Michael McColly grew up in central Indiana, (born in Decatur), spending his youth in Marion, a factory town, where his father coached basketball and baseball and later became a high school principal. His mother was a social worker then also taught social studies in high school. His parents’ work with young people and their love of travel and wilderness have had an enduring influence on his work as a teacher, activist, and writer.
After graduating from Lawrence Central High School in Indianapolis, where he acted, played sports and tried not to embarrass his father who was the high school principle. In college, (Indiana University) he continued his interest in theatre, performing in numerous university productions as well as dabbling in just about every major he could in four years.
A year later, after half-hearted efforts in theatre in New York and then Chicago, he volunteered for the Peace Corps to work as a community organizer in a rural West African, Islamic community. His work and experience living among the Wolof and Mandinka people of Senegal continues to worldview and teaching. After Africa, he enrolled in the Divinity School at the University of Chicago, where he studied theology, philosophy and history of religions, and for a brief time considered the ministry in the Unitarian Church. Outside of school, he became very involved in a small group of clergy, professors, and students who worked in a social justice ministry that worked in poor communities in Chicago.
In the mid eighties, he finished his degree and worked at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, directing the Adult Education program, organizing courses, field trips, lectures and film series.
His interest in writing evolved out of efforts to record his experiences and frustrations working in the Peace Corps. The Peace Corps would be the subject of his first memoir (not published) and a monologue, which he performed in Chicago in 1996. In 1988, he enrolled in the MFA program at the University of Washington, where he also began teaching writing and continued to work in museum interpretation/education at the Seattle Art Museum.
Returning to Chicago, he taught creative writing and ESL at Northeastern Illinois University. Fascinated with the stories of his students from around the world, he convinced them to read their work publicly in emerging Chicago open-mic scene. Eventually, so moved by their short prose narratives about their immigrant experience in America, he collected them published them in his first book, The World Is Round. From his work with immigrants, he was asked to do a series on Chicago’s neighborhoods for WBEZ Chicago’s Public Radio station, for which he won a Lisagor Journalism Award, for editing.
While still trying to act and write monologues, he began work on his second book, The After-Death Room, (Soft Skull Press), which is a blend of reportage and memoir that chronicles his travels through parts of Asia, Africa and America reporting on AIDS activism. In the process of his intense travels and reporting, he wrote travel pieces, essays, and journalism that have appeared in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Ascent, In These Times, Salon, The Sun, and other literary journals. After being invited to many colleges and community organizations to give talks about AIDS activism and his reporting, he developed with photographer Tuong Nguyen a performance with slides based on their reporting together on AIDS in Vietnam. Later they also produced a documentary film based on AIDS in Vietnam, and Southeast Asia, which was shown at the International AIDS Conference in Toronto in 2006.
For his creative work and reporting, he has received several fellowships at MacDowell, Yaddo, Blue Mountain Center, and Ragdale. For the After-Death Room, he won a Lambda Award, for best spiritual memoir, in 2007.
For over ten years, he has also taught Hatha yoga and meditation, offering workshops both in Chicago and in various parts of the world to communities affected by HIV and AIDS as well as for writers, creative writing students, therapists, teachers and the incarcerated.
He teaches creative nonfiction, journalism, and literature at Columbia College (Chicago) and Northwestern University, where he also is a lecturer in the MFA program in Creative Writing. His current work explores the affect of walking/hiking on our awareness of the independency of human and public health to that of the health of the landscapes we inhabit. In his current blend of memoir and reportage, he reflects on a simple walk he took from his own apartment in Chicago’s northern-most neighborhood, through urban parks and industrial Indiana to reach one of the National Park Service’s most heavily used parks, the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. In this walk, he advocates for the benefits of walking but also the importance of access for people to urban parks like the Dunes that can bridge landscapes and communities, while offering people in cities of all classes refuge, recreation and environmental education. He writes a blog about walking and its public health benefits, www.foot patterns.blogpsot.com.