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So You Want To Be A Writer – Prof. Colum McCann

So you want to be a writer? Attend, then, to creative writing professor Colum McCann!

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Nobody can advise you and help you, nobody,” said Rainer Maria Rilke Letters To A Young Poet more than a century ago. “There is only one way. Go into yourself.”

“This most of all,” he says. “Ask yourself in the most silent hour of night: must I write?”

…….

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 had better at some stage make something happen. To hell with structure, but only if you have thought it through so thoroughly that you can safely walk through your work with your eyes closed.

…….

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.

…….

Don’t write what you know, write towards what you want to know.

…….

You have to put in the time. If you are not there, the words will not appear. Simple as that.

A writer is not someone who thinks obsessively about writing, or talks about it, or plans it, or dissects it, or even reveres it: a writer is the one who puts his arse in the chair when the last thing he wants to do is have his arse in the chair.

Good writing will knock the living daylights out of you. Very few people talk about it, but writers have to have the stamina of world-class athletes. The exhaustion of sitting in the one place. The errors. The retrieval. The mental taxation. The dropping of the bucket down into the near-empty well over and over again.

…….

Nabokov says that his characters are just his galley slaves – but he’s Nabokov, and he’s allowed to say things like that. Let me respectfully disagree. Your characters deserve your respect. Some reverence. Some life of their own. You must thank them for surprising you, and for ringing the doorbell of your imagination.

…….

And always remember that what we don’t say is as important as, if not more so than, what we do. So study the silences too, and have them working on the page. You soon find out how loud the silence really is. Everything unsaid leads eventually to what is said.

…….

Structure should grow out of character and plot, which essentially means that it grows out of language. In other words, the structure is forever in the process of being shaped. You find it as you go along. Chapter by chapter. Voice by voice. Ask yourself if it feels right to tell the story in one fell swoop, or if it should be divided into sections, or if it should have multiple voices, or even multiple styles. You stumble on through the dark, trying new things all the time.

Sometimes, in fact, you don’t find the structure until halfway through, or even when you’re close to being finished. That’s OK. You have to trust that it will eventually appear and that it will make sense.

…….

Plot matters, of course it matters, but it is always subservient to language. Plot takes the backseat in a good story because what happens is never as interesting as how it happens. And how it happens occurs in the way language captures it and the way our imaginations transfer that language into action.

So give me music then, young maestro, please. Make it occur the way nobody ever made it occur before. Stop time. Celebrate it. Demolish it. Slow the clock down so that the tick of each and every second lasts an hour or more. Take leaps into the past. Put backspin on your memory. Be in two or three places at one time. Destroy speed and position. Make just about anything happen.

Maybe in this day and age we are diseased by plot. Let’s face it, plots are good for movies, but when over-considered they tend to make books creak. So, unbloat your plot. Listen for the quiet line. Anyone can tell a big story, yes, but not everyone can whisper something beautiful in your ear.

…….

It’s not a throwaway thing to tell you the truth. It’s not a throwaway thing, to tell you the truth.

Punctuation matters. In fact, sometimes it’s the life or death of a sentence. Hyphens. Full stops. Colons. Semicolons. Ellipses. Parentheses. They’re the containers of a sentence. They scaffold your words. Should a writer know her grammar? Yes, she should. Don’t overuse the semicolon; it is a muscular comma when used correctly. Parentheses in fiction draw far too much attention to themselves. Learn how to use the possessive correctly as in most good writer’s work. (Oops.) Never finish a sentence with an at. (Sorry.) Avoid too many ellipses, especially at the end of a passage, they’re just a little too dramatic … (See?)

Grammar changes down through the years: just ask Shakespeare or Beckett or the good folks at the New Yorker. The language of the street eventually becomes the language of the schoolhouse. It’s the difference between the prescriptive and the descriptive. So much depends, as William Carlos Williams might have said, upon the red wheelbarrow – especially if the barrow itself stands solitary at the end of the line.

…….

Research is the bedrock of nearly all good writing, even poetry. We have to know the world beyond our own known world. We have to be able to make a leap into a life or a time or a geography that is not immediately ours. Often we will want to write out of gender, race, time. This requires deep research.

Yes, Google helps, but the world is so much deeper than Google. A search engine can’t hold a candle to all the libraries in the world where the books actually exist, live, breathe, and argue with one another. So go down to the library. Check out the catalogues. Go to the map division. Unlock the boxes of photographs. If you want to know a life different from your own, you better try to meet it at least halfway. Get out in the street.

Talk to people. Show interest. Learn how to listen. You must find the divine detail: and the more specific the detail, the better. William Gass . . . [is an] American author who says quite beautifully that a writer finds himself alone with all that might happen . . .

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. . . In the end there’s only one real failure – and that’s the failure to be able to fail. Having tried is the true bravery.

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Sometimes . . . you just have to have the cojones to wipe the whole slate clean. Occasionally you know – deep in your gut – that it’s not good enough. Or you’ve been chasing the wrong story. Or you’ve been waiting for another moment of inspiration.

Often the true voice is not heard until long into the story. It might be a year of work, hundreds of pages, or even more. . . But something in you knows – it just knows – that everything you have written so far has just been preparation for what you are now about to write. You have finally found your north, your east, your west. No south, no going back.

…….

Gogol said that the last line of every story was: “And nothing would ever be the same again.” Nothing in life ever really begins in one single place, and nothing ever truly ends. But stories have at least to pretend to finish. Don’t tie it up too neatly. Don’t try too much. Often the story can end several paragraphs before, so find the place to use your red pencil. Print out several versions of the last sentence and sit with them. Read each version over and over. Go with the one that you feel to be true and a little bit mysterious. Don’t tack on the story’s meaning. Don’t moralise at the end. Don’t preach that final hallelujah. Have faith that your reader has already gone with you on a long journey. They know where they have been. They know what they have learned. They know already that life is dark. You don’t have to flood it with last-minute light.

You want the reader to remember. You want her to be changed. Or better still, to want to change.

Try, if possible, to finish in the concrete, with an action, a movement, to carry the reader forward. Never forget that a story begins long before you start it and ends long after you end it. Allow your reader to walk out from your last line and into her own imagination. Find some last-line grace. This is the true gift of writing. It is not yours anymore. It belongs in the elsewhere. It is the place you have created. Your last line is the first line for everybody else.

…….

(The following quotes taken from the full article found here: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/may/13/so-you-want-to-be-a-writer-colum-mccanns-tips-for-young-novelists?utm_source=esp&utm_medium=Email&utm_campaign=Bookmarks+base&utm_term=225927&subid=22099271&CMP=EMCBKSEML3964 )

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9 thoughts on “So You Want To Be A Writer – Prof. Colum McCann

  1. GD Deckard says:

    Thanks, Carl! Some great insights here into an author’s mind. I especially like his creative spirit. He seems to be one who trusts himself as much as he trusts that others can teach him.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. mimispeike says:

    The dropping of the bucket down into the near-empty well over and over again.

    And: the exhaustion of having this thing following you every minute of your day, and waking you up at night to jot a line or two, lest you forget by morning. On your ass, always. Night of the Living Dead zombies? Piece of cake.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. mimispeike says:

    All of this belies the argument of the ‘Selling Writer’ types, that writing is a craft that can be learned. It is a craft but before that, it’s an art.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I take your point, Mimi; but I’d say it’s both, always. It’s just that the novice writer only realizes (approx. 100,000 fictive words later) that there is more to this craft than is immediately apparent. Art conceals art. And it isn’t until you labor on your own character dialogue, scene transitions, descriptive passages, action scenes, etc. that you begin to get a glimmer of an inkling of a clue that there are effective vs. ineffective ways of doing things. From that point on you read fiction as a writer, alert to examples and models, no longer an inattentive mere consumer of words. . . .

      Liked by 5 people

  4. Excellent advice there, Carl. Study the silences – yes! How often have I sweated over lines or dialogue, only to realise it’s better without? Lost count. Now I realise that when I start sweating that way, it’s a bad sign. But I still write the lines, just in case. And then delete them.
    Athletes indeed. Murakami – What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. Nails the comparison perfectly.

    Liked by 3 people

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