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2007 Secrets from the Vinyl Cafe by Stuart McLean

Lesson 60
The secret to storytelling

 In mid-December 2012, with the Vinyl Cafe Christmas concert coming to the National Arts Centre, CBC radio challenged listeners to write 300 words in the style of Stuart McLean’s “Dave and Morley stories.” 

My entry drew on an experience chauffeuring a semi-famous person around Ottawa, but in the story, I became Dave and my guest was Morley. The show picked it as a runner-up. Many people heard my name announced, listened to my story read on the air, and assumed I had won something. Several asked how I managed to imitate McLean so closely.

          “I know the secret of the Vinyl Cafe,” I would say. “Just take real experiences from wherever you can and then squeeze them into the ever-so-sweet Dave and Morley format--easy.”

          Now, all you have to do is repeat the process hundreds and hundreds of times, over decades, and in a way that resonates whether as text, radio broadcasts, stage performances, or presentations on rolling trains. That’s all Stuart McLean did. Easy.

          With enough pharmaceutical support, I might have maintained this delusion through the first two Vinyl Cafe Leacock Medal books, but not the third.

          The first two were pretty well rooted in the Dave-and-Morley soil. The third book, Secrets from the Vinyl Cafe, which took the medal in 2007, presents a different collection, which, more often than not, features a protagonist that is neither Dave nor Morley. A few stories follow their children: teenaged Stephanie, who comes of age as a tree planter; and Sam, who navigates schoolyard sports.

          But most revolve around previously peripheral characters: Dave’s mother, Martha; Italian neighbour Eugene; Carl the retiree; Kenny Wong; and Mary Turlington for the requisite Christmas story. The book was promoted under the “Secrets” theme with the pretense that each character had a secret to hide. Most of the secrets are mild embarrassments that beg forgetting, but they can be Vinyl-Cafe funny and maybe, together, they show the progression of McLean’s skill as a fiction writer.

          Even admitted fans of the radio program find the stories predictable and confess that part of the appeal flows from the comfortable normality of it all. This perception likely caused many of McLean’s writing students to assume that he had a predictable, learnable pattern.

          He’s been pretty open about it all and acknowledges that, particularly as a fiction writer, he spent years trying to find an approach on which to build his Dave and Morley franchise. As someone who regarded himself as a journalist, McLean started out writing his stories by interviewing people, conducting research, and then pushing his material into a fictional framework: not too much different from my 300-word CBC contest approach.

          Yet, by 2007, too many sober people were touting McLean as a great storyteller and creative writer to attribute it to such a technique alone. If he did achieve such greatness, his persistence and the experience of those hundreds of stories in hundreds of venues probably played a role in it. McLean also had a couple of other forces working on his writing hand: his humility, with its associated willingness to learn; and his profession as a teacher, with its obligation to observe other learning.

          The poor student who failed in high school became, during a short sojourn from CBC, an instructor at Ryerson University (then Polytechnical Institute) in 1984 and later the director of the broadcast division of its School of Journalism. Eventually, Ryerson granted him status as a tenured professor. Trent University also picked him as its first Rooke Fellow for Teaching, Writing, and Research.

          It’s pretty hard to evaluate others without evaluating your own writing, and it’s pretty hard not to want to walk the talk when you have students closely watching you, as a high-profile prof. Still, as I read this latest McLean Leacock Medal book, I was still searching for a magic-bullet secret to his success.

          Finally, the answer jumped out, not from his book, but from his Secrets promotional tour.
          When being interviewed, McLean always, always tried to divert the questioner from the subject of his new book, his show, and his life. He wanted, more than anything else, to tell another story. It’s impossible to watch Stuart McLean on stage or listen to him speak without sensing that this is a person who just really loves stories. Oh, yeah--and Christmas.
Writing Exercise
Think of the stupidest thing you ever did. Then tell the story with generosity and with Dave or Morley as the protagonist.