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.

Screen Shot 2014-04-25 at 2.17.36 PMIt 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.


  1. Ah, patience. My mother said it was a virtue, but I have it in short supply. I guess it’s a good thing I’ve got a little ADD going. Keeps me flitting from project to project. Maybe by the time I’m 80….

  2. I just can’t tell you how good this post makes me feel – I’m almost a little teary-eyed. In a world dedicated to “more” and “faster,” slower and steadier can feel like failure — of will, if nothing else.

    Just last night, I included this in a comment to a reader on my own blog:
    “…if I’ve learned anything from writing these stories, it’s patience. After my first visit to the Trail Days Café, I could have thrown up some photos and detailed a few facts, but it took two more years and two more visits — with a good bit of research and conversation in between — to come up with this post. At least now I understand how people like William Least Heat-Moon put together something like his “Prairy Erth”. It’s less mysterious than I’d imagined it. Add a hundred thousand words and a few years to this post, and it’s “Prairy Erth”‘s cousin.”

    I’ve already printed your post out, and will do so for Fox’s piece, too. Heaven knows I’m not a most-promising anything, but it’s nice to know my approach to what I do is shared by someone who’s accomplished a good bit.

  3. I’m so glad, shoreacres. McLeod made me feel good about the ups and downs of the writing process. I had a manuscript ready a couple years ago — or so I thought. But the past two years have been a real education for me, and I say that without any sarcasm.

    I really love your posts, and I’m sure I’m not the first person to suggest the book potential you have on your blog. Material would have to be re-shaped and developed maybe in a different direction, but so much of what you’ve spent creating should be able to stand the test of time somewhere else (a book) besides WordPress. Onward!!

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