Storytelling podcasts...in 9 short essays
For all aspiring podcasters...we need to think about storytelling and podcasts in context. The recent explosion of podcasting as a popular medium makes complete sense! After all, the first stories were told, not read.
Human language developed about 50,000 to 150,000 years ago. Sound communications, (think a variety of grunts not fit for complicated stories) go back even further. Written languages were developed only about 5000 years ago. And even then, few people for thousands of years would be able to enjoy a story not told to them.
Podcasting fits into this heritage, as the evolving answer to the request, Tell me a story.
I remember studying the Iliad in high school, and wondering how would a storyteller remember a narrative of almost 150,000 words. Thinking about it now, I realize those words would be mutable. Storytellers would have to read their crowd. They might accentuate some parts, perhaps ennobling the deaths of historical residents of where he or she might be reciting. If they have a particularly good audience, they might stretch out their engagement, embellishing or adding books to the conventional, modern 24.
Storytelling podcasts today, in that tradition, still need three things—A story, a voice, and an audience.
Producing storytelling podcasts
Stories. Voice. Audience. How difficult can that be?
|Storytelling podcast suggestions|
|New Yorker Fiction Podcasts|
|Fresh New Shorts: Short stories|
|1001 Classic Short Stories podcast|
|The Truth: original short stories|
For my own personal path to podcasting, I thought I had already done the hard part—writing short stories. I had written and assembled 18 stories into an eBook. Not up to Homer’s level, I confess, and they are not memorized.
For voice, I needed to produce a podcast. For many writers, that can be a real sticking point. You need some technology and many pieces coming together. For me, I was fortunate to have my daughter and wife helping me shape the name and design for the Podcast—Fresh New Shorts. We looked at many podcast graphics and fixed on something that would stand out, and be easy to read in the 3000 X 3000 pixel size.
Fresh New Shorts had to be housed somewhere. I searched “best platforms for podcasting”. There were several options and I landed on Podbean. While free plans were available; I decided to pay to gain plenty of storage space and listener metrics.
Getting a microphone
You need to give voice to the stories--you need a good microphone. If you take any advice, invest in an external mike (and "P-popper filter) rather than using whatever mike comes with your computer. In February, before everything COVID-19 in North America, my wife and I drove to a store to get advice on mikes, and to support local business. We spoke with at least four different staff at a large electronics chain. Nobody had expertise on microphones.
But all mentioned one colleague—I’ll call him Danny. Danny knew all there was to know about microphones, they said. The downside—he was on break. for the Yoda of microphones, we were quite happy to wait.
Being an expert didn’t seem that difficult. There appeared to be the two main models, a Yeti Blue and a Yeti Nano. One was $20 more. It had more audio settings than the other. I searched for what else I may need because the boxes indicated the microphones didn’t come with software. Most reviewers said good things about an application called Audacity. And it had a free version.
Thirty minute later we met Danny at the back of the store. “You’re the podcasting microphone expert,” I declared.
Danny didn’t look convinced.
“I’m going to make a storytelling podcast. I’ll read short stories and produce them as podcast episodes. I’ll mix some music. I may do interviews about the stories—one person talking to another. What’s a good microphone?”
Danny picked up the same Yeti boxes I had. He began to read the backs of them to me. One was $20 more, and it had four mike settings rather than two.
“There’s also a program called Audio City,” Danny told us. “I think it’s free.”
Podcasting was going to be easy, given all the expert help you can expect.
In the end, we picked the Yeti Blue. I get no promotional funds from them, but I can tell you, it makes storytelling podcast so much more professional. There may be other mikes out there, but this one definitely does the job.
And, I am a BIG FAN of audacity. Free. Easy. Full of functionality. It's a great program that I've used now for more than 25 story-telling podcasts.
Writing short stories
I had assembled 18 short stories into the ebook: A Physicist’s Guide to Love, and other natural phenomena. They were generally about 2500 words, though some were longer, up to 5000-6000 words. I had been writing short stories for a while; the 2500-word length was often stipulated for new-author contests I had entered. A 2500-word story would be about 20-22 minutes in audio time once read.
I had written short stories before I had the confidence to write something bigger like a novel. I’m not sure that’s the right approach for everyone, but figured Marathon runners start with 5-K runs. Looking back, an individual short story takes longer to write than a similar-length chapter in a book.
When I began writing, I approached storytelling all wrong. I thought stories were about an idea. Most people don’t want to read a story for an idea. You may hide an idea in a story, but a good writer must wrap it in character. This took practice.
I had the good fortune to take a fantastic storytelling and writing course with Canadian author Elizabeth Hay. She said, “Write what you don’t know about what you do know about.” This is sufficiently cryptic to be guaranteed to be true.
Let me explain with an example: I know what it’s like to be a parent, so perhaps I can imagine what it’s like to be a mother, such as the story “Creation Myths”. I know what it’s like to train for a sport, perhaps I can imagine what it’s like to train at a high level and lose, such as the story “Skaterman”. Better stories, I find, have some connection to you. However, you must spin off from what you know or else you will tell the same story over and over again, exhausting yourself (and your readers).
When I first started writing, I sketched plot points and moved characters around small boards as if I were playing Clue. Now I try to find someone to let loose in a world they discover. Sometimes it happens. That is the best feeling as a storyteller.
Recording short story podcasts
My wife was correct—it does begin with the microphone. Your short story becomes storytelling. There is a real difference between stories you read, and stories read to you.
The Yeti mike delivered high quality sound. It took several attempts to read a story, trying to find the right voice. We listened to several short story podcasts to get a sense of what we liked. I settled on an approach that was more than reading, but less than radio-play. The New Yorker podcast of the story “Barn Burning” by Haruki Murakami was fantastic. It was a good model to follow. Of course, it is also a brilliant short story.
While I wasn’t acting the stories, I found my reading was better if I had one hand free (the other was on the mouse to scroll the story). The free hand allowed me to gesticulate, and it made the telling of the story more natural. The approach will evolve as I continue.
Winning a short story contest
I am a believer in writing contests because writers need a reason to write, a goal. Writers also need someone to acknowledge “You might be on to something.” Writing, as better writers than me say, is a solitary occupation. Few of your creations ever receive light to be seen or air to breath. In competitions, you knew someone was reading and assessing your writing.
Winning or being shortlisted in a writing contest is the same thing. What is judged the winner is based on the taste of the final judge(s). I have won a few competitions. I was shortlisted for more. When I won, I knew another story could easily have been judged the best. I could have just as likely been shortlisted each time and never declared a winner.
Thinking of the 2019 Academy Awards, can you say the movie “Parasite” is better than “Little Women”? Both were brilliant. One day you’re in the mood for “Parasite”. Another day for “Little Women”.
Nominations really do count.
Short stories and storytelling
I think of short stories as if I’m walking at night by a house that’s deliberately taken down its curtains. I can glimpse people in the windows. I know I should turn away, but there are things happening that as a human, you can’t ignore. People are walking from room to room. Some stand in a window and argue or kiss or read a letter before shredding it. Someone has a knife.
As the storyteller, I need to know each floor and room of the house. I have to know the people and what they did yesterday and years before, as well as what they may do tomorrow or years in the future. But all I show you is what you can see in the windows as you walk by. Short story readers or storytelling listeners must infer the rest.
I think the best short stories place more of a burden on the reader to create the story. Short stories are like plays, putting more demands for co-creation on their readers than perhaps poetry or novels. That’s why they are so satisfying, and yet, leaving you aching for more.
Short fiction’s place in literature
I have loved short fiction for as long as I’ve read. Studying Literature in university, I enjoyed the original short stories – the Sagas of the Vikings. Short tales of jealousy, drinking games, and a distressing tendency to block people inside houses or mead halls while someone burnt them down. “In Our Time” by Hemingway is a favorite book from University, as was “A Movable Feast”.
I think Updike’s short story “Playing with Dynamite” captures all he did with Rabbit. “Rappaccini’s Daughter” gets you inside Hawthorne’s head as much as the “Scarlet Letter”. “The Liar” exposes a boy’s world and our ability to self-create with terrible vividness more than other, longer pieces by Tobias Wolff. “The Lottery” tells you more about mindless sacrifice with less blood but more brutality than “The Hunger Games”.
Bach’s great masses are masterpieces. But each piece of the Well-Tempered Clavier is a complete, compact Bach universe.
There is a physics principle that each point of a wave is the source or seed of another wavelet. This is what short stories are; with the wave, the Latin mass, being the sum of your storytelling.
A storyteller’s audience
You’ve gone through the work of writing stories, telling stories, recording them, producing them. You put them up on a podcast server, you get them listed on the popular platforms of iTunes and Spotify. You promote them with your friends, with all the social media might you can muster.
You look at your statistics to see if people are listening. It’s difficult to break through; there is a lot of content out there. But then, when I log in and see perhaps 10 people, or even one, listened to a story last evening, I feel good.
Tell me a story. It’s a basic human need. It’s nice to know that with this technology, with podcasts, I can answer that question with "Yes, of course. Let’s see how this begins…"
Fresh New Shorts: Storytelling podcast episodes
The Passage [episode 10]
When I read The Passage aloud I truly feel the hurt and sorrow of the narrator in the ending scene when he sees Lucy’s battered face. To be honest, I find it difficult to read. Lucy and the narrator are alive in my head, and it seems cruel each time I re-awaken them to walk through the tragic end that will not change for them.
One of my uncles, when he was young and living in Grand Falls, Newfoundland did conspire to take a picture of an old woman at her wake. It may just be a boy thing—the photo of something forbidden. The idea of a passage between houses was from another story a random acquaintance told me at my daughters’ piano recital. She learned I was from Newfoundland and somehow we got to the Protestant vs Catholic history.
The rest of it is invention, but I can see the pieces of me in so many little bits. I imagine the kitchen of the boy’s house to be like that of my Great-Aunt Lucy who lived next door to my grandparents. My father owned a masonry company (bricklaying will show up in another story to come—Pushkin’s Grey Suit). My dad was a hockey player so those references come through, and as a Newfoundland Catholic, I was well-steeped in both tea and Sacraments. The memory on Beaumont-Hamel rises often in Newfoundlanders’ conscience. On July 1, 1916, some 800 Newfoundlanders charged into battle in France. The next day, only 68 answered roll call. The rest were killed or wounded. It’s a story that to me captures the bravery, trust, will, and tipped scales of bad luck that so characterizes us.
Buoyancy [episode 21]
A key inspiration for this storytelling podcast is the poem “La Belle Dame sans Merci” by John Keats. Keats’ poem retells a medieval legend about a knight beguiled by a fairy; he falls in love with her and is then left as a pale shadow. With this as a starting point, Buoyancy then stacks on the legend of Pinocchio, but in reverse. Rather than the wooden boy becoming human; the human girl becomes wooden, all through the agency of a Blue Gull (standing in for the Blue Fairy). For those of you who saw Spielberg’s “A.I,” you will recognize the fairy.
Fittingly, the story takes place in France, in a lesser-known region between Paris and Normandy/Brittany which our family had visited. We stayed in an old stone farmhouse, imagined on a grander estate for this short story. The women who tell the boy and mother the story of Datcha, the wooden girl, are also modeled and then stretched from characters we met.
Most of my stories and podcasts are not highly sensual; this one is. Fairy tales often have this undercurrent, as well as violence (hello Red Riding Hood, Hansel/Gretel), so I played with those elements in the writing. The two lovers in the story are classic fairy tale heroes/heroines—orphans in different ways.
My greatest satisfaction in the story is not the climax, where the boy carves his name on Datcha. Rather, it is the ending. It allowed me to bring back into the narrative Keats’ refrain from his poem. “La Belle Dame sans Merci” is notably for the off-rhythm in the last line of his four-line stanzas: changing from four beats or feet, to two. His poem ends with the line “And no birds sang.”
It seemed like a fitting way to close my dark fairy tale podcast Buoyancy, in the dread silence of a burnt forest.
The Falling [Episode 2]
The adaptability of humans—up to a breaking point—is the focus of the storytelling podcast, The Falling. I wrote the story several years before the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, but this story resonates with this time:
- The way we struggle but then adapt to a new way of living.
- How tragedy and loss of life becomes commonplace and then accepted.
- How a new piece of science becomes front and center and ubiquitous with the public.
In The Falling, that piece of science is gravity. The story’s “pandemic” is caused by a sudden, unexplained loss of gravity. Like a virus, the loss of gravity is invisible and strikes people randomly, with no warning. The victims, if not tethered, fall up and off the earth.
The story’s idea began with the image written in the first scene, of someone walking down the street and then suddenly slipping up and off the earth. Everything grew from there. I particularly enjoyed thinking through the ramifications of people trying to figure out how to defeat the pandemic and continuing to live their normal life. While people are still falling off the earth, others are installing iron rings in sidewalks and roping in to grab a coffee.
And just when we think we’ve come to accommodation with the crisis, it ratchets up and over the top into catastrophe. Then, in the end, the only thing safe, the only thing that can survive, are the elements of beauty both grand and small we’ve managed to create.
I loved myths as a kid, and my world expanded crazily in size when I realized the Greeks and Romans were not the only storytelling myths to be found. The Norse, for example, had a greatly different take on the universe than the Greeks. Grim, dour; selecting gods for different things; all of them being in one way or another gods of war or elements. I realized they reflected the world of the people that created them.
Rebecca, the daughter and one of the main characters in this story, is one of my favourite people. She has the power to create her own myths of creation, delivering us a failed but striving god who does ill not matter what he/she tries.
Parenting, in a way is this. We do our best. We succeed...but we end up failing in ways we don't realize until much later. Rebecca is trying to tell Pam that she knows this, with her story within a story. But Pam thinks it is about her failings rather than Rebecca's realization. Only when Pam yields to her own flawed creation--which may be a myth or may not be--does she connect with her daughter...in failure rather than some glory. Perhaps we, as mothers and fathers, need to be less gods and more mortals.
Ark in Cinnamon Episode 25
This story didn't make it into my book, A Physicist's Guide to Love. But I really have a soft spot for it. There are a number of fantastical elements -- a big ark being built on the prairie, a drought that lasted more than 200 days. Balancing that, to me, are the mundane details. A boy and his mother escaping a bad marriage--the boy thinking he has to protect his mother; a family in free-fall crisis after a tragedy; and another hard-scrabble family who will not grant any quarter to the outsiders encroaching on their mystical land tortured by a prolonged environmental tragedy. Billy Kulak, the angry boy at the start of the story, is patterned after some of the people I went to school with who had a lot of baggage to deal with.
Prairie areas, in Canada and the US, are suffering from extreme weather. This is the story of Cinnamon, Sask. Once dependable rains are like selfish fathers/husbands...unpredictable and non-nurturing. That is the parallel I wanted to paint.
In the end, the deluge stops the evil actions...in opposite to the original ark story. We're left at a stand-off between the people who refused to help; the people who needed help; and the the people who are caught in the middle.
1994 Episode 28
This story began with one of my memories of boarding the ferry in Port aux Basques bound for North Sydney, sometime in the early 70s. You had to walk through a small pool of disinfectant with your boots, the same way we used to have to walk through a disinfectant before swimming lessons. Apparently, Newfoundland was home to the "potato wart virus" and it threatened mainland Canada.
Even as a kid, I was affronted by the stigma it offered. Beware of dirt from Newfoundland. In those days, less so now, mocking Newfoundland was regular sport.
These are the emotions wrapped up in father and daughter as they are forced to venture up to Ontario to eke out a few weeks work in order to qualify for unemployment insurance.
Thinking about it now, writing a female character, especially a teen, is fraught. Her gender is not inconsequential to the story, as she did feel threatened by the boy in the house where she had stayed. While that is a fact of the story, as a writer, being in her head was more about the way she over-perceived the world and attempted to find ways to bend the truths or control them.
The story also moves about in perspectives, and becomes more about the people who have left Newfoundland or will be leaving. The uncle who sings old songs; the father trying to get work; the popular boy who leaves for Calgary; even the seagulls hanging out by the fast food dumpsters.