I have the privilege of living in a community with an outstanding writer’s series. During the school year Lenoir-Rhyne University brings outstanding authors to campus where students and community members can hear some of today’s best writers read and comment on their craft and engage questions from the audience. The series is free and open to the public.
Last week’s featured author was Colum McCann, the Irish-born fiction writer wrote Let the Great World Spin, the National Book Award winner for 2009. The writer of six novels and two story collections, his latest book is TransAtlantic, a re-imagined fictive study of pivotal crossings in Irish history that were roughly eighty years apart– the Great Famine of the 1840s, the first nonstop flight across the Atlantic Ocean — made in 1919 by the British aviators John Alcock and Arthur Brown—and the 1998 Good Friday peace accord orchestrated by Sen. George Mitchell.
“Real is imagined and imagined is real,” McCann said, meaning that the key to good nonfiction writing is to engage the imagination, while good fiction writing strives to ring true. The goal of each is to speak to the reader in a real way.
The author admitted that he overcame a disadvantage as a writer: a happy childhood. Stories tend to not be about being happy.
Beginning writers are taught the age-old chestnut, “write what you know.” McCann challenges that premise: write not necessarily what you know, but what you yearn to know.
And I agree. The best writers stretch their imaginations to connect new dots, re-interpret the familiar, give a fresh spin on the world. If authors wrote only what they know, there would be no science fiction, no fantasy novels, no historic fiction and so on.
A writing project should be done with a quest, what the writer wants to find out. Fiction often launches with a “what if” question. Nonfiction, on the other hand, is an excavation, a discovery and rediscovery of events and real lives that need to be shaped and interpreted to reveal deeper truths, to speak to the reader and –if the piece endures—to the human spirit in general.
Clearly McCann has overcome his happy childhood to become an international artist with books translated into 35 languages and best-sellers on four continents. He’s pushing himself to write what he doesn’t know and let us know what he finds out. As with all good art, we are better off for it.