Letters to a Young Writer by Colum McCann

By Ekta R. Garg

June 21, 2017

For more experienced writers needing a burst of inspiration, Colum McCann’s Letters to a Young Writer fits neatly into the repertoire of handy writing books.

He begins his collection of letters with a quote from Rainer Maria Rilke: “Nobody can advise you and help you, nobody. There is only one way. Go into yourself.” McCann uses the quote as a disclaimer, to remind writers that even as he offers guidance he does so with the caveat that ultimately a writer has to decide for himself or herself how much of that instruction to apply.

The trick, of course, is to understand the rules and know how to apply them before breaking them.

McCann says he wants Letters to a Young Writer to act more as a casual conversation. He doesn’t want writers to follow it like a manual or to perceive it as a tirade on the rights and wrongs of writing. More than anything, he says, he wants readers of the book to learn about the burning need to write and to strive for the best writing they can achieve.

The essays touch on a variety of topics that, at first glance, will feel familiar to anyone who has spent some time researching how to write well. McCann cautions writers against writing only what they know, encouraging them instead to write towards a topic they want to explore further. He tackles the fear every writer experiences at one time or another in confronting an empty page. He even encourages writers to take a break from the actual writing and to leave their creative spaces to engage with the world every now and again, remembering to take a notebook with them to jot down any bursts of inspiration for later.

A quick rundown of the table of contents reveals the nuts and bolts of writing: punctuation; dialogue; the importance of research; tackling structure; the cruciality of reading broadly; staying open to failure. In essay form, each letter may seem short, but writers shouldn’t let the lengths of the pieces deceive them. McCann makes sure to use every inch of space of every letter to drive home points that every writer needs to remember.

New writers might find some of the advice almost counterintuitive. For example, why should someone embrace failure or expect that s/he will write at least one bad book (and some people have many bad books)? Granted, Letters… is not for the faint of heart. A person just beginning on his/her writing career may want to steer clear of this collection; it’s geared more toward someone who has already spent time and energy building a career.

The book, then, functions as much as a pick-me-up as a tutorial on how to approach the writing life. Writers seasoned and amateur alike will find quite a bit of value in owning a copy of the book. I recommend writers Bookmark Letters to a Young Writer.