Blogs 2014
Storytelling Species
Written by Bonnie Swift   

Some nights when I’m putting my two-and-a-half-year-old daughter to bed, she asks me to tell her the 'owl story'. It’s a very short story about a time when I was driving late at night and accidentally bumped into a snowy owl with my car. The owl had been standing the the middle of the road, and jumped up in the air as I sped around a corner. I was able to slow down before it hit my windshield, so it had been a relatively light bump. When I stopped my car to get out and look for the giant white bird, it was gone. I tell my daughter that the owl probably flew back into the forest to be with its friends. My daughter loves the 'owl story' and asks for it again and again.


One night when she asked for this story, I tried an experiment, and subtracted much of its usual narrative structure. I talked about driving in a more general sense, about the concept of a speed limit, and about how cars that are going too fast will sometimes hit animals. I told her about the habits of nocturnal species like owls, and about snowy owl migration patterns. As I had predicted, she quickly lost interest, and eventually interrupted me. She wanted the story, not a list of facts.


Why does my toddler already prefer stories to non-stories? Some would say that, because she’s human, this preference is built into her DNA. Have humans evolved as a storytelling species? If so, why? Why would storytelling have helped us survive and reproduce in our ancestral environment?

Play It Again, Roman!
Written by Jackson Roach   

It’s easy to forget about all the little sounds, the pops and rustles and scratches and clicks that surround me in my everyday life. I’m constantly filtering through, focusing past, drowning out all these sounds. And this is especially true with my daily devices. Gone are the days of clacking typewriters and cash registers that go ker-ching. It seems like sound is almost completely peripheral to the function of new technology. I actively keep my iPhone on mute.


Or at least, I did. The Sound of the Artificial World, an episode of 99% Invisible, totally changed my mind. Now my phone is constantly blooping and swooshing and clicking. And every sound means something. Every sound is important to the way I use this device in my pocket. And all because of this one story, and the way it repeats one tiny clip of incredible sounds.

The Comfort of Consistency
Written by Alec Glassford   

On the occasional days I got out of class early in high school, I would listen to The Writer’s Almanac, a minuscule daily segment that ran from 2:55 to 3 p.m. on my local public radio station. The Writer’s Almanac, narrated by Garrison Keillor, whose melodious and calming voice is better known for the menagerie that is A Prairie Home Companion, follows a very rigid structure: a song, an array of histories, a poem, and a mantra.


The familiar consistency of this format imbues each new episode with a sense of a nostalgia. Even as I learn new stories each time I listen to the Almanac, the ritualistic elements of its craft always make me feel like I am returning home. Even in the experiencing of something so brief, my understanding of the show’s unchanging structure makes me feel snugly nestled in cozy and literary microcosm.

A Seventh Sense
Written by Christy Hartman   

Just this past weekend, when asked (again) why I had such good skin, I told my friend it was probably because I grew up indoors. There weren’t many kids who wanted to play with me, but I hardly noticed. My head was in another land. Story Land. At the library, I’d regularly put 25 books up on the counter to check out, and the librarians would look at me and always say, “Are you going to be able to read all these in a month?” Adults are always underestimating children.


Because I spent so much time in my bed, sprawled on the floor and hidden in cabinets (all great places to read in the summer), it took me an embarrassingly long time to realize that real people had great stories too. But it did finally happen. I climbed out of the kitchen cabinet, turned off my flashlight, put away my books, and started to interact with people whose stories were not printed in black ink. And slowly I learned how to recognize and talk to people who had stories as interesting as those I found in my books. For this post, I'm going to share five strategies that I've learned for identifying great, natural storytellers and creating the context for their stories to emerge.

Details zoom us out from pain and rhythm keeps us moving
Written by Eileen Williams   

During high school, I had a Sunday night ritual. Come 7 P.M., I would turn on the radio and hear my favorite program: The Moth Radio Hour. I spent every week looking forward to this hour-long respite, this haven of stories. And although I remember many charming characters, pithy punch lines, and intense images, there is one particular piece that has stuck with me: “Perfect Moments” told by Brian Finkelstein [17:08]. Finkelstein’s story is possessing—a thoughtful exploration of the delicate boundary between life and death, comedy and tragedy.


Despite his morbid subject matter, Finkelstein will make you laugh (in the middle of a suicide attempt, no less) by delivering idiosyncratic details with a constant, almost melodic cadence. Highlighting particular, seemingly unrelated facts, he weaves an incredibly vivid picture while also giving us time to process and breathe in between the dramatic events and feelings they create. What at first seem like digressions actually help Finkelstein create dependable rhythm and introduce details that come to tie the story together, keeping us with him the whole way through.


Constructing a Fictional Truth
Written by Rosie La Puma   

I was originally drawn to creating radio because of my inherent trust in voices. Sound is an incredibly intimate medium, and that intimacy sometimes allows me to entertain the illusion that radio stories are happening in real time. The storytelling becomes a conversation. I too wanted to make something that sounded trustworthy and intimate. But above all, it had to sound “natural.”


It appeared simple enough, but proved much more difficult than I expected. I rewrote my first real piece over a dozen times. In each draft, I delicately tweaked my narration to make it sound more like that idyllic and ever-elusive “conversation.” And yet, even after I felt I had perfected every word, when I went in to record, the best takes were the ones when I didn’t look at the page and ad-libbed slightly.


The Radio Sentence
Written by Charlie Mintz   

I love concision. I love elegance. And I love radio narration that demonstrates both those qualities. Today’s blog post is dedicated to one nugget of narration that knocked my my socks off. It will examine what 16 words can teach us about simplicity, stakes-setting, and where to put the most important word (hint: it’s last).


Here’s the sentence, from a story called The Hounds of Blairsville, which appeared in the April 11th episode of This American Life, “Tarred and Feathered”:


“Things are being said about you. Bad things, all over the internet. On something called Topix.”


The Commitment Story
Written by Bonnie Swift   

(Part 3 of 3)

I have been lucky to have mentors throughout my life. As a young adult, there was one family friend in particular who took me under his wing. His name was Scott Gorman, and he died a few years ago. In his obituary, he is described as a humanitarian, arts organizer, writer, activist, and the first person without a college degree to win a Fulbright scholarship. Scott was what some psychologists would call a 'highly generative' person -- that is, he made a positive, lasting impact in his community, particularly among its younger members. And his life offers a lesson in how we can use storytelling to be generative people too.

Change Your Story, Change Yourself
Written by Bonnie Swift   

The Personal Myth

(Part 2 of 3)

Let’s consider an unfortunate hypothetical situation in which a person reaches his or her mid-30s or -40s, and things aren’t going so well. This person’s self esteem is low, he is having a hard time finding work, or a romantic partner, or whatever… there are so many ways that things can be less than perfect in midlife. What should this person do if he’d like to make some serious changes in the way he experiences the world?

One suggestion, which is pertinent to this blog’s discussion of narrative and craft, is succinctly summed up by Maria Popova, who, in a review of psychologist Timothy Wilson’s newest book, Redirect, suggests that we approach life changes as narrative challenges. “Our experience of the world is shaped by our interpretations of it, the stories we tell ourselves,” she writes, “and these stories can often become so distorted and destructive that they completely hinder our ability to live balanced, purposeful, happy lives, so the key to personal transformation is story transformation.”

Crafting a Personal Myth
Written by Bonnie Swift   

The Personal Myth

(Part 1 of 3)

I love telling stories about other people’s lives, but when it comes to telling stories about my own, I usually get embarrassed and flustered. Part of my dilemma is that I have had a disparate mix of life experiences, and sometimes it’s difficult for me to string them together into a single, coherent narrative. Depending on who I’m speaking with, I tend to narrate different versions of my past. And, usually, the story I tell becomes a dramatized version of events, replete with heightened ups and deepened downs, lessons learned, and projections about how my past will continue to shape my future. And slowly, as I creep into adulthood, these narrativized versions of my past are becoming smoother, more consistent with one another, and easier to tell.

Tell Us How You Got There
Written by Victoria Muirhead   

Tell Us How You Got There

In 2010, This American Life hit their 400-episode milestone. To commemorate, TAL staff decided to take on a challenge: produce stories pitched by their parents. Ira Glass shared an awkward story about losing his suit on a train, Nancy Updike came up with a jingle about the Erie Canal, but the far-and-away winner of this challenge was Lisa Pollak, who accepted a pitch from her mother to create a piece about “funny funerals.”


In addition to being completely hilarious, Funny Funerals offers aspiring podcast producers, like me, a rare insight into how to tackle a difficult story. Lisa Pollak reveals that even if you lack the ingredients of a good story (protagonist, dramatic arc, etc.), all is not lost!


I used to think Lisa’s piece was about funny funerals. It wasn’t until I listened to it about half a dozen times that I realized it was not a piece about funny funerals, but a piece about Lisa Pollak’s search for funny funeral stories.

The Virtuoso of Multitasking
Written by Tina Tran   

Head Full of Symphonies

What do you get when you combine a ragtime piano performer, classical symphonies, and a neuroscientist? A feat that pushes the boundaries of the human mind. Radiolab’s "A Head Full of Symphonies" left me breathless with its lush sounds and tight reporting. I have forever been enthralled by feats of fortitude and wit and this story does not disappoint.

With its signature rich sound effects and suspenseful narrative, Radiolab is at its finest. In this blogpost, I want to point out a technique in which Radiolab anticipates the audience’s questions. When the facts are laid out before us, the results are so unbelievable, they cause spontaneous expletives from Jad. Those expletives give the audience a feeling of “Yeah! I feel that way too!”

Framing Failure
Written by Will Rogers   

The staff members of This American Life are often challenging themselves with little experiments (24 hours at a diner, 20 acts in 60 minutes, stories pitched by their parents), and I’ve noticed a theme that intrigues me: Sometimes when an experiment goes badly, the story still turns out sounding fantastic.


I often shy away from telling stories about when things go badly in my own life/work… I like to tuck these experiences away in a closet, waiting for the day when they’ll ripen into success stories. I’m sure that the staff of This American Life has plenty of stories in their own story closet, failures that they don’t share with their audience. But they also have this trick that I’ve really grown to appreciate, and it involves failing, then talking about what went badly and why -- and when this strategy is used well, worse becomes better.

One Step Script at a Time
Written by Bonnie Swift   

We don’t know who this story comes from, and perhaps because the author remains anonymous, listening to The Age of Consent feels like being on the receiving side of a confessional booth. This story is essentially a series of incommodious admissions, portrayed through a series of vividly-narrated, increasingly intense moments. 


In the interest of protecting the author’s privacy, This American Life’s senior producer Julie Snyder reads the story on the air. It’s recounted in the first person, and centers on the author’s teenage daughter’s first foray into sexual activity.


Like any great story, this one is told in such a way that it feels organic and spontaneous, but also like any great story, it is actually very carefully engineered. In radio in particular, a story’s design remains well hidden because so much of its power comes from feeling authentic, intimate, and spontaneous.