To Read: Colum McCann’s Letters to a Young Writer

If you want to be a writer, read this book for inspiration! Colum McCann’s Letters to a Young Writer

Several years ago, when I was living in New York City, one of my favorite things to do was to spend an afternoon perusing McNally Jackson bookstore on Prince Street, where I often left with at least 3 new books in my hands. I’d walk to Soho from my tiny East Village apartment, get a steaming hot coffee, and spend a couple of hours letting the titles wash over me as I walked from section to section, imagining the possibility of all of the stories that I could know.

One autumn when my sister was visiting me from Colorado, a writer and avid reader herself, we went to McNally Jackson to see our favorite shared writer, Colum McCann. Bedecked in his signature loosely-wound scarf, McCann began to speak as a few dozen people gathered in the basement amongst wooden bookshelves and the sweet smell of paper and espresso. It was a special and memorable evening to me, simply because I was in the presence of a person who had touched my life without even knowing it, as many authors do.

If you want to write read this book: colum mccann’s letters to a young wrtier

Colum McCann wrote what I think is safe to say is my favorite book, Let the Great World Spin. If you haven’t read it, I can’t recommend it enough. McCann draws the reader into his novel by using multiples perspectives and protagonists, one of my favorite traits in a novel, and keeps the reader turning the pages with a complex saga of characters and their perils. The story includes slices of different worlds including a tightrope walker, daring to balance on a tightrope between the two towers of the World Trade Center, a mother who has lost her son, a priest who is finding his way in a world of sin. Perhaps the most beautiful aspect of this work though is the portrayal of the simple truth that as humans, we look for meaning in everything in life, even the tragedies.

Reading an incredible novel is one of the greatest pleasures in life. Reading an incredible novel can also be, for someone like me who has dreamed of being a writer most of her life, an inspiration to write one yourself, (or attempt to, anyway). So you can imagine my delight when this author, who I hold in the highest regard, published a book with advice for aspiring writers. Letters to a Young Writer is the most valuable book I could recommend to anyone with a desire to write. This seemingly slight little book is packed full of wisdom and wit, and strikes the perfect note between practicality and encouragement. While I encourage you to go out and get it today, or get it at your local library like I did, I wanted to share a few nuggets of wisdom that stood out to me the most. May these words from Colum MCcann’s beautiful mind inspire you to put pen to paper.

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.
— Page 8
Don’t write what you know, write toward what you want to know.
— Page 11
Stories matter. They send our kids to war. They open up our pockets. They break our hearts.
— Page 51
You should write your work as if you are sending it to your reader one careful sentence at a time. Prose should be as well written as poetry. Every word matters. You just test for the rhythm and precision. Look for assonance, alliteration, rhyme. Look for internal echoes. Vary your moves. It’s as close as you’ll get to dancing. Listen to it create itself. Never allow it to become elevator music. It is your ability to push yourself one step further that will set you apart.
— Page 70-71
Write for the sheer pleasure we take in doing it, but also for the knowledge that it might just shift this world of ours a little.
— Page 162

And a final thought, as McCann reminds us, writers need to have the stamina of athletes to make it through the physical, emotional, and mental process of writing. So train, practice, take work days, take rest days. Keep going, friends, and write.