I feel as if posting this will mark an unshouldering of sorts – a chance for me to finally let go of baggage accrued over the past eighteen months.
This American Life has influenced me more profoundly than anything else in the last year and a half. After listening to my first episode, I was hooked. Essentially, it’s an hour long weekly radio show, where each episode has a loose theme. It’s mostly non-fiction, with the occasional short story or dramatic monologue.
What first hit me so hard about it was the way in which the producers manage to tackle both very large stories and very small ones, often combining the two types on the same bill. It introduced me to a whole new genre of non-fiction storytelling – small incidents or little ideas that somehow shed light on something greater. Until I listened to This American Life, I never realised that people were allowed to tell those kinds of stories – stories that aren’t the news, exactly, but often aren’t exactly memoir either. Stories that are interesting, funny, real, surprising, and sometimes beautiful, but without being glib or glurgy.
Although I’m not exactly the perfect archetypal hipsterish agnostic liberal, I realise that I’m fairly close to the centre of their ideal demographic, so it may be that TAL’s appeal doesn’t go right across the board, but, for me at least, it feels like it scratches an itch that, until I discovered the show, I was dimly aware of but could never quite locate.
All this discursive meta-theorising can’t quite convey it though, so I suppose I should apply the age old writing axiom of show, don’t tell. Here are some of my favourites. If you click through, you can stream them online, or download each episode for 99 cents. If you listen to a whole bunch, it might be nice to donate a little something via their website, to help pay for bandwidth. I did, and I felt right pleased with myself.
My Big Break – the story of Charlie and Mitzi’s gig on The Ed Sullivan Show is a beautifully-constructed piece of radio journalism, and Shalom Auslander’s true life story of his strict Orthodox Jewish school’s ‘blessing bee’ is one of the best bits of memoir I’ve ever heard.
Babysitting – I love the brothers talking about when their big brother was left in charge of them, and pretended he could turn into a werewolf. It reminds me of that weird period during your childhood, when the border between imagination and reality is blurry, and you can quickly work yourself up into a state of terror. Also, the final story in the show is just amazing. It’s funny, it’s sad, it’s got twists… and it’s just great to hear the participants talk about it themselves.
Telephone – this is one of my favourite Ira Glass intros. I just think the chap’s so cool, and he tells an engaging, intimate autobiographical story without being self-indulgent. The first story, about the delinquent teenager who discovers his dad’s been taping his phonecalls, has a really satisfying plot arc, and it’s a great example of a story that is ideally suited to radio.
Break-Up – all of Starlee Kine’s stuff for TAL is, in my opinion, brilliant, but this story about the embarrassing intensity of a break-up is probably my favourite. The moment where she blurts Phil Collins’ lyrics to her (ex)boyfriend in an attempt to make him stay is both cringe-inducing and beautiful in its honesty. The way she develops the story from there is an object lesson in why TAL isn’t just good, but great.
Another Frightening Show About The Economy – along with the earlier show, Giant Pool Of Money, these shows feature some of the best popular economics reporting I’ve ever heard. They’re a little more ‘of the moment’ than most of the TAL shows, given that they’re responding to contemporary news events, but I still find it mind-boggling that TAL can shift so seamlessly from charming, folksy anecdotage one week, to understandable, content-rich economics reporting the next, then back again, executing both styles exceptionally. Alex Blumberg and Adam Davidson make for very likeable, very listenable hosts.
The Super – the theme for this show, apartment superintendents (essentially live-in maintenance men for big blocks of flats, I think), doesn’t sound very promising, but it’s a killer episode. Jack Hitt’s stories are as robust as they come – you could drive a tank over them and they wouldn’t break – and the one the starts this show doesn’t disappoint. It’s got hilarious moments, frightening moments, and sheds light on wider things. The second story, about the building superintendent who thinks he may not have long to live, had me laughing till some snot came out.
One of the best things that came out of my discovering TAL, was that I began to write non-fiction. I’d written video game reviews, opinion pieces and feature articles, but I’d never attempted journalism where I was a character. I’d never realised that there were situations where that might be okay, where stories about myself might be interesting to someone else. The ultimate product of all my TAL listening has been We Can’t All Be Astronauts, my first book. I’m sure some parts are a bit cackhanded and prolix, and it was largely a case of learning on the job (my interview technique could do with a spell in bootcamp), but it’s been wonderful to discover a whole new form of writing I’d never considered before.
As a newbie to non-fiction, I was desperate for all the guidance I could get. These four videos, where Ira Glass, TAL’s host, explains how to create a story for radio, had more influence on my writing than anything else. I’m not claiming to have implemented the principles he suggests with any particular aplomb, but having them as a kind of North Star was a lifesaver. Even if you have no intention of writing non-fiction, or if you find his prescriptions for story-building somewhat facile, I think they’re fascinating and thought-provoking nonetheless.
I might as well finish with a clip from the This American Life TV series, now two seasons old. It features the animation of cartoonist Chris Ware, author of the funny, melancholy Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid On Earth. The person interviewing him is Ira Glass. The ‘turn’, at 1:30, is something I think typifies TAL stories. Something about the whole piece makes me really happy. It’s small, and human, and captivating – or, as the TAL TV series tagline would have it: ‘Funny. Surprising. Dramatic. True
Okay. Splurge over. This has been very cathartic. I feel like I can finally put the rampant fanboy to rest, and stop boring people at parties – or, at least, find new things to bore them with.