Letters to a Young Writer by Colum McCann

★★★★☆ (4/5)

A selection of my favorite passages from the book

Writing the Unknown

  • In the end, of course, your first-grade teacher was correct: we can, indeed, only write what we know. It is logically and philosophically impossible to do otherwise. But if we write toward what we don’t supposedly know, we will find out what we knew but weren’t yet entirely aware of.

Remember that mystery is the glue that joins us: we love the unheard. The reader becomes the most complicit eavesdropper.

  • Plot takes the backseat in a good story because what happens is never as interesting as how it happens.
  • Don’t corrupt your texts with facts facts facts. Facts are mercenary things. They can be manipulated, dressed up, and shipped off anywhere. Texture is much more important than fact.

On Language

  • A writer is capable of all sorts of agility: even if you force yourself into a narrative rigidity, you can still go just about anywhere.
  • Be a camera. “Language” us into vision. Make us feel as if we are there. Colors, sounds, sights. Bring us to the pulse of the moment. See the whole landscape at first, then focus in on a detail, and bring that detail to life.

Writers feel the grammar rather than knowing it. This comes from good reading. If you read enough, the grammar will come.

  • We have to understand that language is power, no matter how often power tries to strip us of language.

On Reading

  • You read because you’re the bravest idiot around and you’re willing to go on an adventure into the joy of confusion.

The best writing makes us sit up and take notice and it makes us glad that we are—however briefly—alive.

  • When a reader falls in love with a book, it leaves its essence inside him, like radioactive fallout in an arable field, and after that there are certain crops that will no longer grow in him, while other, stranger, more fantastic growths may occasionally be produced.

The Writer

  • Practice and time do not necessarily bestow seniority.
  • The voice we get is not just one voice. We receive ours from a series of elsewheres. This is the spark.

Bear your portion of the world.

  • Be an explorer, not a tourist.
  • The most destructive force in your life is liable to be the unwritten story. If you don’t write, you’re not a writer. You’re avoiding the competition of yourself.

There is nothing worse than a talented writer who regrets his life, and especially one who allows that regret to knock him into silence.

  • Remember that any fool can knock a house down; it takes a real craftsperson to have built it in the first place.
  • A program might allow you to write, but it will not teach you. But allowing is the best form of teaching anyway.
  • Often a lesson is not properly heard until years later anyway.

Depression is an occupational hazard, young writer. But don’t wallow in it. Don’t become fossilized in despair. Don’t paralyze yourself in the aspic of gloom. If you stare into the abyss long enough, it will stare out from you. The unexamined life may not be worth living, but the over-examined life can be soul crushing too.

Beautifully Crafted Sentences

  • The considered grief is so much better than the unconsidered. Be suspicious of that which gives you too much consolation.

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 sit around looking inward. That’s boring. In the end your navel contains only lint. You have to propel yourself outward, young writer. Think about others, think about elsewhere, think about a distance that will bring you, eventually, back home.
  • Only that language which is capable of reaching the poetic will be able to stand in opposition to that which is wrong.

It is amazing how a book will find you. There is somehow a homing device in language. Unlike love, there is a destined one always there. And it can be found at any time. You must be open to it. Then you open it up to its magnitude of suggestion. The world is suddenly cleaved open.

  • We have art, he says, so we shall not die of too much reality.
  • The truth of the matter is that freedom is feeling easy in the harness.


  • “Nobody can advise you and help you, nobody,” said Rilke in Letters to a Young Poet over a century ago. “There is only one way. Go into yourself.”

Then the writing became so fluid that I sometimes felt as if I were writing for the sheer pleasure of telling a story, which may be the human condition that most resembles levitation. —GABRIEL GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ

  • The aim of every artist is to arrest motion, which is life, by artificial means and hold it fixed so that a hundred years later, when a stranger looks at it, it moves again since it is life. —WILLIAM FAULKNER
  • If the novel is successful, it must necessarily be wiser than its author. —MILAN KUNDERA
  • No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. —SAMUEL BECKETT

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

  • Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader—not the fact that it is raining, but the feeling of being rained upon. —E. L. DOCTOROW
  • The way to despair is to refuse to have any kind of experience. —FLANNERY O’CONNOR

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