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Where Do Writers’ Ideas Come From?

May 2017Words by Mr Adam Welch

Illustration by Mr Giordano Poloni

If there’s one thing writers like writing about, it’s writing. It’s a topic that has attracted the attention of talents as diverse as Mr Ernest Hemingway and Mr Ezra Pound, Ms Zadie Smith and Ms Susan Sontag. It’s the subject of a long-running column in The New York Times (“Writers On Writing”), in which illustrious names including Mr David Mamet, Ms Joyce Carol Oates, Mr Kurt Vonnegut and Mr Saul Bellow have generously held forth. In fact, the philosophy and practice of writing have occupied some writers so much that they’ve published whole books on the topic, from Ms Ursula Le Guin’s Steering The Craft (1998) to Mr Stephen King’s On Writing (1999).

This month, a new addition to this sub-genre comes in the form of Letters To A Young Writer, from multi-award-winning Irish author Mr Colum McCann. Taking its title (and epistolary form) from Mr Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters To A Young Poet (a series of letters Mr Rilke sent to a lesser poet, collected and published in 1929), Mr McCann’s book is a series of inspiring micro-essays on the craft of fiction writing, covering everything from creating characters (which, he says, “is like meeting someone you want to fall in love with”) and drafting plots to, ultimately, dealing with success, if it ever comes. (There’s an entire chapter called “Don’t be a dick”.)

Careening along at a refreshingly breakneck pace, the book reflects not only Mr McCann’s own incredible way with words, but his experience as a teacher at Hunter College, New York, where he oversees the MFA course in creative writing. At a slim 150-odd pages, it’s a quick read, but an inspiring one. It contains a wealth of motivational advice that will be music to the ears of aspiring writers, but also relevant to anyone in the throes of a herculean creative task. As an example of what we mean, scroll down to read a short excerpt from the book, in which Mr McCann discusses the nature of ideas – specifically where they come from and how to pounce upon them when the moment is right.