Read Colum McCann’s Advice for Writers

In Letters to a Young Writer, the National Book Award winner gives a lesson in how to be a writer—and so much more.

writer

I live my life in widening circles that reach out across the world.
– Rainer Maria Rilke

 

Do the things that do not compute. Be earnest. Be devoted. Be subversive of ease. Read aloud. Risk yourself. Do not be afraid of sentiment even when others call it sentimentality. Be ready to get ripped to pieces: it happens. Permit yourself anger. Fail. Take pause. Accept the rejections. Be vivified by collapse. Practice resuscitation. Have wonder. Bear your portion of the world. Find a reader you trust. They must trust you back. Be a student, not a teacher, even when you teach. Don’t bullshit yourself. If you believe the good reviews, you must believe the bad. Still, don’t hammer yourself down. Do not allow your heart to harden. Face it, the cynics have better one-liners than we do. Take heart: they can never finish their stories. Enjoy difficulty. Embrace mystery. Find the universal in the local. Put your faith in language — character will follow and plot, too, will eventually emerge. Push yourself further. Do not tread water. It is possible to survive that way, but impossible to write. Never be satisfied. Transcend the personal. Have trust in the staying power of what is good. We get our voice from the voices of others. Read promiscuously. Imitate, copy, become your own voice. Write about that which you want to know. Better still, write towards that which you don’t know. The best work comes from outside yourself. Only then will it reach within. Restore what has been devalued by others. Write beyond despair. Make justice from reality. Sing. Make vision from the dark. The considered grief is so much better than the unconsidered. Be suspicious of that which gives you too much consolation. Hope and belief and faith will fail you often, but so what? Share your rage. Resist. Denounce. Have stamina. Have courage. Have perseverance. The quiet lines matter as much as those which make noise. Trust your blue pencil, but don’t forget the red one. Make the essential count. Allow your fear. Give yourself permission. 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. Make an argument for the imagined. Begin with doubt. Be an explorer, not a tourist. Go somewhere nobody else has gone. Fight for repair. Believe in detail. Unique your language. A story begins long before its first word. It ends long after its last. Make the ordinary sublime. Don’t panic. Reveal a truth that isn’t yet there. At the same time, entertain. Satisfy the appetite for seriousness and joy. Dilate your nostrils. Fill your lungs with language. A lot can be taken from you — even your life — but not your stories about that life. So this, then, is a word, not without love and respect, to a young writer: write.


Reprinted with permission from Letters to a Young Writer © 2017 by Colum McCann. Published by Random House, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.

Featured image: Death to Stock Photo; Author Photo: © Matt Valentine

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COLUM MCCANN is the internationally bestselling author of the novels TransAtlantic, Let the Great World Spin, Zoli, Dancer, This Side of Brightness, and Songdogs, as well as two critically acclaimed story collections. His fiction has been published in thirty-five languages. He has received many honors, including the National Book Award, the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres award from the French government, and the Ireland Fund of Monaco Literary Award in Memory of Princess Grace. He has been named one of Esquire’s “Best and Brightest,” and his short film Everything in This Country Must was nominated for an Oscar in 2005. A contributor to The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, and The Paris Review, he teaches in the Hunter College MFA Creative Writing program. He lives in New York City with his wife and their three children, and he is the cofounder of the global nonprofit story exchange organization, Narrative 4.

About COLUM MCCANN

colum mccann

COLUM MCCANN is the internationally bestselling author of the novels TransAtlantic, Let the Great World Spin, Zoli, Dancer, This Side of Brightness, and Songdogs, as well as two critically acclaimed story collections. His fiction has been published in thirty-five languages. He has received many honors, including the National Book Award, the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres award from the French government, and the Ireland Fund of Monaco Literary Award in Memory of Princess Grace. He has been named one of Esquire’s “Best and Brightest,” and his short film Everything in This Country Must was nominated for an Oscar in 2005. A contributor to The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, and The Paris Review, he teaches in the Hunter College MFA Creative Writing program. He lives in New York City with his wife and their three children, and he is the cofounder of the global nonprofit story exchange organization, Narrative 4.

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