Students in Sarah Sawyer’s Writers’ Workshop English class have good taste in literature. When acclaimed Irish-born writer Colum McCann visited last week, he asked them to name their favorite books. They listed an impressive array of titles, from J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby; from Sherman Alexie’s Flight to Homer’s Odyssey.
“You’re reading in healthy, agile ways,” McCann said. “That’s good.”
Reading others’ stories and telling our own—this practice forms the basis of our human experience, McCann suggested. “Stories and storytelling is what legislates the world,” he told Williston students and faculty later that morning as they gathered in the Phillips Stevens Chapel for an all-school assembly. Each student at the school was required to read at least one of his books, and all had a chance to ask questions of the author during the assembly. McCann’s visit, which included discussions in several English classes, was funded by a gift from an anonymous donor. People’s stories include great joy and suffering, and we must key into both. “You can’t refuse the world,” McCann explained. “You have to embrace the world in all its darkness, and beauty. As a writer, you have to open yourself to experiences.”
McCann has followed his own advice. Trained as a journalist, he spent two years living with and learning from people who live in the train tunnels under Manhattan. For six weeks he lived with Roma families in Romania. He biked across the U.S. listening to people’s stories. This massive gathering of lives has informed a body of work that include a book about Philippe Petit’s 1974 tightrope walk between the twin towers (Let the Great World Spin, for which he won a National Book Award; 2009, Random House) and 2015’s Thirteen Ways of Looking (Random House), in which he elaborates on the theme of perspective.
His writing seems of a piece with the nonprofit he cofounded, Narrative 4, which pairs people who learn about one another, then tell one another’s story—a way to heighten empathy, to access our collective humanity. The process has been used to open channels of communication between the extremely polarized groups for and against guns (read a moving article in New York about that experiment), between Jews and Palestinians, and throughout the U.S., in Ireland, and in Rwanda.
“We can use the power of imagination to be somebody else,” he said. “The more we tell our stories and listen to the stories of others, the more we engage, the bigger we get, the more complicated it gets.” The complexity, and the texture it creates, is good. It defeats the simple, the flat. That’s the power of writing, and reading, too.