Robert R. McCammon (born in 1952) is the bestselling author of Swan Song, Gone South, and my all-time favorite novel, Boy’s Life, which changed my life at age fifteen.
Here are four of his wonderful quotes about the writing life!
1. Life itself does its best to take that memory of magic away from us. You don’t know it’s happening until one day you feel you’ve lost something but you’re not sure what it is. It’s like smiling at a pretty girl and she calls you ‘sir.’ It just happens.
This theme of losing that magic as you grow older is key to his beautiful, haunting, absolutely enchanting 1991 novel Boy’s Life, which I had to read for my sophomore year English class and which has been my favorite book ever since. This novel was my introduction to the work of Robert R. McCammon, and one that I’ve lent and recommended to countless friends and family members throughout the years. It’s long at more than 600 pages, and not a word of it is wasted. Whether you’re a boy or a girl, whether you’re young or old, if you love great stories, it’s worth checking out.
So much of his book resonated with me, particularly at the age of fifteen, because I was slowly transitioning into that phase of life where the magic has started to dissipate. When you realize much of life is going to be hard and filled with pain and rejection and failure. The novel made me cry and reflect, and I was so thrilled to revisit it for the first time in 2015, right after I turned thirty. I’ve decided I’m going to re-read the book every fifteen years because I very much believe I’ll get something new out of it every time. Reading it as an adult I paid more attention to the craft of it, but I was again overwhelmed with emotion. Something I will always take with me about Boy’s Life is the necessity of holding onto as much magic as you possibly can.
2. It seemed to me at an early age that all human communication — whether it’s TV, movies, or books — begins with somebody wanting to tell a story. That need to tell, to plug into a universal socket, is probably one of our grandest desires. And the need to hear stories, to live lives other than our own for even the briefest moment, is the key to the magic that was born in our bones.
You know what’s one way to hold onto as much magic as you can? It’s reading, hearing, watching, and telling stories, of course. So much of real life can be monotonous day to day, but there’s nothing monotonous about life once you slip into an entertaining story, whether someone else is telling it to you or you’re writing it yourself. I do believe the most magic comes when you yourself are writing a story. When you enter the zone as a writer and transport yourself to the world of your story or novel.
We all need stories now more than ever. They’re necessary, and they do have the ability to work their magic on you, whether the story is set in some faraway fantasy land or set right here on planet Earth. As director Steven Soderbergh said when he won the Best Director Oscar for Traffic in 2001, “this world would be unlivable without art,” and so much of great art starts with a compelling story. Living lives other than your own has the power to bring the magic back, even if it’s just for a little while. Find that magic however you can.
3. Many times you will fail. That is the nature of the world, and the truth of life. But when you find your horse again, will you go back or will you go forward?
Sometimes I wish we could all be confronted with the very real truth about failure when we’re younger. Not that we’re doomed to fail but just that failure is going to happen, and we have to be prepared for it. When I started writing my first novel in 2010 I was so confident it would get me a literary agent, would get me published. And I thought if it didn’t happen, my dreams would certainly come true on my second book. Oh, how beautifully naive I was back then. How little did I realize how much failure I would have to endure to reach the place I am today, where I have some significant success, a much better handle on the craft of writing, but still plenty of disappointing failures.
Failure will happen to you no matter what you end up doing, but failure is certainly something you’ll find yourself pushing up against time and time again as a writer. There’s no such thing as succeeding with every new short story and novel you write. There’s no such thing as magic pouring out on the page every single time. If you’re lucky you’ll find success early in your writing career, but even if you don’t, that doesn’t mean it will never happen for you. Because something I learned a few years into this is that the only definitive way you fail as a writer is quitting. Is giving up. As long as you keep going and improve in your craft and write another new project, there’s a chance all your dreams can come true.
4. Even the most worthless thing in the world can be beautiful. It just takes the right touch.
It’s so true that anything in life that appears to be ugly or frivolous or worthless on the surface can actually be startlingly beautiful. I think about this every time I go for a run around my neighborhood. I look at so many things that 99% of people would ignore or miss, but occasionally I stop for a few seconds to take in a gorgeous flower or a spectacular view or a stunning architectural structure I find to be breathtaking. Doing this even just once a day can bring a little light into your life… and it can bring the magic back, too.
Finding the beauty in the most worthless things is one of the duties of a writer, too. When you’re writing a new short story or a novel, you want to look for those specific details that most people miss. You want to explore ideas and characters and settings many people might find ugly and worthless, and you want to showcase what makes them so goddamned beautiful.
Robert R. McCammon did it in Boy’s Life, and he’s done it in dozens of other novels throughout his long career. If you want to find success as a writer, and if you want to bring the magic back over and over again, it’s in your best interest to do it, too!
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