Frank McCourt, who died this week of meningitis, was by his own account a resounding failure. In his forties, he was still a substitute teacher. His first marriage failed. He made an abortive attempt to earn a doctorate at Trinity. He felt inferior in the company of writers—even in the company of inferior writers. In his sixties, he began to write; he was 66 when he published his first book, and he hoped it would sell a few hundred copies.
The book McCourt wrote became the Pulitzer-winning bestseller, Angela’s Ashes. In his third book, Teacher Man, McCourt offered a bleak summary of his life: “I was born in New York and taken to Ireland before I was four. I had three brothers. My father, an alcoholic, wild man, great patriot, ready always to die for Ireland, abandoned us when I was ten going on eleven. A baby sister died, twin boys died, two boys were born. My mother begged for food, clothing, and coal to boil water for the tea… My brothers and I left school at fourteen, worked, dreamed of America, and one by one, sailed away.” It wasn’t just the inherent drama of his life that made Angela’s Ashes such a well-loved book—it was the honesty and humour with which he told his story.
McCourt never held forth on the craft of writing; and yet, reading his books could teach you more about being a writer than most creative writing 101 classes. In tribute to him, here are five things I learned about writing from his work.
Write with honesty, without expectation: “Just one more year, God, just one more year because this book is the one thing I want to do in my life, what’s left of it.” In the wake of the success of Angela’s Ashes, many people who had buried dreams of being a writer dusted their manuscripts off and tried to emulate McCourt. Few made it; they were looking for the success McCourt had serendipitously found, and didn’t share either his talent or his need to tell his story. “I never dreamed it would be a bestseller,” McCourt continues. He wrote this book, not looking for results, for the only reason that counts—he wanted to.
Collect stories, wherever you find them: For most of his life, McCourt didn’t even realise he was doing this—collecting and shaping his childhood memories, listening to the thousands of students he taught over the years, capturing the essence of the characters he met when working at the dockyards. Looking at a bunch of excuse notes forged by his students, he has an epiphany. “The drawer [of excuse notes] was filled with samples of American talent never mentioned in song, story or scholarly study. How could I have ignored this treasure trove, these gems of fiction, fantasy, creativity, crawthumping, self-pity, family problems…. Here was American high school writing at its best—raw, real, urgent, lucid, brief, lying.”
Recognise the kind of writer you don’t want to be: Early in his career, McCourt meets a “real” writer, Edward Dahlberg, who is often cited on lists of unjustly neglected American writers. “I envied him for living the life of a writer, a dream I was too timid to chance,” writes McCourt. But Dahlberg is a pompous poser, susceptible to flattery, whining and bitter, fond of the heavy-handed putdown. “Except for himself, [he] dismissed everyone in the twentieth century,” says McCourt, witheringly contemptuous of Dahlberg’s “moaning” about the daily suffering of a writer at his desk. McCourt will find the guidance he needs elsewhere.
Unleash creativity: In a fabulous passage, McCourt energises his class by getting them to read recipes from cookbooks as though they were poetry. They read the recipes out to an impromptu band composed of the class’s guitarists, harmonica and oboe players. They argue over the kind of music that should accompany English trifle—not the bongo drums—or pork chops—definitely the harmonica.
Two asides; McCourt follows this class by reading his students more conventional poetry, trusting that they will now have developed a ear for it. And the reason why he can describe experiences like this—or the death of his baby sister back in Ireland—so well is because of his lifelong habit of keeping notes, doing the mundane tasks of cross-checking his memories, keeping track of dates. He does the creative experiments, in his writing and in the classroom, but he also does the scut-work.
And finally? “Listen. Are you listening? You’re not listening. I am talking to those of you in this class who might be interested in writing. Every moment of your life, you’re writing. Even in your dreams you’re writing. … A simple stroll in the hallway calls for paragraphs, sentences in your head, decisions galore…. Find what you love and do it.”