Colum McCann “Letters to a Young Writer: Some Practical and Philosophical Advice”


  • The voice we get is not just one voice. We receive ours from a series of elsewheres. This is a spark.
  • Go somewhere nobody has gone. Fight for repair.
  • Don’t sit around looking inward. That’s boring.
  • In the end, the only things worth doing are the things that might possibly break your heart.
  • The more you choose to see, the more you will see.
  • Literature can be a stay, or a foothold against despair. Is that enough? Of course it’s not, but it’s all we’ve got.
  • The work matters. The story needs to be told.
  • The unexamined life may not be worth living, but the over-examined life can be soul crushing too.
  • Stories are not about plot, they are about language and rhythm and music and style. If you believe in your own story, and write it well, it will find its readers.
  • Story will end. To some this is a terrifying thing, but to the properly successful person, it is the only ecstasy.
  • Be daring. Be original. Nothing good is ever achieved through predictability.
  • Be kind to yourself as well as being tough. Remember that any fool can knock a house down; it takes a real craftsperson to have built it in the first place.
  • You read to fire your heart aflame. You read to lop the top of your head off. You read because you’re the bravest idiot around and you’re willing to go on an adventure into the joy of confusion. You know when a book is working. Give it time.
  • Read, read, read. The brain is an agile canister. Your mind can contain so much. The more difficult the book, the better.
  • Every work of fiction is organized somehow – and the best of them are more profoundly organized than they ever let on.
  • We have art, so we shall not die of too much reality.
  • Writers feel the grammar rather than knowing it. This comes from good reading. If you read enough, the grammar will come.
  • If you can uncover your characters’s true need for telling her story, you will have found a reason to keep telling it.
  • A book is not an isolated being; it is a relationship.
  • Everyone tells their story for a reason. To heal, to murder, to steal, to recreate. To fall in love, to fall out of love.
  • Empathy is violent. Empathy is tough. Empathy can rip you open.
  • 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. To hell with structure, but only if you have thought it through so throroughly that you can safely walk through your work with your eyes closed.
  • If we write toward what we don’t supposedly know, we will find out what we knew but weren’t yet entirely aware of.
  • Brecht asked, if there would be singing in the dark times, and he answered that yes, there would be singing about the dark times. They are indeed dark times: be thankful. Sing them.

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