Podcasting on a Wing and a Prayer

Screen Shot 2016-09-18 at 11.52.37 PM.pngSo, I’ve been working on the second episode of my latest podcast, Random Waves, and it’s slow going.  I have maybe 90 minutes of recordings from a roller derby “fresh meat” recruitment night, and I’m slogging through transcribing the audio.  I just finished eight pages of Peach Cobble-Her’s intro, covering 27 minutes, and I swear it took me three weeks to get through!!!

I hate transcribing.  But I understand it is necessary.  I just wish I could speed-type such that I don’t have to listen-pause-type-rewind-correct-rewind-repeat.

I’m on a deadline with this one.  The last day to apply to the next Transom Traveling Workshop is the 30th.  For those not in the know, transom.org hosts an eight week in-residence (Wood’s Hole, MA) workshop on radio production, NPR style, as well as week-long “traveling” bootcamp workshops around the country.  January’s workshop will be in NYC, and I’m going for it!  I’m hoping I can complete this podcast episode before the deadline, so that I have two work examples to choose from, instead of one.

And so, I slog with transcribing audio.  Wish me luck, yo!

Time to Make the Doughnuts

music-lessons-435101_640I’ve been away from telling stories for a while, and from listening to straight-up storytelling for the most part.  Frequent visitors to the blog (all five of you, apparently.  Bless your hearts!) will understand that I’ve been down recently on my own ability to spin a good yarn.  I’ve been in that morass of discouragement that Ira Glass talks about (a reference that one day I must STOP USING).

I’ve been getting encouragement lately to get back into the game.  Most recently, I was told once again at The Heart City Story Club that I have my unique experiences to share.

So now, I’m thinking again about setting up a storytelling show and speaking with friend of the blog Kerri Noack, we’ve come up with a few strategies.  And, no, I will not lay them out here for you.

But I will give you one other strategy I’m thinking of employing to help me out of my rut.  When learning to play a musical instrument, we tend to learn how to play by playing another person’s song.  We don’t make up new songs to learn to play guitar — that’d be too challenging.  So why is it that I must learn to tell stories by writing up my own?  Can I not learn how to perform by starting with performing the great stories that are already out there?  Musicians do this.  Actors do this.  Why not storytellers.

Now, this is a controversial thing to propose — to practice at home telling other people’s stories (no, not THAT Other People’s Stories).  A comedian would be shamed if they used someone else’s material, and I’m sure a Moth storyteller would, too.  But I’m not trying to get material for my own performances — I just want to understand the tools other, more successful, storytellers use to make their performances rock.

I know of no other storyteller who does this, but I’m sure there must be others.  I’m not that original.  If, dear reader, you know of someone, please let me know!!!  I broached this on a post on the NYC Storytelling Facebook group, but no one responded.  Maybe this is a super-taboo thing.  Or silly.  Or stupid.  Who knows until I try, right?

In Search of an Author

book-978880_1280These past several weeks have been busy — the first episode for my new podcast, Random Waves, was released on my new website, I’ve taught classes in Quebec and Georgia, I’ve dated and broken up, and I’m working on the next episode of my podcast.  I’ve also semi-announced that I’ll be going back to grad school in January for a certificate in Adult Learning.  And now, as I write this, I’m about 14 hours away from flying out to Montana for Treasure Hunting 2: Electric Boogaloo.

I’ve been busy.

I hate flying.  Part of it is the anxiety I feel when we take off and land, which is funny considering that I’ve been in the aerospace industry for seventeen years (or, perhaps it is terrifying because of the same…).  But there is also the boredom of sitting in one seat for hours at a time.  For the first hour or so, I’ll read and maybe listen to my iPod.  But eventually, I’ll just sit and stare off into space.  That may be why I enjoy sitting in the aisle seat.  There’s more space to look off into.

But at least for that first hour, I need something to read off my Kindle.  I have several books at home that I haven’t read through yet, but the majority of them are non-fiction, and I think I need fiction in my life.  While browsing through he Barnes & Noble, 2015 National Book Award winners list on the phone screen,  I’m wondering whether my love of non-fiction has colored my style of writing.  Eh, I’m sure of it.  We are what we eat, right?

My previous blog posts have featured a lot of self doubt concerning my storytelling ability.  Is my voice wrong?  Is my story arc wrong?  Are my clothes wrong?  Is my writing regimen wrong?  Is my discipline wrong?  It seems like I’m again blaming some external factor for my lack of ability, but I like the idea of being exposed to better writing.  To better language.

Heck, what harm can it even do?

Well, it will delay me from finishing up my books on hip hop…

Kung Foo

I writing this week’s blog from my air conditioned hotel room in Columbus, Georgia.  I’m down here for two weeks for work.  It is hot and steamy down here right now.   Georgia in August!  W00t!

When I travel for a long-ish period, I think about what sort of personal items to pack.  I stick to one suitcase and one backpack, and beyond work clothes and my ginormous work laptop, space becomes a premium.  One time, I brought my Dr. Rhythm to Japan for five weeks, only to not really use it.  It turns out programming drum tracks alone in your hotel room is not all it’s cracked up to be.

I figured this time, I’d use the opportunity to challenge myself.  I recently purchased a field recorder for my new podcasting hobby, and I remember an episode from This American Life where nine reporters drove to different parts of Georgia looking for a story.  Maybe I could do the same!  So I packed the recorder, a mic, and cable into my backpack and down I went.

I had Wednesday “off,” so I snapped a few Facebook photos along the Columbus riverfront.  Storytelling friend Aaron, who collects oral histories of WWII veterans, commented with the following:

Uh oh. Whatever you do, don’t cross the river and go into Phenix City, Alabama. And if you do cross the bridge, don’t go into an establishment called “Ma Beachy’s.” And if you do go into Ma Beachy’s, don’t get into any fights with paratroopers.

Well.  There’s a story in there somewhere.  Turns out Ma Beachy owned a seedy club called Beachy’s Swing Club, the most notorious gambling and prostitution house serving Fort Benning.  Phenix City was known as “Sin City” back before Las Vegas took that name over.  Aaron told me about an M4 tank driver who got the stuffing kicked out of him at Beachy’s, and threatened to drive over the establishment with his tank.  His commander calmed him down by warning him that the club might have a basement that he’d drive into.

Phenix City was cleaned up sometime in the 1950s, and Beachy’s is long gone.  But do the people who live there now know of that spot’s seedy past?  One way to find out, right?

A little Googling uncovered an old newspaper add with the address.  And so, after a typical Georgia dinner, I headed across the 13th Street Bridge to the Central Time Zone (sort of) and off to 11th Avenue.

Phenix City is… well, it’s like the East Hartford to Georgia’s Hartford.

When I arrived at the address, of course the club wasn’t there.  In it’s place was an auto body shop.  However, stories told that Ma Beachy owned three houses across the street, which she rented out to prostitutes, and it looks like those tiny houses are still standing.  Here are some pictures I snapped…

Notice how they’re taken from the safety of the inside of my rental car.  An intrepid This American Life radio producer would have exited the car and start knocking on doors.  Or, if you’re Stephanie Foo, you spend weeks researching so that people are expecting you when you arrive.

But I’m not one of these producers.  I’m some weird dude in a rental car that parked on some random corner in some poor town at 6PM on a Thursday evening.   I did not knock on doors.  I did not even get out of the damn car.  There’s a BBQ and soul food joint around the corner, and I thought briefly about stopping in, though I already had dinner.  But… never meant to be?

It’s not all bad, though.  I did make recordings of some weird-sounding cicadas in my hotel’s parking lot.  That means something, right???

Sigh.

This being rural-ish Georgia, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to talk to people and get ideas for stories.  People actually talk to other people around here.  Southern Charm, y’all.  But alas, my fears of approaching and interrupting people from their normal lives keeps me from getting the stories.

Maybe I should get all Stephanie Foo on this.  I should treat Connecticut like she treats Houston or Alberta.  Sit down and do my research.  Go back through the local papers twenty years.  Look for comedians who do long form.  Scour Craigslist.  Find the people first, before I have to knock on doors randomly.

Be prepared.  Practice “Kung Foo.”

A Little Unintentional Encouragement from Ira Glass

A few weeks ago, This American Life released yet another podcast repeat, this one from episode 168, “The Fix is In.”  It’s about the whistleblower of the ADM price fixing scandal, and was originally aired in 2000.

As with many a TAL repeat, the staff will freshen things up with a few lines of new narration here and there.  But because this episode is soooooo old, Ira’s original narration of 2000 stands out bright and clear from follow-on narration he did years later.  It’s like night and day.  For reference, check out the tape Ira plays at the 3:00 mark of this video.  That same stuff is in parts of “The Fix is In.”

So, here is Ira Glass, one of the masters of the New Radio, showing how in 2000, when his show was the super-bright star of the NPR universe, he was narrating with a technique that he’d blow off today.  Even when he was at his best, he was still interested in improving.

When You Don’t Clear Your Netflix Cache

One of my stable of on-stage stories concerns a struggle dealing with Macy’s customer service on the telephone. I spent weeks of numerous calls trying to get them to deliver a chair that I bought. In frustration, I had my coworker Randy, a project engineer skilled in getting people to do stuff they don’t necessarily want to do, impersonate me on the next phone call to the evil customer support reps.

He was able to get the chair on delivery in 90 seconds.

NINETY SECONDS.

I was sitting right next to Randy while he did his magic. And by “magic,” I mean I didn’t have the foggiest clue what he did to get Macy’s customer service to crumble so quickly. I was friggin’ dumbfounded. How is it that when I called them up, I got the runaround, yet when Randy called, he got exactly what he needed immediately? What does he have that I don’t???

It was around this time that I attended a lecture at Nerd Nite Northampton (https://www.facebook.com/NerdNiteNoHo/) which was about studies with babies and toddlers to determine at what age do kids understand when someone is intentionally lying to them. I’m always adding two and two, so I figured, maybe I’m communicating with my voice that I’m a pushover.

What if the way I talked is signaling to people that I can’t be taken seriously on stage?

A few weeks ago, I came across a mention to David Thorpe’s Documentary “Do I Sound Gay?” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R21Fd8-Apf0) and thought about this question again – do I need to change how I speak? Now, I’m not in the same boat as David Thorpe, and I’m straight, but I’m interested in how someone else is dealing with anxiety about the image they present to the world (though, I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you that being 42 and never married, not being into sports, and once being told that I’d be popular at Provincetown’s “Bear Week” did not contribute to some level of anxiety about being perceived as being gay. By the way, yes, we should live in a world where this all shouldn’t matter. I’ll let you try to tell that to my anxiety-ridden brain – I’ve just about given up). Predictably, the documentary ends with an affirmation that the real goal is to be accepting of who you are (again, I’ll leave you to convince my brain of that).

Allow me one side note here. When watching a movie with the title “Do I Sound Gay?” on Netflix, try to remember to clear it from your queue when you bring a new girlfriend over to watch a few Netflix movies on the couch. Yikes.

During the past week, I had two separate conversations on this issue I’m having. One was about connecting with the audience. For those 5-8 minutes on stage, I’m performing the story, and not connecting with the audience whatsoever. And in the second conversation, it was pointed out that storytellers on the Moth podcast pour out their souls with their stories, which I do not.

So, here I am. Anxious about how I appear, and therefore putting up a wall between the audience and me.

I suppose one way around that is to keep writing and telling stories, knowing about this problem and trying to work through it. I’m a little over Ira Glass’ seven years before becoming good, so I still have time to do it.

Scientific Storytelling?

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I recently came across an article last week discussing the recent paper The Emotional Arcs of Stories are Dominated by Six Basic Shapes.  Using over 1700 books downloaded from Project Gutenberg, a group of data scientists determined that the narrative arcs of novels can be grouped into a few basic forms.  For example…

  • “Rags to Riches” — go from unhappy to hapy
  • “Tragedy” — go from happy to unhappy
  • “Man in the Hole” — go from happy to unhappy and back to happy again
  • “Icarus” — go from unhappy to happy and back to unhappy
  • “Cinderella” — unhappy to happy to unhappy to happy
  • “Oedipus” — happy to unhappy to happy to unhappy

“Happy” vs “Unhappy” was determined by cutting out a fragment of the book (a window containing some number of words) and running it through the hilariously-named “Hedometer” to analyze those words for, I suppose, how happy they are.  The team ended up finding decent correlation between the above-mentioned arcs and the books they downloaded (which included classics such as Romeo and Juliet and  Alice’s Adventures Underground.  They then compared these narrative arcs against number of downloads, suggesting that the “Cinderella,” “Oedipus,” “Man in the Hole,” and “Icarus” arcs were most popular.

The article I read and the research paper mentioned a YouTube video of Kurt Vonnegut where he discussed qualitatively and humorously the same thing.  Amazingly, in 1995, based on his own reading and study, Vonnegut also determined that the “Cinderella” story arc was the most popular.

I’ve even seen this in real life.  Some of the biggest reactions I’ve seen at the handful of Moth storyslams I’ve gone to come from Cinderella arcs, if I remember correctly.

I think this is really cool, and not just for the esoteric understanding of narrative arcs.  As readers of this blog may note, I’ve been down-in-the-dumps with my storytelling abilities.  I wonder, then, what narrative arc shapes do my stories take?  Do my stories fall in line with the Cinderella or Oedipus arc shapes?  Or do my stories take some different form, one that’s not popular.  Or even worse, are they formless; do they dwell at one emotional level for the entire six or eight minutes?

I have a few recordings on my new website of stories I’ve told for Speak UpThe MoUth, and Vally Voices.  It’s be cool to try to run these stories through the Hedometer and see what kind of narrative arc(s) they have.

Now, part of me wants to run the analysis myself, but I wonder if I could get the paper authors to do it for me???  Stay tuned…