“I like people who live their lives out loud.”
So spoke author Colum McCann in an address to Fordham College at Lincoln Center freshmen on Aug. 28.
McCann, a professor of fiction at Hunter College whose book Let the Great World Spin(Random House, 2009), won both the U.S. National Book Award for Fiction and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, spent an hour with the Class of 2016, talking about both the book, which was on their required reading list, and the challenges that lay before them.
For starters, he said failure was a good thing.
“So many times we have been told what previous generations have done, and how they’ve failed us in some way,” he said.
“And they have failed us. I’ve failed you, your teachers have failed you—and I’m really happy about that.
“Why? Failure means you have tried, and the very, very best among you will fail, too. Does that sound mean of me to say? I really don’t want it to be. I love the process of failure . . . It means that you have gone to the furthest point that you can possibly go. Failure only means that there’s something more to beat.”
McCann read excerpts from his novel, a story of intersecting lives in New York City’s down-and-out decade of the 1970s.
He compared the students’ journeys through college to the tightrope walk that Philippe Petit made between the World Trade Center towers on August 7, 1974—a pivotal event in the novel.
“The education that you’re going to get is going to be as thrilling as that tightrope walk,” he said.
“Out [Petit] went, and out you go. Lord knows, you’re going to get battered around by the wind, and lord knows you’re going to have to learn how to fall, and learn the different tricks of the trade.
“But the fact is, you’re going to get to the end of that tightrope and you will be spectacularly changed, and graced by it all.”
McCann said that he hoped that if he returned in four years, he would find that they had discovered their voices through the voices of others. He urged them not to be afraid to allow themselves to be flooded by people, places, ideas, dreams, and other notions.
The Class of 2016’s graduation year will also be the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorists attacks, McCann said. Major events often take 15 to 20 years to fully comprehend, making their generation the vanguard of those who will make sense of that day.
“Your generation can take the terrible lessons of that that New York slaughter, that Baghdad slaughter, that London slaughter, that Madrid slaughter, that Kabul slaughter, and make of it, if not a peace at least a pact, and if not to stop it, at least to push out against it . . . so that you and your own kids don’t to go through that same sort of thing again,” he said.
“Does that sound optimistic, to push against that? Of course it does. But the only things worth doing are the things that are difficult.”