Book Review: Letters to a Young Writer, by Colum McCann

Letters to a Young Writer

by Colum McCann

HarperCollins, April 2017

This is a short book of writing advice by one of my favorite fiction writers, Colum McCann, author of Let the Great World Spin, among many other books.  When someone whose work I admire as much as I do McCann’s offers writing advice, I’m going to listen.

The book collects a series of short writings on particular topics, many of which will be familiar to writers who have studied the craft.  Familiar or not, it occurs to me that the letters will serve as reminders of lessons that some of us may have forgotten.

The first is on a topic that I cover when I teach: There are no rules. “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.” And so on. Another favorite is “Don’t Write What You Know.” This appears to contradict the old saw, “write what you know,” but McCann prefers this formulation: “Write toward what you don’t know.” (I heard the same advice years ago from Grace Paley, put only slightly differently: “Write what you don’t know about what you know.”)

There are over fifty of these letters, with topics such as “Read Aloud,” “How Old is the Young Writer?,” “Don’t be a Dick,” and “Read, Read, Read.” Having just spent three weeks researching my current project in Southeast Asia, I appreciated this one: “Research: Google Isn’t Deep Enough.”

There is some practical advice (Where should I write?) and some of a more philosophical nature (Why tell stories?), but the whole collection is a mini-course in creative writing that beginning writers, especially, will find invaluable. But I plan to keep the book nearby for rereading, as there is some advice here I can’t be told too often.

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