Earlier this month, Just Buffalo Literary Center kicked off a new season of Babel with acclaimed author Colum McCann. A Dublin native, McCann’s work, which includes five best-selling novels published in more than 30 languages, has been highly regarded. Prior to his talk at Kleinhans Music Hall, Just Buffalo hosted a gathering for area high school students.
The spacious writing center felt more like a round table as McCann spoke. His dialect paired with his interesting lexicon made it an ease to listen to his life story, the “Reader’s Digest condensed censored version,” that is. McCann is a storyteller; the type of person who listens, and can tell the stories of others in a manner in which one would think they were his own. McCann discussed his creative process, a topic of interest for many of the students in attendance. His advice to the crowd: Write every day. He carves out caffeine-free, Internet-free time daily to perfect his craft. What he yields, the crowd found to be inspirational.
He joked that he had the “worst thing for an author growing up,” a positive middle-class upbringing. He moved from Dublin to America at the age of 21, settling in Hyannis in Cape Cod with the hope of writing his first novel. His travels in the years following proved to profoundly impact his work, as he mastered the art of listening. It is evident throughout his work, most specifically his best-selling novel “Let The Great World Spin,” that he has listened deeply to the stories of others, and mastered the great challenge of articulating emotions. This, he said, is through a practice called “radical empathy.”
McCann went on to discuss the importance of traveling in your 20s, something that really hit home with the young audience. With the crowd made up of youth and young adults struggling to navigate the currents of planning their lives, it was refreshing to hear someone advising to deviate from the norm. McCann advocated “engaging with life,” and carving out a year to do something that doesn’t necessarily seem to fit in. He noted that traveling and getting out of your comfort zone is one of the best experiences for young writers. The best place for a writer to be is on the outside looking in, he said.
Particularly interesting are the implications of McCann’s work. He shared with the students a moment in which a teacher at Newtown High School reached out to him, asking if he could use “Let The Great World Spin” to help his students process grief and recovery after the 2012 school shooting in Newton, Conn.
McCann closed his talk by saying, “Books, literature, stories, they all work in tandem with our actions.”
Lillian Kahris is a senior at City Honors.