Monday, October 17, 2011

My First Time: Tyler McMahon

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.   Today's guest is Tyler McMahon whose debut novel, How the Mistakes Were Made, is out in bookstores now.  The book tells the story of Seattle rocker Laura Loss, one-time teen bass player in her brother's successful early-'80s hardcore punk band SCC, who is surprised to find a career comeback with the grunge band The Mistakes, and then is equally surprised to find herself in the middle of a love triangle with the two other members, Sean and Nathan.  Kirkus Reviews sang its praises by calling it "a rock novel good enough to wish you had an accompanying soundtrack."  McMahon was born and raised in the Washington, DC area.  He studied at the University of Virginia and Boise State University.  His work has appeared in The Threepenny Review, Antioch Review, The Nervous Breakdown, and elsewhere.  He lives in Honolulu with his wife, food writer Dabney Gough, and teaches in the English Department at Hawai‘i Pacific University.

My First Writing Contest

You’ve never heard of the Glenn Balch Award for Fiction.  It’s an obscure short-story prize offered to the graduate students at the writing program I attended.  With a dozen or so entries per year, the award is mostly a matter of beer money and bragging rights among your peers.

After the end of my first year, I put my best story—a piece that involved a jaded surfer who’s carried away by a riptide while wearing a tuxedo and clinging to a stray dog—into an envelope and submitted it to the contest.

The minute the semester ended, I packed up for a Peruvian surf trip that I’d funded entirely through student loans.  Three days before I was meant to leave, an email thread went out to a group of my old Peace Corps El Salvador colleagues—my best friends in the world.  Without warning, one of us—a girl from New York named Laurie—had died from a brain aneurysm.

I found myself on a red-eye to New York City without luggage.  There I was met by close friends, old friends, ex-girlfriends, and my dead friend’s distraught family.  This was May of 2005, and Ground Zero still seemed a gaping, smoldering reminder of unfairness and pain—barely visible from the apartment where we all stayed.

For the next 48 hours, dozens of us drank and cried.  I attended the funeral in flip-flops and jeans.  Friends sang a few of Laurie’s favorite songs at the service.  We covered her body in shovelfuls of dirt at a cemetery in Queens.

My old friends asked about my life.  I did my best to explain that I was studying to be a writer.  They remembered me as an exaggerated, arm-waving storyteller from late-night bullshit sessions in El Salvador.  I struggled to explain that the short stories I wrote now were quieter, darker, possibly not something they’d be interested in.  And that I aspired to publish them in journals they’d never hear of and were unlikely to find in any store.  Nobody asked why I’d chosen this route.  Nobody had to, I suppose.

Impossibly, I made my return flight to the West Coast.  Even more impossibly, I managed to collect my backpack and make my flight to Peru—something I’d forgotten all about the second I heard of Laurie’s death.  After a blurry montage of airplanes, cab-rides, and airport bars, I found myself lying awake in the top bunk of a Lima hostel—listening to the snores from other travelers in the surrounding beds and not quite sure what I was doing here.

I couldn’t stop thinking about Laurie.  The last time I’d spoken to her was after a butt-call I made from a bar that woke her up.  It took us a moment to realize who each other was and why we were speaking.

Though it sounds—and is—selfish, Laurie’s death also forced me to ponder my own mortality.  She was about to finish a Masters program of her own.  In two years, I’d be exactly her age, and also closing in on graduation.  What might my funeral look like, were I to drop dead just as suddenly?  Would those same friends have come from all corners of the country to pay respects?  Would they have sung the same songs?  I’d recently begun to call myself a writer, yet if I dropped dead tomorrow, there’d be no real body of work left behind.

For the next couple days, I wasn’t able to leave the hostel.  I took all my meals there, and tried to avoid eye contact with the other travelers: Germans with hiking gear and trekking poles, dreadlocked Californians, one older Canadian who wore sweatpants and rolled cigarettes all day long.  The thick fog layer that covered the city could make you forget that there was such a thing as the sun.

Finally, I summoned the courage to pay the hostel’s clerk 5 soles for a half hour of Internet access.  She stood up and had me slide behind the computer at the front desk.  The dial-up connection whirred and puttered its way towards my inbox.  I closed my eyes and hoped for some kernel of good news in my small corner of cyberspace.

Among the gaggle of new messages, there was one with the subject: “Glenn Balch Award for Fiction.”  I clicked on the title to see which of my classmates I’d need to congratulate.  It turned out that I’d won the award.  That felt surreal, more than anything. I’d be paid $750: the first and still the biggest paycheck I’ve ever received for a short story.

But it was the text of the email that mattered more than the win.  To my surprise, the judge had been Ira Sher—author of Gentlemen of Space and Singer.  He summarized my novice story with compassion and intelligence.  I don’t have a record of what he said.  The exact text was lost along with that University email account.  But I know it ended with a sentence something along the lines of: “This is a story about a man literally and figuratively adrift, a story for an age and for a world that is both beautiful and indifferent.”

I began to weep there behind the front desk.  Part of it was flattery.  I was proud to have my work considered the top of any heap—no matter how small.  But more than anything, I was moved by Sher’s words.  I said the phrase, “a world both beautiful and indifferent” under my breath over and over.  Never—not before and not since—have I been so certain about the incantatory power of language.

I continued to say that phrase to myself as I left the hotel and walked for miles along the streets of Lima.  I bought myself a new surfboard and a bus ticket to the northern beach towns.  In the weeks that followed, I never quite got Laurie out of my mind.  But so armed with a few hundred bucks and a mantra, I was able to keep surfing and writing my way through this, a world both beautiful and indifferent.


  1. This is a story beyond poignant, Tyler. Thank you for sharing it. The phrase "a world both beautiful and indifferent" is so powerful it made my eyes water.

  2. Thanks for reading Guilie! I didn't realize all the places this piece would go once I started it in the airport bar the other day...

  3. Thanks, Tyler. I'm sitting here in a coffee shop back east, writing an email that somehow makes me want to write again for the first time in two years, and reading this--your piece--is like icing on the cake I just now remembered was in the oven. (Forgive the banal nature of the comparison--I'm just that rusty.) Picked up your book the other day and am looking forward to reading it.

  4. I'd like to thank you, too, Tyler. Like Sayzie, I have not been writing. I have been doing things that demanded my utter focus. Now they are done, and I am finding myself ready to begin thinking of words and stories and essays and the act of connecting with the beautiful and indifferent world. Thanks for the reminder.

  5. Thanks for reading, Patti and Sayzie. Now more than ever, it seems funny to me how what we think at the finish lines turn out to be illusions, and how the most rewarding parts of this writing thing will sneak up on you.