This is a transcript of a live story that I told just a few weeks ago at our last Stories We Don’t Tell of the season. You can hear the recording over on the Storytime Podcast.
I’ve gone and done something that I believe is never a good idea. Like, I have actively told other people not to do this. I was working on a story for a few months for tonight and decided at the last minute to scrap it and go with something else.
I was once in the audience at another storytelling event where a person got up on stage and said, “I was so inspired by that last story that I decided to throw away what I was going to talk about and do something completely different.” And they dramatically threw their papers up and my heart sank down into my stomach, I might have even put my hand over my mouth, and said out loud - Oh, no - out loud. But, I think my decision was right because in a moment, this new story became so much more important to me than this other story.
I want to tell you about a friend of mine that passed away last week. He’s one of the major reasons why I am even here standing in front of you. Our friendship lasted for a decade, and every moment spent with him was significant. I wish I could explain the whole story, but I’ve limited myself to three experiences because the organizers of this event have a strict 7 - 10 minute policy. Okay, I’ve written four experiences, but one of them is short.
Ten years ago, I had a nice corporate job with a great salary and was on track to keep moving up the ladder. Only one problem: I hated every minute of it. So, I quit. Quitting is highly underrated. I used my last paycheck to pay for a week long intensive course at the Humber School for Writers where I found myself in Wayson Choy’s class. Before the course, I read all of Wayson’s books - The Jade Peony, All that Matters, Paper Shadows, and Not Yet. Pretty great stuff. That week at Humber changed everything for me. I can’t tell you how - because of the 7 - 10 minute policy. Just know that it was mind altering.
At the end of the week, we walked into the last class, and there were three things spread out on the desk in front of each of our spots. Wayson said, “These three items are all you need to be a writer. First, a pencil to write with. Second, an eraser to understand your mistakes, and fix them.” And it’s even in the shape of a butterfly. “Third, and perhaps most important, a fancy pencil to dream with.” And he walked around the room, stopping at each of us. He folded a piece of origami paper into a butterfly as he told us what he learned from us. “Paul,” he said, “You have shown us a break in the clouds, now show us the entire blue sky.” I mean, who talks like that? Wayson does OR that’s the way he talked.
After the course, we started writing letters to each other. Like, through the mail. I recommend writing people letters. When I found out Wayson passed away, I spent the afternoon reading through our correspondence, and was able to hear his voice again.
Although he was retired from teaching, he took on one or two people per year to mentor, those that he felt were committed to writing in a deeper way. A year, two years went by as we worked on my writing together. I re-wrote another draft of my first book. I met Wayson at our usual cafe, and brought him the manuscript - I was so excited - and said, “Look, I re-wrote this using all the things you taught me.” I don’t remember exactly what he said, but it was something like - Hmmm. For the next six months I submitted the manuscript to pretty much every literary agency and publishing company in - like - the world probably.
After those six months back in the cafe with Wayson, I explained how I’d gotten all these rejections and how upsetting it all was. He looked at me and said something like - Hmmmm. But then he said, “I knew when you showed me that manuscript six months ago that you were only going to get rejections.” I said, “Oh, yeah, you could’ve told me that then.” - Because I can be a smartass sometimes. He continued, “I know you can write better. But you were so proud of your finished manuscript that you wouldn’t have listened to me. Now I think you will listen, and I think you’re ready to go deeper.” I remember thinking at the time, Oh, that’s some Jedi Master mind trick shit right there.
About two years after this, he decided that he couldn’t teach me anything more. The power dynamic that exists in a mentorship can sometimes become unbalanced. He wasn’t interested in that, and I respected and appreciated that he regarded me as an equal. We were just friends now, getting together almost every month or two. Wayson would call and dramatically announce, “Paul, we have much to discuss!” We’d usually meet at a cafe or diner and talk about life, death, faith, art, movies, and perhaps his favourite topic - gossiping about my love life.
Being the same age as my father, I often looked to him for advice or council. In the wake of my father’s death, my mother needed a break, and I brought her here to visit me for a few days. I set up a lunch with Wayson and the three of us spent the afternoon together. Wayson was comfortable talking about death, and he reached across the table to take her hand, holding it tight. I was grateful that he was able to comfort her in a way that I couldn’t.
“Paul, we have much to discuss!” Our lunches turned into all day events. We’d start at our usual cafe, and visit book stores, second hand clothing stores, and sometimes I’d just hang around to help him grocery shop. Because, every moment with Wayson, no matter how small, was important. He taught me to pay attention to these small moments. Pay attention to the details, to the signs, pay attention to others, to the world, to your feelings, your instincts, your heart.
The last time I saw him was at a book launch a couple of months ago. I was not in a good place in my life, but was trying to get out more. I did not want to be at that book launch, but something told me to stick around for a bit more. Later in the evening, someone tapped me on the shoulder, I turned around, and there was Wayson. Noticeably weaker, but still smiling, he said, “Paul, we have much to discuss!” We made plans to get together, but it would not come to pass.
I’ll end on a note he wrote to me on March 28th, 2014. This note was to me, but I switched out our names, as his words have more meaning than anything I could possibly end with: Dear Wayson, After clinging so tightly to the self waiting inside you to skip, hop, jump, run. I hope you let go of this internal block and see yourself as others have come to see you - brilliant, attractive, and sublime in all the ways that matter. My dear friend Wayson, I’m glad to hear that the riptide of currents in life holding you back has set you free. Has set you free. With love, Paul.