Renowned novelist contributes stories

By Amanda Murphy

Chicago-born author Jennifer Egan loves returning to the city, the place where she spent the first seven years of her life. Her recent visit to Columbia allowed her to spread words of guidance and experience to young writers—a status she recalls well.

She served as one of the headlining authors for the Story Week festival this year and spoke on March 14, doing readings, discussions and book signings.

Her most recent book, “A Visit from the Goon Squad,” was released in June and won the 2011 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction.

The book has also been nominated and is a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.

Egan said she was delighted to have the opportunity to come back to Chicago and share her writing insights with students.

“I feel like [college students] are the readers you most want,” she said. “They’re the ones engaging in books in a very intellectual way instead of [reading] to keep busy on the subway.”

An alumna of the University of Pennsylvania, Egan has spent the majority of her life as a writer.

She has published five books, most of them critically acclaimed. Her novel “Look at Me” was nominated for the 2001 National Book Award. She also has featured work in The New Yorker, Harpers and McSweeney’s.

Egan also writes nonfiction and has had numerous articles published in The New York Times magazine.

She has received many awards for her work as a journalist, including a Carroll Kowal Journalism Award for her 2002 piece on homeless children.

Although her life is busy as a mother and professional writer, she makes it a point to surround herself with young writers by doing college visits and occasionally teaching English courses at New York University.

“I feel like it’s easy to get caught in your own generation and not think about what people of other ages are doing,” Egan said.

For a writer who said she has never experienced writers block, Egan had informative advice to offer to aspiring writers.

She said they should be committed to the work they want to create in their lives. If they aren’t, they should take that as a sign they lack passion.

“You should be immersing yourself in what you want to do,” Egan said. “If you aren’t, then it probably isn’t something you want to do.”

She compared writing to physical exercise and said she has found writing daily to be more productive than waiting for the right moment.

She recommended treating writing like a job, setting aside a few hours a day to sit down and get something on a page. Egan said it is like exercise: If it’s done every day, it will begin to feel strange the days it doesn’t happen.

“That kind of regularity is the most fundamental and important,” she said. “I think hanging in there is a lot of what determines who does great work and who doesn’t.”

Egan told students they shouldn’t be afraid to write poorly because it stops most writers from creating anything at all. If work is bad, it can always be rewritten and edited into something you’re proud of, she said.

“You can’t expect yourself to write every day and have it always be good,” she said. “The irregularity is much more important than the flights of fancy.”

Egan urged young writers to act on their aspirations and not get discouraged by the competition. She said students should not expect the writers who seem to shine to be successful.

It’s easy for students to expect the ones in class who seem to be full of promise to flourish, but that isn’t an indication for who will do interesting work, Egan said.

“[Competition and jealousy] are some of the biggest distractions that exist because there is no basis in reality underneath them,” she said. “They are just ephemera.”