Colum McCann On Campus

The award-winning author makes a case for optimism.
On a recent Tuesday evening, the Thacher community was lucky enough to host award-winning author Colum McCann for a post-Formal Dinner lecture on storytelling and writing. Mr. McCann is the author of Let the Great World Spin, TransAtlantic, Thirteen Ways of Looking, and other celebrated novels and short story collections, as well as the founder of Narrative 4, a global nonprofit organization that aims to create change and build empathy through story exchanges.

Two students from Thacher—siblings Samantha Hollins ’19 and Jackson Hollins ’20—attended a Narrative 4 workshop last summer, joining young people from around the world to write, share, and exchange personal narratives. Samantha provided a warm introduction to Mr. McCann before he took the stage.

“Being able to host Colum McCann at Thacher was an amazing experience not only for myself but for the whole community who attended his talk,” said Samantha. “I was fortunate enough to spend a week in Ireland last summer at [the Narrative 4] annual summit and participated in the story exchanges that were led by world-renowned artists, educators, and community advocates. It was one of the most interesting experiences I have ever been a part of.”

During his talk, Mr. McCann made a dynamic case for what he referred to at one point as “muscular optimism,” a diligent commitment to see the best in those around you and to believe in the possibility of the future. He noted that cynicism in the face of a tough situation or a challenging environment is the simple, easy response, and that to instead view things through a lens of hope and optimism requires hard—but essential—work.

He also emphasized the powerful role that active, compassionate listening can have in our modern world, and advocated for its ability to connect people and transform lives. He shared stories from his travels throughout the United States and around the world, demonstrating the ways in which listening to the stories of those whose experiences appeared to be profoundly different from his own opened up whole new ways of looking at and understanding the world.

“I think that Colum’s talk reminded us of the power of storytelling as a means of creating empathy,” said English teacher Logan Brown. “He and his organization believe that story exchanges, in which you tell another person’s story from the ‘I’ perspective, can change people’s lives and help in repairing our increasingly polarized world. He spoke about the dignity of listening and shared his own experience researching the lives of people living in the New York City subway tunnels by spending a substantial amount of time down there just listening.”

“Colum’s talk was very compelling,” added Samantha. “Everyone seemed really engaged in what he was saying about staying optimistic in the face of darkness.”

Samantha also started thinking about ways that the Narrative 4 program could translate to the Thacher campus. “I think Narrative 4 could have a major and meaningful impact on the Thacher community by encouraging us to exchange stories with other students and faculty. It’s the perfect place for exchanges to take place because of the diversity and difference in backgrounds of everyone on campus.”

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