Colum McCann’s “Letter to a Young Writer”

mccann

I heard Colum McCann interviewed this morning on ABC RN. It mainly concerned his new novel “Thirteen Ways of Looking”, which Michael Cathcart (admittedly prone to hyperbole) describes as “the perfect book”.  You can listen to the podcast here.

But I was also intrigued by mention of his “Letter to a Young Writer”, and went looking for it. Here it is, and I think it contains brilliant advice:

Do the things that do not compute. Be earnest. Be devoted. Be subversive of ease. Read aloud. Risk yourself. Do not be afraid of sentiment even when others call it sentimentality. Be ready to get ripped to pieces: It happens. Permit yourself anger. Fail. Take pause. Accept the rejections. Be vivified by collapse. Try resuscitation. Have wonder. Bear your portion of the world. Find a reader you trust. Trust them back. Be a student, not a teacher, even when you teach. Don’t bullshit yourself. If you believe the good reviews, you must believe the bad. Still, don’t hammer yourself. Do not allow your heart to harden. Face it, the cynics have better one-liners than we do. Take heart: they can never finish their stories. Have trust in the staying power of what is good. Enjoy difficulty. Embrace mystery. Find the universal in the local. Put your faith in language—character will follow and plot, too, will eventually emerge. Push yourself further. Do not tread water. It is possible to survive that way, but impossible to write. Transcend the personal. Prove that you are alive. We get our voice from the voices of others. Read promiscuously. Imitate. Become your own voice. Sing. Write about that which you want to know. Better still, write towards that which you don’t know. The best work comes from outside yourself. Only then will it reach within. Restore what has been devalued by others. Write beyond despair. Make justice from reality. Make vision from the dark. The considered grief is so much better than the unconsidered. Be suspicious of that which gives you too much consolation. Hope and belief and faith will fail you often. So what? Share your rage. Resist. Denounce. Have stamina. Have courage. Have perseverance. The quiet lines matter as much as those which make noise. Trust your blue pen, but don’t forget the red one. Allow your fear. Don’t be didactic. Make an argument for the imagined. Begin with doubt. Be an explorer, not a tourist. Go somewhere nobody else has gone, preferably towards beauty, hard beauty. Fight for repair. Believe in detail. Unique your language. A story begins long before its first word. It ends long after its last. Don’t panic. Trust your reader. Reveal a truth that isn’t yet there. At the same time, entertain. Satisfy the appetite for seriousness and joy. Dilate your nostrils. Fill your lungs with language. A lot can be taken from you—even your life—but not your stories about your life. So this, then, is a word, not without love, to a young writer: Write.

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One thought on “Colum McCann’s “Letter to a Young Writer”

  1. Hello there Mike, this was quite special and I see it applies to parts of my everyday – or am I reading what I want to see. Take heart, speak up, take courage.

    The end of the year cannot come soon enough – I am exhausted and yet the demands lately have been even more – they want it now! Why can’t I have people like me around me – efficient, just do it. I’m doing something wrong that I have to follow-up so much and then end up almost doing it myself. Should I fail – let others fail? I couldn’t live with that as you know.

    Your name was mentioned in dispatches only yesterday – do I know anyone who can do a quick analysis of our residential sites. They wanted someone internal as the State is cheap and broke. But you never know – you often seem to get end of year gigs.

    Hope all is well. When does your son head off – that will be with mixed emotions no doubt.

    Cheers
    Lesley

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