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Only One of His Kind

In Praise of a Departed Transcendent Writer

By James Moore

“Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depth of your heart; confess to yourself you would have to die if you were forbidden to write.” – Rainer Maria Rilke

Cormac McCarthy has died of natural causes at his home in Santa Fe. His work is a literature that looks at hard truths about humanity, who and what we are, and even worse, what we do. His sentences, I always thought, felt as out of control as the subjects and characters of his stories. I don’t think American literature has had such a voice since Faulkner, whose work was not nearly as accessible in his time. I think I’ve read McCarthy’s every word. Like every great author, he never did more than write. An odd job here and there to buy food, but his job was to write.

I like to write, too. Many of us suffer the affliction. More accurately, though, I need to write. I must. The craft is central to who I am and has been since I first began to read. Stories fascinated me. I wanted to create my own. And share them with anyone interested. Even those who weren’t. I hoped to have people read my words and talk about my ideas or characters.

I don’t know where this came from, but it has always been in me. In elementary school, when Mrs. Hagemeister assigned a story to be read, I was finished on the bus home. I lay awake at night hoping she might call on me to read a section aloud to the class. I wondered how that might feel if it were my words. Was there a possibility to earn money writing stories?

There were other things I might have been. And I have become a few of those. Nothing has been as constant, though, as my perception of myself as a writer. I have even tried to stop, frustrated at my ability or the silly notion my words might have value or purpose. My desk drawers used to be filled with printouts of draft novels and screenplays that lay unrevised. They now populate little blue folders on my computer desktop. More are being created in the moments between paid work and travel and family commitments. There is always time to write. On an airplane tray table. In a roadside motel. At a friend’s house. The back seat of a car. In a tent while it is raining. If it’s in you, it’s got to come out.

Many of my journalist friends, in fact, almost all stopped writing when they quit the business. I did not. They wonder what is wrong with me. Sometimes, I do, too. But I am compelled to write and express ideas and images and narratives. My friends always saw this as a job. I view it as a joy, though I’d like to earn a bit more in the process.

Writing, of course, is a practiced and studied craft that requires an output of product on a regular basis to achieve a final vision. Good writing has never been the exhibition of a gift but is always the result of regular, hard work. William Styron was quoted more than a few times claiming that he wrote only a paragraph a day because it was the singular technique that he knew for perfecting his vision. This explains, perhaps, why it took him six years to complete his epic The Confessions of Nat Turner.

My favorite story about motivation for writing comes from a little cafeteria at the foot of the Franklin Mountains in the desert of West Texas. The late Cormac McCarthy, the peripatetic genius, moved to El Paso from Tennessee to concentrate his work on the American West. In the UK, he was already widely known as a man of great talent for his books like Blood Meridian, Child of God, Sutree, The Orchard Keeper, and others, but in the U.S. his work sold only to a core group of readers who appreciated his rich, ornate prose and vivid descriptions. His publisher said McCarthy’s books never sold more than 5000 copies. Then, however, he won the National Book Award for All the Pretty Horses.

I admired and resented McCarthy for his depiction of the American West. I had previously fallen in my youth for the idyllic imagery of good guys and bad guys and the argued necessities of Manifest Destiny, though I abhorred the brutalities. The truth of our history was bloody, of course, and McCarthy had captured the scalping of indigenous peoples for $1.50 for each head of hair, and the random killing of anyone who might be in the way of a gunman’s indiscretion. His characters were based on real humans roaming the deserts and having their way with pistols and rifles and guns in a lawless land. I have never been able to comprehend the source of his stories and his ability to render reality in such graphic form. His vision seems to originate in some unknowable source.

But I wanted to know him.

Famous for being reclusive, McCarthy never spoke with journalists; except once in a 1992 interview with the New York Times. The fact that he was finally ascendant in his native country, however, prompted an editor of a London newspaper to dispatch a reporter to Texas to seek a more contemporary interview and do a profile of the author. I’d had a slightly less ambitious goal for many years as a fan of his books. Blood Meridian had changed my romantic view of U.S. western history and I devoured every word McCarthy had ever committed to narrative. I just wanted to see his face and determine if there were a way to pick out greatness in a crowd, to see if it was betrayed by the eyes or the lines across his brow or the muscles of a smile.

As a TV news correspondent, I frequently traveled to El Paso to report on various issues and had heard McCarthy hung out at a particular pool hall at the end of his writing day and frequently took his lunch alone at a cafeteria on Mesa Avenue. As hard as it was for me to see him sitting at a table for one eating square fish or the LuAnn Platter, I still stuck my head into the cafeteria whenever I got a chance, hoping to see the great man in physical form. I never did and I considered that chasing him down at his neighborhood pool hall was a bit too much of an invasion, though it took great will power to keep my distance. I sometimes wish I had not.

The British reporter, who apparently hung out at the cafeteria long enough to see McCarthy, is said to have walked up to the author’s table to request an interview. I don’t know if this story is apocryphal, but it resonates with a certain truth. Although the correspondent was polite and sought forgiveness for the interruption, McCarthy was non-responsive. The reporter, as reporters will, persisted until McCarthy told him, “I don’t do interviews.” Undaunted, this journalist explained how he had traveled across an ocean and spent thousands of dollars to try to find McCarthy and that his editor was pressuring him to deliver. The author was unmoved and did not speak. Hell, I can see him slouching there and scooping up his peas and moving forkfuls of his square fish into the pile of tartar on his plate, acting as if the determined newspaperman were not even alive, much less standing next to his table.

The Englishman was silent until he came up with a new idea. Perhaps, he assumed, McCarthy would at least offer some advice on the topic of writing. According to the story I was told by a friend of McCarthy’s, the reporter begged for words of wisdom on the craft. The great scribe remained impassive and silent through repeated requests.

“Mr. McCarthy,” the journalist pleaded, “can’t you at least just give me some advice on writing? People would love to hear anything you have to say about it.”


Image from


McCarthy’s face was impassive but there was a decision moving across his weathered countenance. He was willing to speak, though he didn’t put down his fork or stop eating. His rendered insight, however, ought to be hanging over the desk of every wannabe author or columnist or novelist manque’.

“As far as writing goes,” McCarthy said without lifting his chin, “If you don’t have to write, then don’t.”

And there it was, wisdom winnowed down from the cosmos, passed through the genetic code of literary masters and artists, boiled in the blood of frustration, bred from the nonsensical optimism that there is reward, monetary, emotional, or intellectual, in the desire to write. There ain’t, McCarthy was explaining in as sparse a language as he could muster. There just ain’t. Writing is a primal urge for some souls and a craft at which to be clever for the merely artistic. Odds of recognition or financial success are long.

There are no masters in writing but there are many slaves. The truth that had traveled through the ages passed over the tartar sauce on the wise man’s breath and rose with a snake-like hiss to the reporter who busily scratched the words onto blue lines and left as if he’d discovered golden booty. Perhaps, he had.

“If you don’t have to write, then don’t.”

Nobody has ever said anything more illuminating about writing. You know if you must write. You arise every day with it simmering in your brain’s convolutions. If you don’t, then go find something to do that is more lucrative or emotionally gratifying, and that’s a pretty long list of endeavors.

McCarthy left Texas and hied on up to Santa Fe, a transition easy to respect. The long light there is perfect for artists, regardless of the media in which they labor. His two new books, published last fall, are as confounding as almost every other story he has told. McCarthy tried to understand the mysteries of existence but he left behind more than a few he had created with his work.

It’s just words, of course. But they are all we have. And they are the only thing that has ever changed the world, or even begin to help us understand it.

This article was originally published in Texas to the World and has been republished with permission.

James C. Moore is the New York Times bestselling author of “Bush’s Brain: How Karl Rove Made George W. Bush Presidential,” three other books on Bush and former Texas Governor Rick Perry, as well as two novels, and a biography entitled, “Give Back the Light,” on a famed eye surgeon and inventor. His newest book will be released mid- 2023. Mr. Moore has been honored with an Emmy from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences for his documentary work and is a former TV news correspondent who has traveled extensively on every presidential campaign since 1976.

He has been a retained on-air political analyst for MSNBC and has appeared on Morning Edition on National Public Radio, NBC Nightly News, Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell, CBS Evening News, CNN, Real Time with Bill Maher, and Hardball with Chris Matthews, among numerous other programs. Mr. Moore’s written political and media analyses have been published at CNN, Boston Globe, L.A. Times, Guardian of London, Sunday Independent of London, Salon, Financial Times of London, Huffington Post, and numerous other outlets. He also appeared as an expert on presidential politics in the highest-grossing documentary film of all time, Fahrenheit 911, (not related to the film’s producer Michael Moore).

His other honors include the Dartmouth College National Media Award for Economic Understanding, the Edward R. Murrow Award from the Radio Television News Directors’ Association, the Individual Broadcast Achievement Award from the Texas Headliners Foundation, and a Gold Medal for Script Writing from the Houston International Film Festival. He was frequently named best reporter in Texas by the AP, UPI, and the Houston Press Club. The film produced from his book “Bush’s Brain” premiered at The Cannes Film Festival prior to a successful 30-city theater run in the U.S.

Mr. Moore has reported on the major stories and historical events of our time, which have ranged from Iran-Contra to the Waco standoff, the Oklahoma City bombing, the border immigration crisis, and other headlining events. His journalism has put him in Cuba, Central America, Mexico, Australia, Canada, the UK, and most of Europe, interviewing figures as diverse as Fidel Castro and Willie Nelson. He has been writing about Texas politics, culture, and history since 1975, and continues with political opinion pieces for CNN and regularly at his Substack newsletter: “Texas to the World.”


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  1. tess lawrence

    G’day James, thanks for writing this, will revisit McCarthy because of your own contemplative words about him and his work.
    Your writing transcends all boundaries, geographical and philosophical and we are the better for it.

  2. Canguro

    James Moore, in the concluding three sentences of his valedictory essay to Cormac McCarthy, writes that “It’s just words, of course. But they are all we have. And they are the only thing that has ever changed the world, or even begin to help us understand it.”

    Just words. Beyond measure throughout time, and while perhaps not as numerous as the drops of water that comprise the torrents that tumble over the Niagara Falls as it drains Lake Erie into Lake Ontario, the torrents of words fallen from the mouths of men, women & children across the three hundred or so thousands of years have shaped and sculpted this planet’s surface as surely as the river Niagara has its local landscapes in the northern region of the American continent over the last ten or twelve millennia.

    Beyond measure, and barely comprehensible, given the extraordinary amount of artefact existing prior to man’s efforts to record for future generations the labours committed to temporal survival and the battle to sustain against the indifferent forces opposed to those efforts.

    Just words, and in totality beyond the capacity of even the most advanced polyglot to comprehend, given some linguists estimate that there may have been as many as 30,000 or more languages over time, and currently perhaps as many as 6,000… and while we are all exquisitely fluent in our native tongue, clearly some more than others, Cormac McCarthy being an exemplar of this extraordinary talent for the spoken (or written) word, very few of us can boast similar fluency in languages foreign to our geographic arising. It’s a commonplace observation that children who grow up in multilingual circumstances effortlessly acquire all of the languages to which they are exposed, even if those languages have major dissimilarities in structure and syntactical form, but aside from these examples, it generally takes effort to acquire any semblance of skill in a tongue other than one’s own native speech.

    Yet despite the seemingly world’s apartness of languages from across the planet, the most extraordinary feature is that they all express the same themes of the human experience; whether one write or speaks in an Afroasiatic language, or one of the Romance languages, Sino-Tibetan, Germanic or any of the many other examples from among the dozens more of the language groups, the essential themes of the human experience remain the same, more or less, given nuance and the depth of expertise and the degree of consciousness in play.

    Instead of being divided by gulfs which language cannot hope to bridge, and in turn responding by turning away and concluding that the other is just that, an other, too alien, too difficult, might it not be possible to admit the commonality of humanity and instead make an effort to find a way to reach out to the other as a fellow human, a temporal traveller – as we all are – fated by virtue of existence to find our place within the human family and to meet the other with compassion and a recognition of our essential likeness?

    It seems that writing, the chosen occupation of the very few, and notwithstanding the many many genres that the profession permits, is often in its ambit endeavouring to express these very themes, to refine and express the essence of the human experience that we find ourselves embedded within, the social structures, urban or rural, isolated or included, sophisticated or naive, intelligent or simple, good or evil… the versions of human experience are not infinite but they are many and collectively they form the palette from which the author chooses to paint his portraits, his personal unique expressions of the human experience.

    Cormac McCarthy was such a portraitist, a master of his craft. His words will exist for as long as we have the means to showcase them.

  3. frances

    Just stumbled across this a lovely tribute.

    I love the bit about the little boy writer.

    Imagine someone penning something for you like this after you have gone.

    It looks like you’re in the running, James Moore.

    Thank you.

  4. James Moore

    Frances – You’ve just given me, or any writer who might have been a recipient of your kind words, the biggest compliment possible. Writing is my joy, and when it reaches people like yourself, it is all the more rewarding. Thanks so much for reading, and for the Independent for publishing my work. My regards, James Moore

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