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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A legacy of writing, teaching

By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Columnist

About nine years ago, a lifetime it sometimes feels, I went to University of Hawai'i English professor Bob Onopa for help in applying to the department's graduate program in creative writing.

As always, Bob gave great advice, though none better than this: "Take as many classes from Ian MacMillan as you can," he said. "He's the best there is."

It was a testimony I would hear repeated by countless former students and colleagues of MacMillan, who died last month, a testimony I would also happily repeat to newly arrived would-be authors.

MacMillan's legacy as a writer is considerable. He authored eight novels, six short-story collections and more than 100 stories for magazines and journals each unique in vision and execution, each bearing traces of the author's creative daring, his subtle insights and his great humanity.

MacMillan received ample recognition for his work including the Pen USA West Award for Fiction for his brilliant and troubling novel, "Village of a Million Spirits," and the prestigious Hawai'i Award for Literature though he never seemed much concerned or impressed with any of it.

MacMillan was also justly recognized for his excellence as a teacher, even if his approach was hardly what first-time students might expect. He had finely honed methods and approaches and principles for crafting fiction, but he was neither didact nor guru nor cheerleader.

What made MacMillan a great teacher was his delight in the mysteries and unpredictability of the creative process his own or that of his students and his ability to gently impart to each of us the skills and the stubbornness to cultivate that joy.

He looked at our awkward character sketches and improbable twists of plot and asked simply, "What can you do to make this work?"

When we faced criticism or rejection because our stories transgressed on the expectations or sensibilities of other faculty or editors, he advised: "Write 10 more just like this and get them all published."

MacMillan oversaw my MA thesis and chaired my defense committee. In going over my draft, he frequently stopped to point out connections, allusions, themes and structures I wasn't even aware existed.

"Did you know you were doing this when you wrote it?" he'd ask.


"Ah," he'd say, always chuckling. "Don't you love it?"

Of the thousands of students MacMillan mentored over the years, several, like Samrat Upadhyay, Chris McKinney and Robert Barclay, have gone on to literary success. Many others have moved on to other things, yet still find their way of seeing the world profoundly altered.

Some, like me, continue to plug away, hoping to one day make good on the faith MacMillan had in all of us.

In my copy of his novel "The Seven Orchids," Mac-Millan wrote: "For the day you sign one of these for me."

If that day comes, it will be because of Ian, so dearly missed by all of us.

Reach Michael Tsai at mtsai@honoluluadvertiser.com.