Novelist Colum McCann, whose 2009 National Book Award winner, Let The Great World Spin, has been praised in this blog, has written one of the best short advice columns for aspiring novelists I’ve ever read. Consider it carefully. Save it to your hard drive or print it out for future reference. Above all, let it spur you to do whatever work there is for you to do.
I could comment on just about every line of his essay, but these words on “research” reflect some of my most deeply-held positions in regard to the life of the mind and the life of a writer. Remember, if you will, that my days as a student and a teacher long preceded the present era of the Internet:
“Yes, Google helps, but the world is so much deeper than Google. A search engine can’t hold a candle to all the libraries in the world where the books actually exist, live, breathe, and argue with one another. So go down to the library. Check out the catalogues. Go to the map division. Unlock the boxes of photographs. If you want to know a life different from your own, you better try to meet it at least halfway. Get out in the street.
Talk to people. Show interest. Learn how to listen. You must find the divine detail: and the more specific the detail, the better. William Gass – the American author who says quite beautifully that a writer finds himself alone with all that might happen – once suggested, while invoking Maupassant, that we should never mention an ashtray unless we are swiftly able to make it the only one in the world.”