BOOK REVIEW: Letters to a Young Writer by Colum McCann

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From the fabulous publishing house, Bloomsbury, comes another jewel in their very big and very decorative crown; from critically acclaimed author Colum McCann the author of the National Book Award winner ‘Let the Great World Spin’ comes the brilliantly insightful ‘Letters to a Young Writer’.

‘Letters to a Young Writer’ comprises of fifty-two short prose pieces covering practical matters of authorship, finding an agent, pros and cons of creative writing courses, handling bad reviews and also great advice around the craft itself. A personal favourite letter is the one aptly titled ‘Don’t be a Dick’, which in my opinion can work both for writing and in life.

‘Rilke’s was advice on matters of religion, love, feminism, sex, art, solitude, and patience, but it was also keyed in to the life of the poet and how these things might shape the words upon the page.

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

It is not very often that a book comes along and you feel that it’s written just for you. At the point of reading it, the stars have aligned, the moon is fat, miraculous signs are happening all about you and if you listen quietly. Very quietly. When you open the book you can hear a chorus of angels singing very softly. That is how I felt all the while reading ‘Letters to a Young Writer’ (I say all the while, I read it in a day and a half) from Colum McCann’s introduction to the book I was gripped and couldn’t put it down.

The writing within the book as mentioned previously takes the form of fifty-two letters to ‘Young Writers’ McCann using these letters to detail specifics to all of those young writers out there who are struggling with their craft, who are beside themselves with writers block, seeking structure and coming up with that first and last line. McCann writes in an open unapologetic way leaving much of his heart and struggles within the publishing world on the page, it is his honesty and insights that make ‘Letters to a Young Writer’ such a captivating read.

In my opinion ‘Letters to a Young Writer’ is up there with Stephen King’s ‘On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft’ and Margaret Atwood’s ‘Negotiating with the Dead’ (On Writers and Writing). Books that I tend to read snippets of every time I set out on an adventure to write my next short story or work on my novels that currently sit unfinished in the corner (well not for long) – it is a common exercise that I enjoy (I enjoy it much more than actual exercise). However, what makes McCann’s book stand out is its accessibility, its ease and pleasantness to the eye, the structure of the letter enables the reader to feel as if they are corresponding with a philosophical friend who cares about their writing, cares enough to send you…yes you a letter about it. I will truly cherish this book, returning to it repeatedly, like spending time with a good friend, it will get drawn in, highlighted, thumbed and bashed about. I will use it for reference and advice, for help and encouragement. I can already tell you that I have started to re-read sections of the book whilst preparing for this review and had to stop myself. Because it turned out, I was just re-reading the whole book again.

Trying to decide upon quotes to use for this review was extremely hard, as I would be quoting the majority of the book (letters), so you will have to be content with a few pearls of wisdom from Colum McCann at the end of my review.

I found that McCann’s grasp of the English language / structure something beautiful to behold. His structure of writing is at times very poetic, his letters are full of philosophical and practical advice that you would not be mistaken in thinking you were reading the book of Proverbs from The Bible at points; with such eloquent and elegant language on display it’s a real pleasure for the mind, body, spirit and soul.

‘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.’

Letter ‘Your First Line’

‘You don’t write in competition with anyone. There are no Olympics in literature. No gold medal, no silver, no bronze, even if the literary awards suggest that there might be. You will soon find out that the word best is not part of the true endgame vocabulary, though the word better can be accommodated. What you want to do is to write better: it’s as simple as that.’

Letter ‘There Are No Literary Olympics’.

‘If we’re lucky, writer and reader alike, we’ll finish the last line or two of a short story and then just sit for a minute, quietly. – Raymond Carver’

Letter ‘Who’s Your Ideal Reader’.

‘But first allow me four words of the sagest advice I know: Don’t be a dick. At the party. In the bookstore. On the page. In your own head. Don’t call people names. Don’t insult your colleagues. Don’t tell people how great you are. Don’t drink all the wine. Don’t complain that there’s nobody listening. Don’t ignore your friends. Don’t smirk. Don’t think yourself better. Don’t relegate your humility and allow it to become arrogance. Don’t smoke when you’re asked not to. Don’t drop the silverware from the balcony. Don’t gossip. Don’t get sick on the carpet. Don’t insult the host. Don’t condescend. Don’t leave your partner stranded. Don’t talk about your contract. Don’t mention your advance. Don’t sigh. Don’t yawn. Don’t scratch that public itch. Don’t dismiss. Don’t scan the room. Don’t lie. Don’t fawn. Don’t drop your publisher’s name. Don’t make a fanfare of yourself. Don’t patronize. Don’t humiliate. Just don’t. Don’t. Don’t. Don’t be a dick.’

Letter ‘Don’t Be A Dick’.

I would highly recommend this book to any writer, not even young writers, but they are who would probably benefit from the book more. It’s a truly wonderful volume of work and I personally will be buying many copies to give to my writing friends.

Thank you Colum McCann and Bloomsbury for such an important book that I firmly believe will go on to help inspire the next great generation of writers.

Colum McCann

Colum McCann photo

Colum McCann, originally from Dublin, Ireland, is the author of six novels and two collections of stories. His most recent novel, the New York Times bestseller Let the Great World Spin, won the National Book Award, the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and several other major international awards. His fiction has been published in thirty-five languages. He lives in New York.

Letters To A Young Writer was published by Bloomsbury Books on 4th May 2017.

You can purchase a copy of Letters To A Young Writer from FoylesWaterstones, or The Book Depository:




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Review by Ross Jeffery


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