Letters to a Young Writer: Some Practical and Philosophical Advice

In naming his work Letters to a Young Writer, novelist Colum McCann (Thirteen Ways of Looking) invites comparison with Rainer Maria Rilke's classic Letters to a Young Poet. In fact, McCann insists on the comparison in his first sentence, quoting Rilke: "Nobody can advise you and help you, nobody." It is a disclaimer that McCann echoes throughout the book.

He draws on his experience teaching in the MFA program at Hunter College in New York, but Letters to a Young Writer is not a how-to book for novelists. In fact, when McCann offers a concrete piece of advice about building a writing career, it often runs contrary to the standard counsel offered in such books--contacting an agent about a novel you haven't yet written, for example. The book is a series of prose poems dedicated to kindling, or perhaps re-kindling, the spark that keeps writers writing. His prose style is emphatic, hovering on the edge of turning into a rant. He proclaims that there are no rules, offers passionately held opinions in their place, and then tells his reader to burn the letter, forget the advice and go write.

Perhaps the most useful insight that he gives is that "you must be prepared to hold two or more opposing ideas in the palms of your hands at the exact same time." It's a skill that he demonstrates in essay after essay. (The second most useful suggestion is "Don't be a dick.")

Writers, young and not-so-young, will find Letters to a Young Writer a source of inspiration. --Pamela Toler, blogging at History in the Margins

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