A compelling writing style? For Graeme Decarie, it began with watching the minister at Crystal Springs United Church

Here’s a question that relates to the writing of Autobiography Stories.

I am pleased to share the following June 29, 2016 email interview with Graeme Decarie:

Jaan Pill: You have a compelling style of writing. You make great use of short paragraphs – a style that is characteristic of newspaper writing.

Graeme Decarie. Photo supplied by Graeme Decarie.

Graeme Decarie; photo supplied by Graeme Decarie.

That’s the preamble to my question. The question is: Did your experience as a CBC and CJAD broadcaster have an influence in the development of your style of writing?

Would you write a script, and would you follow the script closely in each broadcast? How would you ensure that you got the timing right – that is, ensuring that your comments were exactly within the amount of time available, for a given broadcast?

Would you follow a script word for word, in radio broadcasts, or would you take the text as a starting point and then proceed to add some ad lib commentary?

If you made a presentation, which has some relation to broadcasting, how would you proceed? Would you write an outline? Would you write a script? Would you just write a few notes? Would you just speak from the top of your head? Would you spend any time rehearsing a major presentation?

Did your experience as a university professor – where you would spend part of your time delivering lectures – have an influence on the development of the skills associated with broadcasting?

Did your broadcasting work lead to enhancement of your communication skills, or were the skills already in place, before you began your broadcasting career?

How did you get started in the broadcasting business? How has the field changed, from what you can see, in the years that have followed?

Graeme Decarie; image source: Graeme Decarie

What made you decide to start blogging? Do you see it as a continuation of your earlier work as a professor and broadcaster or do you see it as something that is entirely different?

In what ways was CBC work similar to, and in what ways was it different from, your work with CJAD?

Graeme Decarie: That’s long.

I got started on a sense of communication by watching our mininster at Crystal Springs United Church, He had a magnificent style, never used notes, understood the value of gestures, dramatic pauses. My first foray was to stand at the end of a church supper, and thank the lady’s guild for preparing it.

So I started as the minister would have with a loud, “Ladies, I want you all out here. Now.”

There was flustering and giggling. I used no notes, made an occasional dramatic pause. And I led the applause.

Graeme Decarie. Image source: 1962-63 Malcolm Campbell High School yearbook

It worked.

I never wrote a full speech. If anything, I had rough notes in case I forgot something. Then I’d glance at them for just a second, and get on with it. You can’t read notes for a speech. You need to look at you audience to engage them.

At 16 and 17, I got practice preaching at a mission church in the red light district on de Bullion. Again, no notes. Better to have a general theme, and understand it.

All that was written was the names of hymns and scripture verses.

That was true of an estimated 3000 speeches I gave, mostly in Montreal.

Most radio and TV I did was not scripted. And you get a feeling for when it’s time to shut up. In fact, when I was on with Gord Sinclair, he would never have allowed a script.

I did use a script for a daily editorial. That was because time was very important for any editorial. You got two minutes or less – and had to be out in that time.

I also did a fair bit for film. That had to be loose and impromptu.

Then there was a voice over I did for an NFB film Notman Photographs. They did the video first, than sat me down in a studio to speak the audio as I watched the movie. Again, no notes possible.

I was 12 years at CBC, and it was mostly story-telling with occasional bouts of being interviewed on TV.

Then CBC fired me because I had become too prominent in the English rights movement. (CBC French was openly and massively separatist – and my name was poison.)

When Gord Sinclair called me for CJAD, it was because he wanted someone could stir up an argument. So it was quite different. Gord was the best radio host I ever saw.

And, course, an argument was something you could not prepare for at all. In fact, I seldom knew the topic until Gord announced it.

I never rehearsed a speech.

And actually, it was all really a smooth road.

I also wrote for newspapers and magazines. And here, I was concious of short sentences and short paragraphs to hold the reader. And I think, in the writing, I was really talking.

The best editors I ever saw were at Reader’s Digest. I never thought much of the magazine but it paid well. So I did some stories and a couple of coffee table books because it was a great payer.

Unfortunately, Reader’s Digest has gone way down hill not only for quality of stories, but for quality of writing and editing.

[End of text]


I’m reminded of a story I read, in a book I borrowed from Bill Rawson of Long Branch Furniture, about how Elvis Presley got his start in the music business. As a toddler, he used to get really involved with the engaging and compelling gospel music at the church he attended with his parents. As I recall, the book quotes Elvis talking about how he would slide off his mother’s lap and stand up and join in the singing. Aside from that, he never had a music lesson, as I recall from reading the book.

At his store in Long Branch, Bill Rawson displays many books from years ago about Elvis Presley:

What Elvis liked to do in his spare time

A further thought that occurs to me, a reflection of sorts, is that as well as focusing upon the promulgation of a given belief system, each religious institution – whatever the underlying belief system or the frame of reference may be – has a social, experiential, and educational element that shares similarities across all belief systems and ways of being the world.

I am thoroughly and strongly impressed, with regard to the social, experiential, and educational element, with the story of how Graeme Decarie learned so much from watching the minister at the Crystal Springs United Church.

I love to read about how people go about preparing for presentations; in my case I see much value in rehearsals; each person adopts the approach that works best for them.

In recent years I’ve also come to see the value of ad libbing a good part of one’s talk, depending on the circumstances – and keeping in mind the value of having a general theme, as Graeme notes, and understanding it.

Some previous posts dealing with such topics include:

How to prepare a 5-minute presentation to the Committee of Adjustment

A great presentation is the opposite of a what a stage magician does: Edward Tufte (1997) 

Enjoyed giving a talk in May 2013 to a Grade 4 class at École Sir Adam Beck Junior School in Toronto


2 replies
  1. graeme decarie
    graeme decarie says:

    I might add that today I wrote the angriest blog I have ever written. Almost all the news media have been publishing lies and propaganda about the brexit.

    The EU is NOT a great step into the future. It is a device of billionaires to seize economic control of all of Europe. It is profoundly anti-democratic. It’s closely tied to U.S. plans to make Europe a battleground in the next war. And the British working class hs paid one hell of a price for it.

    It has been used to loot Greece, Spain, Portugal – with more to come.

    The quality of our news media – all over the western world and most of the rest of it – has never been good. But in the last 30 years or so, they have become tools of their wealthy owners – and irresponsible propaganda sheets.

    Can you remember that day at MCHS when everyone was in horror that we were on the edge of nuclear war with Russia?

    We’re closer now than we were then. The EU is a major part of the reason. But this time, the whole world wanders in a stupor foisted on us by our news media.

    (I still haven’t cooled down.)

  2. Jaan Pill
    Jaan Pill says:

    A World of My Own: A Dream Diary (1992)

    I haven’t been thinking a lot about Brexit, but have instead been thinking about an expression that Graham Greene uses in the last book that he ever wrote, namely A World of My Own: A Dream Diary (1992).

    I have been thinking of using the expression “headaches and other small ailments” from the latter book in the draft of My Autobiography Story: Jaan Pill (Chapter 4). It’s a clever expression, and conveys Greene’s characteristic voice as a writer. If I use the expression, I will cite the source; I like to cite sources whenever I can.

    The paragraph (p. 87) where the expression occurs reads:

    China: In November 1964 I was lucky enough to have an interview with the Emperor of China, in the city which I still prefer to call Peking. I was travelling with my friend Michael Meyer, the translator and biographer of Ibsen, but he proved a poor travelling companion as he continually suffered from head­aches and other small ailments.

    [End of excerpt]

    Greene’s posthumously published book is of interest because it’s based upon such a novel theme – namely, it is based upon a careful selection of excerpts from a large number of dreams that Greene had recorded over the course of a large portion of his lifetime. He made a point of keeping a notebook by his bed. He would wake up from time to time, and write enough notes so that he could re-construct the dream when he was awake.

    Regarding Brexit, here is a thought that occurs to me. If a group seeks to advocate on behalf of an evidence-based policy, regarding any matter, what does the group need to do? Such a group must, first of all, and above all, demonstrate a capacity to express things more effectively, and in strongly emotional terms, than groups whose advocacy is based solely upon the negation of the facts and evidence as they relate to the topic at hand.

    A corollary is that under conditions of extreme inequality, some people will have nothing to lose, and in elections and referenda will act accordingly. The source for the expression “nothing to lose” is a pre-Brexit (May 17, 2016) Walrus article by Bob Rae entitled: “Goodbye to All That? What Britain’s EU exit would mean for Canada.”

    Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (2005)

    The Brexit story has also prompted me to check out where I have left my copy of Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 by Tony Judt. As is often the case, a paragraph (p. 387) dealing with the 1950s version of “urban renewal” attracted my attention:

    In Britain as elsewhere, urban ‘planning’ was at best tactical, a patch-up: no long-term strategies were worked out to integrate housing, services, jobs or leisure (hardly any of the new towns and housing complexes had cinemas, much less sports facilities or adequate public transport). [4] The goal was to clear urban slums and accommodate growing populations, quickly and cheaply: between 1964 and 1974, 384 tower blocks were thrown up in London alone. Many of these would be abandoned within twenty years. One of the most egregious, ‘Ronan Point’ in London’s East End, actually had the good taste to fall down of its own accord in 1968.

    Public architecture fared little better. The Pompidou Center (a 1960s design, though not opened until January 1977) – like the Hailes complex to its west-may have brought an assortment of popular cultural resources to central Paris but it failed miserably in the longer run to integrate with the surrounding district or complement the older architecture around it. The same was true of London Uni­versity’s new Institute of Education, ostentatiously installed on Woburn Square, at the heart of old Bloomsbury – ‘uniquely hideous’, in the words of Roy Porter, the historian of London. In a similar vein, London’s South Bank complex brought to­ gether an invaluable assortment of performing arts and artistic services; but its grim, low elevations, its windswept alleys and cracking concrete facades,remain a depressing testimony to what the urban critic Jane Jacobs called ‘the blight of Dullness.’

    [End of excerpt]

    Jane Jacobs: Urbanist; not an academic; professional writer

    I’ve been involved for about five years in either leading or organizing Jane’s Walks in South Etobicoke and Lakeview (Mississauga). These are walks based upon the legacy of Jane Jacobs, who is referred to by Judt in the above-noted excerpt. More recently, I’ve been organizing such walks, with other people leading them. In effect I’ve transitioned from the director (walk leader) role to the producer (organizer) role. That suits me well, given that leading a walk is in my experience quite demanding, especially by way of preparations for the walk and the responsibility that a walk leader assumes.

    More precisely, I’ve been involved in years past in co-leading a such walk, as all of the Jane’s Walks I’ve involved in leading have been organized and lead in collaboration with my friend Mike James; each of us has been the co-leader of the walk.

    Neighbourhood Urban Design Guidelines – Long Branch pilot project

    Recently, I learned of a June 28, 2016 walk that has been organized, in the community where I live, by City of Toronto planners who are involved with something called the Long Branch Urban Guidelines pilot project:

    Neighbourhood Urban Design Guidelines Template, “How To” Manual and Pilot Project

    When I learned of the walk, I also learned that in order to take part in it, I would first need to sign up for it. That led me to email correspondence and a phone conversation with a City of Toronto planner. The gist of the conversation went as follows:

    Planner: Are you requesting to be included as part of the Advisory Committee?

    Jaan Pill: (1) In the event I can be included as part of the Advisory group, that would be good. In that case I would attend this and future meetings.

    (2) In the event I can’t be included as part of the Advisory group, that would make sense as it may be the case enough residents have joined.

    (3) If I do no attend as a member of the Advisory group, I would be pleased to attend as an observer who would write about the experience at my website, which is widely read and has a track record of sharing accurate, balanced, and evidence-based information about South Etobicoke – and also about Lakeview about which I write extensively, with the encouragement of Lakeview decision makers such as the City of Mississauga Ward 1 Councillor.

    (4) If there is no room for me to attend, I will be pleased to know that there will be a great turnout and that there are many residents on the Advisory group who can offer great input for the pilot project.

    [End of text]

    So, I missed a walk that took place on June 28, 2016 as part of the above-noted pilot project. At that time I was not yet a member of the Advisory Committee that has been created as part of the project.

    However, I have received a response form, in which the route of the walk is outlined, and I have a deadline of July 12, 2016 by which time I aim to offer my responses, having now been named as a member of the Advisory Committee. The route of the June 28th walk is reminiscent of walks that I have regularly taken in the community in recent years, among other things as a local resident, as a Jane’s Walk co-leader, and as a canvasser on behalf of varied political campaigns.


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *