Thursday, February 17, 2011


The other day I had a meeting with Lauren Horlock, a winemaker at
Hillier Creek Estates. She has just started a blog, which can be read at,; or by clicking on the title of this entry.
She wanted some writing tips, and I wanted to learn more about wine, so we got together over tea and stone-baked pizza at the Regent Café.

“Where did you study writing?” she asked me.

“Actually,” I said, “I graduated from Radio Broadcasting.”

“Oh,” she said, “so you’re self-taught.”

I thought about this. While it may seem like that—more so since I wrote an article for Education Canada about me dropping out of high school(I later went back)—in actuality I have had many teachers in the art of writing and storytelling.

The first would have been my parents. Dad was a great storyteller: he could always grab and hold an audience. My mom was a teacher; mine for pre-kindergarten through grade two. She had newspaper articles and quotes posted all around the house, and every morning we would listen to Peter Gzowski on CBC radio. Mr. Gzowski was a master with words, and CBC radio brought the best of Canadian and international talent into our country kitchen.

Then there was church, Cressy United, and Sunday School, where I would study Bible stories and their meaning: learning about parables, metaphors, imagery, the power of words, and the assurance that if you had faith anything was possible.

There’s a great storytelling culture in Prince Edward County: countless jokes, ghost stories, accounts of the adventures of friends, family, ancestors, and neighbours are told—sometimes being ever so slightly exaggerated for effect. And my Irish American cousins would always bring stories with them when they came up in the summer—never letting the truth get in the way of a good story.

I can’t recall when I started putting stories on paper, as soon as I learned to write I suppose. I wrote my first book in grade 8. I wasn’t a very good speller though and was told that that handicap would prevent me from every being able to become a writer. I tried to give it up, but I loved stories and words so I never could. I moved to poetry and lyrics: things I could write quickly and keep hidden from those who were less than encouraging.

In grade 10 English, with Mrs. Grimly, I did write a short play(a murder mystery), which was performed in front of the class; and I helped write scripts for my drama classes with Mrs. Ireland and Ms. Hair, and my media class with Mr. Sivel. Through drama and media I was also able to work on, and watch, many shows that came into our little town from all over the province.

In Radio Broadcasting at Loyalist College of Applied Arts and Technology we had to do a great deal of writing: weekly on-air shifts, commercials, public service announcements, reviews, a radio play, interviews and a documentary. I even heard that my writing teacher, Liz Marshal, used my documentary as a writing example years after I had left.

Studying wasn’t just in the class either. Writing comes from a love of words and learning how to use them effectively. It also comes from listening and observing. In Radio we were learning how to do that all the time. Constantly looking for things to talk about on air, listening endlessly to lyricists (and being music junkies some of the best the world has to offer) and tearing each other apart—in a good way. Radio wasn’t for the thin skinned.

Every week, in Steve Bolton’s production class, we’d have our commercials critiqued by everyone who felt they had something worthwhile to say. Outside of class the critiques were more burns and were a little less professionally constructive. From an outsiders point of view it may have looked like we hated each other; but there was a love there, for each other and for the job-at-hand; we were always pushing each other to be better—and sometimes pulling one another through. Some of my closest friends—and the best anyone could ask for—were ones I made in radio. There were lines that it was generally known you didn’t cross; we just had fewer of them, and the ones we did have were further away.

Radio is theatre of the mind. All you have is you, your microphone, your words and stories, and the guests or co-hosts—when you’re lucky enough to have them. The sharper you can keep your mind the better; and a little verbal jousting, and practical jokes, was a great way to do that. We learned how to take nothing said to, or about us, (within reason) personally (in order to be able to laugh at yourselves); and everything outside our self very personally—in order to keep our passion alive. To do as Mark Twain suggested: believe none of what you hear and only half of what you see (less than half now with television and the Internet).

When speaking, author Hilary MacLeod (Revenge of the Lobster Lover) taught us how to enunciate our words just so. Your respect for words increases when you focus on their subtle nuances as you roll them around in your mouth, getting a taste for them yourself before sharing them with others.

We were also taught that, to remain relevant and to be able to connect with our audience, we had to stay aware of what is going on in our community and the world outside it.

One of the most important things I learned is that THE MIC IS ALWAYS ON. There were many examples of people who thought the mic was off and said things that everyone got to hear, which they didn’t want heard. And, I can assure you, words can do just as much damage as sticks and stones. In life outside of radio, you still never know who’s listening; so remember: THE MIC IS ALWAYS ON.

One of the sharpest minds belonged to John Henderson, who taught us all many things about how to choose our words carefully and how to stay on top of everything that was going on. He taught us more than that, but sometimes words just can't do justice.

I later went on to formally study television, which involved more writing, film: more writing; I took a short story analysis class at Humber College, a poetry night class at Ryerson University, script writing at George Brown College, received feedback and notes from my cousin, screenwriter John Frizzell (Dance me Outside), read countless books on style and craft, listened to Nick Cave's lecture on songwriting (I don't know how many times), and spent a year and a half in Ireland, much of that time in pubs—where better to learn storytelling than in Irish pubs? Then there was the years I worked at the St. Lawrence Centre, as an usher, and was able to watch and study CANSTAGE plays, night after night—and get paid for it.

Through all of it I was always scribing things down; always practising, always learning, always listening to the interesting people I was lucky enough to come in contact with, and the wonderful words and stories I was fortunate to be surrounded by.

I still have trouble with my spelling, but I try to not let that get in my way too much; it’s a handicap I’m aware of and still trying to overcome—there are worse. And I am still learning, and still being taught.

So, self-determined . . . maybe: self-taught, not so much.

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