Monday, February 16, 2009

Anecdote, Reflection, Anecdote, Reflection.

I spent most of yesterday in Tryst (which, as I noted on Twitter, is like the boyfriend you settle for) reading everything there was to read on Transom, which may be my new favorite website.

I know it's "just a phase," but the rabbit trail thus far is so interesting: I posted on Facebook that I had a secret crush on Ira Glass, and the universe responded by providing him in book-signing form; then I met him and he was my friend for five minutes, then I thought (like everyone else who listens to public radio) "I wonder if I have a story that's interesting enough for This American Life?" which led me to the "How to get onto This American Life" page which led me to Transom, the website all about radio production and aural storytelling.

Which is fascinating.

I'll just cut to the chase and give you the most fascinating part, which Ira himself wrote and which I will quote verbatim:

The length of a news spot — if you listen to like the newscast at the beginning of All Things Considered or Marketplace — is 45 or 50 seconds. Usually, there's a couple of sentences from the reporter, then they do a quote from somebody, and kind of two or three more sentences from the reporter, and you're at 50, 45 seconds.

It turns out that we public radio listeners are trained to expect something to change every 45 to 50 seconds. And as a producer you have to keep that pace in mind. For example, in a reporter's story, every 45 or 50 seconds, you'll go to a piece of tape.

So if you have a four-minute story, you figure you're going to have four quotes or maybe five. And even in a format like ours, where it just sounds like people talking and music washing all over the place, we have to adhere to that pace.

I bring this up because I produced this writer named David Sedaris, and from the very first time I saw him read, I knew his work would work for the radio — not only because it was completely original, and not only because it was really, really funny, and not only because he had a great reading style that was totally his — but he told anecdotes that ended every 45 or 50 seconds.

It gets better, further down the page:

The fiction that we have on the show, we edit it exactly the same way that we edit the nonfiction, which is that it proceeds in a rhythm of: anecdote, reflection, anecdote, reflection.

That's such a useful piece of information that I can't believe they're providing it on the internet for free.

It made me wonder if this "anecdote/reflection" pattern only applied to aural storytelling or if it appeared in written storytelling, too; and if it was something people did naturally or if it had to be learned.

The only way to find out is to test it. (This is where we all start to realize that this is going to be a long blog post.) Below I'm going to reprint the text of the "Ira Glass Is My Friend" post, highlighting the anecdotes in red and the reflections in blue.

"Hi," he said. "I'm Ira."

I didn't respond automatically as I should have, temporarily bowled over by two contradictory thoughts: first, the sheer duh-ness of his statement (of course you're Ira Glass, that's why we're here); secondly, the absolute genuineness with which he spoke. He was introducing himself. He wanted me to know who he was. In those three words he connected with me on a personal, almost intimate level, and I could understand how he got people to tell him their stories and secrets.

"Hi," I said, a few seconds late to the exchange. "I'm Blue."

I had waited over ninety minutes to get to the front of the line. At first, in the back, when we were too far away to see, people were joking "it's taking so long because everyone's pitching him ideas for This American Life;" as we got closer, we realized it was because Ira was talking to everyone in the line; asking them questions about who they were, what they did, where they lived, what brought them out that evening, etc.

I'd bought his book even though I don't really think it is useful or necessary for me to get famous people's signatures on things; the real reason I bought his book was because I hadn't known until the moment I walked into the Borders that Ira Glass had written a book (they had advertised it as an opportunity to get This American Life DVDs autographed, and the books were a surprise), and by chance or fate the woman behind the counter told me this particular book was the very last copy in the store. That, apparently, is what it takes to get me to impulse-buy something. (I have a vision of the woman pulling out another copy after I leave the counter, and telling the next person who walks in that this, too, is the very last copy.)

So after Ira talking about This American Life and the Q&A I got in line, with this book, and waited ninety minutes (and read the first 130 pages) and as soon as I got close enough started watching Mr. Glass interact with everyone in line. It was fascinating.

After Ira Glass introduced himself to me, he asked me a few questions about my job and then said, over his shoulder to the Borders assistant, "All these people in Washington have such interesting jobs!" He was keeping track, too, because then he talked to me about some of the other jobs he had heard about in the past ninety minutes, and then he signed my book "Your Friend, Ira Glass." Then I said "Thank you very much," and he said "No, thank you very much," as if it had been the most generous thing I could have done, to come out this evening and buy his book and then wait patiently for him to autograph it.

It was an interaction both intimate and bizarre, in the way that I felt that Ira Glass was one hundred percent serious about what he was doing, both in terms of his radio show and in terms of every interaction with every person in this line. I left wishing I could be more like that, though I can't imagine how much energy it would take, to invest oneself fully in every conversation and to remember and track them like threads in a story.

But Ira Glass is, after all, a storyteller. And, for five minutes yesterday evening, my friend.

Okay. So it works, at least for that blog post.

My next thought was that I would test it against someone else's blog post, perhaps a more famous (and thus "better") blogger than I am. Typing "blog" into Google brings up Seth Godin as the first hit, which must make him the most famous blogger of all, and here's his most recent post, color-coded for your benefit:


If it acts like a duck (all the time), it's a duck. Doesn't matter if the duck thinks it's a dog, it's still a duck as far as the rest of us are concerned.

Authenticity, for me, is doing what you promise, not "being who you are".

That's because 'being' is too amorphous and we are notoriously bad at judging that. Internal vision is always blurry. Doing, on the other hand, is an act that can be seen by all.

As the Internet and a connected culture places a higher premium on authenticity (because if you're inconsistent, you're going to get caught) it's easy to confuse authentic behavior with an existential crisis. Are you really good enough, kind enough, generous enough and brave enough to be authentically a hero or leader?

Mother Theresa was filled with self doubt. But she was an authentic saint, because she always acted like one.

You could spend your time wondering if what you say you are is really you. Or you could just act like that all the time. That's good enough, thanks. Save the angst for later.

It's all reflection, as far as I can tell. But the second thought that comes to mind is that this isn't a story, so it doesn't count. (The third thought that comes to mind is this doesn't make a lick of sense, but who am I to criticize the most famous blogger of them all?)


So now I have to think of a clever way to wrap this up (the story should end on a reflection, after all).


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