By Sanjay Sipahimalani
Blame it on Rilke. When the German-language poet answered a fan letter in 1902, he kickstarted a mini-genre of books that, all this time later, shows no sign of flagging. The ten letters that Rainer Maria Rilke wrote to Franz Kappus, the aspiring versifier, were posthumously published in 1929 under the title of Letters to a Young Poet. Containing ardent, high-minded advice on solitude, looking inwards and living a creative life, the slim volume has earned many admirers – not to mention translations – over the years.
Since then, plenty of others have jumped into the fray. There’s EO Wilson’s Letters to a Young Scientist, Christopher Hitchens’ Letters to a Young Contrarian and Nadia Comaneci’s Letters to a Young Gymnast, for example, not to mention sundry letters to young therapists, pharmacists, farmers, teachers, Catholics, Muslims, Mormons, chefs and golfers.
(There are also ingenious variations: one single letter that Virginia Woolf wrote was published as A Letter to a Young Poet, and a collection of Tagore’s letters to his niece was titled Letters From a Young Poet.)
The latest addition to this crowded shelf is Letters to a Young Writer,by Colum McCann. Befittingly, he’s not just an accomplished author, but also been teaching for two decades, and currently on the MFA faculty at the City University of New York’s Hunter College. As such, one expects him to tackle head-on one of the burning questions of the day: Can writing be taught? Read more