What can writers learn from Cormac McCarthy?
When Cormac McCarthy died last month, the world lost a literary icon. Although only leaving behind a dozen novels, McCarthy made his mark on the world of literature, and authors everywhere can learn a lot from his work.
Today, Ginger takes a dive into who McCarthy was and why his books have such a strong impact on those that read them. By dissecting what it was that McCarthy did so well, writers can learn lessons that could potentially be applied to their own writing. Both as a way to make them stronger, and as a way to increase the chance that their books are remembered long after they’re gone by creating a legacy of their own.
This June, the world lost American author Cormac McCarthy. An American literary icon, McCarthy was 89 years old and left behind a legacy of 12 books that altered the shape of American literature forever.
The author of iconic novels including Blood Meridian, No Country For Old Men, and The Road, McCarthy will be best remembered for his distinctive writing style, compelling narratives, and vivid depictions of the human condition. As aspiring authors, we can learn a lot by studying McCarthy’s work – especially his mastery of language, character development, and atmospheric storytelling.
In this blog post, I’m going to break down the best of Cormac McCarthy’s writing and see if I can extract some key lessons from it.
Who was Cormac McCarthy?
Born on July 20, 1933, in Providence, Rhode Island, Cormac McCarthy has always been considered an enigmatic figure in the literary world. McCarthy led a famously private life, shying away from the spotlight and rarely giving interviews.
McCarthy first became interested in writing during his time at the University of Tennessee, where he was studying physics and engineering. Frustrated with his original choice of study, he switched to an English major following a brief stint in the US Air Force, but despite earning two Ingram-Merrill Awards for his short stories, he eventually dropped out a second time to pursue writing as a career.
McCarthy’s original novels received critical praise, but it wasn’t until the publication of his fifth novel in 1985, Blood Meridian, that McCarthy started to earn broader recognition as a writer. Blood Meridian and his subsequently darker works captivated readers – with The Road winning McCarthy the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2007 and firmly establishing him as a writer of note.
In fact, McCarthy is often credited as one of the four most important American writers, with Stephen King describing him as “maybe the greatest American novelist of my time” and J. T. Barbarese, a professor of English and writing at Rutgers University, arguing “if McCarthy is not our greatest novelist, he’s certainly our greatest stylist.”
But why do people admire his writing so much?
One way in which McCarthy’s legacy is characterized is by his distinct style of writing. He provides an unflinching exploration of the darkest elements of human nature through his haunting narratives, and he uses prose that’s sparse and unadorned to do it – prose that mirrors the bleak landscapes he so frequently wrote about, be they the stark American West or the post-apocalyptic wastelands of the near future.
The themes of McCarthy’s stories often revolve around the struggle between good and evil – exploring the nature of violence and what gives the human spirit the ability to endure it. His writing evokes profound emotions and challenges readers with philosophical questions that remain with you long after turning the final page.
What’s truly unique about his work is how disquieting it is. As a father, I found The Road to be a truly compelling read because it described the endless sacrifices a father was willing to make to protect his son, which is something any father can relate to. That book grabbed readers like me by the throat and forced us to put ourselves in the protagonist’s situation, tasked with making the same impossible choices he did. It’s not necessarily a fun experience to read, but it’s a powerful one.
Friends who’ve read the book describe having similar feelings about it – some even having to take a break from reading at the more disturbing parts. McCarthy gets a visceral reaction from his readers no matter what, and I think that’s what makes his work so timeless.
What lessons can we learn from McCarthy’s writing?
Lesson #1: Elegance is Simplicity
McCarthy’s writing is most frequently characterized by its simplicity and directness. He favored short, declarative sentences, sparse dialogue, and a minimalist approach to description that is nevertheless highly effective. Writers can learn a lot from this approach, understanding that less description is frequently more. By honing the ability to convey deep emotions and complex ideas with concise language, we can engage readers and evoke powerful responses more quickly and effectively.
Lesson #2: Crafting an Atmosphere
One of McCarthy’s other notable strengths was his ability to create a distinct and visceral atmosphere within his stories. From the desolate landscapes of Blood Meridian to the post-apocalyptic world of The Road, McCarthy uses his concise yet evocative language to immerse readers in the worlds he creates, whether we want to be there or not! Authors can learn a lot by paying attention to the atmosphere of our own stories, just like McCarthy did – utilizing richer descriptions, more sensory details, and carefully crafted imagery to transport our readers deeper into the fictional worlds we’ve created.
Lesson #3: Use Authentic Dialogue
Another skill McCarthy unfailingly demonstrated in his books was the ability to craft authentic-sounding dialogue. Conversations and interactions in his books are renowned for their realism and authenticity – capturing details like regional dialects to create unique and memorable voices for each character – even the ones who didn’t get to have a name of their own (another trope of McCarthy’s work.) We writers can learn a lot from McCarthy’s dialogue – especially how to develop distinctive voices for our own characters. By studying dialogue patterns, speech rhythms, and the nuances of language, perhaps we too can create believable and memorable characters that resonate with readers like those in McCarthy’s stories.
Lesson #4 :The Darker Side of Human Nature
McCarthy’s work delves deeply into the nature of humanity, exploring themes of morality, survival, and the innate darkness within all of us. Aspiring authors can learn from McCarthy’s exploration of these complex themes, and perhaps find the courage to explore similar topics in our own writing. One great example is the way McCarthy presented the father’s impossible choice in The Road – in which he has to choose between committing suicide like his wife, or remaining alive to protect his child despite their seemingly hopeless situation. By infusing the narrative with thought-provoking questions and challenging moral dilemmas, authors can create stories that resonate on a deeper level and leave us questioning what the “right” thing to do would have been in similar circumstances.
Lesson #5: Unconventional Punctuation and Formatting
Rules are made to be broken, and Cormac McCarthy is known for doing exactly that. His unconventional use of punctuation, particularly his sparse use of commas and absence of quotation marks, make his work stand apart from that of other writers. While this stylistic choice may not be suitable for every writer or genre, it demonstrates the importance of experimentation and finding your own unique voice. As you find your feet in the writing scene, don’t be afraid to challenge conventional rules in the same way McCarthy did. By experimenting with different punctuation and formatting techniques, you might enhance your storytelling and create a distinct writing style people will remember you for.
Lesson #6: Beauty and the Beastliness
Cormac McCarthy’s books are often raw and unsettling. His writing frequently juxtaposes brutal and violent scenes with moments of profound beauty and tenderness. Together, they deliver quite the emotional rollercoaster for many readers. Writers can learn from the way McCarthy crafted that careful balance, recognizing the power of contrasting darker and lighter elements within the same story. By juxtaposing light and darkness, joy and sorrow, or even hope and despair, authors can create emotionally resonant stories that capture the complexity of the human experience.
Lesson #7: Commit to your Craft
Perhaps one of the most important lessons aspiring authors can learn from Cormac McCarthy is his unwavering commitment to the craft of writing. While famous today, McCarthy’s career journey was far from easy; and yet he’s always been known for his meticulous attention to detail and his dedication to the writing process. As writers, we can draw inspiration from McCarthy’s work ethic and perseverance and apply those values to our own work – taking responsibility for the fact that becoming a skilled writer requires more than just talent and inspiration. It requires discipline, practice, and patience, too.
Cormac McCarthy will forever be remembered for his contribution to American literature. His writing also provides a huge learning opportunity for new and aspiring writers willing to study it properly. For me, it’s McCarthy’s ability to get a reaction from readers which makes him truly iconic. Even if that reaction was fear or disgust, it’s what led to McCarthy’s stories worming their way beneath readers’ skins and explains why people still read and discuss his books so avidly years after they were originally published.
So, maybe take a leaf from his book and focus on getting an emotional reaction from your own readers. If you can master that, perhaps you’ll step even closer to leaving your own legacy as a writer.