What Cormac McCarthy Taught Me About Writing

CM

If you’ve been hanging around here or the Brain Candy blog for very long, you’ll know that while I may read and review a lot of Indie romance, I also have a deep-seeded love for really great, thought-provoking literature. You may have noticed my passion for Hemingway in my “Instruction Manual for Self-publishers” posts, and you probably read my gushing compliments of George Saunders’ short stories, and John Green’s YA novels. All of these authors have made an impression on me as a writer in some way or another. None, however, have made as great or as lasting an impression as Cormac McCarthy.

Before college, I’d never heard of him. In 2002, I took a literature class in which we studied All the Pretty Horses. I was hooked from then on. To date, I’ve read every book he’s written that is still in print. My favorites are Blood Meridian, The Road, and Outer Dark. Often, when working on my own writing, I’ll go back and re-read parts of his novels that inspire me. Below are six lessons his work and life have taught me.

Lesson 1: Be elusive. (Or: Don’t let the limelight corrupt your work.)

“The writer himself, however, has proved more elusive. He won’t be found at book festivals, readings and other places novelists gather. Mr. McCarthy prefers hanging out with “smart people” outside his field, like professional poker players and the thinkers at the Santa Fe Institute, a theoretical-science foundation in New Mexico where the author is a longtime fellow.” John Jurgensen

“McCarthy is famous for two things: his omnivorous curiosity and his extreme reclusiveness. In his 74 years, he’s given a total of three interviews.” Lev Grossman

Here’s a clip of his appearance on Oprah in 2008, one of only three interviews he’d given to date:

Lesson 2: Don’t sell out on your beliefs just because someone else thinks you should.

“A fiercely private man, he refused to do book signings, lectures, or interviews. One former wife, British singer Anne DeLisle, once lived with McCarthy on a pig farm. She recalled that, ‘Someone would call up and offer him $2,000 to come speak at a university about his books. And he would tell them that everything he had to say was there on the page. So we would eat beans for another week.'” Steve Davis

“…McCarthy describes (in Child of God) Ballard’s halting, almost comic reactions until, finally, he becomes a ‘crazed gymnast laboring over a cold corpse. He poured into that waxen ear everything he’d ever thought of saying to a woman.’ [Albert] Erskine (McCarthy’s editor at the time) has written in the margin: ‘Mac: Here I would expand; describe; too abrupt. Done right, this could have a real impact—dimension.’
“I consulted my copy of Child of God. Yep, McCarthy had ignored Erskine’s advice. The scene appears in the book exactly as in this draft.” Steve Davis

WSJ meets mccarthy

Lesson 3: Be a perfectionist, even if perfection takes a long time.

“Returning to the McCarthy archive, I begin to look more closely at the screenplays. Though McCarthy couldn’t sell them, that doesn’t mean that they are failures. A few of those early scripts evolved into his biggest successes as a novelist. His acclaimed Border Trilogy, which began with All the Pretty Horses, was inspired by a screenplay he completed in 1978.
“Another screenplay, No Country for Old Men, was finished in the 1980s. Yet nothing happened with it for nearly 20 years, until McCarthy rewrote that story as a novel, published in 2005.” Steve Davis

“McCarthy doesn’t mind insulting literary giants. Here’s what McCarthy had to say about Henry James and Marcel Proust: “I don’t understand them… To me, that’s not literature. A lot of writers who are considered good I consider strange.” David McMillan

the-road

Lesson 4: Never give up.

WSJ: Earlier you referred to the role luck plays in life. Where has luck intervened for you?
CM: There was never a person born since Adam who’s been luckier than me. Nothing has happened to me that hasn’t been perfect. And I’m not being facetious. There’s never been a time when I was penniless and down, when something wouldn’t arrive. Over and over and over again. Enough to make you superstitious.” Wall Street Journal Interview

“McCarthy’s books are testaments to the importance of courage and endurance. For McCarthy, they are the two essential ingredients for human survival, and without them nothing noble or great or difficult could ever be accomplished.” David McMillan

Lesson 5: Trust in your work.

“That’s your signpost and your guide. You can’t plot things out. You just have to trust in, you know, wherever it comes from.” Cormac McCarthy

bloomsburymccarthy

via biblioklep.org

Lesson 6: Do the work.

“I don’t think it’s good for your head. You spend a lot of time thinking about how to write a book, you probably shouldn’t be talking about it. You probably should be doing it.” Cormac McCarthy (on why he rarely gives interviews)

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