Some kids want to be firefighters or superheroes when they grow up. Paul McHugh wanted to be a storyteller.
On Tuesday, May 18, at 4 p.m. in 126 Voorhies, McHugh will give a free lecture as the last speaker in the University Writing Program’s Conversations with Writers series. The lecture is titled “Challenge in Modern Media: Visions of an Ink-Stained Wretch,” and will address challenges facing the art of journalism and McHugh’s career as a writer.
“Human consciousness is mostly composed of stories and a relationship to stories,” McHugh said. “To me, storytelling is a way both to understand and to be empowered in the environment. If we are just passive consumers of stories, then we’re not running our minds and running our lives.”
McHugh is no passive consumer of stories. As a journalist, he has written for the San Francisco Chronicle’s Outdoors section for over 15 years and has contributed to The New York Times and other publications. He is also an accomplished novelist, and has recently published his second novel – a murder mystery entitled Deadlines.
“I had been used, throughout my youth, to being told how things were – getting yourself filled up with other people’s stories. By the time I reached my late teens and early ’20s, I had had enough of that,” McHugh said.
Inspired by his love of the outdoors, McHugh focused his journalism and fiction on the environment to introduce others to the power of the natural world.
“To have adventures in the outdoors, to make touch with the environment, to open our sense to it, is to absorb the purest story of our lives,” he said. “I wanted to experience that for myself, which made me an outdoorsman, and I wanted other people to experience it, which made me a storyteller about the outdoors.”
Deadlines, McHugh’s latest novel, combines his passion for the Northern California landscape and the investigative journalism he conducted at The San Francisco Chronicle. Centered around the murder of an environmental activist on the California shoreline, the story is inspired by a real investigation McHugh conducted in 1995 of embezzlement and exploitation of workers at Asilomar Conference Grounds in Pacific Grove.
“That series of crime became exaggerated for Deadlines, but the basic principle carried through was that you have a basic resource being shamelessly exploited with a lack of oversight,” McHugh said. “I wanted to show that on the somewhat grander scale in Deadlines as a possibility. People say, ‘Well, I don’t think that can happen,’ and actually I’m demonstrating that it’s already happened, and that it could keep happening unless we pay attention.”
Dr. Don Johns, UWP lecturer and member of the Community and Professional Development Committee, invited McHugh to speak at UC Davis. A long time follower of McHugh’s writing, Johns said McHugh’s work is impressive and exemplary of good journalism.
“He has imagination and the ability to find interesting stories, and he has the initiative and stamina to go where the story is – it’s participatory journalism,” Johns said. “He brings in general knowledge to historical events without being heavy-handed. And as a prose stylist, he has a very evocative style.”
UWP lecturer Sasha Abramsky is the chair of the Community and Professional Development Committee. He said the purpose of the lecture series is to introduce students to contemporary writers of all styles.
“At the university level, students tend to be smart in some areas but not very well-read, and the consequence is that you forget the value of writing,” Abramsky said. “In white-collar jobs, you need the ability to write to really thrive. It gives you the ability to communicate.”
McHugh agreed that students can improve their writing by learning to love the power of words.
“If anyone wants to become a writer and they look at that task as being overwhelming, the first thing I would say to them is, ‘Don’t try to be a writer first.’ Try to be a good user of language first. Try to tell small stories. Try to speak in good sentences. Try to adhere to word power and make it your own.”
Ultimately, McHugh said that becoming a good writer depends on appreciating the work of other great writers and infusing their technique with your own unique point of view.
“As a student, you want to be shamelessly imitative. But the other parallel course you do at the same time is develop your own voice. Eventually those streams will converge. All of the acquired skill that you gained from appreciation and imitation, you take that and you pour your own voice into it and then you’ve really got something.”
ROBIN MIGDOL can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.