Colum McCann on using art to explore the beauty of the human heart

When we create our stories each week, one of the most agonizing decisions is what to call people. How do you distill a life—in the case of our storytellers, an otherworldly life—into the three or four words of a title scroll?

When you talk to a writer whose work is as exuberant and alive as Colum McCann’s, your only hope is the person behind it has a hint of that glow in conversation.

There are no worries with McCann. His energy, his passion, and his heart jump at you and take you in.  Like his books, he dusts you off at the end of a conversation and you want to go off and hug the world.

Like most, I first felt that exuberance reading his 2009 masterpiece, Let the Great World Spin. It won the National Book Award, and is as big a book as its title suggests. By then, McCann had already written four acclaimed novels, but Let the Great World Spin launched him into another stratosphere.  It stands with a handful of novels as the best of this century.

Now widely acknowledged as one of the great writers of our language, McCann shares his wisdom in his new book Letters to a Young Writer, which was released yesterday.  In it, McCann weaves together small, beautiful prayers to the power of writing.  As a teacher in the Hunter College Creative Writing MFA program, McCann has unending optimism for the up-and-coming writers he guides.

We talked about those amazing students, and how he implores them—and himself—to explore, to go deeper, to open up the contradictions and the beauty of the human heart. As he says near the end of the book, “The more you choose to see, the more you will see.”

Unlike his soaring fiction, Letters is full of advice as advice should be given: short, imperative, instructive sentences.  But in that advice, McCann’s own heart can’t help but burst through.

He loves it, as he told me in our talk . . . he loves to write. And though he still wonders if he has anything to say, though writing remains a daily battle—like life itself—the throb of it, the fun of it, is written all over his face.

Read more Colum McCann at

Colum McCann’s official author website

​And please check out his baby, the incredible storytelling project Narrative4. You’ll be so glad you did.

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