We can’t live without stories, so today on State of the Human, we’re investigating what stories do to us and for us. When are we in control of our story? When does our story control us?  We explore these questions with four stories. First, a woman is asked to come up with a story that will create life. Then, Buffalo Bill creates another kind of story: the American cowboy. Next, a cancer patient finds a new story. After this, children go beyond telling stories, and become them. Finally, two children look into strangers’ houses and see stories.

Hosts/Producers: Christy Hartman, Charlie Mintz

Featuring: Nina Foushee, Richard White, Jess Peterson, Terri Wingham, Beth Wise, Jackson Roach, Tom Kealey

Release Date: 20 November 2013


Image via flickr



Intro Story: A Tale of Two Stories

State of the Human Producer Nina Foushee was asked to tell a story to change someone’s life. What she did offers a lesson on the uses of storytelling.

Producers: Christy Hartman, Charlie Mintz

Featuring: Nina Foushee

Music: Los AmparitoPodington BearThiaz ItchJared BaloghPlurabelleRy-Man

Image via flickr



Story 1: Consider Eating Dust: A Cowboy Tale

You know the story of the cowboy, right? — the All-American Badass, the guy who does what he wants. Or do you? Stanford student Jess Peterson investigated. And the cowboy he found is very different.

Producer: Jess Peterson

Featuring: Richard White

Music: Alex Cebe, Mason Bayne, Blue Suede Through

Image via flickr



Story 2: A Fresh Chapter

Sometimes we fall into stories we don’t like. When that happens, sometimes the only thing that can pull us out is another story.


Producers: Christy Hartman


Featuring: Terri Wingham

Music: Igor KluchnikovArgasikThe FishermanDan Warren

Image via flickr



Story 3: Fight, Flight, and Storytelling

State of the Human Producer Jackson Roach visited Stanford’s Bing Nursery School to discover what we can learn from the stories children tell.


Producers: Jackson Roach, Natacha Ruck, Charlie Mintz

Featuring: Beth Wise, Jackson Roach, children from Bing Nursery School

Music: Thiaz Itch, Kevin Macleod, BOPD, Revolution Void

Image via flickr



Story 4: Nobody

Tom Kealey tells us a story about what happens to two teenagers when they choose to see the stories all around them.

Producer: Rachel Hamburg

Author: Tom Kealey

Image via flickr



Unexpected Logic

I’ve listened to hundreds of podcasts, and I can count on one hand the ones that have brought tears to my eyes.


The first time I listened to This American Life’s ‘Kid Logic’ was back in February. I was walking around Stanford, streaming it on my iPhone. The first piece, called “Baby Scientists with Faulty Data,” is all about how kids use their own brands of “logic” to come to scientific conclusions. For instance, an African American woman talks about the first time she saw white people, and how she assumed they must be ghosts.



In the last four minutes of the segment (starting at 13:11), Jack Hitt recounts the time he told his four-year-old daughter about Jesus. Now, it isn’t every day that I hear about Jesus, Christianity, or any religion on the radio or on TV. And on the rare occasion I do, religion is often cast in a tentative, skeptical light. As a religious person, I’m used to bracing myself for the moment in radio pieces in which religious beliefs are undercut.


But that’s not what happened here. In fact, if anything, the opposite happened. By the time Hitt finished his story, I noticed tears welling up in my eyes. I was touched. I was surprised. I felt like this little short segment was a personal shout out to listeners who believe in Jesus, like me. This level of surprise is part of what made me cry, but later I realized that the surprise in this story is functioning on other levels too, namely at the level of character.


Here’s a quick synopsis of the story. Hitt tells his daughter the story of Jesus, and when he subsequently tells her about Martin Luther King, Jr., he explains that King’s message was “You should treat everybody the same, no matter what they look like.” His daughter replies, “Well, that’s what Jesus said.” Hitt pauses to consider what his daughter said, and (spoiler alert!) after a minute she looks up at him and asks, “Did they kill him [King], too?”


A few weeks later I ran into Anish, a friend of mine who is an atheist. We both love This American Life. He told me, “I heard something on This American Life recently that was one of the most moving pieces in radio that I’ve heard in a long time.” I flipped through my mental catalogue of shows in an effort to try to guess which episode he was referring to. His answer caught me off guard — the piece he found moving? “The one where the little girl talks to her dad about Jesus.”

As I chatted with Anish, I realized that the reason this piece moved me and Anish had little to do with our religious beliefs, and a lot more to do with Hitt’s narrative technique. In less than 4 minutes, Hitt had managed to tell a story that was at once believable, yet very surprising. But what gives this surprise such emotional weight?

A surprise happens when expectations are created, then inverted. The surprise in this story functions primarily at the level of character construction. There is something so innocent, and so unadulterated about a little child making this connection between Jesus and King– but there is also something so unexpected about the connection too.

One of the reasons the exchange between Hitt and his daughter is so moving is that his daughter is only four-years-old. Hitt makes sure to emphasize this fact throughout the piece – he does everything from speaking in an excited, childlike voice when he narrates her parts, to pointing out that her pre-school celebrates MLK Day. Hitt never says, “I thought she was too young to draw insightful connections,” but from the way he presents her, we, as listeners, subconsciously make that assumption. We don’t expect Hitt’s daughter to be able to make those deep connections between Jesus and King, so we are completely floored when she does.

I believe that Hitt was genuinely surprised by his daughter’s observation, but notice that he doesn’t say, “I was surprised.” Instead, he shows his surprise by painting an innocent, charming picture his young daughter, and surprising us with a few well-crafted lines of dialogue.

If you want to surprise your audience (and perhaps make them reach for a tissue), try it through characterization: create a set of expectations about your character, then turn those expectations in-side-out.


Podcast: This American Life,Baby Scientists with Faulty Data

Time: Jack Hitt piece begins at 13:11 (4 min)


Article written by: Victoria Muirhead on 11/19/2013

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Never Lost: An Evening with Naomi Shihab Nye

Naomi Shihab Nye
Naomi Shihab Nye book

Tuesday, November 12, 2013
Geology Corner (Building 320), Room 105
Free; no registration is required

We live in and through stories, and the best ones can ground us and provide abiding navigational tools throughout our lives. How, though, do we identify and live by these stories amidst the clamor of the news and the abundant chaos that surround us? And how do we then weave together the stories that guide us with the stories that surround us? Join us for a special evening with Naomi Shihab Nye, award-winning winning poet, writer, and educator, to explore these questions and to experience stories that invite us to fuller, authentic lives.

Naomi Shihab Nye is the author or editor of more than 30 volumes of poetry, essays, and stories, most recently There Is No Long Distance Now (2011) and Transfer (2011). Her work has won numerous awards, including a Lavan Award from the Academy of American Poets, four Pushcart Prizes, two Jane Addams Children’s Book Awards, and her collection 19 Varieties of Gazelle was a finalist for the National Book Award. She has been a Lannan Fellow and a Guggenheim Fellow and in January 2010 she was elected to the Board of Chancellors of the Academy of American Poets.

“In the current literary scene, one of the most heartening influences is the work of Naomi Shihab Nye. Her poems combine transcendent liveliness and sparkle along with warmth and human insight. She is a champion of the literature of encouragement and heart. Reading her work enhances life.” — William Stafford

This program is co-sponsored by The Stanford Storytelling Project and Stanford Continuing Studies.

Hanging Out at Warp Speed

When I listen to Radiolab, I feel like I’m in the studio with them while they tinker, banter, and generally have a good time, and for years I’ve been perplexed by how they can accomplish this; they take their stories to some of the biggest and smallest places in the universe, and the entire time they make it feel like they’re all just hanging out! How is it that they can possibly maintain a casual/comfortable vibe in a show that’s so densely packed with material?

I recently discovered somewhat of an answer to my perplexity, and I wrote this blogpost to share it. If you want the tl;dr version, it’s the following: they tell their stories to each other instead of telling them directly to the audience, and they do that over and over again, until it’s just right.

For the longer version, read on:

On Radiolab, producers tend to tell their stories to each other in the studio, rather than narrating directly to the audience.

There’s a brilliant blogpost by Lulu Miller, who used to be a producer at Radiolab, all about how they discovered this part of production style. It tells the story of how they struggled to finish one of their first pieces, Goat on a Cow. What happened is that the audio-produced version of the story didn’t do justice to the excitement that the story’s author and producer, Laura Starecheski, had for the piece, and so they asked Laura into the studio to just tell them the story live, without text, from the beginning. That conversational version of the story sounded immensely better than the scripted version she read into a microphone, so they used it. And now they use this technique on basically all of the stories they produce: just get the producer into the studio, and ask them to tell you the story, from the beginning.

When I read Lulu’s blogpost, it was a major “aha” moment for me. I’ve personally struggled a lot with how to tell a story in a way that sounds natural, like you’re just telling it to another person, and this innovation (…literally just telling it to another person!) seemed so simple and brilliant.

But there was something more to it. Something a little bit tricky.

I noticed it when I was listening to one of their stories from earlier this year, Adoptive Couple v Baby Girl. It’s is one of the best things I’ve heard on the radio in a long time, and I wasn’t even a little bit surprised when it won an award at the Third Coast Filmless Festival in October.

It’s about this two-year-old girl who was adopted at birth. Even though she lived with her adoptive parents for two years, the parents were forced to return her to her biological father, who is a member of the Cherokee Nation. It’s a brilliant story, and you should seriously listen to it if you haven’t already.

The thing that caught my ear, when I was listening to it, is kind of a tiny moment, and it’s not even directly related to the story itself.

The story’s producer, Tim Howard, is telling the story to Radiolab’s Jad Abumrad. Again, you can feel the dynamic style of storytelling that can only happen between two people. Jad occasionally objects, gets clarification, or laughs, and all of these little things  remind us that this is a live storytelling experience, and they help us feel as if we’re sitting right there in the room with Tim while he’s telling the story.

About twenty minutes into the piece, The moment happens. Tim says to Jad, “I was trying to get in touch with [the biological father]; I was pestering his lawyers… this went on for weeks, and they were basically like, ‘He doesn’t want to do interviews. He doesn’t want to talk.’”

Jad responds, “…so you didn’t get him.”

After an exhale and an elongated pause, Tim says, “Yeah I got him.”

Jad laughs, and the story continues; Tim travels to Oklahoma to meet the girl and her father.

Did you notice the tiny moment? Probably not — it’s ok. It’s the moment where Jad says, “…So you didn’t get him.” When I heard it, I was thinking about Lulu’s blogpost, and how it’s so important to have the story told to a person, rather than read to a microphone, and I thought, Wait a second: There’s no way that Jad could have not known that Tim got the interview in Oklahoma. After all, these people work on the same production team!

Jad *must* have already known whether Tim had gone to Oklahoma or not, and if this was true, it would mean that the producers on the Radiolab staff are playing a theater game, acting as if they’re telling/hearing these stories for the very first time, even though they have already told/heard the stories many times already.

I couldn’t be sure this was the case without asking someone who actually works there. I wanted to ask Jad, but I was scared because he’s kind of a hero of mine; so I asked Lulu Miller instead. After all, she wrote the blogpost about this thing.

…But then Lulu said that I really needed to ask Jad…

And so I did. I sent him an email with a simple question: Is it very common for Radiolab producers to tell each other stories that they’ve already told each other?

He responded within five minutes, giving me his phone number(!), and the next thing I knew, I was talking to Jad, frantically typing notes on what he said.

He said that they absolutely tell each other stories the’ve already told each other. When a producer gets toward the end of a story’s production, he’ll sit down with him or her and say, “Okay, I know you know this story, but just tell it to me chronologically, and I’m going to interrupt you a bunch of times.”

He said that after several tellings of a story, “little asides and stumbles start to come out” and the producers get a better idea of which parts of the story are the most compelling and the most relevant.

And what about that specific moment?

“I’m Tim’s editor,” he said, “so I knew exactly where that story was going.” He confirmed what I had imagined: even though what he said was “…so you didn’t get him,” he knew that Tim was going to tell him he got the interview.

So they’re acting! Right? Well, Jad actually disagrees with the word “acting” to talk about what’s going on. He emailed me to make this point extra clear. “We’re not actors,” he wrote. “The goal is not to get ‘the best performance.’ The goal is actually to get the producer to a place that’s emotionally authentic. Where they’re as genuinely engaged and energized by the story they’re telling as they were when they first encountered it.”

Some people might suggest that it’s dishonest to engage in this process of telling and re-telling stories in front of an audience, and I’ll admit that part of me felt a little tricked when I first caught on. Right now, though, I think of this process just like I think about writing, re-writing, and editing a text version a nonfiction story — these re-tellings can actually get you closer to the most honest version of the story, especially with the help of an editor.

So if you want to get a good handle on which portions of your story are the most compelling — both to you and to your listeners — tell your story again and again to your co-producer, and notice the moments where you and that person come alive. Keep those moments, and share them with your audience. No matter how complex or deep or philosophical your story is, those moments will invite your listeners to join you in the sheer delight of the storytelling experience.

Article written by: Will Rogers on 11/7/2013

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