Story…There is Always a Story
“Maybe that’s what life is…a wink of the eye and winking stars.” Jack Kerouac
I heard myself all weekend tell stories of past festival experiences, laughing and reminiscing of where we started and how we’ve grown. There are funny stories. Picture me chasing a bus, high heels and all, so a late arriving author wouldn’t be left behind. There are touching ones too: authors contributing their honorarium to keep Whistler Writers Festival alive and well.
My favourite story is bittersweet.
“I was abused in every possible way you could imagine,” the author began in the inaugural session of our Authors in the School program. He proceeded to outline some of those ways and I worried that perhaps this was too much for the kids.
Started in 2013 as a pilot project, the Authors in the School program was meant to help kids tell their own stories. That first year we started with 85 grade 12 students. The festival purchased and gave the participating classes a copy of the author’s novel to read prior to the presentation at the Squamish Lil’Wat Cultural Center.
“At 16, a friend told me I didn’t have to take it anymore. I left foster care and headed for the big city, the streets of Toronto.”
The kids, who upon arrival at the Squamish Lil’Wat Cultural Center pushed, shoved and joked with each other, were spellbound.
“You’re further ahead than I am,” the author said. “You’re in grade 12. You’ll graduate this year. You know where I got my education?”
The kids shook their heads.
“I was cold and hungry and I saw a building that I might go into for a few hours to warm up. Do you know what that building was?”
“It was a library, the author said. “A librarian noticed me and suggested books I might like. Every day, she brought me others to read. This is how I began to write and tell my stories. One librarian, one person took an interest.
“And you can tell your stories too. Anyone can. I don’t believe in writer’s block because for me one word, leads to another, then another. Then a story develops. I know you don’t believe me, but I’ll prove it. Give me a word, any word.” The theatre remained still until the author pointed to a girl, a few rows up from the stage.
“Banana,” she said and giggled. Her classmates chuckled.
The story began. “I cursed you Dad for giving me that horrible name Banana.” The author went on to tell us how Banana was bullied at school and at work. He weaved the tale back and forth for a good five or so minutes until the climax. Redemption. “You made me stronger, Dad. I didn’t see it before, but I see it now.”
The kids cheered.
At the end of his presentation, the author said, “I hope I’ve shown you that you can tell your stories in any way you choose, through painting, song, art, poetry.” The list went on until he concluded, “even rap.”
The same girl who had suggested the word, banana now boldly piped up, “prove it.” She had found her voice.
Taking off his ball cap, the author switched the brim of his hat to the back of his head, crouched down in rap-musician stance and continued Banana’s story, this time to a rap-woofer-mouth sound.
Again the kids cheered and I wept.
I’ve told that story many times and each time I remember the late, great Richard Wagamese, the author in our inaugural Authors In School Program, I grieve again for the loss of an incredible writer and human being.
I woke up Monday morning, weeping. I’m not sure why, but I had relayed Richard’s story again and again during the weekend festival. I spoke to one of my students that morning as well. She was stuck as to where to go with her writing. I reiterated Richard’s words: one word leads to another. I told her I repeat those words in my mind whenever I’m stuck. They have always moved my work forward. Again, I wept, uncontrollably this time. Sure I was tired, but this was different. These tears were from a hole I typically cover up really well with busy, busy work.
My LinkedIn account buzzed on Monday, someone was asking to connect. When I went to accept the invitation, I saw a list of birthdays and an invitation to send a greeting. The first on the list with his smiling picture looking back at me was Richard Wagamese, born on October 14th. Perhaps he was reaching out to tell me to stop talking about that very first Authors in the School Program.
Sorry, Richard. I can’t. You had an impact, an impact I won’t ever forget, nor will those kids who had the honour of hearing you speak.
After that session in 2013, a teacher contacted me to say that three students, who had never finished a book in their school lives, finished Richard’s Indian Horse. Another told me her students started a book club focused on the literary work of indigenous authors. Richard and his work live on. I miss him. I will always miss him.
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