A few weeks ago, I spent a cold Wednesday morning waking up before the crack of dawn, and driving 45 minutes to Edmunds Elementary School in Burlington, Vermont to spread the opportunity to fall in love with literature and reading through CLiF’s Year of the Book program. It was just under 40˚, and I was exhausted. This is all to say that I wasn’t the happiest camper. But that changed soon after arriving.
When I pulled into the parking lot, and the sun began to shine over the fog and morning dew, I walked inside to see the team setting up the book giveaway. Stories ranging in reading level, genre, and author were spread across the tables like a Thanksgiving feast, and the energy in the room already sent an exciting jolt to start the day. This is not, however, what struck me most about that cold September morning.
That would be Duncan McDougall, the founder of CLiF, my boss, and in my opinion, an expert storyteller. Try to believe that without any bias.
In Stephen King’s On Writing, he suggests that writing is basically like telepathy. A good writer can put their words on a page, and miles away and years apart, the reader can still see, hear, and feel exactly what the author intended. But I would go one step further, and say it comes down to storytelling as a telepathic experience. And in this way, Duncan McDougall excels.
We stepped outside to prepare for the presentation, which Duncan was set to spearhead. Before the children arrived, he and I placed books along a stretch of tables, chatting and readjusting books to stand up, group together, and give an aesthetically pleasing look. He asked me about what I was reading–I told him American Gods by Neil Gaiman; a book I’m enjoying but finding somewhat confusing, and sometimes hard to grasp, missing realistic reactions.
We joked about when to just give up on a book–Duncan said he’s too old to spend time on a story he doesn’t enjoy–and he mentioned that he was impressed to hear about the amount of novels I’ve written. All unpublished, mind you, but still. He acknowledged a skill in that, something I forget to do myself. He spoke about his time spent in freelance writing, and when he travelled around the world, writing about his adventures and the communities he visited. It never got published, he said, but the letters he wrote went to hundreds of people back home, as well as a couple of newspaper articles. Suffice to say, he’s no rookie to the world of storytelling.
I’ve been writing for a good few years now, but the art of storytelling is something at the core of writing, which every writer tries to grasp. It’s something that anyone can do, but only so many can do well. Duncan McDougall is one of those people.
Before the kids came, I saw Duncan stretching, and gazing at the books laid out behind him. I thought it was a little funny at first, if not endearing, and then the children came and sat down, and it all clicked into place.
He started by talking about how he had recently travelled to California to visit the redwoods with a friend. As an employee of his, I was confused to say the least. I saw him around the office more or less every day. Then he asked the kids how he got across the country so fast: a car? A plane? A train? A really fast car? They were filled with guesses. Duncan admired them all, leaned in, and told them the truth. “I travelled there in a book,” he said.
And that was it. Hook, line, and sinker. What more did he need to say? In both groups, the kids gasped and giggled, awe-struck and confused, while the adults just smiled and nodded knowingly. He didn’t stop there, though.
Duncan went on to talk about all the different types of books out there. He asked students, teachers–even me–what kinds of books we liked to read, and noted to the children that there are all kinds of books, just like there are all kinds of people, and isn’t that such an amazing thing?
After this, he read a story to the kids, ducking, jumping, hooting, and hollering an adapted version of the book he held in his hands. I could see that, despite the fact that he showed the pictures on the page, the kids were far more invested in Duncan’s words, and how he said them. Duncan knew how to hold the entire tent–adults included–on bated breath, catching their attention and making them think, laugh, share, and believe in the stories he told.
But it wasn’t just the voice he used, or the words he said. It was how he spoke that made the experience so worthwhile, and one of masterful storytelling. Duncan’s repertoire of experience in the world of stories leaves him intrinsically capable of–if not expert at–gripping an audience of all ages and sizes. He spoke in a way that made you believe, made you see, hear, and feel exactly what he was saying.
As a 22 year-old man, still a baby to the world of writing and storytelling, Duncan’s passion and inherent skill is one I can only hope to mimic in the years to come. His ability to inspire children and adults alike, simply by showing the magic of reading, is awe-inspiring to say the least. It makes you feel like a kid, even if you aren’t one. More than that, it makes you feel like anything is possible–perhaps even more than the words on the page do. And, simply put, it’s a privilege to experience, and more so to come back to and work with.
So, okay, there’s a little bias.