Storytelling, Lies, and a Tale from the Deep Dark Past
In which three literary critics are conned into doing the cha-cha, more or less
Taking a break from today’s grunge era of Ontario and Torontonian politics while waiting for the potential lawsuits to land - this is a guess – I turn back the clock to approximately two weeks ago, to the Storyteller’s Ball.
This was a shindig thrown as a funder for the Writers’ Trust, a non-governmental org that dishes out oodles of boodle plus Free Prizes in the box to deserving and emerging writers who are younger than me, a wide catchment area by now. As one of the founders, I was asked to turn up and make a spectacle of myself, the theme being Storytelling and dressups being suggested.
I stepped off a plane from Chicago, dove into the Tickle Trunk, dyed my hair aqua — well, it was supposed to be aqua, but it came out green, and the part saying it washes in one day out was not entirely accurate - and went as the Blue Fairy. The thing I’m holding is not a whip, it’s a wand, made from one of those things they stick into orchids plus some used Xmas ribbon. Waste not, want not. Though there were many gorgeous outfits, not many others had come in costume. But some had.
With David Young, another co-founder of the Trust, and Charlie Foran, the executive director. Our feet are not really that small.
As part the festivities, I was ordered to give a speech about Storytelling. Maybe what was expected was some uplift about how stories change our lives for the better, or some such; that can indeed be true, but it is not exactly what I said. In fact I didn’t say that at all. Being a storyteller myself, I don’t take an unmixed view. E.L Doctorow once wrote, “… there is no one more dangerous than the storyteller,” and I agree. Superpowers can be tempting.
Here is the yarn I spun:
Good evening. My name is Margaret Atwood, and I’m a professional liar.
A nicer phrase for that is “fiction writer,” and an even nicer one is “storyteller.” That has a harmless ring to it, like a twinkly old granny treating the young folks to a romp among the princesses and elves. Happy to oblige, though we twinkly old grannies can get up to dark mischief during the full moon. But let me remind you that “story” can also mean “lie,” as in “Don’t tell stories,” and that in Italian the word for “story” and the word for “history” are the same.
With that product warning, akin to “Don’t iron this shirt while wearing it,” I will now tell you a story about me telling stories in order to get three other people to enact a story.
On one of my walls hangs a framed poster. ALL-STAR ECLECTIC TYPEWRITER REVIEW: An evening of amateur theatrics and professional prose.
This caper took place at the St. Laurence Centre, On May 9, 1974, as a fundraiser for the newly formed Writers’ Union of Canada.
We were still living in the skit era – skits have now migrated to standup comedy and TikTok, but at that time adults were willing to make idiots of themselves onstage, on purpose, if the proposed idiocy was in aid of good causes. Some of the Eclectic Typewriter evening was serious, but a lot of it was quite silly. We had McClelland and Stewart publisher Jack McClelland in vampire teeth and a cape, during a song called Jack The Knife. We had six short women in fur coats, woolly hats, snowshoes, and Farley Mowat beards, doing a dance called “Lost in the Barrens,” named after a book by short, bearded, fur-coated and woolly-hatted best-selling author Farley Mowat. (We wore snowshoes, which was dangerous on theslippery wooden stage floor, but nobody fell over.)
And I thought it would be a fine idea to have a song and dance number called The Toronto Literary Mafia. That was a term bandied about in those days, especially by writers who lived in, for instance, Estavan, Saskatchewan. It was thought that there was a sinister web of wizards in Toronto that controlled the written word. What an absurdity! Whoever could believe that? But many did. At least these wizards were not being accused of child trafficking. Those were more innocent days.
The skit – I had decided – should be performed by the three top – and therefore most feared and resented – literary critics of Toronto, dressed up as mafiosi in dark suits and black shirts and white ties and sunglasses: Doug Marshall of the Toronto Star, Bill French of the Globe and Mail, and Robert Fulford of the upscale magazine Saturday Night. Problem was, these gents were reluctant: what if they were bad at making idiots of themselves? Could you make an idiot of yourself by falling flat as an idiot? Yes, you could.
But I told each of them an effective story – or lie -- namely, that the other two had agreed; so who wanted get a reputation as a bad sport by saying no? By the time I’d got triple buy-in, my story was true: the other two had agreed.
Then I had to coach them. Each had a verse recitation – that wasn’t hard, as they couldread it off the page – but during the chorus, done to the music of the Chiquita Banana song and sung offstage by an opera singer because the three
stooges gents themselves refused to sing – they did have some common sense – I wanted them to do the cha-cha.
Bill French proved to be surprisingly dapper: he’d obviously done some fancy footwork before. Doug Marshall was lumpy but adequate. However, Bob Fulford, the middle position – billed as The GodFulford, and decked out in a menacing overcoat and a homburg – couldn’t do the cha-cha at all. “One, two, cha-cha-cha,” I prompted, to no avail. He was ready to give up. “Don’t worry,” I said. “Just sway back and forth, while the other two are cha-ha-ing. You’ll bring down the house.”
And so it was. He swayed back and forth. He brought down the house.
That’s my story. Would I lie to you?
P.S: There’s a next chapter: No sooner was the Writers’ Union formed than it found itself inundated with requests from high school teachers: How to teach Canadian books, since the teachers had never been taught these books themselves?
In response, the writers Graeme Gibson, Eve Zaremba, and David Young set out to put together some pamphlet-style guides. They worked with high school teachers, fund-raised, and edited. But then there was an unholy row – the Union, as a Union, could not favour the work of some members over others.
When the shouting had died down, Graeme said he would pull this project from the Union and create a new org to host it. And, dear listeners, that org was the very same Writers’ Trust that you are supporting today!
The moral: Out of name-calling and mud-flinging and an eventual reversion to civil discourse, beautiful flowers can grow. Yes! There is hope!
Again: Would I lie to you?
You are just so beautifully wicked...or is that wickedly beautiful. Your choice.
And would I lie to you?
In 1974, when I was 16, I thought of myself as a poet. (I enjoyed Kipling and Tennyson.) Anyway, I wrote a long poem "The Migration Of The Indian Of The Pau," which I had my sister write out-she had a beautiful script-and promptly sent to Her Majesty the Queen. I received a letter back that was signed by her lady-in-waiting, none other than Lady Susan Hussey--now disgraced and forced to resign for racist comments. On hearing of her fate, I promptly turned to my wife and said: I wonder if that letter I have stapled to the wall is worth anything now?
Again: Would I lie to you?