For some time now, I have been interested in podcasts. Not so much in the things themselves, but in the explosion of interest in them, in our enthusiasm for hearing strangers chat. Wasn’t radio passé decades ago? We live in a society where our entertainment has surpassed technicolor and surround sound, to rumbling chairs in the theater, 3-D, and virtual reality. We connect to each other in the flickering bath of blue light from our computer screens, or in telephone miniature, untethered by time and place. So how, then, did these snippets of the plain, often unpolished, human voice come to rank as anything worth following, let alone obsessing about?
Or is that precisely the reason why?
Last week, we introduced something new at Goddard; we called it The Podcast School. A group of twenty students, alumni and faculty of the MFA in Creative Writing had the chance to work with two specialists in audio storytelling on the Vermont campus: Jackie Batten, producer and educator from our very own college/community hybrid radio station WGDR, and James T. Green, artist (in the true “sound and vision” tradition) and producer at Gimlet Creative. Our four-day crash course gave us an introduction to the tools we would need to create our own stories, as well as an overview of content and structure, and how to experiment with form.
Whether leaning over our computers with Jackie helping us record and replay our own voices, or listening to the podcasts James chose for us to analyze, the reason we have come back to the human voice for our storytelling was immediately clear. It was the attraction of attention, of being in the moment. One individual person asking us to trust them, come closer, to fill in the blanks that the loss of our other senses heightened, and try to understand.
“Good tape,” James told us, has three key elements: it’s human, reactive, and reflective. Which means there is a voice there – complete with stutters, laughter, and pacing that signals enthusiasm, worry, and wonder. There is a person in action, in all the actions: re-, inter- and plain. The host or narrator is engaged; they are asking questions; they may even be expressing the same surprise and delight that we are. And the stories are more than anecdotes. They expand the speaker and change us as a result.
Thinking about the emotion and connection that is good tape was exciting for several reasons. Recently, I have begun working on a new book, so the reminder of the power of a simple human story is perfectly timed. Up to now, the characters in my books have been swept up by historical events, politics, questions of race and nationality, and war…important issues and themes I care deeply about. These fill my screen; they are my version of 3-D glasses. But what keeps the reader with me are my people: what they feel, what they do, what they think.
Human. Reactive. Reflective. It’s not a surprise to me that the lessons of one genre are the same as for the others; that’s a truth I have come across often at Goddard, since our students are encouraged to attend workshops in any genre that calls to them while at residencies. But, much like the letters-to-self from those residencies that are mailed at the perfect future moment when we need them, it’s still magical. Transformative. And a gift.
Something else that is magical: as part of The Podcast School and my own practice, I interviewed my faculty colleagues to create a very simple podcast series. So in the last several days, my computer bath has not been Netflix or CNN but Audacity, which I have been using to replay and reorganize their thoughts. I am newly amazed by their depth, their humor, their fascination with their hot topics, and their commitment to teaching and craft. Again, I know this – I have been friends with some of them for more than fifteen years – but their voices put them on the window seat beside me. Keeping me company in this visceral, intensely present moment, with their breath literally whispering in my ears.
Whispering: tell your story.
I look forward to sharing the series with you very soon.