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5 Lessons Writers Should Learn From Cormac McCarthy

Arguably one of the most important American writers of our time, Cormac McCarthy has written ten award-winning novels spanning the Southern Gothic, Western, and Post-Apocalyptic genres. His 1985 epic Western masterpiece, Blood Meridian: Or The Evening Redness in the West, made it to Time Magazine's list of the 100 best English-language books published since 1923. Literary critic Harold Bloom called it the greatest single book since Faulkner's As I Lay Dying.

McCarthy's 1992 romantic Contemporary Western, All the Pretty Horses, was adapted into a screenplay starring Matt Damon, and won the National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award. As a New York Times bestseller, it sold 190,000 hardcover copies within the first six months it was available on shelves. His 2005 crime thriller, No Country for Old Men, another novel, except one that was originally written as a screenplay, took home four Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay.

Perhaps his most well-known book, the 2006 Post-Apocalyptic novel, The Road, won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction, and was ranked by the Times as one of the 100 best fiction and non-fiction books of the past 10 years. It was later adapted into a film starring Viggo Mortensen.

As a Tennessee-native writer maintaining the stereotypical description of a recluse, McCarthy has granted few interviews. This interview with Oprah Winfrey shows McCarthy's shy, humble nature, and reveals much of how he feels about writing and the writing process. Other interviews with Rolling Stone, Wall Street Journal, The New York Times offer glimpses of McCarthy's suggestions (however humble) for achieving the same level of fame he has achieved with his writing.

Lesson #1: Brilliant characterization can be more powerful than plot

McCarthy's works are best known for their exceptional and unforgettable characters. Even the "bad guys" are fascinating, with actions and words that make their characterization run deep (for example, Anton Chigurh meticulously cleaning his boots after brutally slaying someone in No Country for Old Men). Much of this is due to his refusal to plot out his stories, but rather, to write them as they develop in his subconscious.

Screenshot from film adaptation of No Country for Old Men
Screenshot from the film adaptation of No Country for Old Men

In that elusive interview with Oprah Winfrey, he states: You can't plot things out. You just have to trust in, you know, wherever it comes from. Oprah seems surprised when he states this, as she mentions other writers she has interviewed who held vastly different views on the importance of plotting a novel before writing it. It is obvious from both the interview and McCarthy's works that he is not the kind of writer who enjoys interviews or marketing ploys to advertise his books. He is as shy and awkward as he is talented, and it's a breath of fresh air in a world where writers go on press binges for lesser works.

In his interview with David Kushner of Rolling Stone McCarthy states, I just sit down and write whatever is interesting. If you're writing mystery stories or something, you might want to have an outline, because it all has to have a logic and fall into place and have a beginning, a middle and an end. But if you're writing a novel, the best things just sort of come out of the blue. It's a subconscious process. You don't really know what you're doing most of the time.

Here, it's important to understand that McCarthy recognizes a need for intricate plots in certain genres—and therefore, intricate outlines before beginning the writing process—but points out it isn't needed for all fiction writing. This is especially true if you want characterization to be the focus of your novel. In many cases, particularly when your subconscious is as finely tuned as McCarthy's, allowing your instincts as a writer to take over is all that is needed to create unforgettable characters readers love (or love to hate).

Lesson #2: Optimism and luck go a long way in the life of a writer

It's easy to see, especially during Oprah Winfrey's interview with McCarthy, that the novelist is both humble and an optimist—despite the grim settings and scenarios he so beautifully depicts with his words. Throughout his interviews, he consistently mentions those who are more brilliant than him gracing him with their presence and thoughts.

In the Wall Street Journal interview, he states, 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.

Lesson #3: Creative work is often driven by pain and is cathartic

In his interview with Wall Street Journal, McCarthy states, Creative work is often driven by pain. It may be that if you don't have something in the back of your head driving you nuts, you may not do anything. It's not a good arrangement. If I were God, I wouldn't have done it that way.

McCarthy also mentions how after he has written something and psychologically processed his pain through those words, the context and content are no longer of interest to him. He explains it as the interests being flattened and used up, and mentions this as one of the reasons he doesn't read his own books after he has written them. Essentially, his cathartic process is over when the last word is written, and thus of no more use to him.

This could be especially useful for writers who agonize over their "baby" after the work is completed: The pain has been written, it's time to move on.

This way of processing his internal struggle into and through his writing is part of what makes McCarthy's writing so intense—and so viscerally human. His characters experience great interior conflict and suffer through horrifying situations, and McCarthy doesn't shy away from dealing with these struggles. He even focuses in on them with intense description—minimalistic and brutal—such as when he wrote the following passage in The Road:

He walked out in the gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe. And somewhere two hunted animals trembling like ground-foxes in their cover. Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.

From Cormac McCarthy's The Road
Cormac McCarthy's The Road offers a bleak description of the human condition.
Screenshot from the film adaptation of The Road, a novel that offers a bleak description of the human condition.

Lesson #4: Stay interested in life and death

In his few interviews, McCarthy details his interest in the physical world and science—even from the time he was young. In fact, in his undergraduate studies, he focused on physics and engineering. In his interview for Rolling Stone, McCarthy says, It's interesting to know how the world works. People ask me, 'Why are you interested in physics?' But why would you not be? To me, the most curious thing of all is incuriosity. I just don't get it.

Part of his fascination with science is its focus on the life cycle. If it doesn't concern life and death, it's not interesting, says McCarthy. In fact, much of this fascination affected the crowds he chose to be around throughout his life, least of which were fellow writers. The artsy crowd was all dressed and drugged and ready to party, he recalls. I just started hanging out with scientists because they were more interesting.

It is this fascination with death that both hindered McCarthy's early success and later propelled it, making him the unforgettable writer he is. When you read a death scene in a McCarthy novel, or even a near-death scene, you understand his unique gift for describing the horrors of humanity's fear of it.

For example, in his book Outer Dark, published in 1968 while McCarthy lived on the island of Ibiza, he writes about a girl's search for her baby, who was born because of incest. The brother of the girl later witnesses the death of his child at a campfire in the rural South and McCarthy's brutal narrative style packs a dark punch:

Holme saw the blade wink in the light like a long cat's eye slant and malevolent and a dark smile erupted on the child's throat and went all broken down the front of it. The child made no sound. It hung there with its one eye glazing over like a wet stone and the black blood pumping down its naked belly.

From Cormac McCarthy's Outer Dark

There is no over-description or Faulknerian detail. The child's death is as short as its life, and equally as appalling. It's this refusal to look away from death that brings so much life (and depth) to McCarthy's writing.

Lesson #5: Understand that good writing requires rewriting

In the Rolling Stone interview, McCarthy stresses that much of the rigor of the writing process is in rewriting after a first draft. Writing is rewriting, he says. Someone said easy writing makes for hard reading. McCarthy is notorious for leaving out unnecessary words and even skipping over punctuation that doesn't suit the flow of dialogue. And names! We never know the name of the man and the boy in The Road. Mainly that's because—we don't need to!

Names are not necessary in The Road, since characterization runs so deep.
Names are not necessary in The Road, since characterization runs so deep.

In fact, McCarthy enjoys the process of editing work that has already been written, particularly editing scientific manuscripts written by other writers. McCarthy frequently proofreads scientific papers and books by Santa Fe Institute's focused studies on an emerging science called complexity. According to Kushner's article, it's the study of the complex systems behind our lives—from climate patterns to human societies—and how they evolve and adapt. Specifically, McCarthy copyedited a manuscript written by Harvard physicist Lisa Randall exploring the hidden dimensions of the universe. She mentions that he removed many semicolons, which he apparently doesn't like at all.

Final takeaway

Cormac McCarthy has much to offer writers who seek to learn how to write bestselling novels. However, due to his humble and reclusive nature as an author, writers need to dig a little deeper into his words to learn those lessons. I've offered you the shovel—the depth to which you dig is entirely up to you.

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