Hugo House's Brian McGuigan on inspiring your own creativity

The legendary Hugo House voice (and former program director) talks about the power of showing up and sitting down.
Crosscut archive image.

McGuigan now

The legendary Hugo House voice (and former program director) talks about the power of showing up and sitting down.

Editor's Note: This is the third in a multi-part series about Seattle-area creatives: What they were like at age 17, and how it has affected their art. Read about the teenage years of Washington Poet Laureate Elizabeth Austen and Director of Seattle's Office of Art & Culture, Randy Engstrom,

That voice. If you’ve been to Seattle’s Hugo House in the past few years, there’s a good chance you’ve heard Brian McGuigan, the former Director of Programming, emcee an event in his distinctive East Coast dialect. His accent is surprisingly mellow — Queens-meets-the-Bronx-with-a-touch-of-Long-Island — but commanding. He’s warmed up the crowd for everyone from newbies to Sherman Alexie. But as a 17-year-old, says McGuigan, he wasn't nearly as confident, and probably far less charming.

As a teen, he spent hours recording himself rapping through a miniature microphone over pirated beats. “It’s sad to do a bunch of mushrooms and write poems, being high and doing whatever for hours,” he tells me.

In college, he philosophized among the bearded and shoeless weirdoes of Southern California. Through those early years, drinking and drugs masqueraded as rebellious empowerment for McGuigan. It was a way to feel like he was coping with the chaos of growing up without a dad, living amid crime and violence and feeling unhappy with himself.

“I treated my body like the trash I thought it was,” he says. Classic self-avoidance. But at some point, he adds, “You just need to be an adult in the world.”

For McGuigan, being an adult  — and a serious writer — means showing up every day. In the real world, where the beer comes only after a day’s work, “Inspiration needs to be lured out of its cave. You got to put the fucking breadcrumbs out, the meat on the rotisserie, whatever,” he says“Let the smell out into the forest.”

In other words, sit down every day, again and again, same time, same place and have structure.

He starts his writing days immersed in other people’s words, reading mostly from memoirs and studying their forms and tricks. Then he writes. Around noon he takes a four- to seven-mile run, comes home, and writes some more. 

Crosscut archive image.On his “off” days, he spends mornings with his 2-½-year-old son, whom McGuigan claims can already run a mile — something that makes him “nap like a champ.” Then, while the kid is out, more writing. “Given the upheaval of my childhood, I’ve come to value routine, for both myself and my boy.” McGuigan says. Without that structure, it’s easy to “eat too much, drink too much, watch too much TV.”  

When asked what parts, if any, remain from his wayward days, he says, “A willingness to say fuck you. It’s part of my personality. Now, when I sit down, I’m still thinking that. It’s not everything, you know. Back then, I wasn’t happy, but that helped me be the person I was no matter what people thought.”

Novelist Peter Mountford, who worked with McGuigan at the Hugo House, views him as a “striking combination of brash and diplomatic. He likes to offend, a bit, or stir shit up.” Mountford tells a story: When McGuigan made a vague Facebook post blasting an unnamed writer friend for being a big time jerk, Mountford worried that he was that unnamed writer.

That same morning, Mountford had published an essay in which he’d cast himself in a rather unfavorable light. “I ended up writing Brian this earnest email. He said he wasn’t talking about me, which was of course a relief, but I was half expecting him to reply, ‘Yes, you are an asshole, fuck off.’”

McGuigan recently stepped down from his position at the Hugo House after nine years, to work on a memoir about fatherlessness, manhood and becoming a father, for which he received a grant from the City of Seattle’s Office of Art + Culture. (You can hear him read from his book on September 6th, 3 pm, at the Rainier Valley Cultural Center.)

Now, he spends his days immersed in the dark places of his past, and confesses to being so present in them that he weeps two or three days in any given week. Yet day in and day out, he still shows up and does the work. To bring his voice to the page, he is willing “to sit in that sadness, to be present with it, be dirty with it.” 

Brian McGuigan is a co-founder and co-curator of The Cheap Wine & Poetry and Cheap Beer & Prose series, and is the former Director of Programming at the Richard Hugo House. He is currently working on a memoir from his cold basement. 


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