Heartfelt advice from a renowned writer to a novice

Heartfelt advice from a renowned writer to a novice

'It's all shit until it isn't' — Award-winning author Colum McCann has made a book of tips to save writers time and suffering. Huck reached out to him for some personalised guidance.

Every year, Colum McCann greets his writing students with a stark opening statement: “I can’t teach you anything.”

This isn’t meant to be disheartening. The path ahead will be tough enough as it is.

Instead it’s a gesture of empowerment to let them know that there are no rules, no foolproof formulas, no shortcuts to success. The shape of their creations is entirely up to them.

If any of those aspiring writers (enrolled in the MFA programme at New York’s Hunter College) find that idea daunting, they are not alone.

Creative writing is a solitary craft. No matter how long you’ve been doing it, or how much you’ve achieved, fear and doubt inevitably encroach.

Involving others in that process isn’t easy. When it feels like you’ve invested everything in your work, inviting someone into that world puts an enormous burden on them. Nobody wants to dash your dreams or feel forced to offer hollow praise.

But at the same time, that invitation shouldn’t be extended to just anyone. You have to trust them and they have to trust you. A misjudged piece of feedback can bring the whole thing tumbling down.

Colum quote 1
In the two decades that Colum McCann has been an author and teacher, the 52-year-old has experienced the craft’s pitfalls so many times that he has learned to covet failure. Maybe that’s what makes him so successful.

Colum is the bestselling author of three story collections and six novels, including the award-winning TransAtlantic and Let the Great World Spin. He has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Atlantic and The Paris Review; his work has been adapted for the stage and screen. There have been more honours than can be summed up in a paragraph.

As an aspiring (i.e. struggling) novelist myself, Colum’s new book, Letters to a Young Writer, felt like a good opportunity for the two of us to connect.

He’s a renowned author dispensing hard-won wisdom; I’m floundering in self-imposed obscurity, hungry for guidance. He was raised in the suburbs of south Dublin; I grew up about 15 minutes down the road.

He followed his father into journalism before switching to fiction and moving to the US; I started out in creative writing before turning to journalism and moving to the UK.

He walked the length of Ireland and cycled across America; I slinked around the world in a blur of overnight buses and trains.

He has capitalised on his talents and helped others to do the same; the thought of never getting to that point frightens the hell out of me.

So this is how I imagined our encounter playing out: I’d call late one night, rousing Colum from the converted closet he writes in. He’d shuffle across the floorboards of his Upper East Side apartment, eager to reach the phone before it wakes the family up.

He’d stand there in his socks, a sprawling jumble of notes stuck to the shelf behind him, listening and hmm-ing with the nonchalant assurance of a doctor who’s heard it all before. My fears and regrets would spill out; he’d respond with a mix of timeless truths and personalised pointers.

Colum quote 2
“Listen,” he’d say finally, taking a sip from a mug of coffee that’s long since cooled. “I think you know which way this is headed. It’s not too late to turn it around but you have a choice to make here. Would you rather be the ornithologist or the bird?”

Suddenly the path before me would become clear. I’d thank him for his time and hang up the phone feeling invigorated, no longer so lost in the work that it feels like the work has lost me.

But in reality, Colum McCann is a busy man. There are other journalists chasing interviews, others writers seeking solace. He has his own books to develop, his own inner monologue to grapple with. The man has three children, for God’s sake.

So when his publisher says an email interview is all that’s available, it comes as no surprise… though it’s gladly seized upon all the same.

To be fair, Letters to a Young Writer leaves little ground left to cover. Designed to save writers time and heartbreak, it’s brimming with straight-to-the-point insight on everything from staring down the blank page to finding the right agent.

Whereas most motivational books or talks offer fleeting inspiration – a jolt that doesn’t last much longer than a kick up the ass – this one feels different. It’s the kind of advice you’d want to keep within reach, wherever you write, for the inevitable dry spells and moments of despair.

The challenge, then, was to find questions that could poke around the edges of those lessons – uncovering the same mix of timeless truths and personalised pointers I’d envisioned – while maybe teasing out a few biographical slivers too. This is how it played out.

It’s said that everyone has a novel in them. When writers graduate from your class, what distinguishes those who are likely to realise their potential from those who won’t?
When people graduate from the MFA, I have a good inkling of whether they will or will not make it. So much of it has to do with the amount of fire in their eyes. Are they prepared for a series of failures? Are they prepared for a few more years of poverty? Are they ready for the hard slog? They have shown the talent. Now the question is, do they have the stamina?

In my experience of writing, there are many eureka moments. The lightbulb goes on and I think I’ve cracked it. Yet when I return to the work – days, weeks or months later – the elation is replaced with something closer to embarrassment…
Although I’ve become a better writer along the way, this process of self-betrayal (for want of a less-dramatic term) feels like a fixture of the creative process. It has made me question my instincts. Do you have any advice for navigating this?
Recognising it is part of the navigation! Everyone has these moments. You can shape it in your imagination but it refuses to come out of your fingers. In this case, you sit with it and you fight it. After finishing this book, I remembered another great piece of writing advice from my friend Sasha (Aleksander) Hemon, who says: ‘It’s all shit until it isn’t.’ Which just about says it all.

How has travel, and all the experiences that it leads to, shaped your writing?
The travel has absolutely shaped my work. Landscape plays such an important part. But being open to a different geography and the stories of others is key to how I write.

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It’s reassuring that you, as well as that fella James Joyce, admit to spending enormous amounts of time fine-tuning a single sentence or paragraph. In the bigger picture, how do you know when you’ve invested too much time into something? Is there a line you cannot cross?
There is never any line. And there is never enough time. You can edit the spirit out of something, yes, but generally it’s recognisable and recoverable.

Something you touch on in the book is the importance of flawed characters. But it seems like there’s an attitude within publishing, and even among some readers, that a protagonist should be likeable. It strikes me that to vividly get inside someone’s head in the 21st century – with all the neurosis we can get wrapped up in – we have to be prepared for things to get ugly. How do you walk that line between creating a lifelike character, their shortcomings on full display, and expecting people to relate to her?
You have to scuff them up. You have to give them a prose style. And you have to read the first page of Lolita by Nabokov. It’s all about voice.

Your work is incredibly well-researched. How does a writer go from gathering details to creating a voice with authenticity and authority?
I love research. And I love going ‘outside’ myself. I think I have learned how to listen. That’s probably my one advantage. Also I am very happy not to be me. I like getting out of this coarse Irish skin.

Unreliable narrators and dream sequences are things that writers are often discouraged from. You don’t mind unreliable narrators – we’re all unreliable narrators of our own lives, after all – but you advise against dream sequences. Why? They’re played out, for sure, but is there any reason why they can’t be made to work within a story?
I hate dreams in fiction. They’re just too easy. And they’re an excuse for poetic flights of fancy. They very seldom earn a place in a good story. I’m prepared to be convinced otherwise, but dreams bore me.

What did you learn from journalism that you could apply to creative writing?
Just about everything, including deadlines.

Colum quote 4
I wrote my first novel when I was 23. Spent about a year on it. Shared it with one friend. Knew my limitations. Still love the idea, years later, but I was content to let it out of my system and chalk that one up to experience. The second novel has taken up more time than I care to admit. Let’s just say it now comprises a significant fraction of my life. I have the idea for the next novel ready but I still can’t walk away from this one. I need to tell this story…
The Bus Theory is something I think about every day. I doubt there is a single line left from the first draft. I’m not even the same person since the first draft. I went from not knowing what I was doing to writing full-time to becoming an editor. Finding half an hour to retreat to a damp shed or a cosy cupboard has become difficult at best. But that’s an excuse. I know I have the tools and the discipline…
The real reason is that I’m caught in an unholy spot between procrastination and perfectionism. I can go six months, even a year, without revisiting it. But whenever I do, there is much that I love about it, much that makes me laugh, much that makes me feel like it’s the book I’ve always wanted to read. So if I can feel like that after countless rewrites, I tell myself, surely I shouldn’t give up on it. So how the hell do I get it over the finishing line?

You print it out. You make it look like a book. You justify the sentences right and left. You put an epigraph on it. You title it. Fuck it, you even give it a cover photograph. Then you take it somewhere that you have never gone before. You pretend you are not the writer. You sit down and you read it over the course of a day or two. You take quick notes, but you don’t stop reading. You pretend you just bought the book and have to finish it. And then you sit back and pour yourself a glass of wine and you say, ‘Is it any good at all?’ Only you will know.

Letters to a Young Writer is published by Bloomsbury.

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