Monday, March 21, 2016

Discovering writing as a 'living, breathing thing'

An avid surfer, Tyler McMahon enjoys time on waves.
Associate Professor of English Tyler McMahon appreciates meeting students who enjoy books printed on paper, with pages turned by hand and not a swipe on screen.

"They have a mythology for printed books. They respect them, revere them — mourn them," he said, with a mild chagrin.

More encouraging is teaching students at Hawai‘i Pacific University, eager to learn the craft and grow as writers.

"At this point, I've come to believe that there's something truly special about undergraduate writing courses. It seems to be the last place in which one's work can truly change and evolve," he said. "I feel very lucky to be able to spend time with writers at that stage."

McMahon, originally from the Washington, D.C. area, teaches several courses, including fiction, literature and the Wanderlust class that puts together HPU's annual literary magazine.

"I'm very proud of Wanderlust. It is 100 percent edited by students. I'm just here to facilitate," he said.

He is impressed how his students work together to deliver a high-quality publication, learning to be selective (and civil) in reviewing the many submissions. It also shows that even in an electronic age, there's something special about being in print.

"It's wonderful to give the students self actualization to be published."

McMahon knows the feeling of being published, as author of the novels How the Mistakes Were Made (2011) and Kilometer 99 (2014).

How the Mistakes Were Made required research into 80s punk and 90s grunge rock. "I was still understanding the form of the novel. I see that when I look at it now."

Kilometer 99 is an award-winning surf novel set in the intrigue of El Salvador, where McMahon volunteered in the Peace Corps, from 1999 to 2002. It took time to revisit the place in fiction.

"It was a place and time I wanted to write about for a while."

In El Salvador, McMahon helped with a large aqueduct system serving five small villages, which had no potable water access.

"There was a lot of politics at work between the villages, much of it a legacy of the country's long civil war," he recalled. "I learned a lot while there, but probably the biggest lesson was in pragmatism. When I started, I had a lot of firm beliefs about fairness and representation. In the end, flexibility turned out to be much more useful than firm policy."

Around that time, he also discovered incredible surf spots, including the storied waters of Chicama, Peru. However, as an avid surfer, he loves living in Hawaii. In addition to its famous spots and place in surf culture, the weather is about perfect. "It's great here. I don't have to wear a wetsuit."

Teaching in Hawaii is also satisfying.

"At HPU, I often discuss literature — by published authors or student-authors — with students from Honolulu, from the mainland, and from other nations. It's always a great lesson in how the specific and the universal work together to make for a powerful reading experience."

Hawaii is also home to many outstanding writers and McMahon is pleased when HPU presents opportunities for them to interact with students and the community. For example, Kaui Hart Hemmings, author of The Descendants, visited HPU for a screening of the novel's film adaptation that starred George Clooney, and took questions.

Local writers also feature prominently at HPU's long-running Ko'olau Writers Workshop, which McMahon organizes. This year, Nora Okja Keller, author of Comfort Woman, will serve as keynote speaker. Surf writer Stuart Holmes Coleman (Eddie Would Go) and noted playwright/newspaper columnist Lee Cataluna are among workshop teachers.

"Students are surprised how giving these authors are" when asked about writing, McMahon said. "It's nice to show students that writing is a living, breathing thing, not just something found in textbooks."

Learn more about the Ko'olau Writers Workshop, scheduled on April 9, at

Tyler McMahon greets Kaui Hart Hemmings, author of The Descendants, at a screening of the film, at HPU's Warmer Auditorium.

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