Colum McCann – On Getting Lost

Colum McCann and Kristen Gill
Colum McCann and Kristen Gill

Last night I went to a lecture at Benaroya Hall as part of Seattle Arts and Lectures Series. This final lecture of the season brought us Irish author, Colum McCann. It was a great way to end the year!

Opening the night was a young poet by the name of Angel Cielo. His poem brought the crowd to their feet. Remember his name. He is the voice of our future.

Then McCann took the stage. A keen observer of life, and a strong listener, he feels that the writer’s job is to create an emotional landscape.

He talked about the fine art of “Getting Lost”, and how that has informed his writing. As a young boy in Dublin, he would often lose himself hiking in the nearby Wicklow mountains. When he was older, he walked across Ireland several times: from Belfast to Kerry, and from Dublin to Galway. He was a bit of a vagabond, or as some of his family called him “three sandwiches short of a picnic”.

He reveled in not knowing where he was going, but knowing that there WAS a home to go back to. He found this to be very important. A friend of Frank McCourt, who had a completely different upbringing in Ireland, and who wrote “Angela’s Ashes”, Colum would kid that Frank got all the misery! In contrast, Colum had a wonderful family life, which was a rock of support for him. McCourt was a good friend and mentor, and before he died in New York, Colum had asked him “Where’s the next dance?” To which McCourt responded “Above. With the JC, Miriam, and the 12 hot boys. And, in the morning, all will be forgiven.”

Colum feels a certain privilege in being lost. Unlike others who left his home country for jobs or a better life, he left Ireland out of curiosity. He came to the United States where he biked 12,000 miles, starting in Boston, and he became a good listener to all those he came across. He was once lost outside of Vernal, Utah – really lost – and had run out of water. Completely dehydrated, he did crazy things, like throw away his maps and his water filtrator, and instead only kept with him the item least likely to help him, his Dylan Thomas book. The couple that found and saved him are just a few of the characters he’s come to love on his adventures.

Colum likes to live life out loud, to get away from the comforts of home. As a writer, he has a desire for sadness, loss, separateness. Being Irish, he says in general that “We’re not happy unless we’re sad.” He understands the idea of “saudade”, the Portuguese word meaning a longing for absence.

He says that when reading books, we emigrate to them. We enter a new country. Reading is therefore the most extreme form of travel: it stops the flow of time, arresting the present moment. When we write books, we create a brand new world for others to get lost in.

In regards to his process of writing, he says he usually has no idea where he’s going. It’s a mystery! He teaches his students at Hunter College in New York to do the opposite of what they’re usually taught. Do not, he says, write what you know. Stay curious and write what you do not know. Write towards what you WANT to know.

Our ability to be lost is where the story begins, where we create a brand new world. Sometimes you need to leave and get lost in order to return and find your way back home. Home is the true story. And, in stories, we have a home.

Explore. Get lost. Read. Adventure on.


3 thoughts on “Colum McCann – On Getting Lost

  1. Kristin, I quite agree that reading is an extreme form of travel. You can travel to Canada, South Africa, China and Scotland in a day by reading a short description about each one of them. So Reading is not just a form of travel but the quickest way to travel.

    That’s a beautiful piece.

  2. Inspiring post! Love this – that we are supposed to get lost.. It’s not about what you know. Wow! Great writing about a great writer!

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