Colum McCann Masterclass, The Irish Writers’ Centre, Dublin.
Ask any aspiring author for the most forthcoming piece of advice they are routinely given as they navigate their journey towards their first or even early novels, and it will be the straightforward ‘write what you know.’ New York-based Irish writer Colum McCann had a different angle on this piece of advice yesterday in his masterclass at the Irish Writers’ Centre, and while not disagreeing with the statement, his advice was ‘not to be afraid to write towards what you want to know.’
In person, Colum McCann’s Irish soul is still evident, yet his writing takes on narratives so far away from where he grew up and what he knew, that it is clear he is not afraid to push himself and his creativity into another level. He called it ‘an otherness’ – that place you will get to if you take a ‘shotgun jump to another place’ as you write towards what you want to know. This ability to jump into the skin of another – to live, breath and imagine someone or something so far away from what you are familiar with – frees you as a writer from the paralysis of only having to write about what you know. Vast amounts of qualitative research and giving yourself the permission to fail are key here, yet there is also the theory that we write towards our obsessions. McCann explains that our obsessions will inevitably creep into this ‘otherness’, because we just aren’t entirely conscious of what we know – nor indeed, I imagine, of how much we can absorb on subject matters that motivate and interest us even when they are undercover in unfamiliar geographical or emotive cloaks.
According to McCann, writers of stamina, desire and perseverance will succeed. We all know that we must be readers to be writers, but what we really don’t want to admit is that we must also be ready to be failures. Here, McCann quotes his contemporary, Bosnian-American fiction writer Aleksandar Hemon, on the very simple rule of writing, namely that ‘it’s all shit, until it isn’t’. So, if we give ourselves permission to fail and actually embrace our own failures draft after draft, we can then accept that we need to step up the stamina, reconnect with the inner desire and persevere until what we have written and rewritten begins to turn into something good, or even great. Whatever we write and publish will follow us around for many years, so at the very least, shouldn’t it be the absolute best that we can achieve at that particular time in our writing careers? Failure is a chance for improvement and embracing it as we move along will help us grow and understand ourselves as creative artists – like Ray Bradbury said, ‘jumping off cliffs and building wings on the way down.’
Coming away from the Irish Writers’ Centre, I thought less about my unpublished novel’s plot and subplots, character development and themes and I found myself thinking more about taking creative chances, pushing boundaries and allowing myself to feel my way through my creativity and to think outside the box. McCann reminded me that writing and story-telling is not all about rules, structures and formats – although these are practical – it is also about the inspiration both inside and outside of you and of giving yourself permission to search and find that great voice inside you that will tell the stories that you want to tell.
Written by Nicola Connolly.
Photo by David Mannion.