Colum McCann on Facing the Terror of the Blank Page

The award-winning author discusses the poetry of Wendell Berry, and the importance of abandoning yourself to mystery.

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Karl Ove Knausgaard, George Saunders, Emma Donoghue, Michael Chabon, and more.

Doug McLean

Good stories find a way to keep telling themselves, says the novelist Colum McCann, even after the original teller is long gone. In our conversation for this series, he discussed Wendell Berry’s poem “A Meeting,” exploring the way the narrator’s vivid dream of a dead friend serves as a metaphor for the role literature plays in culture. We discussed how the poem helped him cope with loss, the immortality of the human voice, and how a writer’s best reader is not a confidant, but a stranger—yourself, 20 years later.

It would be a disservice to call McCann’s latest, Letters to a Young Writer, a book of writing advice. But that’s exactly, unabashedly, what it is. In a sequence of short directives delivered in “how-to” second person—do this, not that—McCann guides the young writer through topics from inspiration to publication, and everything in between. There are chapters on nuts-and-bolts fundamentals like character and structure and rhythm, as well as professional concerns like finding an agent, but the offerings vary extensively in length and tone. One presents a tip to stay motivated: During each writing session, imagine being smacked by a bus with your novel still unfinished. Another is titled, simply, “Don’t Be a Dick.”

How does McCann manage to be so prescriptive without sounding pedantic? Maybe it’s because he embraces his own subjectivity, acknowledging the limits of what he can tell. As he explains in the introduction, he begins every semester by telling his students: I can teach you nothing. The book begins with a quote from the poet Rilke, whose teacher-student correspondence helped inspire this volume: “Nobody can advise and help you, nobody. There is only one way. Go into yourself.” It’s that posture of humility that allows McCann to counsel without restraint, and frees him to write a book as poetic, strange, surprising, and ultimately helpful as this one.

Colum McCann is the author of three story collections and six novels including TransAtlantic and Let the Great World Spin, which won a National Book Award and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. His work has been published in magazines like The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and The Paris Review, and he teaches fiction at Hunter College’s MFA program in writing. He spoke to me by phone.

Colum McCann: I stumbled upon Wendell Berry in 1987 when I was traveling across the United States on a bicycle. The whole trip took about a year and a half. During that time I ended up working at a center for juvenile delinquents in Texas. One of the counselors ended up becoming a really good friend of mine, a man by the name of Terry Cooper. He put a copy of Wendell Berry’s poetry in my hand and I traveled with it for quite a while.

All I had to hold my tent, sleeping bag, food, clothes, and books was two pannier bags on the front, two on the back. I hated to get rid of any books along the way, but I could only carry so much. Wendell Berry’s was one of the few that I actually kept with me all the time. I eventually brought it all the way to San Francisco. What I particularly loved at the time was his series of “Mad Farmer” poems. The poems all seemed to have a real twinkle in their eyes in the face of a dark world. The “Mad Farmer’s Love Song” goes like this:

O when the world’s at peace
and every man is free
then will I go down unto my love.

O and I may go down
several times before that.

Or lines from the couplet “The Mad Farmer March”:

Instead of reading Chairman Mao
I think I’ll go and milk my cow.

These are short, pithy, incisive poems that you can easily learn off by heart. Since childhood I have liked learning things off by heart. I’m not so good at it anymore, the brain is a bit tired, but I used to learn a lot of poetry off by heart in school. Dylan Thomas, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Yeats, Dickinson. I still like to recite these poems. In fact I get my kids to learn a poem for me every Christmas. That’s their present to me, but it’s also my present to them I suppose. They have a full arsenal of poetry to accompany them wherever they go. If ever I get to a really good party where they’re reciting party pieces—which doesn’t happen that much these days, unfortunately—those “Mad Farmer” poems are great ones to say aloud.

But the poem I like to recite the most is Berry’s “A Meeting”:

In a dream I meet
my dead friend. He has,
I know, gone long and far,
and yet he is the same
for the dead are changeless.
They grow no older.
It is I who have changed,
grown strange to what I was.
Yet I, the changed one,
ask: “How you been?”
He grins and looks at me.
“I been eating peaches
off some mighty fine trees.”

It’s a poem that everybody can recognize and interpret on several levels. It’s about death obviously, but it’s also about memory and belonging, about how we grow older and estranged to what we once were. It also confronts how death may take away a lot of things, but it will not take away your stories. It’s about permanence, then, and joy, even in the face of death. It does all this in such a simple, powerful, direct manner that it always takes my breath away. The poem reminds me of two rivers meeting each other: These two friends have gone long and far, and yet somehow they have come back together in a landscape of imagination.

Every time I recite it I can hear people hold their breath because they’re not sure where it’s going to go. Is it going to be sentimental? Is it going to be crass? Here he is, this guy who walks up to meet his dead friend, and says to him, “How you been?” You expect a somber revelation at the end. Instead, they have a laugh. The poem surprises us with its playfulness, its pleasure, its sensuality. There’s something visceral and even sexual about the peach-eating. And it not only celebrates and elevates what is sensuous about life—“A Meeting” suggests that our fleeting moments of earthly enjoyment have a kind of immortality.

There’s something impish and witty and very joyously radical about this. It’s the idea that we remain present even though we’ve gone, which is one of Berry's enduring themes. It doesn’t really strike me as any sort of real heaven or anything like that, though there could be Christian overtones. For me, it just means that life is still ongoing even when we are no longer here—that everything we do has consequence.

The poem reminds me of my best friend Brendan Burke who died almost three years ago now. He was in Dublin, and we would hang out and sometimes chat about poetry. I always wanted to get Brendan to read James Joyce’s Ulysses, and he kept promising me he would, though he never did. Still, shortly before he died, unbeknownst to me and his partner Liz, Brendan bought a copy of Ulysses for $3.99 from Hodges Figgis bookstore in Dublin. We know this because we found the book the day he died (from complications with Crohn’s disease) and the receipt was inside of it. We also know that he didn’t read the book, because it hadn’t really been cracked open. But he had bought it. That was a real breakthrough.

I went to the funeral in Dublin, and I had a chance to be in the funeral parlor before the wake. The Irish tradition is that you have an open coffin. It sounds bleak but it’s not. It entirely relates to the Berry poem, in fact. So I’m sitting in the funeral parlor, and Brendan was there in his wicker coffin, a beautiful wicker coffin, with his cowboy boots on and his trendy clothes, his beautiful shirt, his long mane of blond hair. He was 50 years old, really handsome, an interesting man. And Liz had put the copy of Ulysses on his chest for him to take with him to the yonder.

She said her goodbyes and left the room, and I was left there with Brendan, waiting for his family to come along. I had about an hour or so. So I just went over to the coffin and I picked up Ulysses, and I began to read to him. The first section I read him was from “Cyclops,” but mostly I read to him Molly Bloom’s soliloquy—in other words, I read all the dirty parts. All the peach-eating parts, you might say.

The other person “A Meeting” reminds me of is my father. He died three years ago, the year after Brendan. He was in Dublin and he was a gardener. He grew roses, he was a good fan of Wendell Berry’s. I’m sure my dad is somewhere among the mighty fine trees, too.

I love the way the poem makes the personal eternal—how a friend’s face, his voice, can be summoned up after many years, how even the delight one felt at eating a summer peach will somehow never fully perish. That, I think, is similar to what literature does. The deep enduring value of literature is that it lays down a marker. You are speaking with a voice that will never go silent.

That’s why you have to achieve your very, very best at any particular moment, because the book you write will, like the friend in the poem, be there forever. That’s why I push my students hard. A lot of people say your ideal reader is an idealized stranger, or a friend, but I tell them, Your ideal reader is yourself, 20 years from now. I ask them: If you were able to read you work 20 years from now, would you still be proud of it? Did you hurt somebody? Did you try to pull the wool over somebody’s eyes, or even your own eyes? Were you being entirely honest? How true does the work happen to be?

You have to imagine yourself, 20 years on, coming back to take a look at your work. And when that future self looks back, it should see you put your best self down on the page. You hope that in those 20 years from now, you still recognize your best self and are not embarrassed by what you wrote.

That’s a lot of pressure, obviously. A paralyzing amount of pressure sometimes. But you can’t paralyze yourself into silence. That’s the most important thing: You can’t overthink this. (As I say somewhere in the book: “The unexamined life may not be worth living, but the over-examined life is a scary proposition too.”) You shouldn’t over-examine these things, but at the same time, you must do your very, very, very best. That becomes a tightrope of sorts. You have to learn how to walk the tightrope. That’s the great creative tension that makes good work.

Of course, the great joy about writing is you’re not on a literal tightrope. If you fall, you only hit your office floor.

One of the main things I try to convince my students is that, very simply, the art of writing is putting your arse in the chair. That’s it. When it’s going well, you can get up out of your chair. You can walk around. You can do the dishes. You can do whatever you want to do. But when it’s going badly, you must sit, and you must fight it, face the blank page. It takes a lot of stamina, but it’s the only way that work gets done.

The terror of the white page never goes away, no matter how much you publish. Do you know how terrified I was this morning, as I woke up and walked into my latest novel? And it doesn’t get any better. Every time I finish a piece of work, I am completely terrified that I’m going to be found out, that I’m a charlatan, that I have nothing left anymore. That I can’t do it anymore. It’s no good; I’ve lost touch. Through all of that, you find another block of stone. You just continue to carve and chip away.

A lot of younger writers tend to think it all boils down to genius. That, for the great writers, it’s all there—they just sit at the typewriter, or computer, and everything comes out. But the truth is that it never works that way. These young writers don’t know the enormous struggle that it happens to be. On the page, great writers make it look easy—but the ease is an illusion.

That’s disconcerting for younger writers to hear. They are convinced that somehow, once you figure out how to write something good, then you’ll just be able to go on doing it your whole life. It doesn’t happen that way. That’s why the very first thing I say to them is, “I have no answers for you. There is no answer. What I’m about to tell you is that I do not know.” I’ve been 25 years writing now professionally. And I still do not know, though I have been lucky enough to pick up a few tips along the way.

The writers who are prepared to keep going are the ones who are going to make it. I can guarantee that a writer with 80 percent of the talent and 100 percent of the desire will be so much better than the person with 100 percent of the talent and only 80 percent of the desire. It always works that way.

I want my students to tack up a Samuel Beckett quotation on their office doors: “No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” The ability to fail is what distinguishes the ordinary writer from the great one. The one who actually wants to push herself or himself so far that they know they’re going to crash and burn. You must risk yourself in order to find out what it is you truly know.

That usually means just abandoning yourself to mystery. Over time, the mystery itself will join these things together. Eventually, after weeks, or months, or years of not knowing, there will come a moment when you think, “Aw, yeah! That’s it! That’s it! That’s what I’ve been looking for!” The solution appears, so simple and so elegant that it almost seems mathematical. You think, “That's been staring at me for the past two years, three years. How come I couldn’t see it?” Well, the fact of the matter is you couldn’t see it because you can’t see the beautiful simplicity at first. You have to do a lot of messy work to get there.

To paraphrase another poem of Wendell Berry’s: Nothing is simple, especially simplification.

The act of storytelling is one of the most fundamental human things that we have. After a roof over our heads, and after food in our bellies, and after access to companionship, storytelling is the most important thing that we have access to. It’s our ability to say that we matter, that our lives matter, and that other lives matter. It’s not some vain show for the entertainment of the gods. Good stories and good storytellers, they make the universe bigger for me. They expand the world in certain ways. And I want to live in as big a world as I possibly can.

Stories may be entertainment, but they’re serious entertainment. Even in death, your stories keep on telling themselves. Even in death, we can still surprise people and make them happy. Let’s not forget that.