Letters to a Young Writer – Some Practical and Philosophical Advice for Newcomers to the Trade

By Kai-Arne Zimny

“Nobody can advise you and help you, nobody.”

This is how writ­ing instruc­tor, nov­el­ist, and screen­writer Colum McCann starts his Let­ters to a Young Writer (2017). But if no one can help you write, why both­er read­ing a book that has “writer” and “advice” in its title? Well, let’s read a few let­ters and find out.

Pho­to Cred­it: Kai-Arne Zimny

The open­ing words are not his own – he bor­rowed them from Rain­er Maria Rilke, who wrote them more than a cen­tu­ry ago in his very first response to Franz Xaver Kap­pus, a 19-year-old offi­cer cadet. Kap­pus had sent his poems to Rilke in hope of get­ting them reviewed. Rilke declined, but offered the young sol­dier and poet some­thing even more valu­able: cor­re­spon­dence. Their exchange last­ed from 1902 to 1908. Years lat­er, Kap­pus would pub­lish their cor­re­spon­dence under the title Let­ters to a Young Poet. Inspired by this col­lec­tion, McCann wrote 52 short prose pieces and pub­lished them as his Let­ters to a Young Writer. The chap­ters rarely exceed three pages; some are less than one page long. Even though there are no ‘hel­los’ and ‘farewells’, the casu­al read­ing expe­ri­ence indeed remind­ed me of read­ing letters.

“Be in the habit of hop­ing,” McCann tells us in a very short let­ter that reads as if he had scrib­bled it on a post-it-note – the way you do when you feel some­thing is too impor­tant to wait for a prop­er time to write it down. “Keep writ­ing,” is anoth­er one of his sug­ges­tions. To some, this may sound too sim­ple and obvi­ous; do we real­ly need this in black on white? Well, in case you’re a writer, my dear read­er, tell me: Have you not had these days, weeks, months where even sort­ing your socks seemed more allur­ing than fac­ing the ‘ter­ror of the white page’?

McCann’s let­ters are more than just a pep talk. By writ­ing them, he reveals his painful famil­iar­i­ty with all the com­mon and maybe not so com­mon issues a writer has to face. One of his let­ters, for instance, is about not let­ting jeal­ousy of oth­er writ­ers’ accom­plish­ments get you down. In the process, he men­tions aspects one doesn’t hear very often because they sound either too obvi­ous, not smart enough, or too uncomfortable.

McCann doesn’t hes­i­tate to give advice on vir­tu­al­ly every­thing con­nect­ed to writ­ing, at times in very spe­cif­ic ways. How­ev­er, I’d say if you’re look­ing for a tight­ly packed ‘how to’ book, there are oth­er options for you, and good ones! It’s not that McCann’s book suf­fers from unclar­i­ty, not at all, but he directs his let­ters more towards the heart than the head. It is exact­ly what the book’s title promis­es: Not a man­u­al, but a cor­re­spon­dence with some prac­ti­cal and philo­soph­i­cal advice woven in. And while this pub­li­ca­tion might not be a must for advanced writ­ers, it cer­tain­ly is a won­der­ful intro­duc­tion to new and aspir­ing writers.

“There is only one way. Go into your­self,” Rilke wrote in his first let­ter to Kap­pus. I think McCann’s Let­ters to a Young Writer might be a nudge into that direction.


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