A Visit From the Goon Squad and Towns with Secrets

When I was an undergraduate, I was taught by a professor named Jeanne Leiby, an awesomely dynamic instructor, writer, editor, and friend.  She has recently passed away, and, though it is difficult to write about her, I’m mentioning her here because she came up with an exercise that changed me as a writer.  I hope it will change you, too.

It was a “town story.”  Now, to give credit where it’s due, this is an exercise that has taken different forms in different schools.  I use a version of it in my creative writing class at Full Sail called “A Town Called Secret.”  However, I know Jeanne’s version, so I’ll use it as my example.

Basically, the class made up a town.  Someone drew a map on the board (yes, a chalkboard), and we all decided the main features of the town: the school, the city hall, the bar, the strip club), and then we decided on an order in which we, as a class, would write.  The task was this:

In exactly 250 words, write a scene from this town including one character or feature introduced in the previous writer’s scene.

This resulted in a 26-page book full of characters whose parents were alcoholics, parents who pursued careers in business, and kids who played marbles in the mud.  There was violence, sex, and debauchery.  Most importantly, there was character development, liberal use of setting, and plots that arced not only through each scene but also in the series as a whole.  We wrote a book.

I can’t help but wonder if Jennifer Egan was inspired by this sort of exercise when she wrote <i>A Visit From the Goon Squad</i>.  Each chapter brings in a character introduced in a previous chapter.

At first, this was easy to follow, when there were only a handful of characters.  Now that I am halfway through the book, though, I find myself getting lost in a landscape of names and personalities.

As I mentioned in my most recent post, the characterization is excellent.  This is what propels the story forward.  What I worry about as the reader, though, is how all of these characters’ stories are going to come together in terms of their singular stories coming to close.

I’ve read plenty of novels in which, say, three stories come together, culminating in either a singular climax in the end (characters clashing, for example), or in parallel climaxes (such as when one story from a certain time period culminates just as a story from another time period culminates).

I worry, but I trust Egan.  I also read voraciously to learn how the story will conclude in this manner, in addition to learning about each character and their individual crises.  Often these connect with the other characters, and in this way the chapters overlap, much like when a piece of blue tissue paper overlapping red makes purple in the light.  I’m looking for that perfect purple, waiting and hoping for it to appear.

Rereading this, I had a mini-epiphany: what if this confusion is intended to mirror the confusion the characters feel in their own relationships?  I’ll have to keep reading (and blogging) to see.

Last, I have to note how important it is to read and then to write.  You’ll discover new ideas, just as I did when reading over my work.


About Em-dash Lady

Em-dash Lady enjoys creative writing most of all, but her interests include art forms from music to writing to visual art to indie films and so forth. She's especially interested in how the art forms influence each other and blend together. She's a creative writing teacher and writer who mostly writes memoir and poetry about her favorite activity, watching TV. I would say I'm kidding, but I'm not. Naps are also her favorite. Too many favorites to count! Enjoy following Em-dash Lady as she figures out how she fits in the ever-evolving world of art.
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