1.27 Wayson Choy

TORONTO, ONTARIO: “Teachers open the door, but you must enter yourself.” -- Chinese Proverb. I spent a week last month at the Humber School for Writers Summer Workshop. There were many useful seminars about the publishing industry plus many great insights from a variety of authors, including: Miriam Toews, David Bezmozgis, Annabel Lyon, M.G. Vassanji, Richard Scrimger, Alistair MacLeod and others. But I want to talk about the gentleman I had the privilege to work with the most: Wayson Choy.

There were about 70 people attending the workshop. Every morning, we broke into smaller classes where we presented our writing. Wayson is a teacher and author of four books: The Jade Peony, Paper Shadows, All That Matters and Not Yet. He taught at Humber for over 30 years and although he retired from teaching, he returns for the Summer Workshop. At 71, Wayson continues to inspire his students. He provided us with the necessary tools to become better writers but also encouraged us to aim for so much more. I will return to this.

Wayson was adamant that the best teachers open the door but it is the student that must walk through. In five days and with six students, he somehow was able to hone in on that one concept, that one element that we were missing in our writing and open that door for us. Wayson made us believe that we were the ones doing the discovering. The lessons sunk in, day after day. We learned enough to fill a year long course. He did it in five days.

In a way, we were doing the discovering. It is a great teacher that can make things you already know deep down inside come up to the surface, and in learning them, have a better understanding of yourself. In my own experience, Wayson was positive about my work but saw what was lacking. He laid it on the table for me to see. And I knew. It was buried inside and he pulled it out and showed me. It was like the lights were clicked on.

Wayson set up the class in such a way where we were supportive of each other. By his lead, we quickly became engaged in each other’s work, desperately wanting to help each other become better writers. He could have stood at the front of the class spewing certainties. But in his quietly profound way, he took us, step-by-step, day-by-day, closer to figuring out why we were in this class to begin with: To become better writers. Repeat: He did this in five days.

And we did. There were the tools, the techniques and tips to make our writing better. But as the week progressed, another, more important lesson was slowly making its way into his discussions. The major lesson was that we had to discover what it is that we actually want to write about. What is it that drives us as a person? What are our personal themes? It can all be summed up in the term ‘know thyself’. He stressed that before we could tell a story about something external, we had to understand ourselves. We had to make sense of our world, to access the magic inside and together with the craft of writing, we would be able to communicate to readers. This explanation does no justice to how he presented it.

In the end, we played a little joke on Wayson. We got a bunch of shirts made. We came to class and covered them with another shirt. At one point, he turned to the whiteboard and someone commented on how warm it was – the signal. We took off our outer shirts and when he turned around, was confronted with a class of people wearing shirts that said ‘I [heart] Wayson’ on them. It took him a moment and then he started laughing. I met some wonderful people at the workshop and I think it is no coincidence that the other members of the Wayson Choy fan club quickly connected.

I feel lucky to have crossed paths with this very special man. There were many more lessons learned that I won’t get into here. There were moments with him that, for the time being, I would rather hold on to in my memory, moments that cannot be expressed merely through words. Moments that have had an effect on my life beyond just writing.

A wonderful teacher, amazing writer and a person that has a profound effect on those that have the opportunity to be around him. A true gift. As Wayson says, “At 71, I don’t have much longer. But I have a very long time to enjoy today.” Thank you Wayson Choy. Now go buy his books, you won’t be disappointed.