Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Ira Glass

Thinking on the page

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Over the last few weeks, I’ve been hinting strongly to everyone that I want a copy of Monograph by Chris Ware for Christmas. I haven’t had a chance to look closely yet at this gargantuan career overview of the man whom I’ve elsewhere called our best novelist, artist, and graphic designer, but I’ve been making up for it by reading a book of his interviews that came out earlier this year. My favorite passage is his response to an interviewer who expressed amazement that he figured out all of his work as he went along:

There’s nothing to wow about because I think it’s much easier that way. I don’t see how anyone could sit down and try to think ahead of themselves. I would create the most boring stuff if I sat down and scripted things because the sort of associations that occur while you’re drawing and the ideas that you get are real ideas. I don’t think it’s possible to have a fundamental idea when you start scripting or laying out a strip. I think that’s silly. What’s the point? You get bored, first of all, drawing it. I never know how any of my strips is going to end at all. I start out with a blank page. I might make some basic decision like “The first row will be three and three-quarter inches. Tall panels and maybe I’ll stick one in that’s taller.” Then as I go along I might draw something in the background and think, “Wow, I’ll use this.” I’ll draw it again or light it up with another image on the page, or I might redraw something…As far as in the long term storytelling, the source of associations that you want to occur in a story can only happen if you let them occur naturally. Your brain is a very organized thing. I think mine is, I hope, because things keep on popping up, and I notice them.

This is at the beginning of Ware’s career, before Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth had even begun, but his approach across the decades has remained consistent. Two years later, he told another interviewer: “I do know where I’m going, the essential outline is there. I don’t write conversations and dialogue unless I have bits and pieces I want to insert. I don’t write scripts or thumbnails. I let it happen. I try to keep it lively and allow it to develop on the page. This of course might be the absolute worst way of working possible…I don’t know.” Six years after that, Ware said to Ira Glass: “It’s totally improvisatory. I know how I want to start and where it’s going to go. I just draw and hope that it works. I really don’t know how to describe it beyond that.” And he offered this account of his process while being interviewed for the documentary Tintin and I:

As I get older I find myself thinking about stories more and more before I work so that by the time I eventually sit down to write them, I know more or less how it’s going to look, start, or feel. Once I do actually set pencil to paper, though, everything changes and I end up erasing, redrawing, and rewriting more than I keep. Once a picture is on the page I think of about ten things that never would have occurred to me otherwise. Then when I think of the strip at other odd times during the day, it’s a completely different thing than it was before I started.

By now, Ware is probably tired of being asked about this, but I find it objectively fascinating, even staggering. And part of the explanation lies in the contrast between the time that it takes and the relatively compressed period in which it can be absorbed, as Ware stated in a more recent interview: “I think there’s a certain value in spending a lot of time on something and condensing thought into something that maybe only takes two seconds to read but maybe takes forty hours to draw.”

I think that this gets at something fundamental about Ware’s career, which is a testament to how the art of a miniaturist can turn into something profoundly epic, even colossal, when diligently pursued for a lifetime. (In this respect, Ware has a lot in common with Stephin Merritt, a figure to whom I’m surprised he isn’t compared more often.) And his approach on the page is mirrored in his attitude toward storytelling as a whole, which is to disclaim the existence of any larger plan at all. Ware often suggests that his narrative structure emerges almost by accident, saying in his interview with Glass: “I started drawing this character, Jimmy Corrigan, in my sketchbook and did a couple of stories with him, and I realized he’s my only human character so I better hold on to him.” He expanded on this point a few years later:

I was still in art school when I started [Jimmy Corrigan], and I thought this story would only last maybe about three months or so, just a few episodes. Because I had absolutely no idea what I was doing at all and I am a terrible writer, it got completely out of hand. It ended up lasting for seven years, which is why when you read the book, the first hundred pages or so are completely insensate. It’s very poorly written, which I apologize for—I didn’t really think of a way to try and fix that, but that’s just the way it is…I did a couple of joke strips with this character Jimmy Corrigan, and I kind of latched onto him as my only contact with humanity on the comics page. Then he became this main character. There’s no planning to this at all; it’s this crazy way of working organically and letting something happen on the page for lack of any better thoughtful literary charter…I think that’s actually the way most of my characters start, as joke characters, and then I become more empathetic or sympathetic towards them.

In other words, Ware’s decisions on the level of the individual panel, which might amount to an hour’s work, effectively reproduce—or anticipate—his approach over the course of years. And while you see this pattern in the life of nearly every artist, it’s particularly evident in Ware, both because he’s been relatively candid about his creative process and because so much of it has unfolded in plain sight.

The trouble is that it can be hard to draw lessons for ourselves from the work of such a singular talent. If nothing else, we can take it as a reminder on the value of small units of work completed on a regular basis, whether or not they involve a fixed deadline. In the earliest interview that I quoted above, Ware said: “I can’t do anything without having some sort of deadline; otherwise, I’m too lazy. I wouldn’t get it done.” A decade later, he modified his view:

As for my workday, I used to sit down and fritter away my time, but now I work within a more compressed schedule because I spend most of the day looking after my daughter. I’ve also given up my weekly deadline to allow the work to happen at a more natural pace, and I think I can say that for these two reasons I’m genuinely happy for the first time in my adult life. I’m glad I put myself through the misery of deadlines for twenty years, but if I can’t do it now for its own sake, then I shouldn’t be doing it at all.

At another talk, he told the audience: “If you simply trust yourself as an artist to allow those things to come out naturally, without your intellect to stop it from going onto the page, you’ll be surprised at how things in your work will connect in very surprising and strange ways. There’re things that you do that you are not even necessarily aware of.” And he’s perfectly right. But it’s equally obvious that Ware has developed strategies and techniques, often at great personal cost, to allow for such themes to emerge “naturally” in a form that can channel and control them, to the point where his cold, almost alienating style serves as a vessel to contain unbearable emotion. Perhaps one approach requires the other. But it’s also easier when you’re the smartest kid on earth.

Written by nevalalee

December 12, 2017 at 8:39 am

Listening to “Retention,” Part 1

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X Minus One

Note: For the next three days, I’m going to be discussing the origins of “Retention,” the episode that I wrote for the audio science fiction anthology series The Outer Reach. It’s available for streaming here on the Howl podcast network, and you can get a free month of access by using the promotional code REACH.

Until about a year ago, I had never thought about writing for audio. As I’ve recounted elsewhere, I got into it thanks to a lucky coincidence: I was approached by Nick White, a radio producer in Los Angeles, who had gone to high school with my younger brother. Nick was developing an audio science fiction series, purely as a labor of love, and since he knew that I’d published some stories in Analog, he wanted to know if I’d consider adapting one for the show. I was more than willing, but after taking a hard look at “The Boneless One” and “Cryptids,” I decided that neither one was particularly suited for the format. There were too many characters, for one thing, and it would be hard to make either story work with a smaller cast: the former is a murder mystery with multiple suspects, the latter a monster story that depends on the victims being picked off one by one, and each has about the right number of players. I also couldn’t think of a plausible way to tell them using auditory tools alone. Since I didn’t have an obvious candidate for adaptation, which in itself would probably require at least a week of work, I began to think that it would make more sense for me to write something up from scratch. Nick, fortunately, agreed. And when I started to figure out what kind of plot to put together, one of my first criteria was that it be a story that could be conveyed entirely through dialogue and sound.

I was probably overthinking it. When I went back recently to listen to old science fiction radio shows like Dimension X and X Minus One, I discovered that they weren’t shy about leaning heavily on narration. Radio playwrights didn’t worry much about honoring to the purity of the medium: they were seasoned professionals who had to get an episode out on time, and by using a narrator, they could tell a wider range of stories with less trouble. (Most of these scripts were adaptations of stories from magazines like Astounding and Galaxy, and many wouldn’t have worked at all without some degree of narration to fill in the gaps between scenes.) Which isn’t to say that they didn’t rely on a few basic principles when it came to dramatizing the situation. For instance, we rarely hear more than two voices at once. Even on the printed page, it can be difficult for the reader to keep track of more than two new characters at a time, and when you don’t have any visual cues, it’s best to restrict the speakers to a number that the listener can easily follow. A scene between two characters, particularly a man and a woman, is immediately more engaging than one in which we have to keep track of three similar male voices. As I concluded in my earlier post on the subject: “If I were trying to adapt a story for radio and didn’t know where to begin, I’d start by asking myself if it could be structured as five two-person dialogue scenes, ideally for one actor and one actress.”

Dimension X

This is the same structure that I ended up using for “Retention,” and I stumbled across it intuitively, as a kind of safety net to make up for my lack of experience. Most of what I know about audio storytelling arises from the fact that I’m married to a professional podcaster, and the first thing you learn about radio journalism is that clarity is key. When you listen to a show like Serial or Invisibilia, for example, you soon become aware of how obsessively organized it all is, even while it maintains what feels like a chatty, informal tone. Whenever the hosts introduce a new character or story, they tell us to sit tight, reassuring us that we’ll circle back soon to the central thread of the episode, and they’ll often inform us of exactly how many minutes an apparent digression will last. This sort of handholding is crucial, because you can’t easily rewind to listen to a section that seems unclear. If you stop to figure out what you’ve just been told, you’ll miss what comes next. That’s why radio shows are constantly telling us what to think about what we’re hearing. As Ira Glass put it in Radio: An Illustrated Guide:

This is the structure of every story on our program—there’s an anecdote, that is, a sequence of actions where someone says “this happened then this happened then this happened”—and then there’s a moment of reflection about what that sequence means, and then on to the next sequence of actions…Anecdote then reflection, over and over.

I didn’t necessarily want to do this for my script, but for the sake of narrative clarity, I decided to follow an analogous set of rules. When I write fiction, I always try to structure the plot as a series of clear objectives, mostly to keep the reader grounded, and it seemed even more critical here. It soon struck me that the best way to orient the listener from the beginning was to start with a readily identifiable kind of “found” audio, and then see what kind of story it suggested. In my earliest emails to Nick, I pitched structuring an episode around an emergency hotline call—which is an idea that I still might use one day—or a series of diary entries from a spacecraft, like ones that the hero records for his daughter in Interstellar. I also began to think about what kinds of audio tend to go viral, which only happens when the situations they present are immediately obvious. And the example that seemed the most promising was the notorious recording of the journalist Ryan Block trying to get a representative from Comcast to cancel his account. What I liked about it was how quickly it establishes the premise. In the final script of “Retention,” the first spoken dialogue is: “Thank you for holding. This call may be recorded or monitored for quality assurance. My name is Lisa. To whom am I speaking?” A few lines later, Perry, the customer, says: “I want to disconnect my security system and close my account, please.” At that point, after less than thirty seconds, we know what the story is about. Tomorrow, I’ll talk more about how the structure of a customer service call freed me to follow the story into strange places, and how I was inspired by a famous anecdote from the history of artificial intelligence.

Written by nevalalee

January 23, 2017 at 10:34 am

Surviving the German forest

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Jad Abumrad

Recently, I was leafing through Jessica Abel’s Out on the Wire, an updated and expanded version of her classic illustrated guide to radio, when I came across the following story from Radiolab host Jad Abrumad:

The station manager came to me and he said, “Hey, do you want to do an hour on Wagner’s Ring Cycle?” Had I done five minutes of research, I would’ve realized that Wagner’s Ring Cycle is an eighteen-hour cycle of operas that tries to encompass the totality of European art in one work. You got imagery, you got music, you got psychology, it was supposed to be “the work of art that ended art.” I could’ve found this out in thirty seconds, but I didn’t, and so I thought to myself: “Wagner, Wagner, Wagner, I don’t know much about Wagner. But, uh, sure, okay, Wagner, why not.”

Fast-forward a couple months, I had missed four deadlines, I’m on the verge of getting fired, and I haven’t slept for four days. I had the pressure of ideas that I just couldn’t reach, I had the pressure of being a newbie and talking to people who were very sophisticated. And I had the pressure of deadlines that were going “splat!” left, right, and center.

Abrumad concludes: “And we at Radiolab have given this state a name, because it happens quite often. We call it ‘the German forest.'” And it’s a place, I think, where most storytellers find themselves sooner later. When you begin a project of any size, whether it’s a long essay or a short story or an entire novel, you can feel overwhelmed by the amount of material you have to cover, and one of the hardest part of the process is translating the inchoate mass of ideas in your head into something that can be consumed in a sequential form. Abrumad doesn’t minimize the difficulties involved, but he notes that wandering through that forest is an essential stage in any creative endeavor:

When I head the Wagner thing on the radio later, I was like, “Whoa, somewhere in the middle of that trauma, I think I found my voice. There’s a real correlation between time spent in the German forest and these moments of emergence. And to be clear, the German forest changes. That sense of, the work is just too big to put my head around this, how am I gonna do this, that never changes. But what does change is that the terror gets reframed for you, because now, you’ve made it out a few times. You can see over the treetops, and into the future, to where, there you are, you’re still there, you’re still alive.

Notes by Ira Glass

What interests me about this the most, though, is that Abrumad—a MacArthur fellow and very smart guy—is working in a form that has laid down strict rules for managing its material. As I’ve noted elsewhere, because radio poses such unique challenges, it has to be particularly ruthless about sustaining the listener’s attention. In the previous edition of Abel’s book, Ira Glass lays out the formula in a quote that I never tire of repeating:

This is the structure of every story on our program—there’s an anecdote, that is, a sequence of actions where someone says “this happened then this happened then this happened”—and then there’s a moment of reflection about what that sequence means, and then on to the next sequence of actions…Anecdote then reflection, over and over.

Glass frames this structure as a courtesy to the listener, but, more subtly, it’s also there for the sake of the storyteller. It isn’t a map of the forest, exactly, but a compass, or, even better, a set of rules for orienting yourself, and the tricks that survive are the ones that provide value both during the writing process and in the act of reading or listening. You can think of the rules of storytelling as a staircase with the author on one end and the audience at the other, allowing them to meet in the middle. Their primary purpose is to ensure that a project can be brought to completion, but they also allow the finished product to serve its intended purpose, just as the rules of architecture are both a strategy for building a house that won’t fall down halfway through and a blueprint for livable spaces.

And this is a particularly useful way to think about all “rules” of writing or storytelling, particularly plot and structure. Kurt Vonnegut says: “I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading.” And, he might have added, of keeping writers writing. Similarly, in The Art of Fiction, John Gardner notes that one of the hardest lessons for a writer to learn is how to treat each unit on its own terms:

The good writer treats each unit individually, developing them one by one. When he’s working on the description of Uncle Fyodor’s store, he does not think about the hold-up men who in a moment will enter it, though he keeps them in the back of his mind. He describes the store, patiently, making it come alive, infusing every smell with Uncle Fyodor’s emotion and personality (his fear of hold-up men, perhaps); he works on the store as if this were simply an exercise, writing as if he had all eternity to finish it, and when the description is perfect—and not too long or short in relation to its function in the story as a whole—he moves on to his story’s next unit.

You write a story, as David Mamet likes to say, the same way you write a turkey: one bite at a time. And a few seconds of thought reveal that both the writer and the reader benefit from that approach. You find your way through the forest step by step, just as the reader or listener will, and if you’re lucky, you’ll come to the same conclusion that Abrumad does: “You begin to recognize the German forest for what it is. It’s actually a tool. It’s the place you have to go to hear the next version of yourself.”

Written by nevalalee

August 27, 2015 at 10:11 am

Thinking inside the panel

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"Mister Wonderful" by Daniel Clowes

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s topic: “What non-comic creative type do you want to see make a comic?”

Earlier this year, I discovered Radio: An Illustrated Guide, the nifty little manual written by cartoonist Jessica Abel and Ira Glass of This American Life. At the time, the book’s premise struck me as a subtle joke in its own right, and I wrote:

The idea of a visual guide to radio is faintly amusing in itself, particularly when you consider the differences between the two art forms: comics are about as nonlinear a medium as you can get between two covers, with the reader’s eye prone to skip freely across the page.

The more I think about it, though, the more it seems to me that these two art forms share surprising affinities. They’re both venerable mediums with histories that stretch back for close to a century, and they’ve both positioned themselves in relation to a third, invisible other, namely film and television. On a practical level, whether its proponents like it or not, both radio and comics have come to be defined by the ways in which they depart from what a movie or television show can do. In the absence of any visual cues, radio has to relentlessly manage the listener’s attention—”Anecdote then reflection, over and over,” as Glass puts it—and much of the grammar of the comic book emerged from attempts to replicate, transcend, and improve upon the way images are juxtaposed in the editing room.

And smart practitioners in both fields have always found ways of learning from their imposing big brothers, while remaining true to the possibilities that their chosen formats offer in themselves. As Daniel Clowes once said:

To me, the most useful experience in working in “the film industry” has been watching and learning the editing process. You can write whatever you want and try to film whatever you want, but the whole thing really happens in that editing room. How do you edit comics? If you do them in a certain way, the standard way, it’s basically impossible. That’s what led me to this approach of breaking my stories into segments that all have a beginning and end on one, two, three pages. This makes it much easier to shift things around, to rearrange parts of the story sequence.

Meanwhile, the success of a podcast like Serial represents both an attempt to draw upon the lessons of modern prestige television and a return to the roots of this kind of storytelling. Radio has done serialized narratives better than any other art form, and Serial, for all its flaws, was an ambitious attempt to reframe those traditions in a shape that spoke to contemporary listeners.

Sarah Koenig

What’s a little surprising is that we haven’t witnessed a similar mainstream renaissance in nonfiction comics, particularly from writers and directors who have made their mark in traditional documentaries. Nonfiction has always long been central to the comic format, of course, ranging from memoirs like Maus or Persepolis to more didactic works like Logicomix or The Cartoon History of the Universe. More recently, webcomics like The Oatmeal or Randall Munroe’s What If? have explained complicated issues in remarkable ways. What I’d really love to see, though, are original works of documentary storytelling in comic book form, the graphic novel equivalent of This American Life. You could say that the reenactments we see in works like Man on Wire or The Jinx, and even the animated segments in the films of Brett Morgen, are attempts to push against the resources to which documentaries have traditionally been restricted, particularly when it comes to stories set in the past—talking heads, archive footage, and the obligatory Ken Burns effect. At times, such reconstructions can feel like cheating, as if the director were bristling at having to work with the available material. Telling such stories in the form of comics instead would be an elegant way of circumventing those limitations while remaining true to the medium’s logic.

And certain documentaries would work even better as comics, particularly if they require the audience to process large amounts of complicated detail. Serial, with its endless, somewhat confusing discussions of timelines and cell phone towers, might have worked better as a comic book, which would have allowed readers to review the chain of events more easily. And a director like Errol Morris, who has made brilliant use of diagrams and illustrations in his published work, would be a natural fit. There’s no denying that some documentaries would lose something in the translation: the haunted face of Robert Durst in The Jinx has a power that can’t be replicated in a comic panel. But comics, at their best, are an astonishing way of conveying and managing information, and for certain stories, I can’t imagine anything more effective. We’re living in a time in which we seem to be confronting complex systems every day, and as a result, artists of all kinds have begun to address what Zadie Smith has called the problem of “how the world works,” with stories that are as much about data, interpretation, and information overload as about individual human beings. For the latter, narrative formats that can offer us a real face or voice may still hold an edge. But for many of the subjects that documentarians in film, television, or radio will continue to tackle, the comics may be the best solution they’ll ever have.

Written by nevalalee

July 24, 2015 at 9:09 am

The tabloid touch

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In Touch Weekly

“Oh, I’m a hero. I was shot twice in the Tribune.”
“I read where you were shot five times in the tabloids.”
“It’s not true. He didn’t come anywhere near my tabloids!”

The Thin Man

A couple of weeks ago, Buzzfeed writer Anne Helen Petersen published a long article on In Touch Weekly and the evolution of the modern tabloid. It’s a fun piece, full of juicy insights, and it’s worth reading in its entirety. Yet what caught my eye the most were details like these:

In Touch piqued that fascination by manufacturing elaborate, multipart, melodramatic narratives—the stuff of soap operas…Several former employees remember [editor Richard] Spencer laying out a four-act cover drama for what would happen between Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie at the beginning of each month—a pregnancy, for example, followed by a breakup scare, a reconciliation, and then marriage rumors.

The beats of the drama may have been fictionalized, but it was easy to find sources—including rival publicists, other celebrities, former friends, estranged family—to support the claims…It’s not that In Touch made things up, it’s that the publicist and family members and celebrities themselves did…

“For [editor David] Perel, each story is a chapter in a novel,” one recent staffer reported. “He decides on the narrative, then has his reporters work sources to match the narrative.”

And this is just a more blatant version of what every writer, nonfiction and otherwise, does on a regular basis, although not always so brazenly. When you’re writing a story, even if you’re a reputable journalist, you often find yourself selecting facts to bolster the thesis implied in the headline or first paragraph. In some cases, you go looking for a quote from an outside source to support a conclusion you’ve already reached, and fortunately for reporters, the world is full of people willing to supply quotable material on demand—which is why the same expert sources repeatedly crop up in business or pop culture reportage. It isn’t a question of bias, but of structuring a decent news story: even the most apparently objective articles provide a narrative that helps us fit facts into a pattern that we can use or enjoy. Not every story we tell about the world is equally accurate, of course, and thoughtful readers and viewers have long since learned to recognize false balance. What puts a tabloid like In Touch into a different category is how cheerfully it severs the link, already tenuous, between reality and the “sourced” stories it produces. And the punchline is that this approach can shade imperceptibly into real reporting, as we’ve seen recently with the magazine’s coverage of the Duggars.

In Touch Weekly

What makes tabloids so fascinating is that they display a funhouse version of a process that we’ve learned to accept unthinkingly from more legitimate forms of nonfiction. An article in yesterday’s New York Times interviewed a range of documentary filmmakers about the ways they shape their material, from turning on a television set to provide a source of lighting in a scene to gently coaching interview subjects to arrive at a deeper emotional truth. And choices about selection of footage, arrangement, juxtaposition, and chronology are central to the documentary form. Occasionally, as with The Jinx, these liberties are obvious enough to raise questions about accuracy. But in every case, filmmakers walk a fine line between fidelity to the facts and the structural judgment calls that every story requires. In theory, the only kind of documentary evidence that resists that kind of manipulation is a raw, unedited chunk of footage, but in practice—as we see, for instance, in the varying responses to the Eric Garner video—even an apparently unambiguous record can be colored by context, where the excerpt starts and ends, and the viewer’s own preconceptions. We’re all constantly editing reality to conform with the mental pictures we form of it; what sets apart a documentary, or journalism, is that this editing has been outsourced to someone else.

And we’ve implicitly agreed to a measure of editorial intervention as the price for having information delivered to use in a form we can absorb. I’ve spoken at length elsewhere about how relentlessly podcasts and radio journalism are shaped to retain the listener’s attention: “Anecdote then reflection, over and over,” as Ira Glass says, which means that we’re not just being given a story, but constantly being told what to think about it. Otherwise, the result would be boring or unintelligible, as we often see in podcasts that don’t consider their structure so insistently. Asking journalists and other writers to refrain from sculpting the material betrays a misunderstanding of how we all think and learn. Everything is subject to a point of view, even the unmediated experience of our own lives: the best we can do is be aware of it, skeptical when necessary, and selective about whom we trust. In Touch makes for a great case study because the bones are exposed for all to see, but even a tabloid headline can influence us in subtle ways, as Petersen notes:

A typical…cover promised to answer a question the reader didn’t even know he or she had: “What Went Wrong,” “Why It’s Over,” or “Why They Split.”

All storytelling poses and resolves such unconscious questions, which only makes it harder to distinguish from what we might be thinking on the inside. And when a story moves us, intrigues us, or makes us feel, we can truly say that it got us right in the tabloids.

Written by nevalalee

June 29, 2015 at 9:42 am

Radio free will

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Ira Glass

If you haven’t yet listened to Invisibilia, the new podcast launched earlier this month by NPR, I encourage you to download its latest installment right now. As soon as it was over, I simply thought: “I’m going to remember this for the rest of my life.” It reduced my wife to tears in two out of three episodes. And if it’s so successful, it’s because it takes place exactly where radio lives and breathes. It describes itself as a show about “the invisible forces that control human behavior,” which means, in practice, that it’s a show about thought, and particularly about how we’re shaped by our thoughts and those projected on us by others. Which is really what radio professionals do for a living. Radio’s true medium isn’t words, or even sounds, but the sequence of thoughts in the listener’s mind. This applies to all forms of narrative, but it’s especially stark in radio, where that chain of thoughts is all there is. Unlike written works, which allow us to reread or skim ahead at will, radio is ruthlessly linear: while it might be possible for a listener to replay a section of a podcast, it’s unlikely to happen. Everything has to be as clear as crystal in the moment. And Invisibilia is the product of a creative milieu that has spent years thinking in practical terms about the nature of human thought and awareness.

I happened to start listening to Invisibilia shortly after reading Radio: An Illustrated Guide, a comic book produced fifteen years ago by the cartoonist Jessica Abel and Ira Glass of This American Life. The idea of a visual guide to radio is faintly amusing in itself, particularly when you consider the differences between the two art forms: comics are about as nonlinear a medium as you can get between two covers, with the reader’s eye prone to skip freely across the page. Yet this little book is as elegant and practical an introduction to any narrative craft as I’ve seen—it leaves you wanting to make radio. It also attunes you to the many small bits of trickery that a show like Invisibilia uses to manage the presentation of its material. Its hosts, Alix Spiegel and Lulu Miller, keep things obsessively organized while maintaining their chatty, casual tone. Whenever they introduce a new character or story, they tell us to sit tight, reassuring us that we’ll circle back soon to the central thread of the episode, and they’ll often inform us of exactly how many minutes an apparent digression will last, which is the auditory equivalent of thumbing through the pages of a book or article to see how much longer a section has to run. It’s obvious as hell, but it works.

Notes by Ira Glass

And much of the interest of radio as a metaphor for other kinds of storytelling lies in how visible its bones can be. As Glass notes in Abel’s book:

This is the structure of every story on our program—there’s an anecdote, that is, a sequence of actions where someone says “this happened then this happened then this happened”—and then there’s a moment of reflection about what that sequence means, and then on to the next sequence of actions…Anecdote then reflection, over and over.

Glass compares this structure to that of a sermon or homily, and he concludes that radio is an inherently didactic medium. It isn’t enough to tell your listeners something; you also have to tell them what it means. What’s funny is that this sermonizing doesn’t necessarily emerge from a particular social or political agenda, although it certainly can: it’s more a solution to the structural problems that radio presents. When we’re reading a book, we can pause to consolidate our thoughts and figure out how we feel about the material, which satisfies us that our time has been well spent. The ceaseless stream of radio doesn’t permit that kind of silent reflection: as listeners of Serial know, if you stop to try to figure out what you’ve just been told, you’ll miss the next tidbit of information. A compelling radio show allows us to briefly outsource that critical faculty to the program itself, which frees up those levels of the brain to continue paying attention.

It’s a good trick, but also a risky one. Radio can be insanely persuasive to dittoheads and latte-drinkers alike because its didacticism is embedded into the fabric of the medium itself, which so shrewdly mimics our stream of consciousness that it can be hard to separate it from our own conclusions. Even television can’t compare: if we’re watching a news broadcast, we can tune out for a second to gather ourselves, trusting in the stream of images to keep us oriented. Radio, at least in its most successful incarnations, doesn’t allow for that kind of distance. (If it does, it needs to be as consciously built into the structure as anything else, which is why programs like This American Life often use extended musical breaks to provide five seconds or so of breathing space.) If it’s true, as many say, that we’re entering a golden age of podcasting, it also means that we need to be aware of the kind of thinking, or the suspension thereof, that it creates. Radio can be used to educate us, move us, or entertain us, but it’s only after the program has ended that we have a chance to think for ourselves. Invisibilia is a masterpiece of the form, but it’s also an example of the same invisible forces that it describes. And if its message has any meaning, it’s that we occasionally need to make time for the kind of scrutiny that it gently requires us to abdicate.

Written by nevalalee

January 26, 2015 at 10:28 am

Putting together the building blocks

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Notes by Ira Glass

When I come out of an interview, I jot down the things I remember as being my favorite moments. For an hour-long interview usually it’s just four or five moments, but if out I’m reporting all day, I’ll spend over an hour at night typing out every favorite thing that happened. This is handier than you might think. Often this short list of favorite things will provide the backbone to the structure to my story…

Then I print out the log and mark it up. Every possible quote I might use, I write a letter next to, A, B, C, etc. As I do this, on a single piece of paper, I make a list for myself of the quotes. So when I’m done, there’s not just the tape log, there’s a piece of paper with tiny handwriting on it, listing the quotes “A—he describes the old house, B—what it was like the moment he came home, C—his sister warned him,” etc. Any quote that’s especially promising gets an asterisk. Any quote I’m sure I cannot tell the story without gets two asterisks.

The point of this is that it gets all this inchoate material—the sound you’ve gathered—into a form where you can see it all on one page. You see all your options. It’s in a form where your brain can start to organize it. Also, writing the list sort of inserts all the quotes into quick-access RAM memory in your head in a helpful way. I find that the important first step to writing anything or editing anything (half of my day each day is editing) is just getting the possible building blocks of the story into your head so you can start thinking about how to manipulate it and cut it and move it.

Ira Glass, to Lifehacker

Written by nevalalee

July 25, 2014 at 7:30 am

Posted in Quote of the Day, Writing

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