Colum McCann, Letters to a Young Writer: Some Practical and Philosophical Advice (2017) (6/16/17)Thirteen Ways of Looking. His writing is dazzling, and he's an excellent storyteller. (It probably doesn't hurt that he's Irish.) So when I saw this book of "advice" to a young writer, I wondered if I might not learn something.
The short answer is no, not really.
But I enjoyed the journey. The book comprises 50 very short chapters—with titles such as "There Are No Rules, " "Out from the Dust: Creating Characters," "Be a Camera," "The Habit of Hoping," "The Dark Dogs of the Mind," "Don't Be a Dick"—plus two bookending, summarizing "letters." Each chapter is also headed by an epigraph, all of which contributed to my enjoyment of the book. "How Old Is the Young Writer?," for example, begins with a quote from Lorrie Moore: "The whole idea that people have a clue as to how the world works, is just a piece of laughable metaphysical colonialism perpetrated upon the wild country of time." Well put. McCann goes on to assert that one's age is irrelevant; what matters is, if you have something to say, a story to tell, you owe it to yourself to write it:
Never forget that the young writer cannot stop time. (Only in writing can we ever stop time.) Just because they're younger than you doesn't mean they will last. It's okay to put pressure on yourself—that's where your competition with yourself lies. But it's not okay to whine about it. It's not okay to start thinking 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.The general tone of the volume is as there, passionate, wise, opinionated, though there is one funny chapter on blurbs in which he footnotes a supposed blurb by Gary Shteyngart (who I gather is known for his many and generous blurbs): "Colum McCann's chapter on blurbing is full of shimmering heartbreak matched only by an angry lucidity and a peerless semicolon. It is an essential guide not just to how we blurb but to why we blurb. This is a blurb chapter writer to watch. Not since Joyce has an Irishman written about blurbing with such brio and quintessential Ulysses-ness. Blurb chapter prize committees, lay down your other chapters. You have a winner right here."
I enjoyed this quick read, feeling I was in very good company. It was a little like sitting in a coffeehouse with a good, intelligent friend and hearing him expound for a couple of hours on what he's been thinking about lately, and agreeing with all of it.
I will end with another footnote: McCann's "Credo for 2017."
At certain points in history it is only the poetic that is capable of dealing with brute reality. You arrive at the conjunction of these two forces—reality and fiction—and make a decision about how to proceed. There you stand, on the edge of two tectonic plates. What you have to do, then, is let the facts go. Let the figures go. Let the simplicities disappear. Let the sound bites drown. Descend into language instead. Fight the abyss.