The literary world has taken a very big hit over the past few weeks. It lost three Ms — Peter Mathiessen, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and now Alistair MacLeod.
It isn’t that the writing world expected more from them. Mathiessen and Marquez were both sick and well past their writing primes. MacLeod,who hailed from Canada, brewed up only a single novel and a small collection of short fiction over his 77 years on the planet.
But the reason why they’ll be missed is for what they taught, by example, about the writing life.
Plenty has been said in recent weeks about the first two Ms. MacLeod’s passing is far more recent, and his name is lesser known.
But when I read Margalit Fox’s very nice overview of MacLeod in the New York Times, I felt such admiration for him that I wanted to pass it along in case you haven’t had the pleasure to read him.
While there’s far too much of T.C. Boyle or Joyce Carol Oates around (my humble opinion, you don’t have to agree with me), there would never be enough of MacLeod. Hurrying into print was never his modus operandi.
“For a long time, I was described as one of North America’s most promising writers,” he says in quote from Fox’s article. “Pretty soon, I was going to be one of North America’s most promising geriatric writers….”
Some writers don’t publish much because they don’t have much to say; others think they have more to say than they do.
And then there’s a third kind of writer, the one who understands that narrative truths need to simmer for a long time, like a good pot of stew.
That was MacLeod. To use another metaphor, MacLeod preferred to dig down, setting layer upon layer of family history and fishermen lore like a master mason in the single novel mentioned earlier, “No Great Mischief.”
What he taught — and still teaches — can be reduced to two words. Be patient.
If any writer is suffering anxiety over finishing a manuscript, over getting things right, try to relax. Breathe. There are plenty of publishers but there’s only one of you. Take the time needed to make your story properly sing. That’s a lesson that MacLeod teaches us even now.