Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Tom Wayman

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On Writing, with Tom Wayman

Author Tom Wayman talks to Open Book about the radiating influence of the Sixties on life today and the inspiration for writing his new book, Woodstock Rising (Dundurn Press).

Open Book: Toronto:

Tell us about your book, Woodstock Rising.

Tom Wayman:

The 1960s continue to cast a huge shadow forward into our life today. Socially, politically, culturally we're still processing all that those brief years initiated. Geoffrey O'Brien, in his book Dream Time: Chapters from the Sixties (1988), at one point calls the era a renaissance. I think that's true: the Renaissance in Europe in the 14th to 17th centuries was a time when everything changed socially, politically, culturally. We're not yet finished processing all the transformations that occurred in those brief years. No era after the European Renaissance radiated the same magic until the explosion of light, colour, creativity, and change of forty years ago. The multifaceted legacy of that time continues to suffuse our lives.

I had wanted to write a book about the 1960s that shows how all the changes that we've come to identify as representative of that era were occurring simultaneously, each influencing the others. Most accounts of the Sixties I've read single out only one subject — rock music, or radical politics, or the counter-culture — whereas none of these really occurred in isolation from each other. And all of these changes happened amid the usual concerns of young people: school/career/dating and mating.

Woodstock Rising traces the lives of a group of young people — one of them Canadian — in the beach cities of southern California through the tumultuous fall, winter and spring of 1969-1970, following the Woodstock Festival in August 1969. The core time line of the book is the actual occurrences that marked the months that the novel spans. But in order to accurately convey the uncertainties that were part of the feeling of being young in those days, the characters are also involved in a fictional event that could have happened but didn't.


Did you have a specific readership in mind when you wrote your book?


I had two different audiences in mind. One is young people active today in organizations dedicated to social change, whether environmental or "anti-globalization." In the Sixties, because of the fear of McCarthyism, people who had fought in the social struggles of the 1930s did not speak up about what they had learned through their experiences. This meant many of us active in the movements for social change in the 1960s had to re-invent the wheel and committed errors that might otherwise have been prevented. I wanted to pass along specifically what happened in the Sixties when an attempt was made to fast-track a rigid ideology into the student movement, which in practice had functioned as loose coalitions. The intent of becoming more doctrinaire was to make the student movement more effective as an agent for social change, but in fact it had the opposite effect.

The second audience for Woodstock Rising is the minority of men and women who participated in the activities for which the Sixties are now known. Though lots of silliness occurred, and some awful things happened (which also appear in the novel), by and large those who embraced the changes were right to do so, and deserve praise. The Woodstock Festival was so significant because it was the first time that those of us who embodied what has come to be regarded as Sixties values felt we weren't a tiny minority in our society. My novel stresses that most people went through the Sixties as though they were living in the Fifties, which is why I bridle when people talk about Boomers "selling out." The majority of my peers never bought in — they turned up their nose at what was exciting when they were young, and missed much of what later everybody recognized as sparking all the significant changes that have so influenced the subsequent years. People I know who back then held the values we regard as Sixties values haven't wavered in their beliefs. The conformists and go-along types back then also haven't changed much either.

When people jeer at the Sixties, mostly because such mockers are made uneasy by the values the minority in that era championed, people invariably mention "sex, drugs and rock and roll". All these actually happened, and appear in my novel, but really the list is: "sex, drugs, rock and roll, and politics" — and the last term greatly influenced the other three. Young people were at the forefront of the civil right movement protesting racism and segregation, at the forefront of the women's movement, and at the forefront of the anti-draft movement, the anti-Vietnam War movement, and the anti-imperialist movement. Eventually, some young people realized that protest was not enough--that what was needed was a fundamental rethinking about alternative ways to organize a self-governing society.

In my view, the main characteristic for which the Sixties can't be forgiven is that it presented the possibility of creating a better world in which everyday life would be more fun for everybody. Most models for social change before or since — whether authoritarian communism or the unbridled free market — offer a dour world of winners and losers. Today's environmentalists dream a world in which you're morally more pure, but have to make do with less, put up with discomfort in support of noble aims. The Sixties said, in the words of the slogans of the 1968 Paris May Days revolt that united students with radical workers: "The more I make love, the more I want to make the revolution" and "Live without dead time." My favourite saying from those heady days is: "Under the paving stones, the beach."


What was the inspiration for Woodstock Rising?


I've felt sickened by Canada's armed participation in a hopeless and brutal war in Asia, propping up a corrupt narco-administration that wouldn't last 48 hours without an ever-increasing supply of foreign troops. Opposing the consortium of drug lords and warlords in Kabul is a Pashtun tribal movement of religious psychopaths, women-fearing and women-hating, who are equally involved in the drug trade that continues to have such an awful impact on our inner cities. The latter murderous bunch are the ones "our" side armed and trained when the religious nutters agreed to fight the last group of foreign invaders who propped up a puppet corrupt narco-administration.

The parallels between our intervention in an Afghan civil war and America's war in Asia 40 years ago are too many to list, but at least at that time a vocal and active minority on the campuses organized — together with groups in the wider community — to oppose the conflict. The time seemed right to me to draw those parallels, although Woodstock Rising eschews irony: the reader has to make the connections, and the novel uses humour as well as outrage to put across its ideas.

As a university teacher I've also been bothered by how much my students lack hope: they see no real alternative to the corporate state in which they were raised. The limits of their imagination about social change is to click a button on some online petition, or recycle their used paper, or purchase some upgrade or techno-device whose sellers insist will improve their lives.

Most of all, the Sixties were about hope. So much had changed so fast that we who were socially active in that period believed we could change everything for the better. That sense of hope gave us energy to build new institutions. As just one example, most of the independent Canadian publishers still around started in the brief wave of Sixties enthusiasm for having an independent country: Harbour, Talonbooks, Anansi, Coach House, etc. People organized the Council of Canadian Unions, finally tiring of being the only country on earth whose unions are headquartered in a different country. Every social institution — from schools to marriages — was up for reconsideration. In fashion, we went from drab conformity and rigid dress codes to a virtual rainbow of color, shape, form. Compare a street scene in 1962 to one in 1972 and you'll see what I mean. About the only fashion innovation since the Sixties is the discovery that a person can wear a baseball cap backwards.

By now it's a truism that "social media" isolates people, rather than unites them in any meaningful way. An article in the June 1, 2009 Maclean's discusses Ang Lee's new movie Taking Woodstock. Ang Lee turns a social marker into a gay coming-of-age story, which it most certainly wasn't. But that's not what's significant about the Maclean's piece. Rather, it talks about how the young stars of the film recognized that the electronic devices they embrace actually encourage conformity and lack of fun. "If you were a 23-year-old guy in Woodstock and didn't have a phone, you were just hanging out," one actor is quoted. "Whoever you were with, that's who you were with. These days you're with who you're with plus the 10 people you're text-messaging." Another actor notes the absence back then of cell-phone cameras and the ability to immediately post photos and videos to websites. The implication is that the ever-present electronic eye is a huge inhibitor of spontaneity, of natural behaviour, of concern for others. "You wonder if [Woodstock] were happening today what it would be like. Would people be able to go beyond themselves and care about something bigger?"


Did you draw on people you know for your characters?


Absolutely. Some characters in Woodstock Rising are actual historical figures like Richard Nixon. Other characters are composites based on politicos or freaks or ordinary students I knew from the time-period of the book.


When did you first try writing, and what did you write?


I had always been "good at English," since my parents were readers. My grade seven English teacher in Prince Rupert, B.C., Ray Logie — later named the B.C. provincial animator for drama — thought I could adapt the opening scenes of Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island for the stage, and I did. Mr. Logie organized a stage production of this adaptation, which was quite a thrill for me. Later, like most young people, I began writing in high school out of that adolescent turmoil that claims us all. I was lucky in that I grew up in a household that contained the latest books by contemporary Canadian poets, so I turned to poetry. I also somehow read Lawrence Lipton's The Holy Barbarians (1959), about beatniks living in Venice (a suburb of Los Angeles), and that book included examples of beat poetry, whose loose forms were ideal for expressing adolescent angst.


What's the best advice you've ever received as a writer?


To read. Constantly. But not to read as a civilian does, mentally inhaling the words. To read as a writer does: why doesn't this paragraph work? Why am I bored here? Why do these characters seem rounded, engaging — how does the author make me care about what happens to these people?


What advice to you have for writers who are trying to get published?


In an interview with me published in the poetry mag CV2 (Spring 2008) , the interviewer, Sharon Caseberg, asked the identical question. Here is what I replied (modified slightly to fit fiction, too); I don't think I can put this any clearer.

Take this down:

1. Nobody in the history of the human race has had your experiences. If you don't write what it is like for you to live in your time, in your place, somebody else will do it for you and get it wrong.

2. Musicians and wannabe musicians listen to music all the time, seeing what riffs to emulate, steal and avoid. These people buy or otherwise acquire recordings endlessly, and are forever going to clubs and concerts to observe and listen. Artists and wannabe artists of every type (painting, clay, fine woodworking, etc.) look at examples of their art all the time, going to galleries and artist's talks, looking at photos in exhibit catalogues and books. Journeyed tradesmen and tradeswomen constantly observe how other craftspeople practice their trade, again looking for ideas to adapt, avoid or adopt. As Lew Welch says in his poem "Philosophy" from Course College (1968): "The great Winemaster is almost a / magician to the bulk of his Tribe, / to his Peers he is only accurate." You need to steadily read other people's poems and/or stories in literary magazines, individual volumes, and selected and collected works. You need to be reading poems and/or stories all the time, the way a superb ball player is forever noodling around with a ball, or a great guitarist is forever noodling around with her or his instrument.

3. Quit whining. Nobody asked you to be an artist. Nobody promised that your poems or fiction would dazzle the ages, let alone your fellow-citizens or fellow-writers. Nothing entitles you to a grant or award, or to publication in a literary magazine, inclusion in an anthology, or the acceptance of your manuscript by a publisher. Yes, people with less talent than you will be hailed as stunning practitioners of your art. Yes, some people are luckier than you. Your most effective response to the crooked hand fate has dealt you — or will deal you — is to keep writing. Writing well is not the best revenge, it is the only revenge. External validation is notoriously fickle, as well as notoriously wrong-headed.

On this last point, when I teach a senior manuscript workshop I assign the most insightful book I've ever encountered about the artistic life, The Horse's Mouth (1944) by Joyce Cary (1888-1957). Cary's central character, Gulley Jimson, is a William-Blake-obsessed painter down on his luck in most areas of his life, but with his creative powers intact despite his poverty, approaching old age, and nearly universal critical neglect. How Jimson negotiates his situation is both hilarious and offers a much better model for the artistic process than I could formulate. Indeed, laughter is probably the most useful advice anyone can offer you, if you know how to take it. The U.S. poet and teacher Philip Levine (b. 1928) is a contemporary literary figure so revered he's the only writer I've ever seen get a standing ovation from a huge crowd (at the Associated Writing Programs conference in Palm Springs in 2001) before he started to read. One of his former students explained to me: "Phil helped us to take our poems seriously when we didn't, and helped us not take our poems so seriously when we did."


What is your next project?


I have several projects underway simultaneously. I'd like to assemble another collection of my essays and interviews since 1993, when A Country Not Considered appeared, about work-based writing. I'd like to finish another collection I've started of short fiction about the West Kootenay area in southeastern B.C. where I live when I'm not away teaching. I have a memoir that needs completing about my move twenty years ago to the mountains. My next novel, about "hippie-labour" crews rebuilding the run-down Gastown area of Vancouver in the 1970s, also awaits. At my age, I'm in an all-out race between accomplishing these writing tasks and doing a face-plant into my tapioca.

Tom Wayman has published 25 previous books, including High Speed Through Shoaling Water, Boundary Country, A Vain Thing, and the 2003 Governor General’s Award-nominated volume of poems My Father’s Cup. He currently teaches at the University of Calgary, and makes his home in Winlaw, British Columbia.

For more information about Woodstock Rising please visit the Dundurn Books website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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