‘To Do’ by Jennifer Egan

On the odd occasion I’ve given writing workshops, ‘To Do’ by Jennifer Egan has been one of my favourite stories to respond to. Even someone who has never written a creative word will have written a list at some point. It is as you might expect in the form of a “to do” list.

Egan’s list starts relatively benignly:

1. Mow lawn
2. Get rid of that fucking hose
3. Wash windows

though the expletive highlights the writer of the list is somewhat exasperated. By “9. Buy Wig” we are paying more attention. The whole story is a joy of small details, and the list writer’s motives become darker. And what a writer can do, of course, is cheat, for at the end we learn that this is a list that isn’t written down – that can’t be written down. 

First published in The Guardian, Summer Fiction Special, 2011 and available to read here

‘Black Box’ by Jennifer Egan

Originally published in bits via 140-character Twitter, this is an 8,500-word super-story of a technologically-enhanced spy whose mission is to bring down the powerful head of a crime syndicate. But it’s really about the cost to her (and her undercover colleagues) of acting as a honeytrap, and the fragmented form is perfect for expressing the internal conflict, as well as cranking up the suspense and the pace. Hopefully we’ve realised by now that Twitter isn’t a decent fiction publishing medium (even with 280 characters), but at least the experiment produced this wonderful, gripping, Egan story.

First published on Twitter.com, Spring 2012, then in The New Yorker and available online here