Letter to a Young 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 B.S. 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, but become your own voice. 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. Only then will it reach within. Be bold in the face of the blank sheet. Restore what has been ridiculed 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 the noisy ones. 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.
There Are No Rules
There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.
—W. Somerset Maugham
There are no rules. Or if there are any rules, they are only there to be broken. Embrace these contradictions. You must be prepared to hold two or more opposing ideas in the palms of your hands at the exact same time.
To hell with grammar, but only if you know the grammar first. To hell with formality, but only if you have learned what it means to be formal. To hell with plot, but you better at some stage make something happen. 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.
The great ones break the rules on purpose. They do it in order to remake the language. They say it like nobody has ever said it before. And then they unsay it, and they keep unsaying it, breaking their own rules over and over again.
So be adventurous in breaking—or maybe even making—the rules.
Your First Line
The first sentence of every novel should be: “Trust me, this will take time but there is order here, very faint, very human.”
A first line should open up your rib cage. It should reach in and twist your heart backward. It should suggest that the world will never be the same again.
The opening salvo should be active. It should plunge your reader into something urgent, interesting, informative. It should move your story, your poem, your play, forward. It should whisper in your reader’s ear that everything is about to change.
So much of what then follows is based on the tone of the opening cue. Assure us that the world is not static. Give us something concrete to hang on to. Let us know that we’re going somewhere. But take it easy too. Don’t stuff the world into your first page. Achieve a balance. Let the story unfold. Think of it as a doorway. Once you get your readers over the threshold, you can show them around 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 157 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. This, of course, is a bit like being told to walk a tightrope. Go ahead, then, walk the tightrope! Relax yourself into the tension of the wire. The first line, like the first step, is only the first of many, yet it sets the shape of what is to come. Try walking a foot off the ground, then two feet, then three. Eventually you might go a quarter mile in the sky.
Then again, you might stumble and fall. No matter. It is, after all, a work of the imagination. You won’t die trying.
At least not yet.
Don’t Write What You Know
The inexecutable is all I’m interested in.
Don’t write what you know, write toward what you want to know.
Step out of your skin. Risk yourself. This opens up the world. Go to another place. Investigate what lies beyond your curtains, beyond the wall, beyond the corner, beyond your town, beyond the edges of your own known country.
A writer is an explorer. She knows she wants to get somewhere, but she doesn’t know if the somewhere even exists yet. It is still to be created. A Galápagos of the imagination. A whole new theory of who we are.
Don’t sit around looking inward. That’s boring. In the end your navel contains only lint. You have to propel yourself outward, young writer. Think about others, think about elsewhere, think about a distance that will bring you, eventually, back home.
The only true way to expand your world is to inhabit an otherness beyond ourselves. There is one simple word for this: empathy. Don’t let them fool you. Empathy is violent. Empathy is tough. Empathy can rip you open. Once you go there, you can be changed. Get ready: they will label you sentimental. But the truth is that the cynics are the sentimental ones. They live in a cloud of their own limited nostalgia. They have no muscularity at all. They remain in one place. They have one idea and it sparks nothing else. Remember, the world is so much more than one story. We find in others the ongoing of ourselves.
So, leave the cynics be. Out-cynic them. Step into that elsewhere. Believe that your story is bigger than yourself.
In the end, of course, your first-grade teacher was correct: we can, indeed, only write what we know. It is logically and philosophically impossible to do otherwise. But if 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 Terror of the White Page
The pleasure of abiding. The pleasure of insistence, of persistence. The pleasure of obligation, the pleasure of dependency. The pleasures of ordinary devotion.
Don’t let the terror of the white page shrink-wrap your mind. The excuse that you have writer’s block is far too easy. You have to show up for work. You have to sit in the chair and fight the blankness. Don’t leave your desk. Don’t abandon the room. Don’t go off to pay the bills. Don’t wash the dishes. Don’t check the sports pages. Don’t open the mail. Don’t distract yourself in any way until you feel you have fought and tried.
You have to put in the time. If you are not there, the words will not appear. Simple as that.
A writer is not someone who thinks obsessively about writing, or talks about it, or plans it, or dissects it, or even reveres it: a writer is the one who puts his arse in the chair when the last thing he wants to do is have his arse in the chair.
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. The dropping of the bucket down into the near-empty well over and over again. Moving a word around a page. Moving it back again. Questioning it. Doubting it. Trying it in bold. Looking at it in italic. Increasing the font size. Spelling it differently. Putting it in another accent. Shifting it around again and again. Single space, double space, justify right and left, go back to single space. Sounding it out. Figuring the best way to leave it alone. Hanging in there as the clock ticks on. Not conceding victory to the negative. Railing against the attractively defeatist. Understanding not only what words are for, but also what words stand against. Getting up off the ground when you’ve punched yourself to the floor. Dusting yourself off. Readjusting your mouth guard. Sustaining what you have inherited from previous days of work.
Don’t worry so much about your word count. Your word cut is more important. You have to sit there sharpening that red pencil or hitting the delete button or flinging the pages into the fire. Often, the more words you cut, the better. A good day might actually be a hundred words less than you had yesterday. Even no words on the page is better than no time at the page at all.
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.
No Ideas Without Music
The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled. Each evening we see the sun set. We know that the earth is turning away from it. Yet the knowledge, the explanation, never quite fits the sight.
It’s ridiculed as the most inane question, but still everyone asks it: Where do they come from, these ideas of yours? Guess what? Much of the time a writer doesn’t actually know. They’re just there. They have arrived unbidden. You hit on something that grabs the muscle of your imagination and begins to tighten down upon you until you feel a cramp. 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.
The trick is that you have to be open to the world. You have to be listening. And you have to be watching. You have to be alive to inspiration. The general idea may come from the newspaper, it may come from a line overheard on the subway, it may be the story that was sitting in the family attic. It could have come from a photograph, or another book, or it might have sideswiped you for no good reason that you can yet discern. It might even be the general desire to confront a larger issue—the rape of the environment, the root causes of jetliners flown into buildings, the endlessly awful election newsreels unfolding in front of our eyes. No matter. No one story towers over any other. All you know is that it has to be made new to the world and you must begin to investigate it.
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.
You begin with a small detail and you work outward toward your obsession. You are not here to represent cultures or grand philosophies. You don’t speak for people, but with people. You are here to rip open the accepted world and create it new. 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.
A Hero of Consciousness
Because this business of becoming conscious, of being a writer, is ultimately about asking yourself, How alive am I willing to be?
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 one, but eventually it will be worthwhile. At the right moment you can create miracles.
Finding the “moment” of the story—or even the “moment” of a scene—can be one of the great revelations of the writing process. You recognize what this moment means: it is the point at which everything changes, not only for your characters but for you as well. You are getting to the heart of what matters. The fulcrum. The crux. If you miss it, everything else will fall apart.
Copyright © 2017 by Colum McCann. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.