“Letters to a Young Writer: Some Practical and Philosophical Advice” by Colum McCann

I told myself I wouldn’t buy another book about writing until I actually started to write. I don’t know what it is, if it’s fear or laziness, but I keep preventing myself from writing what I want to write. I’ll sit down with the intention to jot down the story in my head, but I either run away from the empty page, or write a few pages worth of stuff, get anxious, and run away. I don’t know what my problem is.

When I saw McCann’s Letters to a Young Writer in the bookstore, I couldn’t walk away from it. I was pulled toward it. I picked it up. I skipped the intro and read the first essay, I held it away from myself wondering if I should buy it, I walked around the store with it in hand, I paid and left with it. The title harkens to Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, which I read off and on one summer in New York, and that made McCann’s book seem promising. He will surely get me writing, I thought.

But McCann is frank about what he can’t do for us and what we can do for ourselves. He mentions in his introduction a statement he includes on his syllabus at Hunter College of the City University of New York, where he teaches in the MFA program — that he can’t teach his students anything. He can’t teach us how to write (or make us write), but he can guide us and allow us to do what we most want to do. And in this book, he is sincere, though frank, as he advises us on writing.

Letters to a Young Writer is a short book — at just 166 pages — composed of fifty-two essays McCann has written over the years on writing. Topics range from the writing life, to publishing, to grammar, to elements of story. The essays are quick yet engaging, funny and inspiring. It’s not an instruction manual, but instead a book of encouragement that tries to guide us around pitfalls in the writing life and career. Essays vary in length and readers may be familiar with some essays, since they have been featured elsewhere, like “Don’t Be a Dick,” which I read last month on Literary Hub.

I read through this quickly, though I tried to savor it. I wanted to know. I wanted to be inspired. And I was. McCann doesn’t say anything new. His advice are ones I have heard or read before in different places, but I liked what I read and appreciated how he communicated his advice to his readers, his students.

Though this book is dedicated to young writers, it’s one that old writers and experienced writers can read too. If you’re in need of a teacher, a guide, a word of advice, this book will be useful to you.

For me, the advice that stuck was:

“The most deconstructive 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.”

Overall: ★★★★★

The book provided useful advice and is inspiring. I nearly highlighted the entire thing. It’s one I will return to again to seek encouragement.

Buy | Borrow | Bypass

Because if you’re a writer or are interested in writing, you’ll want to highlight everything too. Best to just own a copy.

Quotes from the book:

“A story begins long before its first word. It ends long after its last.”

“The great ones break the rules on purpose. They do it in order to remake language.”

“Don’t write what you know, write toward what you want to know.”

“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.”

“Look around you. Depth begins at home. Find out what is wrong and then begin to write about it, in order to write away from it. Even if you’re creating an elsewhere, you are still writing about what is close to home.”

“You should write so as not to fall silent.”

“Time is distance. Distance is perspective. Perspective is all about language.”

“You must discover the moment of the story. This is the thing upon which everything hinges.”

“The language of the street eventually becomes the language of the schoolhouse.”

“Art is a way of coping with the world by bringing it under the microscope of detail.”

“A good book will turn your world sideways. It will also turn your own writing inside out. The prose writers should read the poets. The poets should read the novelists. The playwrights should read the philosophers. The journalists should read the short story writers. The philosophers should read through the entire crew. In fact, we all should read the entire crew. Nobody makes it alone.”

“Writing is about trying to achieve a fundamental truth that everybody knows is there, but nobody has quite yet located. Follow it.”

“Your last line is the first line for everybody else.”


19 thoughts on ““Letters to a Young Writer: Some Practical and Philosophical Advice” by Colum McCann

  1. Finding motivation to write is SO HARD sometimes, particularly when you have a job too, but I always feel really spurred on by well-meant advice. My worry would be that I’d spend an hour and a half reading it and think: wow, that was great! …I’ll start tomorrow!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Empty is empty and empty haunts indeed. I’m having the same problem as you and I don’t know if it’s fear or what. I keep avoiding writing which is stupid since I’m about 30% don’t with my book. Sigh. This sounds great


    1. It’s a good one that I think you’ll get a lot out of. I hope you’ll get back into the writing groove soon. That’s good that you’ve already started on your book.

      Liked by 1 person

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