Author Colum McCann Speaks at Narrative Medicine Rounds

Earlier this month, Narrative Medicine Rounds featured novelist Colum McCann, author of Let the Great World Spin, on March 2nd at the Faculty Club of Columbia University Medical Center. He is the author of six novels and three short story collections and is the winner of the 2009 National Book Award. His most recent work, a novella called Thirteen Ways of Looking, explores the power of storytelling.

McCann kicked off the event with a conversation with the audience about the importance of storytelling in the medical field and beyond.

He believes that understanding patients and achieving empathy comes primarily from telling and bearing witness to stories. “The true bravery comes in admitting that we sometimes don't know what is going on,” McCann said.

He recounted a personal story of injury and how storytelling helped him cope.

“We tell stories because we have a deep need to heal. And when we listen to people’s stories and we engage with them, we create something entirely new for how we ourselves operate in the world and how other people operate in the world,” Colum said.

He shared how he has tested his theories about the therapeutic nature of storytelling through his nonprofit Narrative 4 (N4), a story exchange organization working with children in communities around the world that have experienced trauma or other challenges.

“Our basic premise is that we want to exchange stories. I want to tell your story, and you will tell mine. We call it fearless hope to radical empathy,” he said.

McCann considers the work done by the organization to be a form of indirect conflict resolution. Students are taught how to listen and gain perspective in order to better interpret their own stories. By sharing narratives, participants can reach beyond the facts and understand broader, universal human truths. This is an important skill for doctors who must confront patients and their struggles every day.

Colum ended his talk by discussing what doctors and physicians can find in their patients’ stories.

“It seems to me that there’s something embedded within every story that is the nugget of its own peculiar truth,” he said.

Learn more about the Narrative Medicine graduate program.