A demonstration of how precision, care, and hard work are the writer’s crucial tools.
McCann (Creative Writing/Hunter Coll.; Thirteen Ways of Looking, 2015, etc.), winner of a National Book Award and many other honors, draws upon 20 years of teaching to offer more than 50 brief chapters focused on all stages of the writing process. Although intended for beginning writers, the volume would be helpful to experienced writers, as well. Anyone hoping for rules, however, will instead find many lyrical aphorisms. Prose is “as close as you’ll get to dancing. Listen to it create itself.” As for plot, it must “twist our hearts in some way.” McCann sees writing as discovery of one’s self and the world: “Don’t write what you know, write toward what you want to know. Step out of your skin. Risk yourself.” Writing can begin with a philosophical idea or an obsession, but writers should be careful about becoming didactic. “You are not here,” writes the author, “to represent cultures or grand philosophies. You don’t speak for people, but with people.” Those people are invented characters, whom writers must know intimately. Details about motivations, foibles, and eccentricities all contribute to a character’s depth and credibility, even if those details do not find their way into the narrative. “What terrifies them? What do they feel most guilty about?” are among questions a writer needs to ask. Writers must read “adventurously. Promiscuously. Unfailingly” to develop an astute awareness of how narrative and sentences are built. Assuming that awareness, McCann tosses out myriad alternatives for writing issues such as structure and plot. Unlike many other writing guides, this one addresses finding an agent and editor and the “shell game” involved in getting a blurb. The author cautions against measuring one’s achievements against other writers and, refreshingly, advises, “don’t get too attached to the romantic illusions of yourself” and about the writing life. “Being a writer is not about cocaine or the White Horse Tavern.”
Pithy, wise, and gently encouraging advice from an acclaimed fiction writer.