a supreme form of what science writer Diane Ackerman has called deep play, a state of essential evolutionary and existential significance. Egan speaks to it beautifully:
When I’m writing fiction I forget who I am and what I come from. I slip into utter absorption mode. I love the sense that I’ve become so engaged with the other side, I’ve slightly lost my bearings here. If I’m going from the writing mind-set to picking my kids up from school, I often feel a very short but acute kind of depression, as if I have the bends. Once I’m with them it totally disappears, and I feel happy again. Sometimes I forget I have children, which is very strange. I feel guilty about it, as if my inattention will cause something to happen to them, even when I’m not responsible for them…
Echoing Colette’s marvel at the the transcendent obsessive-compulsiveness of writing, Egan adds:
When the writing’s going well — I’m trying not to sound clichéd — I feel fueled by a hidden source. During those times it doesn’t matter if things are going wrong in my life; I have this alternate energy source that’s active. When the writing’s going poorly, it’s as bad or worse than not writing at all. There’s a leak or a drain, and energy is pouring out of it. Even when the rest of my life is fine, I feel like something’s really bad. I have very little tolerance for anything going wrong, and I take little joy from the good things. It was worse before I had kids. I appreciate that they make me forget what’s going on professionally.
In a sentiment that calls to mind Joni Mitchell’s reflections on the dark side of artistic success and John Steinbeck’s lamentation about the perils of public approval, Egan considers the psychoemotional aftermath of her Pulitzer win:
The attention and approval I’ve been getting for Goon Squad — the very public moments of winning the Pulitzer and the other prizes — is exactly the opposite of the very private pleasure of writing. And it’s dangerous. Thinking that I’ll get this kind of love again, that getting it should be my goal, would lead me to creative decisions that would undermine me and my work. I’ve never sought that approval, which is all the more reason that I don’t want to start now.
My whole creative endeavor is the repudiation of my last work with the new one. If I start craving approval, trying to replicate what I did with Goon Squad, it’s never going to lead to anything good. I know that. Stop getting better? There’s no excuse for that.
With an eye to our propensity for what psychologists call the “end of history illusion” — best captured by Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert’s aphoristic summation that “human beings are works in progress [who] mistakenly think they’re finished” — Egan adds:
We all have such a tendency to think the present moment will last forever. Maybe when I’m not the flavor of the month anymore I’ll be devastated and shocked, and I’ll forget everything I’m saying this minute. But my hope is that I have the tools to handle it.
She ends by offering three points of advice to aspiring writers, which apply equally to every field of creative endeavor:
- Read at the level at which you want to write. Reading is the nourishment that feeds the kind of writing you want to do. If what you really love to read is y, it might be hard for you to write x.
- Exercising is a good analogy for writing. If you’re not used to exercising you want to avoid it forever. If you’re used to it, it feels uncomfortable and strange not to. No matter where you are in your writing career, the same is true for writing. Even fifteen minutes a day will keep you in the habit.
- 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.
Complement Why We Write with great writers’ collected wisdom on the craft, then revisit Maran’s sequel, Why We Write About Ourselves — some of today’s most celebrated memoirists on the art of telling personal stories that unravel universal truth.
Published September 7, 2016