I spent an hour and a half yesterday at the mighty Northshire Books of Manchester VT, one of the fine independent bookstores still with us. (Buy nothing from Amazon, friends. Nothing at all, ever.) And I looked at the covers of two thousand books, and opened fifty, and bought two, plus a magazine. One of the books was the new writing book by Colum McCann, Letters to a Young Writer. It isn’t a book in any meaningful sense of the word, doesn’t have a story or a set of characters or a social issue to explore. It’s a series of exhortations to the brave and the fearful, the not-yet-published and the not-yet-convinced. It’s a message from the future, telling us that we can in fact do this. More importantly, that we must.
One of his thousand points of wisdom was this:
Ideas on their own may be fine, and they may make good politics, but they will not necessarily make good literature. You must find the human music first. The thing that outstrips the general idea… You begin with a small detail and you work your way toward your obsession.
Or, earlier in the book and more simply:
Don’t be didactic—nothing kills life quite so much as an explanation.
This first draft of the book that I’m about halfway through is didactic, structural. I’m writing to convince myself that I actually understand something about what I’ve seen, that I have something to say. To find the broad shape of the structure.
But in a month or so, I’ll be done with that, and it will sit there, inert and dead. And I’ll be happy that it’s done and depressed that it’s crap. And then, slowly, I’ll tell its story. I will breathe life into the dead, and it will emerge in the way that it chooses; not as the explanation that I’ve created as my frame, but as the sculpture that emerges inside that scaffold, the stone telling me what lies inside.
No little boy ever put on his PJs and brushed his teeth and then said “Daddy, explain me something.” No. “Tell me a story.”
I’m not there yet. I’m building the scaffold and sharpening the tools. And I’m impatient. I want to start, now. I know better, but still…
I think that the only thing writers ever learn over time is how much it hurts, and that the ache is normal.