‘Work hard and be patient’ McCann urges fledgling writers of any age

I’m a sucker for ‘How to write’ books so, when I heard that Colum McCann (Let the Great World Spin, Transatlantic and Thirteen Ways of Looking) had penned one, I was itching to read it. Letters to a Young Writer didn’t disappoint. It’s concise, candid and kind of beautiful. It’s also encouraging—and isn’t this exactly what every ‘young’ writer needs?

Here’s the lowdown …

It’s concise

This book has very little padding, so it’s great to read and to hold. Its lithe chapters and sentences are well pitched. McCann cautions against flab. He also encourages writers to find the most illuminating details and include them.

Here’s a quote …

Please remember that mishandling your research is also your potential downfall. At times we can pollute our texts with too much of the obvious. It is often a good thing to have space instead so that we can fill it out with imaginative muscle. Always ask yourself, how much research is enough. Don’t corrupt your texts with facts, facts, facts. Facts are mercenary things. They can be manipulated, dressed up, and shipped off anywhere. Texture is much more important than fact.

And another …

Focus on the small detail that reveals the wider world. … The cumulative effect of your attention to detail provided by your research is what will make your stories sing.

It’s beautiful

Letters to a Young Writer is an elegant little hardback, right down to the cute pencils that are sketched on the otherwise blank pages included at the end. I also love a writer who practises what he preaches. Gorgeous sentences, clear expression, wonderful rhythm. To achieve this, I reckon McCann read several drafts of this book aloud to himself—something he suggests all authors do with their work.

Here’s a quote …

When you read aloud, you hear the original intent. You see where the music works and where it falls away. You discover rhythm, or the lack of it. … Cross them [words] out. Find a new word, or a series of words. Then read aloud again and again until it’s working. … Tape yourself with a recorder if you have to. Listen again. Let your sentences form a landscape.

It’s candid

McCann doesn’t gloss over the fact that writing is an endurance test if you want to write well. Therefore he suggests keeping your bum in the chair, developing the skin of an elephant, and learning the resilience of a boxer, so that when you’re punched down (which you will be) you can spring straight up again and go further rounds in the ring.

Here’s a quote …

Good writing will knock the living daylights out of you. Very few people talk about it, but writers have to have the stamina of world-class athletes. The exhaustion of sitting in the one place. The errors. The retrieval. The mental taxation …

It’s encouraging

Creating work that can reach the hearts and minds of others and meet your own exacting standards can be a struggle—and a lonely one. It can also be discouraging when your work is rejected. McCann suggests finding a dependable context in which to air your stories, and to get feedback. He also talks about the benefits of tertiary writing programs (he teaches in one)—but admits nobody can teach you how to write. These programs allow you to write, he says, which is the best form of teaching. (Likewise, I think, McCann’s book can’t teach you to write, but it might tug you in the right direction.)

Here’s a quote …

So, go to the MFA program if it feels right, but don’t expect some writer to solve it all for you. Go there to mess up. Go there to find a safe place to fail. Go there to find a community of readers. Go there because you will get a chance to breathe amongst others who are learning the exact same art. A single word in a workshop might knock six months off your writing curve. Be patient. It is an apprenticeship. It is likely to frustrate you at first. In fact workshop can be one of the most humiliating experiences of a writer and even a teacher’s life. In the end of the program (or the pogrom), you might be more mystified than ever before. That’s okay. This too will settle. Give it time. Often a lesson is not properly heard until years later anyway. …

It raises the bar

McCann pushes the ‘young’ writer to strive for work that’s urgent, interesting and informative for readers. Near enough is not good enough. Take risks. Do the work to create the work that sings. He also urges you to make sure your opening lines whisper in your reader’s ear that ‘everything is about to change’.

Here’s a quote …

Put together words that nobody ever cobbled together before. This is how we achieve the unique. There are times you might spend weeks on a single sentence. Months even. No kidding.

And another …

Open elegantly. Open fiercely. Open delicately. Open with surprise. Open with everything at stake.

It’s wise

The wisdom McCann offers about writing comes from having been in the crucible. Because he’s been there, he knows just how vulnerable the fledgling writer (and even the accomplished writer) can feel. Happily, he keeps the pain in perspective. It’s not the end of the world if your work fails to find traction. Try again. Persistence is key.

Here’s a quote …

And herein lies another piece of advice for a writer who might think that time has passed her by: Don’t tell too many people that you’re working on a book. Don’t give them the chance to ask you if you’ve finished yet. Don’t let them torture you at parties. There’s almost nothing worse than the question, How’s that book of yours coming along? (It’s second to hearing that someone else has actually finished a book.) Most people don’t know how long it actually takes for a book to get written. Just say it’s on its way—even if it’s not exactly on its way.

It affirms editing

Read your stuff aloud and be ruthless, says McCann. Chop drivel and pace your work well. Self-editing is crucial. Getting a good editor to point out where and how the work might be improved can also be invaluable.

Here’s a quote

Don’t worry about your word count. Your word cut is more important. … Often the more you cut, the better. A good day might actually be a hundred words less than you had yesterday.

It’s positive about failure

No one loves failure—though most writers have to face it. When you do, keep the following quote from McCann close by so you can refer to it and take heart.

Here’s a quote …

Failure is good. Failure admits ambition. Failure admits bravery. Failure admits daring. It requires courage to fail. … Failure tells you to write a bigger story and a better one. … And in the end there’s only one real failure—and that’s the failure to be able to fail. Having tried is the true bravery. … Take heart. Failure is a snap of sulphur to your brain. Light a match. Inhale.

It advises: ‘Don’t be a dick’

The chapter heading ‘Don’t be a dick’ is the best! As McCann says: as a writer you should be a decent person and cultivate a life you love outside your writing. And isn’t that a great thought to end this blog post?

Here’s a quote … (that is a quote from Henry James) …

Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind. (Henry James)

Letters to a Young Writer
Colum McCann
Penguin Random House, $25

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