Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Operating On The Fumes Of Mystery: A Masterclass With Colum McCann

 Let The Great World Spin is one of my favourite books of the last five years, and it had a big influence on the structure of my recently finished novel,
Michaelangelos, as well as on my current work-in-progress. Thanks to the Dublin Writers' Festival and their tweeted offer of a free masterclass with none other than Colum McCann, I found myself yesterday in the Irish Writers' Centre, along with about 20 other speedy tweeters, pen poised, waiting to learn how it's done. For those who didn't get in (the places were gone in a matter of minutes) here's my attempt to pass on the gems garnered.

At the suggestion of Liam Browne, the festival Director, discussions began with the question of structure. Colum, by the way, looks exactly like his picture, and was warm, affable, approachable and generous. He started with a quote from writer, John Berger:
'Never again will a single story be told as though it's the only one,'
meaning, that events are seen through the eyes of many, perspectives which interconnect and touch one another. He told us that he had wanted to write a book about Philippe Petit and his tightrope walk between the twin towers, but in the end it was the people on the ground who were more interesting to him. He made a later point that a good narrative perspective for a writer to adopt is that of the privileged view of the outsider, like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby.

Colum emphasised the importance of reading as much as possible, observing that we get our voice from the voices of others. Our reading lists were expanded, with recommendations to read Aleksander Hemon, whom he describes as one of the (or possibly 'the' - why I'm not a journalist) greatest writer today. He also mentioned Tea Obreht (The Tiger's Wife is in the tbr pile already), Louise Erdrich, Rachel Kushner, and Ann Patchett.

This question of voice was addressed from an unusual angle. Contrary to the old chestnut 'write what you know' Colum advised writing what you don't know. He suggested that we write towards what we want to know instead, and that this facilitates a leap of the imagination to an unconstricted place of freedom. In pursuit of multi-threaded narratives we write away from ourselves, into the unknown. We are operating on the fumes of mystery. We would, he added, find ourselves writing towards our obsessions anyway.

On characterisation, he said we should know all the details of our characters, biography, preferences, etc., but focus on an extremity of detail, something that makes the character unique in the world. Only when we have created the characters should we do the research, and it is in this research period that we look for a language, or a voice, for our character. This brought us back to 'write what you know,' in the sense that we only have at our disposal words and skills that we know.

Colum described failure as vivifying, and said that the ability to fail was an important trait in a writer since it's what we do every day - fail to put on paper what we have in our heads. Other important characteristics were desire to write, stamina, and perseverance. Here, he quoted his colleague Hemon, who says 'it's all shit, until it isn't.'

Like the good teacher he is (McCann teaches at Hunter College, New York) no one in the group was left with a question unanswered. Everyone there was clearly passionate about writing, and the questions were wide-ranging. Miscellaneous answers informed us:

  • That Colum is not in favour of timelines or maps or excessive planning. In his view, the plot is the least important aspect, and that it emerges through language, and through character, and through honesty. Maps, he felt, took away the adventure, took away our space to experiment, our space to fail.
  • That Fup, by Jim Dodge is a good book for teenagers, or anyone, to read.  
  • That he's in favour, as am I, of the em dash (in place of inverted commas to denote speech), especially for literary fiction.
  • That his favourite writer (and one of mine - we have so much in common!) is Michael Ondaatje.
  • That feeling a fraud and a charlatan, and that you'll never be able to do it again after finishing writing a novel is normal. 
  • That reading your work aloud is a good idea, because you better see patterns, repeated words, awkwardness. He even goes so far as to get his work read to him by people who speak as his characters might.
All in all, Colum was very inspiring, encouraging, and informative. And in favour of editing out all excess words... So, if you'll excuse me, I have not yet broken the spine of TransAtlantic.


  1. I lost a comment there ! thanks for sharing, I would have loved to have been there, but this is the next best thing. I greatly admire his work, esp Dancer, and love what he says about planning!

  2. Thanks Niamh. Too bad you couldn't be there. Yes, re planning. I've tried the planning-to-within-an-inch approach in novels-best-forgotten, with wooden results. Useful for learning structure, but I suspect there are better, faster ways than writing whole novels...

  3. ah no, the hard ways the best Paula! :)

  4. Thanks a million for sharing this, I was unable to go, not sure if I would have got a space into his masterclass but I did hear him read later that day in Liberty Hall. Some great tips to take away there. Hope you enjoy Transatlantic, you are in for a treat.

  5. You're very welcome, and thanks for following. Finished T/atlantic (a few days after starting) and loved it. Even better than LTGWS.

  6. Great article Paula, thanks for sharing it.Sounds like an interesting event.Mary Healy

    1. Thanks Mary. Now we just need to put it all into practice...

  7. t Was very great blog... this is very amazing thought...!!!!!...... like Very Superb!!!.....

    online writer jobs

  8. Paula,
    trying to say just caught up with your blog...interesting and informative and great graphics...
    mine is still in mother/daughter -- a mode due to too many Transatlantic trips....hope to expand when move is over at end of month

  9. Thanks Carole. Move in which direction...?