VICTORIA (CUP) — In an age when people live their lives online, it’s hard to imagine what role an oral storyteller has left in the world.
But Richard Wagamese, an Ojibwa from the Wabaseemoong First Nation in northwestern Ontario, is showing students at the University of Victoria that storytelling may be all we have left.
Wagamese is this year’s UVic Harvey S. Southam guest lecturer, in which role he gives writing students a unique chance to participate in his class, “Changing Perspectives: Discovering Your Story’s Voice.”
But Wagamese’s practices in oral storytelling are starting to stir up controversy: He’s throwing out old methods in exchange for even older ones, and students — and some faculty — are loving it.
“I think people are just starting to recognize the damaging effect that technology has wreaked upon our ability to communicate,” said Wagamese. “We consider messages on a cellphone typed with our thumbs communication. We consider 140 characters on a Twitter account as communicating, or three sentences on a Facebook page, or 18 cryptic telephone calls a day on a cellphone. And what’s it’s done for us is short-formed our ability to tell stories.”
Wagamese believes everyone has a burning desire to be a storyteller but that the current methods we are using have also affected the process of writing itself.
“People aren’t taught to write starting from oral telling, and particularly not from spontaneous oral telling. We’re taught in the traditional academic paradigm of writing, with the rules that are set down to make it happen on a page,” he said.
Your writing tool, the voice box
The process of oral storytelling, Wagamese points out, is a much different experience from writing alone. We use our whole brains, he says, in an effort to combine the physiology of speaking with stream of consciousness and the logic of a story. In the end, we also activate three major parts of our being — our physical, mental and emotional elements — in what Wagamese calls a simply compelling process.
“It becomes what you and I do when we haven’t seen each other for a week and I ask you, ‘So what have you been doing?’ The sub-textual message under that is, ‘Tell me a story,’” he said. “So, when you start telling me what you’ve been doing, you don’t tell me flat and monotone … you actually engage in a storytelling performance. You’re excited, you’re withdrawn, you’re pensive and we do that very naturally when we don’t think about it.”
Wagamese’s teaching is somewhat radical when compared to the normal methodology found at UVic. After eight weeks of Wagamese’s writing class, none of the students have written anything. During one of his first classes he asked students to come up with as many writing rules as they could in an exercise to find out what it took to be a writer. Then, he walked around with a recycling can and had all the students literally throw out the rules.
“I told the students, we’re not using any of those rules in this class. Instead, here are some directions: Writing is not a struggle, because it shouldn’t be. Tell a story for the story’s sake and when you start to think, stop,” he said.
Wagamese said he knows too many authors who drive themselves completely insane trying to get an article, story or a poem “finished.” He believes the moment one starts to think about what comes next, the process has already stopped, so you might as well, too.
“As soon as I engage a thought mechanism, it becomes a struggle. So I have to stop. I go have a coffee, I walk my dog, I play my guitar. I do anything that’s not associated with the process I’m engaged with,” he said. “And when I feel like it, I come back to it. I work away at it until I start to think. And then I stop.”
Wagamese will see his 11th book published this year. Each one of those works has been written, from the first word to the last period, only once. There have only been edits before the publishing itself. In an effort to outdo that feat, Wagamese wrote 60 poems in six weeks, submitted them — first draft — to a publication that requested his work. That collection is coming out this month.
How can a department that builds its cornerstones around revision, revision, revision possibly accept a man who has such divergent methods? Wagamese says it’s important to note that he’s not advocating for throwing out the methodology altogether.
“I tell the students to listen to everything they’ve ever been taught,” Wagamese said. “I wouldn’t ever consider undermining somebody’s teaching. So I tell them, use what you’ve been given up until now. But try to apply these things to what you’re doing. And allow it to give you the freedom that you had when you were this small, and language first erupted in your consciousness. The freedom you had before you knew fear.”
The do-it-yourself guide to journalism
It might be easy to think that someone with such credentials would come equipped with a long line of educational belt notches, but Wagamese only has a Grade 9 education. Born in northern Ontario in 1955, Wagamese spent much of his youth in foster care. He dropped out of school when he was 16. Wagamese describes the early part of his life as “crazy,” and only touches on the abuse and psychological damage he suffered.
“I didn’t make it back to my people until I was 24,” he said. “That was when they told me my role was to become a storyteller, and undertook to teach me that methodology. That same methodology is what I used to become a journalist; to go into radio, television and newspapers, and then become a published writer in 1992.”
Wagamese taught himself journalism by sitting in the library and working through the reporter’s handbook by himself. Occasionally, he would get jobs by proving to others what he was capable of — he rewrote a Globe and Mail article that won him a spot at a Native newspaper in Saskatchewan.
“I became a radio announcer and newscaster by taping news broadcasts, transcribing the casts by hand, then rereading them into a tape recorder and finally walking into a studio and telling them ‘I can do a newscast as well as your newscaster did,’” he said. “I just watched people and I watched news reporters and I taught myself.”
In 1991, Wagamese became the first aboriginal Canadian to ever win a national newspaper award. He has twice won the Native American Press Association Award and the National Aboriginal Communications Society Award for his journalism. In 2010, he was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Letters degree from Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, B.C.
But, what Wagamese supports more than university education — more than anything, for that matter — is sheer passion.
“Desire will get you more places faster than anything else on the planet. I just always had this dream and this wish,” he said. “I became a card-carrying ambassador for the culture of books, and I still am, because books taught me everything. When I was wandering around doing dead-end jobs or living on the street, the library informed my sense of the world. And it gave me an enormous frame of reference which I use today.”
Back to the basics of creativity
For the first time, the UVic writing department has offered students a chance to be taught by First Nations traditions. This is also the first time the writing department has brought in someone with no prior teaching experience to teach virtually opposing methods.
“For me, the idea of teaching this course at UVic is much like the idea of being a storyteller and a writer in itself: It’s a role that functions as an honour and a privilege,” he said. “Creator graced me with this ability to do what I do, freely and without charge. So the thing traditionally that comes from accepting that gift as a gift is that it only becomes stronger and it only becomes respected and honoured in return by giving it away. So, this gives me an opportunity to fulfill that opportunity of offering it out again.”
David Leach, director of professional writing at UVic, says he’s thrilled to have a writer with Wagamese’s credentials and reputation in the program.
“Richard is very inspiring to watch, and to work with,” Leach said. “He talks about the pleasures and joys of creativity, how excited he gets with a new book in his hand and how thrilling it is to write. We spend so much time in university learning how to criticize ourselves, and this is very refreshing to a lot of students.”
Leach is less concerned with how well Wagamese’s class “melds” with the rest of the writing program — so long as there are still grades at the end — and more concerned that the program has a chance to expose students to an author who makes his living with his words.
“In a literary environment we can often lose that sense of immediacy,” Leach said. “The conversational nature of a good story is important; it has to connect with people. But we can lose sight of our audience in the university environment — so much of it turns in on itself. With Richard’s classes, your audience is right there.”
Debra Powell, Wagamese’s wife and an observer in the class, says she’s already seen the students undergo a transformation.
“The most fun part, for me, is watching the students go from thinking ‘Oh, what’s he talking about?’ in disbelief, like, ‘What do you mean I can become a fantastic writer — easily?’ to when people started having a voice and using that simple technique of putting a story together out of words,” she said. “You could sort of see a light switch go on: ‘Ah, here’s a process that is fun and works.’”
Powell says that when students clue in to how Wagamese’s techniques work, which include voice inflection and vivid imagery, they go from trying to animate the story when speaking to figuring out that it can translate to the written page.
After being with Wagamese for eight years, she says she had different ideas for how the process works.
“When Richard is writing, I usually have my coffee and get five or six pages of a novel every day — no edits — until it’s finished. I thought that was normal — I thought that everybody wrote like that,” she said. “And then I found out that people struggle for years to finish novels, and rewrite them and start them over again, so that’s when I really started to appreciate how he works.”
Powell isn’t the only one.
Devin Stark, a fourth-year writing and biology major, says that being in such a revolutionary class has made a huge impact on his own writing.
“What Richard teaches us … is that writing actually has nothing to do with the rules — it has to do with the story you’re telling. The rules just kind of happen, but it’s so easy to get caught up in them and focus on them, that you lose that sense of freedom.”
Stark says that what really shines through about Wagamese’s class structure, is how highly he regards the students.
“At first, it’s terrifying going up there in front of a room full of strangers and being asked to perform. But Richard … [creates] this atmosphere where you really stop worrying about what you’re telling and just relax into the process,” he said.
While Stark says he considers himself a storyteller by nature, he says he was impressed by how easily even the shyest members of the class became emboldened by the end of the word-associating assignments.
“When I tell someone a story about my life, I’d say that 85 per cent of it is true, and 15 per cent of it is my own,” he said. “That’s what makes the story creative and worthwhile — something that no one else can bring to the table but me. Richard gets that, and he knows how to help us get our stories in motion.”