Keep Your Arse in the Chair: Colum McCann’s Writing Journey and Advice

On Tuesday, October 5, the great world spun as Blair welcomed award-winning author Colum McCann to a discussion with AP Literature students about one of his books, Let the Great World Spin (indeed), and a talk at the Society of Skeptics that evening.

Before his Skeptics talk, we had the pleasure of talking to McCann about the story behind his illustrious career. Since a young age, he has been an avid reader and began pursuing his interest in journalism at the age of 12 by reporting on local soccer matches. After graduating as a featured journalist, he shifted his writing career to become a full-time writer. McCann mentioned that talking to people and “learning about a world outside of the one [he] knows” were what drew him to journalism, and still remain as sources of his motivation as an author today. He started learning the ropes of writing by editing his father’s children’s books with his first semi-edited book, Goals of Glory. His cultural background plays an integral part in his identity as well. “I think [writing] was written in my DNA from a very early age, not only because of my father, but from the sense of storytelling that comes from being Irish,” he said. Although McCann no longer works as a journalist, he declared his appreciation for all types of writing. “For me, it’s all about the proper words taken and put down with great care and delicacy on the pages. No form of literature overrides the other,” he said.

Initially, when McCann moved to the U.S with hopes of writing a novel, he struggled greatly with finding inspiration. In pursuit of a great idea, he took a bike ride across the whole United States, throughout which he learned how to listen to people, ultimately collecting “a vast democracy of stories.” He particularly enjoyed talking to passersby along the way. “I met all sorts of people. I don’t care how rich, how poor, how French, how Irish, going across the boundaries of class… Everyone has an interesting story to tell, and I love listening to all of them,” he said. Through meeting new people around the country, McCann said he enjoyed people who live their lives out loud and embrace the world. “ I like living in the pulse of the moment; wherever I happen to be at one particular time is the place I’m most taken by,” the author remarked. He used this concept of living in the moment profoundly in his novel, Let The Great World Spin, in which the characters learned to take a break from their past regrets and enjoy the beauty of the present.

Writing a novel is evidently a time-consuming and difficult process. For McCann, writing Let the Great World Spin took him 4 years. When asked about advice for those struggling with writer’s block, the first thing that came out was to literally “keep your arse in the chair”, saying that “when all is said and done, nothing is going to happen unless you are there.” McCann also emphasized the importance of giving oneself space and time. “There are some days when I will write and I will not get a single word on the page, and I will sit there for 8 hours,” he recalled. “That day is not a failure, and is, in fact, somewhat a triumph, because even though you haven’t gotten any words down, you’ve done a full day of work, and it’s okay to let that happen.” For him, the hardest part is to see it through to the end, and to “believe in [the story] even when it collapses.” Even after completing a book, McCann opened up about his internal struggles of keeping up the writing excellence in his next one. “Every time I finish a book I get frightened that I won’t be able to do it again,” he admitted. “Sometimes, I’m so exhausted that I think I can’t do anything else again. But that fear is a good governing force, a sort of electricity to keep you going.”

Currently, Colum McCann is focusing on his work with the charity he founded, Narrative 4, which is an international network of educators, students, and artists who use art and storytelling to build empathy between students while equipping them to improve their communities and the world. He also encourages all Blair students to research Narrative 4 and participate in a Narrative 4 program. Through his organization, McCann hopes to promote human empathy globally. “In the years to come, we have to understand each other. We don’t have to love each other, we don’t have to like each other, but we need to understand each other.”

Finally, McCann called for all aspiring journalists to pursue their writing careers. “We need you. Journalism is incredibly important,” he expressed. “We’re in a sort of ‘post-truth’ era, where everything gets questioned and distorted. It’s the job of a lot of the younger writers to come around and talk about what’s going on.”

(Copyright Chloe Lau and Sage Christensen 2021)

Chloe Lau

High school junior Chloe Lau is an aspiring writer attending Blair Academy. Since 2017, Chloe has been working for Young Post of South China Morning Post as a Junior Reporter, which is the largest English newspaper in her hometown, Hong Kong. She enjoys journaling on a wide variety of topics, from editorials on global issues, personal essays, to event reports and interviews.