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The Ira Glass menagerie

Pardon the pun. Yesterday night, as I headed out the door to walk in the rain to Massey Hall, I wondered if the hall would be nearly empty. Who, I asked myself, besides a few storytellers and story encouragers like me, would want to pay money to hear Ira Glass, the man who developed National Public Radio’s “This American Life,” talk about the power of stories on radio? I expected a smattering of earnest CBC types.

As I approached, I saw the line to pick up tickets curved all the way around the building. By the time the man bounded on stage with his glowing iPad and talked in the dark for the first five minutes, the place was packed to the rafters. A mixed age crowd too, though I was most amazed at how few people my age were there and how many twenty- and thirty-somethings. Huge fans, it turns out, of an American radio program celebrating ordinary life. Who knew?! Ironically, though I’ve known of the show for at least a decade and have always wanted to contribute, I’ve never heard the whole thing, only excerpts. I knew CBC had started to run it but have never tracked it down. FYI, I found out it’s on CBC 1 at 11 p.m. Sundays. Glass made a sarcastic suggestion that the CBC put it on at a decent hour, with which I heartily concur.

Ira Glass was a marvel – stand-up comedian hilarious, then quiet and moving, as when he talked about Canadian comic writer David Rakoff, a frequent contributor who died earlier this year, or about one show that portrayed the on-the-ground human reality of the American withdrawal from Iraq. He told us he began clumsily in radio, but rather than take courses or a degree, he produced material and then  found mentors, professionals whom he offered to pay to listen to his work, tell him what was wrong and how to fix it.

He talked about what makes a good story, the kind they use on the show. “Every story is a detective story,” he said, “raising questions and then answering them along the way or at the end.” One of the most important structural elements, he said, is forward motion – action, suspense, movement, even of the most banal sort. Cut out all the stuff that isn’t moving the story forward.

And – “What is the universal something we all relate to in the story?” On radio, he said, we spell out the meaning – the interesting idea about the world – that’s the core of a good story. A good story has a moment that allows us “to imagine being them” – the characters.

And – vivid writing: dialogue, which moves the story into real time, and visuals – descriptions. Characters, conflict, action, ideas. And something indefinable called charm.

Figuring out what your stories are about, getting ideas for new stories, is a JOB, he said; discovering what interests you is part of your work. Surround yourself with stuff that amuses you, set aside time to follow your interests aggressively, abandon the ideas that don’t work. Follow your obsessions. Write about what you care about. Amuse yourself.

Most of this is exactly what I teach, said in a different way. What pleasure to be surrounded by kindred spirits, the witty, open man on stage, the huge crowd – people who love stories. My people.

Speaking of which – I’ve been hearing a lot from former students, including a woman now living in Tel Aviv who has finished a book of stories and another from Hamilton who wants me to teach a writing workshop there. Brava to a student who has continued to work privately with me for years and has almost finished an autobiography that is not only the story of her own life but a political history of the last half century in the Philippines.

And bravo to the talented Rob Delaney, my student at U of T last fall and this spring, who entered his memoir material in U of T’s Random House student story competition and came second. It’s time to start a radio program called “This Canadian Life.” In my files are the names of thousands of storytellers to get it launched.

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About Beth

I began keeping a journal at the age of nine. Nearly fifty years later, I started this online journal, sharing reflections, reviews, updates, and the occasional secret.

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