Writing Lessons

Letter to Ira Glass

By Howard Norman | April 21, 2014


When the genius of narrative radio, Ira Glass, said, “Great stories happen to those who can tell them,” he fell in line with the ancients. Sixth-century B.C. philosopher Heraclitus wrote, “At year’s end, no storyteller at table; it is as if the year didn’t exist.” Seventeenth-century haiku master Matsuo Basho wrote, “Ghost says / a typhoon killed me / I’ll tell about it.”

Dear Ira Glass,

Some days I feel that radio stories and the “snail mail” epistolary life seem to impose in my heart and mind a kind of elegiac anticipation. I fend off this melancholy condition by participating in both. On a Royal manual I type 10 letters a week. Sunday evening’s old-time episodic radio dramas register so deeply, I almost send money to the War Bonds Fund on Monday mornings. Besides reading a lot of books, if I experienced anything that qualified as a literary apprenticeship (lofty term), it was listening to the radio. My mother kept a radio on in every room simultaneously; this was loneliness for the human voice, and walking through the house she didn’t want music, news, or soap operas to have even a moment’s discontinuity. She kept a short-wave radio in the tornado shelter. Radio had narrative veracity.

My great aunt’s closest friend, Gloria Schwartz, at age 59 had a heart attack while listening to Orson Welles’ 1938 Mercury Theatre broadcast of The War of the Worlds; she believed Martians had invaded Grand Rapids, Michigan. I once asked my mother how she liked watching television for the first time, and she said, “Jack Benny was handsomer on the radio.”

It’s natural to my character as a novelist to have radio be an intensifying element in the stories I write, because I was, to quote Joni Mitchell, raised on radio. Radio is perhaps most essential in What Is Left the Daughter, my novel set during the U-boat attacks of civilian and military ferries off the coast of Nova Scotia. Broadcasts of the sinking of the Caribou ferry in 1942 (the wife of a main character is killed in this incident, and he consequently murders his daughter’s fiancé, a young German philology student) set loose in a small fishing village unprecedented agitation and violence. In that same novel, a young woman trains herself to be a court stenographer by taking down these news bulletins in shorthand.

Listening to the actual broadcasts over and over, one discovers that in 1942, in order to deliver the full effect and impart all necessary information—that is, to dignify the historical moment—journalists were allowed upward of 10 minutes. There was no need for radio actors to play drowning ferry passengers; listeners heard their screams and cries for help described with vivid immediacy in descriptive prose.

For me a writing life was born out of a listening life.

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