Friday, March 30, 2018

Colum McCann's Letters to a Young Writer


Last weekend, one of my neighbors asked me if I would read her daughter's poems.  I've known this girl since she was little. She was always a precocious, funny, polite and extremely articulate child with the most beautiful thick blonde curls. Occasionally, this girl walks our dog and whenever she does, she leaves long, beautifully written notes about how far Roxy walked and what she deposited along the way. I told my neighbor to send her daughter over Sunday afternoon. I'm not a poet but I studied poetry in college and graduate school, which is to say,  I don't teach poetry or write it but I've read it.

This girl came over and showed me ten of her poems. We read and reread them together. I admired her precise choice of words, her astute observations, her humor. She wrote vividly about a typewriter, a painting, a fantasy of  looking back at her high school reunion, about the challenges of being someone who could make exquisitely painful observations about the ordinary world. We debated the use of the word "devil" in one of her poems. She asked me to choose the top three. It was hard, they were all so good. I was swept up in her writing and a few minutes turned into an hour. After an hour and fifteen minutes, I realized it was dinner time so sent her home. As she was leaving, I asked her how old she was: "Twelve," she said. "I'm in sixth grade." I was blown away. Though I knew she was a child, for the hour that we had sat together, I had thought that I was in the presence of a college freshman. This girl has the writing gift. I think we will be seeing her work in bookstores some day.

After she left, I looked up Colum McCann's Letters to a Young Writer: Some Practical and Philosophical Advice (available here, here and here.) I had read McCann's Let the Great World Spin in 2009 when it came out and loved it, and then had forgotten about him. Then, a few weeks ago, one of my students turned in an essay about a woman whose son is dying, and despairs that there is no word in English to describe a parent who has lost a child. I did a quick Google search and came upon a discussion of McCann's short story, "Sh’khol," about a mother whose son disappears while he is swimming. The story appears in his collection Thirteen Ways of Looking. (Sh'khol translates as "bereavement," but its meaning in Hebrew is more specific. It is used to describe a family member who loses someone at a young age, or prematurely. See Jerusalem Post for more details.)


I downloaded a sample of Thirteen Ways of Looking, and then downloaded a sample of McCann's Letters to a Young Writer, which McCann says was inspired by Rainer Maria Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet (also worth reading but less chatty and funny.) After reading Letters for a few minutes, I decided I had to read the whole thing, immediately, and downloaded it that minute. I read it almost non-stop two nights in a row and then ordered two copies for my sons. Then, I emailed this young poet's mother and told her to buy it too. If you are writer, or know someone who loves to write, buy it, borrow it, download it, and love it. Letters to a Young Writer will inspire you, sustain you and propel you gently but firmly and cheerfully back into your writing chair. I think I highlighted half the book. Here are a few of my favorite lines:


"One of the best places for young writers to be is facing the burning wall, with only the virtues of stamina, desire and perseverance to propel them across to the other side. And breach the wall they do: some tunnel, some climb, some bulldoze. Not with my help, but by going properly inside themselves, a la Rilke. I've been teaching now for the best part of twenty years. That's a lot of chalk and a lot of red pencil. I haven't loved every minute of it, but I've loved most and I wouldn't swap the experience for the world."

"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."

My favorite: "The considered grief is so much better than the unconsidered."

"The quiet lines matter as much as the noisy ones. Trust your blue pencil but don't forget the red one. Make the essential count.

"You have something to write about. Just because it's narrow doesn't mean it's not universal. Don't be didactic---nothing kills life quite so much as explanation."

"Be an explorer, not a tourist. Go somewhere nobody has gone. Fight for repair. Believe in detail...Reveal a truth that isn't yet there. At the same time, entertain. Satisfy the appetite for seriousness and joy."

"To hell with structure, but only if you have thought it through so thoroughly that you can safely walk through your work with your eyes closed."

"Let the story unfold. Think of it as a doorway. Once you get your readers over the threshold, you can show them the rest of the house. At the same time, don't panic if you don't get it right first time around. Often the opening line won't be found until you’re halfway through your first draft.  You hit page 147 and you suddenly realize, 'Ah, that's where I should have begun.' So you go back and begin again. 

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

"But it we write toward what we don't supposedly know, we will find out what we knew but weren't yet entirely aware of. We will have made a shotgun leap in our consciousness. We will not be stuck in the permanent backspin of me, me, me. AS Vonnegut says, we should be continually jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.

"The pleasure of abiding. The pleasure of insistence, of persistence. The pleasure of obligation, the pleasure of dependency. The pleasures of ordinary devotion." (Maggie Nelson.)

"Often, the more words you cut, the better."

"Insist on your own persistence. The words will come. They might not arrive as burning bushes or pillars of light, but no matter. Fight again, then again and again. If you fight long enough, the right word will arrive, and if it doesn't, at least you tried. Just keep your arse in the chair. Arse in the chair. Arse in the chair. Stare the blank page down.""


"This cramp is called obsession. This is what writers do: we write toward our obsessions. You will not be able to let it go until you find words to confront it. It is the only way that you will free yourself."

"No one story towers over any other. All you know is that it has to be made new to the world and you have to begin to investigate it."

"You begin with a small detail and you work outward towards your obsession."

"Often a writer will not know the true reason for writing until long after the work is finished. It is when she gives it to others that its purpose becomes apparent.

"To not know exactly where your story is going is a good thing. It may drive you mad for a little while, but there's worse things than madness: try silence, for instance."

"Because this business of becoming conscious of being a writer, is ultimately about asking yourself, How alive am I willing to be?" (Anne LaMott)

"The whole point of good literature is to make newness durable. You are creating alternative time. You are making vivid that which did not exist before. You are not just the clockmaker, but the measure of the clockmaker's creation. You are shaping past, present, and future. This is quite a responsibility. Respect it. Guide your reader into the story. Trust me, you say, this may be a long trip, a strange one a difficult one, a painful but eventually it will be worthwhile. At the right moment you can create miracles."

"One day you might find yourself hating writing precisely because you want to make it so good. Yet this awful truth is just another form of joy. Get used to it. The sun sets in order to rise."

"Then the writing became so fluid that I sometimes felt as I were writing for the sheer pleasure of telling a story, which may be the human condition that most resembles levitation." (Gabriel Garcia Marquez.)

"But the story will be nothing if character is not part of a great human stew. We have to make them so utterly real that the reader can never forget them."

"We are attracted by a moment in time---a singular moment of flux or change or collapse--not by grande resumes or curricula vitae. So don't generalize. Be specific. Go granular. The reader must fall in love with your characters quickly (or indeed, learn to hate them quickly.)

"In the end, if you don't know your character, sit down and write a letter to her. Your first line might be: Why don't I know you? You might be surprised by the reply. It is, after all you writing back to yourself."

"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. In the end it is only the well-chosen word, whether ornate or bare, that is capable of dealing with the truth. This word, or this series of words, must give shape to the brutality of our lives, but it also must give meaning and credence to the destruction of that brutality. Only that language which is capable of reaching the poetic will be able to stand in opposition to that which is wrong. In other words, nothing short of your best work will do."

"In the end writing solves nothing. Be joyful about that. But---at the same time---never forget that it matters. Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. Whitman says we contain multitudes. Joyce says that good writing recreates 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."

"You should write so as not to fall silent. That's the truth, or the closest we might get."

"The role of a writer is not to say what we can all say, but what we are unable to say." (Anais Nin.)

"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 senses. Shake it up Faulkner it. DeLillo it. Go from present to past. Attempt the future."

"You are inside the issues of the human heart." 

"Lies are very interesting when they emerge in speech. Make action occur within the conversation. Seldom begin in the beginning: catch the dialogue halfway through. No need for hellos or howareyous. No need for goodbyes either. Jump out from the conversation long before it truly finishes. Remember that mystery is the glue that joins us: we love the unheard. The reader becomes the most complicit eavesdropper."

"Everything unsaid eventually leads to what is said."

"The idea of joy might need a long crazy ungrammatical sentence running on foolishly yeah breathlessly without care of custom just rapture pureness moving as if there's a horse galloping underneath the words. Sadness, on the other hand, might need to be curt. Sharp. Dark. Alone."

"Reading aloud will also bring you to new places. You are suddenly out of your house. You're going somewhere new. Don't be afraid of getting lost. Journey as far as you can. Find the dusk and the gloom. Fill your lungs with it. It's the only way you'll negotiate the light.  Be worried. That's okay. The dark is something to sound out too."

"And finally...do you know why your narrator is telling the story? Everyone tells their story for a reason. To heal, to murder, to steal, to recreate. To fall in love, to fall out of love. To annihilate. To titillate. And even when she tells the story just to make us laugh, the storyteller's purpose generally lies beyond mere entertainment. Stories matter. They send our kids to war. They open up our pockets. They break our hearts. If you can uncover your character's true need for telling her story, you will have a found a reason to keep telling it. When you unmask the why, you will find the language unspooling at your fingers. Be grateful. And go."

"Every work of fiction is organized somehow---and the best of them are more profoundly organized than they ever let on. Our stories rely on the human instinct for architecture...Stories are agile things. They're elusive. They're brisk. And sometimes they're fugitive. So, the containers they go into should be pliable. You should have a grand vision, of course, an eventual endpoint, or at least the dream of an endpoint, but you must be prepared to swerve, chop and change direction at the same time. The best journeys are those where we don't exactly know what road we will take; we have a destination in mind, but the manner of getting there should be open to flux. Sometimes you have t abandon the journey altogether, retrace your footsteps, and take a different path. This is so much akin to finding a country in which you want to live, then a province, then a patch of land you love. On this land you want to build a house in which you truly want to dwell. In the creation of this structure, this house, you must become digger, bricklayer, joiner, mason, carpenter, plumber, plasterer, designer, tenant, owner, and yes, ghost in the attic too."

"Structure should grow out of character and plot, which essentially means that it grows out of language. In other words, the structure is forever in the process of being shaped .You find as you go along. Chapter by chapter. Voice by voice. Ask yourself if it feels right to tell the story in one fell swoop, or if it should be divided into sections, or if it should have multiples voices, or even multiple styles. You stumble through the dark, trying new things all the time. Sometimes, in fact, you don't find the structure until halfway through, or even when you're close to being finished. That's okay. You have to trust that it will eventually appear and it will make sense."

"So, write and rearrange, write and rearrange, write and rearrange, and eventually you will begin to see the structure emerge. The harder you work, the clearer the structure will become. It will take on a shape that you recognize: a shape that never could have come simply. The difficulty had its purpose. Now that you have a house--or an approximate one anyway---you will demolish a room here, add a turret there, rearrange a staircase down into the basement, reposition the chimney. Eventually, you will have somewhere you really want to dwell. Then you will have to invite a guest to come look around your home. The reader will not want to see the foundation, or the wiring behind the walls, or even the architectural plans. That is---and was---your work. Your secret. The reader should feel comfortable in the structure, be it palace or hut or boathouse."

"Anyone can tell a big story, yes, but not everyone can whisper something beautiful in your ear."

"In the end, what plot must do is twist our hearts in some way. It must change us. It must make us realize we are alive."

"You must find the divine detail: and the more specific the detail, the better. William Gass--the American author who says quite beautifully that a writer finds himself alone with all that might happen---once suggested while invoking Maupassant, that we should never mention an ashtray unless we are swiftly able to make it the only one in the world."

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

"Whatever you do, make it inescapably personal."

"And then send those sentences to the reader you love, one envelope at a time."

"Finding beauty in a broken world is creating beauty in the world we find." (Terry Tempest Williams."

"Find your life---beyond your writing life---worth living. Be in the habit of hoping. Allow yourself a little joy, even in the face of the world's available evidence. In fact, try to create the evidence jus about anywhere you can."

"The most destructive force in your life is liable to be the unwritten story. If you don't write, you're not a writer. You're avoiding the competition of yourself. Simple logic but it's a kick in the chest when the page is empty. Too much white space is not a good thing. Empty is empty. And empty haunts."

"Know this: every writer will achieve at least one very bad book. Most of us achieve many. But even bad work is an achievement. It is not the end of the world. In fact it's the natural pattern. You still have to get up the next morning. And the morning after."

"It's not okay to think that you're too old or that your time has gone. You can't give up on it. There is nothing worse than a talented writer who regrets his life, and especially one who allows that regret to knock him into silence. You can still pick up the pen long after everyone thinks that you've given up. That's the beauty of it all. You're an athlete of a different type. Your mind doesn't have to retire. So, get back to it. Resurrect it. Unfail it. Rise an hour earlier in the morning and get the work done, even secretly."

"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 it yet...Keep working, keep shaping. Eventually, it will happen. Maybe even sooner than you think."

"Don't let yourself slip and get any perfect characters...keep them people, people, people, and don't let them get to be symbols." (Ernest Hemingway.)

"Happy families are all alike, said Tolstoy, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. So ask yourself these questions: Are you making your characters too nice? Are they too sincere? Have you given them rough edges? Have you "flawed" them up? Is there something truthful and awful (and truthfully awful) about them? Can we relate to their demons?"

"As regards your own life (which really is your fiction, there are always going to be pitfalls. There will be flareups and divorces and the street corner brawls. Insincere words, deceit, treachery, double dealing, and acres of bullshit to wade through. Get used to it. That's life. It might or might not become the fuel for your stories, but the one thing is that you cannot deny it. You just keep on writing, creating life from life, rib from rib, flaw from flaw."

"Failure is good. Failure admits ambition. Failure admits bravery. Failure admits daring. It requires courage to fail and even more courage to know that you're going to fail. Reach beyond yourself...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 sulfur to your brain. Light a match. Inhale."

"Trying to write without reading is like venturing out to sea all by yourself in a small boat: lonely and dangerous. Wouldn't you rather see the horizon filled, end to end, with other sails? Wouldn't you rather wave to neighboring vessels; admire their craftsmanship; cut in and out of the wakes that suit you, knowing that you’ll leave a wake of your own, and that there's enough wind and sea for you all?"  (Tea Obrecht)

"You read to fire your heart aflame. You read to lop the top of your head off."

"A good book will turn your world sideways. It will also turn your own writing inside out."

Another favorite: "Never forget that art is entertainment. It is your duty to reflect the world, yes, but it's also your duty to bring a bit of brightness to it...Go down to the dark places, but bring a flaming torch. We have to have light enough to see the page. Make it colorful. Make it funny. Don't remain stuck on one note. Shake it up. We have to keep ourselves open to all possibilities. Be interested in available joy. The best writing makes us sit up and take notice and it makes us glad that we are---however briefly---alive."

"Be kind to yourself as well as being tough. Remember that any fool can knock a house down; it takes a real craftsperson to have built it in the first place."

"One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time...Give it, give it all, give it now." (Annie Dillard)


"The way to despair is to refuse to have any kind of experience." (Flannery O'Connor)

"Be daring. Be original. Nothing good is ever achieved through predictability."

"I can't write without a reader. It's precisely like a kiss---you can't do it alone."(John Cheever)

"All I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world." (E.B. White)

"Sometimes, young writer, you just have to have the cojones to wipe the whole slate clean...It is terrifying of course. You close the file, you bury the pages. You have a little wake for the words. You whiskey them up. But part of this---like any wake---is celebration too. The deep knowledge is that every bit of work you've done has led you to this point. You create a sort of muscular memory. You have been writing toward your obsession, but now you have the point where that obsession will truly open up. Be thankful. Your thrown-away pages have led you here. Your work has served its purpose. Now you're pageless and your back is truly up against the wall. A little bit of sympathy of friends can help but only for a day or two while you cultivate that secret rage that every writer knows: you have to write, simple as that."

"Allow the reader's intelligence...Avoid pointing out what your stories mean. Trust your reader. Allow the revelation to belong to them. You are a guide in a foreign land. Be kind but not too kind. When you allow your reader their intelligence, they will come back to you again and again and again. Challenge. Confront. Dare. Cleave open new territory. Even confuse them. Then let them go. Say just enough that they learn the territory for themselves. In this way you're always a step or two ahead of your reader but even the best of them don't actually know that."

"And if you find---as you should---that the second book is harder than the first, then you are the writer that you always wanted to become."

"Often, in the midst of a novel or a story, you'll be surprised to realize that you have little or no idea where you are going. You're operating on the fumes of the language and the vague feeling that what you are doing will eventually have texture and depth. It's a deep-sea dive without very much training or equipment, but suddenly, a few feet down, you hit upon a word or an image and you realize with a start that this is the path you were meant ot take. You don't know why. You don't know where. You don't know even know how. It is a form of astounded hearing, a secret listening. You have made a daring raid on the inarticulate. This feeling has its own energy. You have to follow it. You'd be a fool if you didn't at least pursue the sentence in whatever direction it's taking you.
             It's like solving a perplexing question in deep-sea physics: Why was I allowed to come to such a depth? There is a moment when the solution is so simple and evident that you wonder why you didn't come upon it before: when, like Archimedes you notice the bathwater suddenly rise. You know what you have found, what you've been seeking for years.
         The simplicity of it is stunning simply because it seemed so difficult in the beginning/ Now it is there. It has appeared. Somehow the inarticulate has been ransacked. It exists because writing is about trying to achieve a fundamental truth that everybody knows is there but nobody has quite located. 
        Follow it."

"Keep the room a little cold: this will preserve the wakefulness in you."

"Often a lesson is not properly heard until years later anyway."

"If you're writing a novel, get out of your own head and into the bigger world. Invent the neuroses, invent the cartography, invent the woes. Create a new father in which your own father can be embedded. Change the name. Change the time. Change the weather. It will be a relief. Your father will then emerge full and alive, but unrecognizable, allowed freedom to exist in an entirely new body. In fact he will probably have more depth. So too will your own life..."

"Trust me, if you stop writing directly about yourself you will feel liberated. Everything you know will end up inside everything you have imagined. Your characters will be far more true when they are freed by creative intent."

"All good books are about death in one form or another. Celebrate it. Find where it intersects with life."

"There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside you." (Zora Neale Huston)

"The word fiction really means to shape or to mold. It derives from the Latin fictio and the verb is fingere and the past participle, interestingly, is fictus. It does not (necessarily) mean to lie, or to invent. It doesn't that it has no part of what is 'true.' It is about taking what is already there and giving it new form."

"Gogol said that the last line of every story was, "And nothing would ever be the same again." Nothing in life ever really begins in one single place, and nothing ever truly ends. But stories have at least to pretend to finish...Don't tie it up to neatly. Don’t try too much...Don't tack on the story's meaning. Don't moralize at the end. Don't preach that final hallelujah. Have faith that your reader has already gone with you on a long journey. They know where they have been. They know what they have learned. They know already that life is dark. You don't have to flood it with last minute light.”
       "You want the reader to remember. You want her to be changed. Or better still, to want to change.”

        "Try, if possible, to finish in the concrete, with an action, a movement, to carry the reader forward. Never forget that a story begins long before you start it and ends long after you end it. Allow your reader to walk out from your last line and into her own imagination. Find some last line grace. This is the true gift of writing. It is not yours anymore. It belongs in the elsewhere."

"Never forget that writing is the freedom to articulate yourself against power. It is a form of nonviolent engagement and civil disobedience."

"The amazing thing about good writing is that it can find the pulse of the wound without having to inflict the actual violence."
 

"Don't be embarrassed. Don't give up. Don't be cowed into silence. Stand on the outside. Become more dangerous. Have people fear your bite. restore that which has been devalued by others. "

"You must speak of life no matter how bitter or lacerating. Our writing is a living portrait of ourselves. Good sentences have the ability to shock, seduce, and drag us out of our stupor."

"Break the silence. Be prepared to risk yourself. Find radiance. Ready yourself for scorn. Embrace difficulty. Work hard. Face it; you're not going to write a masterpiece before breakfast. Your song will exact a price. Be prepared to pay."

“Write, young writer, write. Claim your proper future. Find the language. Write for the sheer pleasure we take in doing it, but also for the knowledge that it must just shift this world of ours a little. It is, after all a beautiful and strange and furious place."


"Literature reminds us that life is not already written down. There are still infinite possibilities. Make from your confrontation with despair a tiny little margin of beauty. The more you choose to see, the more you will see. In the end, the only things worth doing are the things that might possibly break your heart. Rage on."

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