Virtual SE Regional Summit

Colum McCann on the Vital Age of Virtual Storytelling

A virtual book discussion on Apeirogon with nearly forty of our field exchange students and teachers from the Bronx, NY and Langley, KY, as well as N4 staff and board members.


This is the first thing I have even attempted to write in over two weeks.  We are living in a time of pandemic.  What is it that we ask of the storyteller now? What is it about storytelling that can be useful?  Is it the job of storytelling to make sense of this isolation?  Is it about making connection?  Is it bringing us back to some original route?  Allowing us to remember?

The Spanish word for remembering is recordar.  It is derived from the Latin and it means to move back through the heart.

I want to move back through the heart.  In truth the one thing that I have been most looking forward to is talking with the kids and educators from University Heights (Bronx, NY) and Floyd County (Langley, KY).  To engage with them and to learn from them and to shoot a line of reality between the past and the present and perhaps even the air of the future.  The prospect of that a few days ago was the one thing that got me up in the morning and allowed me to open this computer file: to move back through the heart.

And then yesterday morning, there they all were.  Students from Kentucky.  Students from the Bronx.  They appeared on Zoom.  I sat back in my writing cabin—where I have been self-isolating for almost ten days after the first leg of my now-postponed book tour—and watched them gather on my computer screen.  One after the other.  I was there to answer questions about my new novel, Apeirogon, but it soon became apparent to me that I was not the one to give out the final answers: it was these young people who were about to show me that we can stay together while being apart.

It was the first glimpse of true possibility I have had since I closed the cabin door and tried to figure out what sort of grave new world we are living in.  And it cracked the frozen sea within me. The sleep in my language woke up.  And yet this is very bare and straightforward.  I have to point out to you that it is an extraordinary feeling for me, of all people, to want to use the telephone and/or Internet, especially Facebook.  Anybody who knows me knows this.  I’m scared of Facebook.  Twitter makes me twitch.  Instagram sounds like a healthy cereal.  I had a flip phone until recently.

I have imagined a sewn-together tapestry of storytellers all around the world, but I never felt it move back through the heart in the way that it happened yesterday.  Recordar.   Now—in the very midst of this pandemic—when New York of all places is now the hotspot for the entire world—I feel it circulate for me for the first time.   The fact that I wanted to get online and talk to our young people about art and storytelling and communication pried open my ribcage.

We should be continually jumping off of cliffs and developing our wings on the way down, said Kurt Vonnegut.

Years ago a group of writers and activists gathered together in Colorado to probe the meaning of stories and storytelling.  We were brought there by the vision of my co-founder, Lisa Consiglio, along with the generosity of our early and visionary donors, including Jackie and Mike Bezos and Karen Hollins.  What resulted was Narrative 4: fearless hope through radical empathy.  A global non-profit that harnesses the power of storytelling and listening in order to alter the world.  Teachers.  Students.  Artists. Together, stepping into one another’s shoes in order to eventually turn empathy into action.

Read the full post here.