Day 12, #NaNoWriMo: What to Do When You’re Not Writing: Listen to This American Life (or any another storytelling radio show)

I was listening to NPR’s This American Life on my iPhone this morning as I drove through crazy Manhattan traffic. I barely noticed the traffic as I got sucked into the show. I was listening through the This American Life app and I had chosen the one entitled, “No-one’s Family is Going to Change.” The executive producer, Ira Glass, is a genius, in my opinion. I have never once heard a This American Life show that I didn’t love.

The producers generally do their storytelling in three acts, which are three different stories about people, connected by some kind of theme. They make you care about these wacky and sometimes unsympathetic characters. If you boil it down, this is the most basic element of good storytelling, whether you’re talking about fiction or nonfiction. You need to care about the character.

When I was in college, I got into listening to radio documentary storytelling by CBC’s Peter Gzowski in Canada. He really was the first person who made me realize the beauty of listening to a story, rather than reading it. Especially on the radio, you can hear the ambient sounds, so it creates this very sensory experience in which you can hear, smell and feel everything happening within the scene. More than television, you can pretend you are actually there.

Gzowski was the first one who made me feel like I’d love to work in radio and the reason I applied to broadcast journalism school after finishing my BA in international relations. I had an idea I’d like to tell stories about people in other countries or from other countries, maybe go to war-torn regions, maybe make a difference. It certainly guided me toward what would be my first published novel, Trafficked.

Even though I didn’t end up choosing a career in radio, listening to podcasts or radio documentaries still inspires me. I focus in on the voice of the person being interviewed and I listen to the expressions they choose, and the hesitation in their voice, the gap between what they are saying and what they are leaving out. As a writer, my imagination fills in those gaps and the part of my brain that makes stuff up gets busy.

Today, when I arrived home after listening to This American Life, I sat down at my computer and started to write a scene about my girl making dinner. Sometimes I have a habit of forgetting the details, especially when I’m writing the first draft of a scene. However, today I remembered to add in the sound of the knife on the wooden cutting board and the sizzle of the onions as they hit the butter in the frying pan. I remembered to make her eyes water because of the onions, and I felt the adrenalin that rushes through her body when she burns her finger on the pan. My imagination was alive and I remembered to write it all down. Thanks, Ira.

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