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Chris Blocker

Literary snobbery and other thoughts by Chris Blocker

Review: Letters to a Young Writer

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

I could use more Colum McCann in my life. I'd shell out some money just to have a little Colum figure in my office that dispenses wisdom from time to time. Better yet, I'll make a nice comfy spot in the corner and perhaps the author can stop by once or twice a day and share a tidbit or two. What say you, Mr. McCann? I'll get you a nice desk and you can have half the room and I'll make the coffee the way you like. And if you like my half of the room better, I'll even trade you. I'm amiable and quiet and won't bother you at all. Just every once in a while, share a bit of advice. It's a good trade if you ask me.

I read one McCann novel eight years ago, Let the Great World Spin, and while I enjoyed it, I now realize I've ignored this author far too long. Letters to a Young Writer is the most inspirational book about writing I've ever had the pleasure of reading. Nearly every book I've read on the craft of writing has given me an inspirational moment or two, taught me quite a bit, or merely given me the impetus to prove the author wrong, but none has moved me as this one has. McCann doesn't talk down to his reader. He doesn't repeat warnings about how the young writer is never going to make it anyway and might as well accept their fate. Sure, it's a fact that making a life out of writing is very difficult and statistically improbable, but if writers wanted a sure thing, they probably wouldn't be writers. McCann refrains from these warnings that fill other authors' writing manifestos; he doesn't say, “you're not going to get there,” rather, he says, “it's a tough road, but when you get there, here's what it's going to be like.” That 'when' may not always be a reality, but for the first time ever, I feel like someone high in the publishing world believes in me. And that's just what I needed.

We all have our student styles. I see it in my own children who've fallen in love with soccer (they didn't inherit their love of sports from me). One kid crumples under a coach who's hard on his team. Another rises to the challenge of a coach like that. One thrives with encouragement and a guiding hand on the shoulder. Another grows lazy with the same guidance. Perhaps some writers need the hard-ass coach (Sol Stein: Stein on Writing - “You suck and you're never going to amount to anything”) and some need the realist coach (Elizabeth Gilbert: Big Magic - “You're beautiful and you have potential, but it's too hard, so stop dreaming”). Personally, I thrive under McCann's style. That's not to say I didn't learn much from my other coaches. I enjoyed my experience with the authors mentioned here, as well as many others. None of those other authors got me out of my rut, however. None of them changed my outlook. None of them encouraged me to go to my office, rearrange the furniture, and get down to business (I made a spot in the corner for you, Colum, just in case you decide to stop by).

And it wasn't just the coaching style that I loved about Letters to a Young Writer, it was McCann's stories and phrases. This isn't only an inspirational how-to for the writer, it's a gorgeously written volume. These little snippets of advice read almost like poetry. And so, I'm convinced, if I can't have the author in my office, I'll just have to find an audio version of this book and play a segment or two every day. Likely, I'll get sucked in from time to time, listen to the whole thing when I should be writing, but then McCann will gently remind me that time is ticking and that I cannot die until I finish the books that are within me. Thank you, Mr. McCann, for helping me rediscover my purpose.