Seven or eight years ago I was at University of Hawai'i doing the whole English major thing. Which is to say I was surfing, getting high, and battle rapping. Which is to say I was trying to paddle, smoke, and freestyle my way into getting laid by fit, ale-skinned, starry-eyed, 20yo women. Did it work? Sometimes. Surfing keeps you in damn good shape. Rolling a joint gives a girl a reason to sit next to you on a bed. And being able to rhyme off the top of your head gives you a gimmick (Smokin everyday / my lungs can handle an ounce / havin my doubts / eyes hella red / just like Madeline's blouse (Just then Madeline re-realizes that she is in fact wearing an apple-red blouse and lets loose the obligatory "Ohhhhhhh!!!" complete with fist-to-mouth-cough-covering gesture. Pitiful? Yep. But everything sounds better when you're stoned.)). The only classes I went to with any regularity were the ones with "Creative Writing" in the title.
By third semester I was able to score a fiction workshop taught by Ian Macmillan, the English department's most presitgious and enigmatic faculty member. Seeing him on campus outside of class period was a little like seeing Bigfoot. He was a ghost. He had a way of disappearing and reappearing. He was very much the romantic stereotype of the old-world novelist. He was a slight, sparse man. His face was thin and weather-beaten. His hair, dark grey to white, short, but somehow also unkept. His mustache and beard: same. He was horrible at small talk. Very anxious socially. More than reclusive, he lived alone -- by that I mean, from what I could tell, there was the world and there was him. Two separate things. If you came up to him after class and asked him a question one on one, his eyes would widen, he'd stop breathing, and you'd get the miserable, hyper-tense feeling that he wanted to drop his folders and run. Or more likely, dissappear into thin air.
This same man was the author of eight beautiful novels. Five more short story collections. He had won the O. Henry Award (as had Truman Capote, Stephen King, and William Faulkner). He had won the PEN-USA-West Award for his novel Village of a Million Spirits, a book Newsday called: "A shivery, heart-stunning piece of work. You read a bit, and then put the book down. You have to because what it depicts is so horrific, so wrenchingly sad. And then you go on. Not simply because the material is inherently nose-against-the-glass sensational, but because of what the author has done with it. He has worked it into a suspensful, compelling, deeply-imagined whole." Wow. This terrified fucker did that?
He studied under Kurt Vonnegut at Iowa. He'd been teaching creative wiritng at UH since the 60's. He'd taught Lois-Ann-Yamanaka, the celebrity, the golden child of Pacific Rim fiction. He'd taught Chris McKinney, author of The Tattoo. The book that'd proven pidgin-speaking, country ass O'ahu life was literary. Macmillan was the real deal. He was the Obi-Wan Kenobi of Hawaiian literature. If you wanted to become a Jedi, you had to go through him.
So it's workshop. Macmillan was one of those people who seemed taller sitting down. No matter where he's sitting, he's twelve o'clock in the circle of desks. It's the first day of fellowship and all of us English majors (young padawan learners) have conference with the Master. And with eachother. We've all read eachothers submitted stories. We're to talk about them one by one. Many of you know how disgusting workshop can be when you're a young, insecure, confused 20-something beggining writer who is surrounded by other young, insecure, confused beginning writers. It's as though your very soul is on trial. At the same time you're a one-man jury slinging verdicts at the souls of others. You're in the precarious postion of being deeply vulnerable to the next man's verbal weaponry, while also having any tiny thing you say not delicately enough be a potential death blow to the ego of the person sitting across from you. And most 22yos have not yet come close to mastering the art of delicate feedback. It's a bunch of library nerds finally getting their opportunity to behave rapaciously. You know when you get a burn on your skin that's not quite 3rd degree that welts and bubbles into a liquid-filled dome of a blister? This class is the sewing needle used to relieve that build-up.
So we begin.
I'm watching Macmillan. Others are watching Macmillan. Basically all but the one person reading at a given moment is watching Macmillan. And I shit you not, the man is bored. Aside from everything else, this man is the editor of Manoa, a literary magazine that recieves dozens upon dozens of fiction submissions per week. He reads them all. Day after day, week in week out. Then he has to come here and listen to this monotone chorus, a bunch of awkward kids expressing themselves, doing everything wrong. The pointy-mustached kid next to me is reading his story about whatever it was about, and IM isn't even there. The story is very competent, mind you. It's competent in the way that everything Macmillan reads is probably competent. It makes all the right moves in the right places. It's semicolons are utilized justifiably. Its exposition, its foreshadowing, its deliberate thread of theme are so present they're ready to high-five you. The next story by the next library weenie is basically the same. And I start thinking "What am I doing here? Why am I not at the beach? Or sleeping? Or hanging out with girls who just want to use me for weed?' But before I can say I'm going to the bathroom (and never coming back), my "story" is next up to be electricuted.
Macmillan sits up. Not only does he sit up, he jolts the pages in front of him so that they're stiff and upright between his fingers and thumb. He starts talking. Talking more than he did during any of the discussions of previous work. He... likes it, my story. He's excited. His compliments are... euphemistic. He's holding back. He wants to say more, but there are people around. This is great. It's that validating moment that we so covet as writers. That moment in which something we wrote that we hoped was decent, and a little different is read by someone trustworthy who thinks it is decent, and a little different, and this makes us feel really good. Like we're not a waste. One of those moments. I almost left before it happened.
I keep coming to class and turning in stories. One day after workship is dismissed, to my utmost surprise, Macmillan comes up to me. To me! I've never seen him do this before. I've never heard of him doing this to anyone. He says, "Jason, is it?" And I'm thinking "C'mon motherfucker, you know my name," but all that comes out is "Yeah." As small and recoiled as he is, Macmillan has an aura about him. Like a professional athlete. "Hang back a minute," he says. I have no idea where this is going.
After he's gathered all his teacherly / writerly materials, we're walking to his office, which is in old Kuykendall Hall on the 4th floor (and as we walk I hope as many English majors and faculty are seeing this as possible. I hope Faye Kicknosway, a semi-famous poet and an old prof who literally called my poetry "crap" to my face, is seeing this. I hope that Chinese philosophy minor chick with all that body who said something like "It's... I dunno... kind of opaque" in workshop about my writing is seeing this. I'm feeling a little like Anikan Skywalker here. But I don't think anyone saw us. It was like we were both ghosts, funnily.) The elevator was broken so we had to huff it. There was no talking on the way up.
It's been said that a writer is a mixture of a very shy person and an egomaniac. I certainly had the egomaniac thing down. It's nice to look back and laugh at how impetuous you were when young. In reality you had no idea what you were doing. What you had was a lot of energy and ambition. Basically a raging hard-on. For what you weren't exactly sure. At the same time, yes I was fighteningly shy (hence all the help-me-get-laid bells and whistles), debilitatingly so. I looked like a first-string football player, but inside I was a library wimp. My ego was Kanye West, but my publicist was Andy Kaufman. This led to all manner of painful social double-binds. Where does one go when life is this way? Deep deep inside apparently.
Then I saw my future. It really was everything you imagine it might be, Mac's office. It was dark, and cobbwebby. There were books and papers falling off the furniture. The calendar on the wall was from like 6 years before and was wilted and yellowing. This shit was not presentable. You got the feeling that he didn't have visitors, that this was his private space you were in. But somehow he trusted me to be there. And, wierdly, I felt at home. I sat down and he sat down. And he was no longer that jittery, terrified man. His voice deepened. The tension in his face was gone. He smiled a lot. And somehow I understood. He lived alone. There was the world and there was him. The space we were in at the moment was not the world. It was his world. I learned a lot from that.
He pulled out one of my pieces, an untitled fragment about two 19yo girls, bestfriends, who robbed a bank together. He called it "exhuberant", asked me "Do you know where it's going?" He could tell I didn't have the chops to talk intelligently about this stuff. I didn't speak writer. I was just a dumb shy kid with a voice. So he turned to the mountains of face-down 8.5x11s that took up the whole wall behind him. This was the Manoa slushpile. I thought to myself, wow it really does exist. That's it -- that right there. He told me all these people wanted to be published, but very very few of them ever will. I said, you actually read all those? Well yes and no, he said. "You read the first paragraph is all, maybe the first two. If the writer doesn't have you by then, you move on." Then he started randomly plucking submissions out of the pile and reading me some first paragraphs. Every now and then he'd go "See, this one... " or "The problem here is... " or he'd make a pained kind of face, tilt his head to one side as if to say "Yeah, see, this one doesn't really have it". And I was just like "Whoa." This writing stuff was serious, messy, wierd wierd business.
The semester ended and I couldn't get another class with Mac. He was only teaching graduate courses for the remainder of the year. If I ever saw him in the halls, he'd make eye contact, give a little affirmative nod, as if to say "That's all I got for you kid, good luck." I never went back to his office. I didn't want to be intrusive. This was not Finding Forrester, this was real life. In real life you respect peoples' privacy.
Mac died in 2008, 20 days after his wife. I don't know what of. When I read that he'd died, I wished I'd kept in touch. A letter. A hiyadoin howyabeen. A much mahalos, sir, thank you.
Maybe the whole time I'd known him he had been dying. Maybe that's why he was so slight and skeletal and ghostly and scared. I've since read that he was the most generous teacher many of his students had ever had, that he was very positive and encouraging. Maybe I wasn't that special afterall. Maybe I'd imagined the entire thing: the in-class boredom in his eyes, the special interest he'd taken in me. Maybe. But it really doesn't matter...