Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Colum McCann - Letters To A Young Writer

my review of the new Colum McCann book in last Saturday's Weekend Australian...
Half a dozen times a day on my Twitter feed someone will post the following quotation attributed to Ernest Hemingway: “Writing is easy — all you do is sit at a typewriter and bleed.”
It’s a good quote because it captures the school of thought that sees writing novels as a heroic, almost impossible endeavour. The fact Hemingway never said any such thing is neither here nor there. He is the patron saint of those who strive to wrestle and throttle the blank page into submission.
In opposition to this model there are the utilitarians who see writing as a job like any other that simply requires you to punch in in the morning, working until you hit the daily word count, whereupon you punch out. Novelists who started in newspapers tend to be of this school. They are used to deadlines and discipline. “So what’s the secret of your success?” I once asked a famous novelist. “Sit down, shut up, stop looking out the window and do your 1000 words,” he explained succinctly.
Colum McCann’s wonderful new book Letters to a Young Writer is an attempt to steer a course between these two different philosophies. The New York-based Irish writer is all for discipline and sitting at the desk but he cautions that a successful day’s work is often one in which you cut your text by 1000 words. It can be glorious to ride the delete button or “fling the pages into the fire. Often, the more words you cut the better.”
The essential thing for McCann is to toil hard on the manuscript, continually testing it for authenticity and beauty and integrity. Work on it and put it away and work on it some more. Is this paragraph the sort of thing you’re going to be proud of if the book makes it into print? If not, edit it or delete it and begin again.
For McCann writing is a job and a calling, and not an easy one at that. His metaphors come from the boxing ring, the coalmine and the cross-country track. He agrees with Joseph Conrad that a work of art must justify itself on every page, and preferably every line. If that sounds too difficult, well, there are easier professions.
Letters to a Young Writer is more a series of meditations than a Novel Writing For Dummies guide but it’s the more welcome for that. All of us need someone in our corner telling us things aren’t as grim as they seem and that we have to keep jabbing away at our opponent.
And who is this opponent? Not other authors, not agents, not publishers; no, our enemy is probably fear itself. Fear of trying something new, fear of starting over, fear that time is passing us by and we have left it too late to begin. It’s never too late to be a ‘‘young writer’’ McCann says. Look at Frank McCourt, look at Miguel Cervantes, look at Giuseppe di Lampedusa.
Not that this book doesn’t have practical advice too. There are excellent chapters on finding an agent, finding an editor, how to build characters and how to shape a story.
Get yourself a small notebook, McCann says, carry it everywhere and write down snatches of dialogue, descriptions, ideas. Most of these notes won’t be useful at all, but some of them will germinate into a paragraph, or a page, or even a book.
One of the most powerful sections comes near the end when McCann, a writing teacher of 20 years’ standing, allows a little of his frustration to boil over when he asks how anyone can think of writing when they have barely begun to read. You have to read wide and deep, he says. You have to know your chosen genre inside and out. You need to understand where the literature has come from and where it’s going. You need to know the work of great contemporaries. You have to read poetry and plays, the classics, the Russians, James Joyce, the pulpy bestsellers, everything.
“Read, read, read!” McCann says, echoing the famous mantra of Werner Herzog’s Rogue Film School. Read not hundreds of books but thousands. That’s where you will learn grammar and truth and the ‘‘rules’’ of the game.
When you’ve done the reading and wrestled with your opening line (McCann has a great chapter on opening lines), what then do you write about? Don’t write what you know, he says. Instead write about something you would like to know more about. Go on a journey, do the research, explore, become obsessed by something and write about your obsession.
I’m not so sure about that one myself. Personally I’d rather have fewer novels by master of fine arts students who’ve become obsessed with obscure figures from history and more books by people who have actually led interesting lives outside the academy.
I also wish McCann had given us a comprehensive reading list the way Herzog and Stephen King in On Writing and Harold Bloom do. I’m sure there will be people who read Letters to a Young Writer wondering who on Earth this DeLillo fellow is that he keeps speaking about.
But these are only minor gripes. McCann’s book will make an excellent pick-me-up for all wannabe writers out there. Put it on the shelf next to Bloom’s The Western Canon and Robert McKee’s Story and take it down when things are looking bleak and your latest opus is lining the cat’s litter tray.
In the end, of course, there’s no real substitute for sitting there at the desk and staring at that awful blank page. Books on writing are a bit like a map of a minefield. It could be the greatest map in the world but the only way to test it is to venture out there into the unknown, step by terrifying step.
Adrian McKinty’s latest novel is the sixth instalment in his Sean Duffy crime series, Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly.
Letters to a Young Writer: Some Practical and Philosophical Advice
By Colum McCann
Bloomsbury, 168pp, $22.99 (HB)