Letters to a Young Writer (Colum McCann)

“The truth is that nobody can teach you how to write,” writes Colum McCann near the end of Letters to a Young Writer. The next paragraph of this review will teach you how to write.

Keep revising your language to make it more specific to the situation and character. If Sarah is nervous, your first draft reads, “Sarah was nervous.” Your second draft doesn’t just say she is nervous, it shows us how she is nervous: “Sarah wiped her sweaty palms on her dress.” Your third draft replaces the action, which is something anyone might do, with something that Sarah would do: “Sarah chewed her hair.” Your fourth draft might include words Sarah would use to describe herself in this moment: “Sarah chewed her hair like she was six again, because she was a stupid garbage baby with no idea how to date who would die alone.”

That single paragraph contains more practical advice than McCann’s entire book, which is subtitled Some Practical and Philosophical Advice. Overall, McCann offers clichés: “don’t generalize. Be specific. Go granular. The reader must fall in love with your characters quickly (or indeed, learn to hate them quickly). We have to have something happen to them: something that jolts our hearts awake.”

Is this bad advice? No, but it’s not good advice either, because — ironically — McCann refuses his own rules and generalizes. Most of McCann’s advice would only make sense to a seasoned writer, but be worthless to that writer (who would already know), and could confuse unseasoned writers, who lack the experience necessary to understand what McCann means.

“There are times when you might spend weeks on a single sentence. Months even. No kidding.” If you spend weeks on a single sentence, you’re an idiot. What he means is that you may productively obsess over and revisit a line of poetry or a single sentence over the course of weeks and months, while also writing thousands of other sentences during that time. By phrasing his advice this way, McCann encourages the worst possible habit a young writer can cultivate: fussy perfectionism that is the enemy of artistic growth.

McCann writes in the vein of Rainer Maria Rilke, whose Letters to a Young Poet is referenced by his title, and attempts to take Rilke’s spiritual, romantic tone and meld it to practical matters such as deciding whether or not an MFA program is for you. It doesn’t work. McCann keeps crashing an ancient sensibility against the modern realities a writer must face — what she should face, and not run from.

“It’s not about the […] tweets or twats or whatever they’re called.” He knows what they’re called. It’s a bad joke and bad advice. McCann displays a strange sort of anti-modern nostalgia (“Best of all have no Internet”) that is at odds with his stated goals for these young writers. A writer that has disconnected from the Internet has disconnected from our world and can have nothing meaningful to say about that world.

Frustratingly, McCann ends his book with a final chapter that is exceptional in every way, one of the best brief essays on the challenges facing the contemporary writer that I have seen. McCann isolates one of the most distressing aspects of our current social climate: “Writing is no longer part of our national idea. We don’t look to our authors in the way we did decades ago. Nobody fears what we have to say.”

“Why is that?” McCann asks. He offers one answer, but here is another: too many writers hold fast to the bland, romantic, conservative image of the author that McCann offers here as an ideal, and so they produce books that politely sit unread under our phones.

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