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Letters to a Young Writer by Colum McCann





From the bestselling author of the National Book Award winner Let the Great World Spin comes a lesson in how to be a writer—and so much more than that.

Intriguing and inspirational, this book is a call to look outward rather than inward. McCann asks his readers to constantly push the boundaries of experience, to see empathy and wonder in the stories we craft and hear.

A paean to the power of language, both by argument and by example, Letters to a Young Writer is fierce and honest in its testament to the bruises delivered by writing as both a profession and a calling. It charges aspiring writers to learn the rules and even break them.

These fifty-two essays are ultimately a profound challenge to a new generation to bring truth and light to a dark world through their art.

Review

This is an essential work on writing.
Filled with inspiration and tried and tested advice.
This work of his can been added to the Canon of great books on writing like that of The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers by John Gardner, On Writing by Stephen King, Bird is Bird by Ann Dillard, Stein On Writing by Sol Stein, and others.
Words not wasted, no straying into random nonsense, every piece of information and advice vital, his passion is clear, and he gives a lot in this writing, layered down so clearly and precise with voice and heart it will demand many re-reads for the writer or the lover of writing.

“The aim of every artist is to arrest motion, which is life, by artificial means and hold it fixed so that a hundred years later, when a stranger looks at it, it moves again since it is life. —WILLIAM FAULKNER”

“A book is not an isolated being: it is a relationship, an axis of innumerable relationships.”—JORGE LUIS BORGES

“Plot is, I think, the good writer’s last resort and the dullard’s first choice.” —STEPHEN KING

“Art is beauty, the perpetual invention of detail, the choice of words, the exquisite care of execution.” —THÉOPHILE GAUTIER

“No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” —SAMUEL BECKETT

“I have been working hard on Ulysses all day,” said Joyce. “Does that mean you have written a great deal?” I said. “Two sentences,” said Joyce. “You’ve been seeking the mot juste?” “No,” said Joyce, “I have the words already. What I am seeking is the perfect order of the words in the sentence.” —JAMES JOYCE WITH FRANK BUDGEN

“I can’t write without a reader. It’s precisely like a kiss—you can’t do it alone.” —JOHN CHEEVER

“All that I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world.”—E. B. WHITE

“Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader—not the fact that it is raining, but the feeling of being rained upon.” —E. L. DOCTOROW

“You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.” —JACK LONDON

“I haven’t found a drug yet that can get you anywhere near as high as sitting at a desk writing.” —HUNTER S. THOMPSON

“Storytelling is an escape from the jail of the self, leading to the ultimate adventure—seeing life through the eyes of another.” —TOBIAS WOLFF

“We get our voice from the voices of others. Read promiscuously. Imitate, copy, but become your own voice. Write about that which you want to know. Better still, write toward that which you don’t know. The best work comes from outside yourself. Only then will it reach within. Be bold in the face of the blank sheet.”

“So you go back and begin again. Open elegantly. Open fiercely. Open delicately. Open with surprise. Open with everything at stake. This, of course, is a bit like being told to walk a tightrope. Go ahead, then, walk the tightrope! Relax yourself into the tension of the wire. The first line, like the first step, is only the first of many, yet it sets the shape of what is to come. Try walking a foot off the ground, then two feet, then three. Eventually you might go a quarter mile in the sky. Then again, you might stumble and fall. No matter. It is, after all, a work of the imagination. You won’t die trying. At least not yet.”

“DON’T WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW, WRITE toward what you want to know. Step out of your skin. Risk yourself. This opens up the world. Go to another place. Investigate what lies beyond your curtains, beyond the wall, beyond the corner, beyond your town, beyond the edges of your own known country.”

“DON’T LET THE TERROR OF THE WHITE page shrink-wrap your mind. The excuse that you have writer’s block is far too easy. You have to show up for work. You have to sit in the chair and fight the blankness. Don’t leave your desk. Don’t abandon the room. Don’t go off to pay the bills. Don’t wash the dishes. Don’t check the sports pages. Don’t open the mail. Don’t distract yourself in any way until you feel you have fought and tried. You have to put in the time. If you are not there, the words will not appear. Simple as that.”

“The trick is that you have to be open to the world. You have to be listening. And you have to be watching. You have to be alive to inspiration. The general idea may come from the newspaper, it may come from a line overheard on the subway, it may be the story that was sitting in the family attic. It could have come from a photograph, or another book, or it might have sideswiped you for no good reason that you can yet discern. It might even be the general desire to confront a larger issue—the rape of the environment, the root causes of jetliners flown into buildings, the endlessly awful election newsreels unfolding in front of our eyes. No matter. No one story towers over any other. All you know is that it has to be made new to the world and you must begin to investigate it. Careful, though. Ideas on their own may be fine, and they may make good politics, but they will not necessarily make good literature. You must find the human music first. The thing that outstrips the general idea. The quark of the theory. The grace note within.”

“Sometimes we take a character from our own immediate lives and we build a new person upon that scarecrow. Or sometimes we take well-known characters in history and shape them in new ways. Either way we have a responsibility to write them into life. You owe as much to your imagination as you do to history. They may be made up, but your fictional characters will eventually become real in the world. Jay Gatsby is real. Tom Joad is real. Leopold Bloom is real. (Or at least as real as the seven billion people in the world that we haven’t yet met.) In the end you should probably know your characters as well as you know yourself. Not only what they had for breakfast this morning, but what they wanted to have for breakfast. This little slice of literary bacon won’t necessarily appear in your story, but you must know it all the same. In fact, the answer to just about any question at all should be on the tip of your tongue. Where was your character born? What is her first memory? What does her handwriting look like? How does she cross at traffic lights? Why is there a burn mark at the base of her forefinger? Why is it that she limps? Why is there dirt under the fingernails? Where did the hip scar come from? Who would she vote for? What is the first item she shoplifted? What makes her happy? What terrifies them? What does she feel most guilty about? (You’d be amazed how many writers never even ask these simple things of their characters.) You should be able to close your eyes and dwell inside that character’s body. The sound of her voice. The texture of her footsteps. Walk around with them for a while. Let them dwell in the rattlebag of your head. Make a mental list of who/what they are, where they come from. Appearance. Body language. Unique mannerisms. Childhood. Conflicts. Desires. Voice. Allow your characters to surprise you. When it seems they should go right, send them left. When they appear too joyful, break them. When they want to leave the page, force them to stay a sentence longer. Complicate them. Conflict them. Give them forked tongues. This is what real life is all about. Don’t be too logical. Logic can paralyze us. amazed how many writers never even ask these simple things of their characters.) You should be able to close your eyes and dwell inside that character’s body. The sound of her voice. The texture of her footsteps. Walk around with them for a while. Let them dwell in the rattlebag of your head. Make a mental list of who/what they are, where they come from. Appearance. Body language. Unique mannerisms. Childhood. Conflicts. Desires. Voice. Allow your characters to surprise you. When it seems they should go right, send them left. When they appear too joyful, break them. When they want to leave the page, force them to stay a sentence longer. Complicate them. Conflict them. Give them forked tongues. This is what real life is all about. Don’t be too logical. Logic can paralyze us.”

“GOOD WRITING IS ART AND verisimilitude both. This applies to fiction, nonfiction, plays, and poems, even journalism. We have to hold the possibilities of truth and invention together in the exact same place. The truth must be shaped. And it needs a lot of work in order to get there. Some people seem to think that invention is about telling lies. Far from it. Invention is about carving out the authentic. We use our imaginations in order to access the deepest darkdown things.”

“Whitman says we contain multitudes. Joyce says that good writing re-creates life out of life. Who are we to argue with the greats? Just strike the word down on the page. No preaching involved. No sermonizing. No pointless barking at the passing streams. Just earnest endeavor and grit. A true mining of your world. The ability to force yourself into the darkest corner in order to discover something that hasn’t yet been said.”

“A writer is capable of all sorts of agility: even if you force yourself into a narrative rigidity, you can still go just about anywhere. The mind is acrobatic. There is no harm in trying all angles. Try first person, second person, third person. Try from the viewpoint of your main character, then try it from the perspective of the outsider. Sometimes the outsider is the one who makes absolute sense. Shake it up. Faulkner it. DeLillo it. Go from present to past. Attempt the future. This camerawork relates to a form of presentation too. Be mindful of how the words appear on the page. Line breaks can be vital. Paragraphs. Spaces. Dashes. Ellipses. Keep looking at the words, testing them, probing them. From every angle. Kaleidoscopically. “

 

Reviewed by Lou Pendergrast on 21 May 2017