Monday, September 4, 2017

In Rilke's Footsteps: Colum McCann's Letters to a Young Writer

I had the pleasure this summer of working with a group of teenagers to help them start a writing group. Their writing goals and genres were varied but they shared the desire to write and they exhibited such mutual respect for one another. Now that they're back in school, I realize that some English, journalism, and creative writing teachers are going to feel so fortunate to have their spark in the classroom.

This week I listened to Colum McCann's Letters to a Young Writer, a title he borrowed from Rilke . I'm a great fan of McCann's novels, Transatlantic and Let the Great World Spin, so I trusted that he would have something valuable to say. I was right. I also appreciated that he acknowledged that his "young writer" might, indeed, be any age.

Since McCann read the audiobook himself, I got to enjoy his lovely lilt, but I hadn't made it far through the CDs before I realized that I probably need a copy for my own library shelves. Each chapter begins with a quotation from a great writer--living or dead. I wanted to write them down and stick them to my mirror or over my desk (if I had one) or on the dash of my car.

The advice is practical enough that an individual writer or a  writing group could spend time working chapter by chapter. McCann doesn't claim to have all the answers, but he dispenses wisdom in a straight-forward, sometimes self-deprecating way. He acknowledges that no one can TEACH you to write.

He kept the book short, too, letting readers get back to the role of writers, following his strongest bit of advice: get your arse in the chair.

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