Writing Lessons

The Art of the Doorstep

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By Colum McCann


 

I suppose we all baulk against our parents, and the single piece of advice I got that made me want to become a writer came from my father, who was also a writer: Don’t become a writer.

My father was a journalist in Dublin in the ’60s and ’70s. They were drink-sodden times. He himself never imbibed, but he saw the sort of ruin that journalism could inflict on a body. Often there was a ring on our doorbell in our house in Deansgrange in the early evening. An unsteady journalist would be brought into the front room where he would promise my father, a features editor, a new piece at the end of the week. All he wanted, in exchange, was a few bob. Some money would change hands. The man tipped his hat and piled into a waiting taxi. I could almost hear the taxi slosh its way down the street …

So when at the age of 16, I told my father that I wanted to be a journalist, he told me not to become one. What he really meant, I suppose, was not to become the sort of man who would walk up to his doorstep. If I was to write, I should create from the imagination, he said. He was encouraging me, and warning me at the same time. I did indeed go on to become a journalist, but then in order to put a different spin on any of the fictions that the newspaper world offered me, I began to write novels. I owe it to my father, I suppose, this peculiar curse of invention, though there are times I still think that I am climbing that old doorstep.

Colum McCann is the author of Let the Great World Spin, winner of the 2009 National Book Award.

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