Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

John McPhee’s advice to young writers

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The writing impulse seeks its own level and isn’t always given a chance to find it. You can’t make up your mind in Comp Lit class that you’re going to be a Russian novelist. Or even an American novelist. Or a poet. Young writers find out what kinds of writers they are by experiment. If they choose from the outset to practice exclusively a form of writing because it is praised in the classroom or otherwise carries appealing prestige, they are vastly increasing the risk inherent in taking up writing in the first place. It is so easy to misjudge yourself and get stuck in the wrong genre. You avoid that, early on, by writing in every genre. If you are telling yourself you’re a poet, write poems. Write a lot of poems. If fewer than one work out, throw them all away; you’re not a poet. Maybe you’re a novelist. You won’t know until you have written several novels…

I have always thought that Ben Jonson must have had young writers in mind when he said, “Though a man be more prone and able for one kind of writing than another, yet he must exercise all.” Gender aside, I take that to be a message to young writers.

John McPhee, in The New Yorker

Written by nevalalee

July 8, 2012 at 9:50 am

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