“What I tell my students is that, you know, when they publish someday and work with an editor, it'll be a breeze. Because if you spent two years or more workshopping your work creatively, where you've got 20 people telling you their opinions about it and what they like about it, what they didn't like about it—that's far harder. What they're doing in, in a creative writing class is far harder than working with an editor later, where you're just getting one person's opinion. And I tell them, at this point, I'm like, if somebody has a piece of advice that will make this thing better, I'm taking it. I don't have any anxiety over influence or anything like that.”

  Episode 11 | Wayde Compton

Wayde Compton: What I tell my students is that, you know, when they publish someday and work with an editor, it'll be a breeze. Because if you spent two years or more workshopping your work creatively, where you've got 20 people telling you their opinions about it and what they like about it, what they didn't like about it—that's far harder. What they're doing in, in a creative writing class is far harder than working with an editor later, where you're just getting one person's opinion. And I tell them, at this point, I'm like, if somebody has a piece of advice that will make this thing better, I'm taking it. I don't have any anxiety over influence or anything like that.

 

Claire Tacon: You’re listening to Parallel Careers, where writers who also teach share the big ideas and practical tips that they take into the classroom.

 

Wayde Compton: My name's Wayde Compton. I'm a writer and instructor of creative writing at Douglas College, where I'm also the chair. I teach all kinds of things because I'm a multi-generic writer. So I teach poetry, non-fiction, speculative fiction, and writing for children as well. I was an English teacher for years before I ever taught creative writing. And it was Betsy Warland who hired me to teach creative writing for the first time at the Writer’s Studio at SFU Continuing Studies, which she created. And so she created this program that emphasized two things really, and it was mentorship and writing in community. And so that method that I learned from her is really the foundation of my thinking about creative writing to this day. Even though now I teach in a more traditional credit-side program, I still feel like trying to foster connections between the students so that there's lateral learning going on, creating a space in the workshop that's very supportive but also rigorous, balancing those two.

 

And I mean, Betsy really looked at students holistically. It was not just their writing. It was also how they think about themselves as writers or how they learn to professionalize as writers and to take their work seriously and to also construct their lives in a way that they can continue to write. Because when you're a creative writer, everything in the world is conspiring to keep you from writing. You know, there's just so many other things to do and it is a weird, solitary process. And so I think a lot of what she taught was really speaking to those things that hold people back from writing, whether it's insecurities or even just material things like where they write and stuff like that. So I talk about all of those things when I teach.

 

Music transition

 

Excerpt from The Outer Harbour

 

Jean has seen it. It's been there, above those waves, for a year and a half now. It's a natural miracle for the way it rose up out of the sea burning and sending skyward a fountain of dry ash from the mouth of the inlet. But the island is nothing personal until the morning she is reading the Sun and drinking tea, and Fletcher, her roommate, tosses an essay on top of the paper, blotting out its field of words with his.

 

Look, he says.

 

The pages are warm and smell like toner, freshly poured forth from Fletcher's printed. He sits down and stares at her. She realizes he is waiting for her to read it right now.

 

The essay is a solid block of geological jargon, and after two paragraphs she stops and skims. When even her skimming mires, she looks up at him and asks, Why are you showing me this?

 

I want to go there, Fletcher says.

 

Where?

 

There.

 

Jean looks at the essay. They've turned it into a protected zone, a national site for research, she points out. Nobody can go there but scientists.

 

Indian land, he says. Brand new land. Brand new colonization.

 

Fletcher makes a gesture toward the kitchen window. He says, It's worth some kind of intervention, occupation. Throw a monkey wrench in the data collection. Get in on the anti-colonial ground floor, like.

 

She looks back at the essay. Hyaloclastite breccia. Opaque petrology. Co-ignimbrite plumes. The language sits there and stares back. The language of dirt. A hundred fancy words for dirt. Flaming dirt rising up out of the dirt spewing a mist of dirt all over the settled dirt. It is impossible for her not to think of the Bible, impossible for her not to think of clay, impossible for her not to think of a few huffs of breath and how that's us—impossible for her not to think of how colonized her thinking is. Ground floor to glass ceiling.

 

Music transition

 

Wayde Compton: The Outer Harbour is a collection of linked short stories. Sometimes loosely linked, sometimes more closely linked, set in a kind of alternate Vancouver that goes from 2001 to 2025. One event that really kind of runs through the background of all the stories or sometimes front and centre is the emergence of a volcanic island in Vancouver's outer harbour. I've been thinking about a volcanic island like that for years and years, because when I was a kid, I just loved reference books. I was a weird kid, like I used to read the dictionary, atlases. I used to stare at my brother's atlas for hours and hours and read it like it was a book. And my dad saw that I was reading stuff. We didn't have very many books in the house, so we had the Bible, the dictionary, an atlas, and I would read those.

 

And he sort of noticed that I was reading all time. And so he got me a Funk and Wagnalls encyclopedia set, with like missing letters, from The Salvation Army. He like, here you go, if you wanna read. I was like, okay. So I read it. And I think that left this impression on me, like this fascination with official documentation and reference books and things like that. One of the books I stumbled across in my elementary school library was about Surtsey, which is the volcanic island off the coast of Iceland. And I remember that just blew me away cause I've been staring at the atlas for all this time. And then I read this book that was just like, oh, new land can suddenly emerge. And so I had that in my mind for years and years. And I didn't think to put it in Vancouver until kind of programing around with these stories and playing around with them and then just thinking of space and the spatial turn in academia and colonialism, and then reading Pauline Johnson's story, The Lost Island as well. Her version of Chief Joe Capilano's telling of the legend of the Squamish legend of the lost island. They all seemed to just converge. And I thought, oh, that can be the central trope of this book.

 

So the island goes through several phases. So at the beginning, it is looked up purely ecologically because, which is the same with Surtsey island to this day, that's the first jurisdiction because scientists look at it as well, here's an opportunity to study how a new piece of land gathers life. And so they don't want to contaminate it. So they go there, but they're very, very careful trying not to bring seeds or whatever. But then also within days of it erupting, French journalists showed up on the island, they just went there and were tromping all over it and put a French flag and claimed it for France in a kind of jokey way that Iceland did not take as a joke at all. So there's that too.

 

So that's kind of a stunt and that's what the characters in the book do, but a group of Indigenous activists do that instead. And then it gets privatized at a certain point and sold off and becomes a condo project. And then that fails, we don't really see it, but there’s the implication that it failed at some point, then the state buys it and uses it to house refugee migrants who show up. There's a kind of collage effect in the book because I like disrupting the narrative with kind of cutaways to different things. So there are maps, there are political posters, there's podcast transcription. So there's these different registers of discourse and image as well. You, as the reader get bombarded with all of these different ways of seeing this city through this time. To me, that's closer to human experience than is the conceit of the conventional narrative.

 

That's why it's not a novel. It's not this whole experience from the point of view of one discrete individual subject position. I think it does go back to me reading, the way I learned to read as a kid, and reading weird bits of referential information.

 

Music transition

 

Excerpt from summary of After Canaan

 

English has just one word to describe the experience in which a person who is of one race is seen as being of a different race. From the United States, we get the word “passing.” As in, he has Black ancestry but he can pass for white. You can hear in the term echoes of the repressive history that created it. Yet passing is used pervasively and expansively because there is no other word specifically for this phenomenon. But it's a troubling term. Passing forces a syntax in which the person looking is erased while the person seen is made the subject of the sentence. Because if I'm standing in line at the bank and you decide I am white, when I'm actually half-Black, this language forces us to say that in this situation I passed for white. So I am the subject of the sentence and you, the viewer, are not there in the sentence at all. It disappears your act of looking. In fact, it erases you entirely from the wording. But this is absurd. If a viewer is deciding what race they think a person looks like, then the viewer should own the verb. This is why in my 2010 essay “Pheneticizing versus passing,” I coin the term “pheneticize,” borrowing from a biological classification method, to replace passing in such situations. If you see me in line at the bank and decide I'm white, when I am actually half-Black, then you are pheneticizing me as white. It's something you are doing. We can and should reserve the word passing for those cases when a racially ambiguous person actively chooses to lie about their identity. In that sense, the word passing still has a use, but in situations where it is the viewer, who is assuming things about those they examine, then that viewer should own the action.

 

Music transition

 

Wayde Compton: After Canaan is a collection of essays that I wrote over about a 10-year period, but it was published now 12 years ago. The subtitle is essays on race writing and region. And that's what it is. It's pretty diverse. So it, some of it’s criticism, some of it’s personal narrative, some of it’s theory. I am compelled to know about Black history here and Black culture here, and individuals who played a role in that. It's always been really important to me.

 

Hogan’s Alley is the centre of Vancouver's old Black community. And so it was down near Main Street and it was there because it was close to the train station and kind of the first big, significant Black population of Vancouver were porters, Black porters and their families. And I think the porters’ quarters, which was at Hogan’s Alley right next to the train station was the first Black site in that neighborhood that kind of grew over the years.

 

That's where the Black community had a church and had a bunch of restaurants and some nightclubs a bit later. So it was this centre of Black culture and presence there. And then, also, it's the exact site of where the city launched its urban renewal plans and eventually demolished the area for a planned freeway that never actually got built. But the first stage of it got built right, exactly, on top of Hogan’s Alley. And it's absolutely utterly, no coincidence. They were following the American model. It's what American planners did in the States, which was we need a freeway connecting the suburbs to the city in the fifties, we'll put it through the community we can bully most easily, which is the Black community. But they did it late in Vancouver, they did it about 10, 15 years later than they did it in States. And so they did it at a time when people were a bit more empowered and the project was stopped before the whole thing was completed. But by then the planning had already kind of pushed the Black community out.

 

And so that's the moment, that's when people come to Vancouver and they say, where's the Black neighborhood? And you know, that's the reason why there isn't one. A really devastating example of institutionalized racism.

 

I mean, I have respect for what conventional historians do, but my role is different I guess, because I'm, I am more interested in the kind of cultural temperature of Black Vancouver over the years. And sort of how things were different then, how urban renewal changed us as a community, and then what we, who were born after that era, how we've dealt with this place. And part of that is trying to connect back to what was lost. Like there were, there were community ties that existed back then that were just ripped apart. And this is for a Black community where severance from the past is the central trauma of our culture, really. So to have that done again is, is both devastating, and also people kind of expect it in a way.

 

The hunger for history is fascinating because I see that, I felt that, and I still see that in younger Black folks, particularly among creatives in the city. I think the good thing about writing is books last. And I think what I want to do is to keep some of those connections going so that people don't feel like they're starting all over again from zero every time they ask the question, what black people were here before me? Why is my experience like this?

 

Having a writing buddy is actually more valuable than having a mentor in the long run. You know, because mentors come and go, they're in your life for a little while and then they're gone. But a writing buddy can be somebody that's there for years and years. And even if all they do is ask you, what are you working on? That question prompts you that somebody's listening, somebody cares and they want to know what I'm doing or there's somebody that I can have a discussion with. Like I mentioned Chris Turnbull, you know, we were in the nineties, this was what the late nineties we were hanging out in the same kind of writing, you know, loose right writing group. And I remember back then she was talking about haptics and doing kind of tactile work that blurred between writing and sculpture, that kind of thing. And I've just started doing that type of thing myself in recent years, like in the last two years.

 

And so I picked up that dialogue from 20 years ago with her and just messaged her and said, you know, you were doing those haptics, tell me more about that. Are you still doing that? That’s 20 years, you know? So having writing buddies is just invaluable. It's absolutely invaluable.

 

My dad was really handy. My dad and my brother, they picked up all the, the handy, you know, the handy side of the family, make things and stuff. And I was always pretty useless at that. I was bookish right, and would read things and write things. But my dad, I just, I was fascinated by the way, my dad would take stuff apart. He would never read instruction manuals for anything. He would just figure it out by manipulating things. And he would, if the radio was broken, he'd take it apart and fix it somehow.

 

And he just seemed to know how to do this. I remember when personal computers came along and my dad started buying them at yard sales—he loved yard sales—and he was working up and I remember thinking like, oh no, you met your match now. Like you can't, computers are not just a thing you can take apart and then know how computers work. It's different. Right? Well, I was wrong because within a few years—it took him a little longer—but within a few years he became the PC guru of the extended family. He was the guy who would come to fix, you know, fix their problems. He became a computer guy. It was a while after him being gone that I started playing with making things and wanting to, to try it out, just build stuff, basic things, crates and boxes and stuff like that.

 

And then it's become more creative. I deliberately went in one direction. I realized at a certain point to be an actual woodworker, it's all about precision. And I was trying to do that at first and then I realized like, no, that's not what I want. I wanted make stuff, I want to slap things together. It doesn't have to look perfect. In fact, I don't really want it to, I want it to be more like a punk rock approach to wood working. And that I'm not gonna measure, I'm gonna just get it to hold together and to do the, and to say the thing that I want to say. And then I thought, well, what about, you know, my own stories? Like what about moving something from story into object form creatively. Mostly what I've done are boxes, haptics that are based on “The Lost Island.” And so they have elements from the story in them like dandelion seeds and sea glass and maps and sand, placed in bottles inside boxes. I just love the idea of opening them. I like making stuff that's movable, that's tactile, that people have to manipulate to see the whole thing.

 

Music transition

 

Excerpt from Performance Bond

 

language is neural, sing, sing,

singularly, like a pearl

on a string. puppet fish

at the end, a hand crab lingering

under drowned spokes of sun,

the liquid no-see-ems, the parachutes of skin lit, the horse fish

pressed to gangs, to schools: choppy waters don't stare back, dorsal

 

fish)-------

heads up)-------

 

to the surf)-------

face feeding)-------

 

believing the rain)-------

feeding on)-------

 

the rain on)-------

the surface)-------

 

of the slowm)-------

oving river)-------

 

mouth to the ocean, to let in, to o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o  o o o o o o o o o o  o o o o o o o o o o  o o o o o o o o o o  o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o  o o o o o o o o o o  o o o o o o o o o o  o o o o o o o o o o  o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o  o o o o o o o o o o  o o o o o o o o o o  o o o o o o o o o o  o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o  o o o o o o o o o o  o o o o o o o o o o  o o o o o o o o o o  o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o  o o o o o o o o o o  o o o o o o o o o o  o o o o o o o o o o  o o o o o o o o o o  much, too good, to be true.

 

*

 

the oysters in their rose

and rose and rose upon rose of tiers

and tiers upon tiers upon our good graces, we

have taken upon ourselves the task of shelving

 

the oysters in their rose

upon

rose

upon

rose

upon

roses

upon

we

who have taken as our task the killing

of starfish on behalf of the oysters’ pearls

 

To Roy Kiyooka,

Levi and I ate rect

angular pears; in Langley heed

slid milk bottles over branches, sheathed

 

the buds, let the fruit inflate what was, the sap

where it will run; up into

even

the sun, which spoke into the growth

of these seed casings making

 

messages to the sun, through, messages

refracting the twig, through,

years you could see in, to

 

nevertheless,

 

Music transition

 

Wayde Compton: I think all my writing is an example of how the more particular you are in writing about your experience, the more a wider variety of people will connect with it.

 

You know, when I wrote my first book, I was writing about the Black experience in BC, the first Black pioneers to British Columbia in the 19th century. And then my own mixed race experience. You know, in a place like BC where Black people are 1% of the population, you wouldn't think there'd be an audience for that book really, or that it would be small. But I remember the first time I realized, oh, it doesn't work like that was, it was actually at the BC book prize—that book was nominated for BC book prize—and at the event, a white woman who must have been 20 years older than me, who just took me aside and told me how much she loved the book. And it was the first moment where I thought, oh wow, like, you know, it's reaching other people that don't have that experience in common.

 

And then I started listening for that and the ways that people were receiving it. And part of it was what I figured out later was that I'd originally thought that book was about the Black pioneers or as I just put it about the Black experience, but really it wasn't. The reason why that book worked, actually, is partway through it, I changed tacks and I was writing more about why the Black pioneers were important to me. I think actually looking back on it, that's really what the book is about. It's an examination of why you need grounding if you're from a minority position or where the dominant society doesn't reflect back your experience. And that's what a lot of people connected with across diverse backgrounds. And another experience was of talking to the poet, Jordan Scott. And Jordan Scott was particularly interested in my first book formally because I was writing—at that time, I was listening to a lot of hip hop.

 

You know, I was trying to write lyric poems that imitated the sound of DJ scratching, which is like halting stop start kind of breaking words on the syllable. Now, Jordan Scott has a stutter, right? He’s had a lifelong stutter. And at that time he was thinking about the way that the lyric, the traditional lyric in a sentence based lyric, or the way that breath line does not suit his way of speaking, right? His natural way is at odds with that ableist kind of standard. And he said to me that he was inspired partly by what I was doing, because I was chopping up the voice. Now for totally different reasons, those things I could never have anticipated him as a reader or being affirmed that way. I could never have guessed that. That's the magic of literature is when it's out there, it becomes for other people and they adopt it and take it on for their own needs. You just never know how people are going to receive your work or how it's going to be useful to them. That could be a really wonderful thing.

 

I sometimes teach speculative fiction to our second year students. I do this one exercise with them that it's, it's always a lot of fun and it comes from Ursula Le Guin. She's also someone who loved reference books and I believe her father was an anthropologist. And so she was fascinated by maps and descriptions of peoples and cultures from around the world. And so she was just imagining what she wanted to write, she wanted to write a fantasy book, but she was trying to imagine where it would be. And so she created an archipelago world. And so she was thinking about how geography is the base to the super structure of culture in a lot of ways. But just the idea that she sat down without many ideas and first was just developing, where would these people live? What does this world look like? And just drew, you know, and drew a map.

 

So that's what I get my students to do. So first I show them a bunch of fantasy maps from different books, like The Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum drew a map of where Oz is—which is so weird because it's in the Midwest. You know, it's not really a magical land. That's why she can get there by cyclone, is because it's really just kind of over there, it’s like on the edge of Kansas or something like that. And then of course, Tolkien, and then somebody did a map of Handmaid's Tale, her North America of The Handmaid's Tale. And then also, you know, in The Outer Harbour, I have those maps of the outer harbour, but also of the condos, like I find the floor plans are a type of map.

 

So I suggest that there are really a lot of different ways of thinking about space maybe first, right? And so I get them to do that and give them a bunch of blank pieces of paper and pencils and say, you know, before thinking really about story necessarily, see if you could start with a map in a space. Think about a space and in whatever way you want to interpret that. It can be anything from a floor plan all the way up to a world or solar system, whatever you want to do. And get them to draw that. And I'm always amazed because I am such a terrible illustrator that I'm always amazed that, that they drove themselves into it. They really, they really do it and spend a bunch of time. And it's just fascinating to see that you can go from there to a story. You can go from there to characters. Settings, characters, and then some kind of conflict. And then you've got a piece of fiction brewing. So that's, that's an assignment that I do that's always a lot of fun.

 

Claire Tacon: You’ve been listening to Parallel Careers, which is produced by myself, Claire Tacon in partnership with The New Quarterly literary magazine. Erin MacIndoe-Sproule is our Technical Producer and Story Editor. Financial and in-kind support was provided by the The Region of Waterloo Arts Fund, St. Jerome’s University and the Government of Canada. The music you heard on this episode was composed by Amadeo Ventura. You can hear more of his music at amadeoventura.weebly.com

 

Visit tnq.ca/parallel for more information on Wayde’s work, including his story collection The Outer Harbour. There, you can also listen to outtakes from this episode and check out more teaching and writing tips. Thanks for listening. 

In this episode, Wayde Compton shares how he challenges conventional narrative structures and explains why it’s worth following your own particularities as a writer.

He discusses:

0:54 | How working with Betsy Warland shaped his own thinking about teaching creative writing and the importance of fostering connections between students

2:37 | Reading reference books as a child and how it influenced the development of his story collection The Outer Harbour

8:26 | His book of essays After Canaan and his work on preserving the memory of Hogan’s Alley in Vancouver

13:38 | Why having a “writing buddy” is more valuable, in the long run, than having a mentor14:46 | Exploring woodworking through haptics and creating tactile art that complements his writing projects

17:03 | How you never know how people are going to receive your work or how it’s going to be useful to them

21:33 | An exercise inspired by Ursula Le Guin’s work where he asks students to start a fiction project by drawing a map

  Bonus Writing Exercises

Read Local

Wayde Compton: That’s one thing I have to disabuse young students of creative writing of is that Chapters does not contain the whole of the body of literature that you should be reading, right? And also, for the ones that are pretty smart and really want to be writers and they're reading a lot of canonical work. I also say, you know, the stuff from the canon is not the whole of literature either, right? And so read Canadian work—not in a nationalist way, honestly, I don't care about that. I mean just read stuff that's from your region of the world—even better if it can be local. And just to get a sense of that writing is a real thing. That it's people like you, that it's people near you, that there’s a whole publishing infrastructure right near you. That people publish books in your own province, in your own city, maybe. And that there's such a thing as a small press, or there's such things as chapbooks that you can share with each other. And I ultimately, I say to them, especially the second year students, I tell them now that you've done work shopping, you can continue doing this with friends, that having a writing buddy is more valuable than having a mentor.

Find Your Urgency

Wayde Compton:When I started writing about race is when things took off for me because that was the issue that I needed to write about, that was the thing that had determined so much of my life, right? And that's another thing that I tell students too, is find your urgency. Like if you're writing about something that is urgent to you, readers will feel the urgency with you. It'll come through. If it matters to you, then that feeling will translate through the work. And you know, the reverse of that's true. If it doesn't really matter to you and you're trying to be a certain type of writer, we feel that too, that you're not your heart's not necessarily in it. And you're, you're doing something mannered rather than crucial to you.

 

And so I try to give students permission and that is one of the things that Leo McKay did say to me, actually, when I did start writing about race a little bit. I remember he said to me, he had me reading Raymond Carver, who he was a big fan of. And he said—cuz I was writing about all different things and occasionally about race. And I guess he could kind of see when I was writing about race, that I had things to say and sense that urgency or whatever. I thought being a writer, you had to write about a million different topics. I don't know where I got that idea from, but I had the idea that you had to be just incredibly absurdly flexible and write about all sorts of different things and different experiences and all that. I honestly don’t know where I picked that up from.

 

But he referred to Raymond Carver. He said, look at how often he writes about alcoholism. Pretty much every story, right? I was like, yeah, that's true. Almost every single story alcoholism plays a role in there. He's like, well, why do you think that is? I was like, well, he was an alcoholic? He's like, yeah, and he was trying to figure it out. And he was trying to figure it out from multiple angles. And Leo just gave me this permission, just like, look, if you're working on something, you can write about that for as long as you need to, as much as you need to. Other writers do that. And that was a revelation and I just, that was permission that I needed to just go and do what I was wanted to actually explore and think about. So that was invaluable. Invaluable advice.

  More About Wayde

WAYDE COMPTON is the author of four books: 49th Parallel Psalm (finalist for the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize); Performance Bond; After Canaan: Essays on Race, Writing, and Region (finalist for the City of Vancouver Book Award); and The Outer Harbour (winner of the City of Vancouver Book Award). He has also edited two anthologies: Bluesprint: Black British Columbian Literature and Orature and The Revolving City: 51 Poems and the Stories Behind Them (finalist for the City of Vancouver Book Award). Compton is a co-founder of the Hogan’s Alley Memorial Project, an organization formed to raise awareness about the history of Vancouver’s Black community. He lives in Vancouver and has recently joined the faculty of Creative Writing at Douglas College in New Westminster, BC.