James D. McCallister

author of the Edgewater County series

THE MIDDLE OF THINGS

I’m late to the party on this 2015 New Yorker post, but I found it quite useful and edifying.

THE MIDDLE OF THINGS: ADVICE FOR YOUNG WRITERS

By Andrew Solomon

The following is adapted from a speech the author gave at the Whiting Writers’ Awards on March 5th.

When I had just finished my schooling and was looking for a job, a friend put me in touch with an absurdly well-connected British biographer who, she assured me, would help me find the professional position of my dreams. I wrote and asked him whether we might meet, explaining that I would appreciate his advice on securing literary work and enclosing some of my early efforts.

He duly invited me for tea. The advice I had in mind sounded like this: “You must call so-and-so at this number and say I suggested it and he will publish you and give you loads of money.”

After giving me a cup of weak tea—no sandwiches, no pastry, not even sugar or milk—he said, “I have only one piece of advice for you. Have a vision and cleave to it.” We then discussed the weather for twenty minutes.

While I, unlike that biographer, am an artesian font of utilitarian suggestions, I can now see that being asked to comment on young brilliance is an explicit invitation to pomposity. I have done my best to R.S.V.P. in the negative. The proximate, tacit call to romanticism is harder for me to resist. While all old people have been young, no young people have been old, and this troubling fact engenders the frustration of all parents and elders, which is that while you can describe your experience you cannot confer it. It’s tempting, nonetheless, to pose as an expert—and in another way it’s tempting to say, ‘I know nothing that you don’t already know.’

Neither of those postures is right. Every stage of life longs for others. When one is young and eager, one aspires to maturity, and everyone older would like nothing better than to be young. We have equal things to teach each other. Life is most transfixing when you are awake to diversity, not only of ethnicity, ability, gender, belief, and sexuality but also of age and experience. The worst mistake anyone can make is to perceive anyone else as lesser. The deeper you look into other souls—and writing is primarily an exercise in doing just that—the clearer people’s inherent dignity becomes.

So I would like to be young again—for the obvious dermatological advantages, and because I would like to recapture who I was before the clutter of experience made me a bit more sagacious and exhausted. What I’d really like, in fact, is to be young and middle-aged, and perhaps even very old, all at the same time—and to be dark- and fair-skinned, deaf and hearing, gay and straight, male and female. I can’t do that in life, but I can do it in writing, and so can you. Never forget that the truest luxury is imagination, and that being a writer gives you the leeway to exploit all of the imagination’s curious intricacies, to be what you were, what you are, what you will be, and what everyone else is or was or will be, too.


The remainder of this wonderful New Yorker essay should be considered essential reading for all writers, young and old. Admirers of Rilke will especially enjoy this piece.

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About dmac

James D. McCallister is a South Carolina author of novels, short stories, and creative nonfiction. His latest book, a story collection called The Year They Canceled Christmas, releases in November 2017.

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