Giving advice to young writers, Colum McCann wants to see the fire in their eyes

JUDY WOODRUFF: Can writing be taught, or is it an inherent gift that some of us have and others don't?

That is at the heart of the National Book Award winner Colum McCann's newest work, the latest addition to the NewsHour Bookshelf.

Jeffrey Brown talked with him at this year's Conference of the Association of American Writers and Writing Programs here in Washington, D.C.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, what is this book, "Letters to a Young Writer"? What are you doing?

COLUM MCCANN, Author, "Letters to a Young Writer": I was asked to have an online presence by my publishers. And I thought, well, maybe every week I will post a little bit of advice to a young writer.

And it sort of took off. And I did it every week for 52 weeks last year. And so they decided, well, we're going to put it out as a little book.

And I think it's the sort of thing I would've have liked to have gotten myself as a younger writer, although I don't always follow my own advice.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, you teach, right?

COLUM MCCANN: I teach.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, you're used to sort of talking about these things.

COLUM MCCANN: Yes. And I love teaching.

And there's always that debate about whether you can teach writing or not.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

COLUM MCCANN: But I think I teach — I hope I teach the virtue of fire and stamina and desire and perseverance.

I'm not so sure that I can teach people how to, you know, write dialogue or create plot or anything like that. But if I can get them and grab them by the scruff of the neck and say, you can do this, and if I see that fire in their eyes, that's when I think I know a writer.

JEFFREY BROWN: Did you have a reader in mind, or…

COLUM MCCANN: No, I suppose I had my younger self.

JEFFREY BROWN: Oh, really?

COLUM MCCANN: Yes, back in the days when I had hair and I was typing away and getting all sorts of rejection letters.

JEFFREY BROWN: What did you say to yourself?

COLUM MCCANN: I said, you better behave yourself. You better learn.

You know, I talk in the book about, like, these romantic notions about drinking and drug use. I also talk about plot. I talk about characterization. I talk about empathy. I talk about behaving yourself and not behaving yourself.

And, really, I want the younger writer to know that she or he is meaningful, that what they have to say is powerful in this world. But they can't come indoors, they can't close the curtains, they can't, like, lock themselves away from the world and say nothing.

JEFFREY BROWN: Just to give people a little flavor of what you're doing, you address the old write what you know, right?

COLUM MCCANN: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, you say, don't write what you know. Write toward what you want to know.

COLUM MCCANN: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now explain that.

COLUM MCCANN: Ultimately, you can only ever write what you know. It's logically and philosophically impossible to write what you don't know.

However, if you sort of see yourself writing into a space that you don't always recognize, you sometimes learn things that you knew, but weren't entirely aware of. It's very liberating for a writer to go into a space where she or he has not gone before, because, instead of being a tourist, you're like an explorer now, and you're sort of lost in this new idea.

JEFFREY BROWN: Another area, character, knowing your character, details that you won't write about.

COLUM MCCANN: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: But you know these people so intimately.

I like what you said, not just what she had for breakfast, but what she wanted for breakfast.

COLUM MCCANN: Right, right, right.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right?

COLUM MCCANN: I call that the little literary slice of bacon in the morning, not just what they had, but what they really, truly wanted to have.

So, if you know your character very well, you will know both of these things.

JEFFREY BROWN: One other area I want to — of the advice, structure. You talk about the organization of a piece of writing and the importance of that.

COLUM MCCANN: Structure can be really problematic.

If you have a structure beforehand, you're sort of stuffing your story into a pre-assembled box. You don't want that to happen. What you want in your writing is to have a sort of wildness that occurs. And then, out of the wildness, a structure emerges.

It's really towards the end of the novel that most writers actually say, aha, that's actually how I'm structuring this thing. So, you don't want to be too aware beforehand of what it is that you want to say or do.

JEFFREY BROWN: That's interesting, because that sort of goes to everything that you're saying in some ways, right?

COLUM MCCANN: Yes.

So much of what I do, so much of what we do as writers is — operates on the fume of a gut feeling.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

COLUM MCCANN: A lot of people think that writers are much cleverer than they actually are. No, they're not.

But they're emotionally clever, and they go into a character, and they feel something that they weren't entirely aware of beforehand.

I know, personally, that that is how I operate.

JEFFREY BROWN: How do you know when you're encountering good writing yourself?

COLUM MCCANN: You know because, when you walk outside, and you're about to be hit by a bus, and you get — which I call the bus theory.

JEFFREY BROWN: The bus theory, yes.

COLUM MCCANN: And the bus misses you, you say thank God, because all I wanted to do was finish my novel before the bus hit me.

Listen, when I finish my novel, the bus can hit me all at once. And that's when you know you're doing something, something relatively good.

JEFFREY BROWN: I want to go back to this larger question of the engagement with the larger culture.

COLUM MCCANN: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: Because it's been a kind of discussion in American writing for a long time, right, about how engaged writers are or internal, too internalized at different times.

COLUM MCCANN: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you see today in — especially in the younger writers that you're dealing — that you're working with?

COLUM MCCANN: Personally, I like the social novel. I like writing that gets in and under the hood and looks about — at what's going on.

But I don't say to any writer that that's absolutely what they should do. I mean, it's like the difference between Whitman and Dickinson, Emily Dickinson. Whitman was big and expansive and engaged and political and democratic and wrote beautifully.

And Dickinson just came indoors. It was small and intimate and whispering in your ear — both incredibly powerful.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, "Letters to a Young Writer."

Colum McCann, thank you very much.

COLUM MCCANN: Thank you so much.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Bring it on. We always need more advice about writing.

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