A Review of Jessica Abel’s Book OUT ON THE WIRE

Timing is everything, and rarely books come along at the exact moment we need them in our lives. Last week, I read an article in the Chicago Reader about Jessica Abel’s yet-to-be-released graphic non-fiction book Out on the Wire: The Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio, the same week I officially began my Masters program in Digital Storytelling.

Despite having lived for two years in Japan, I steer clear of comics and graphic novels. I love regular
novels, movies, and podcasts, so I never felt like I needed to learn about and appreciate another format. Just as National Public Radio revealed the power of audio stories to millions of listeners, Abel opened my eyes to the power of comics. Her research could have been presented in a multitude of platforms, perhaps a documentary film, but no platform would have the soul of her artistry. The characters’ idiosyncrasies and brilliance came to life with her drawings.

The NPR folks sure have a lot of fun.
The NPR folks sure have a lot of fun.

Abel spent years researching the massive success NPR obtained with narrative radio, including Ira Glass’ This American Life, Glynn Washington’s Snap Judgment, and Adam Davidson and Alex Blumberg’s Planet Money. While offering us the various approaches each takes to his/her craft, Abel’s drawings create a sense of wholeness in each person, through their expressions and their words.

In Abel’s website bio, she says she’s beginning a new venture in podcasting. Well, so am I. Before I picked this book up, I interviewed a group of people on a subject I found interesting, borrowed a microphone from a friend, and learned how to use Audicity. The process was lengthy but not particularly grueling. In fact, part of me wondered what the big deal was–anyone could create interesting stories like those on NPR.

I’m happy to say that Out on the Wire proved me wrong. The book showed me that creating a powerful podcast is not something I could learn by listening to podcasts and watching youtube videos. Every process, every step of the way is designed in a way to place the listener in such a comfortable place, that he/she will never know how nuanced the production is.

The book is divided into six sections; the first is an introduction to the medium, along with Abel’s an excerpt from Abel’s previously published original breakthrough work, Radio: An Illustrated Guide. Abel and the NPR team then explain the fundamentals of: Ideas, Character and Voice, Story Structure, Sound, and (the dreaded) Edit. No stage of the game is easy, and constantly, I was reminded that I have a lot to learn.

Fortunately, Ira Glass’ advice in his forward kept me positive. He states, “If you’re even vaguely considering this yourself, my advice is: start now. Don’t wait for permission. Don’t wait until you get a job doing this. Don’t wait for inspiration to strike. Don’t wait till you’re at a better place in your life. Just start.” That’s what did. I just started. I had an idea to create a podcast on a guy I met for three hours in 2002, and I made it happen. Sure, it’s not going to be great, and it probably won’t ever end up on my portfolio, but I learned by doing.

The book clued me into all the crucial things about recording that I would have never learned from simply watching tutorials on YouTube. Do I edit out the “ums” and the long pauses? Should I cut the music when people are talking? Why is there music in these stories at all? Abel and the NPR gang answered these questions not definitively; they simply discussed the tricks they learned from doing stories for years. And, really, there are no rules to this format. Some things have just worked better than others.

More than anything, this book served as an impetus to keep me going in my pursuit to create radio stories because the people clearly had a lot of fun making them. The teams that produce these stories (for the most part) get along swimmingly, and, though most stories are bred from one person’s idea, the whole of the story could not be done in complete isolation.

Ira Glass can't control himself.
Ira Glass can’t control himself.

The illustrations reveal the likability in the characters. Ira Glass is the kind of guy I’d want to hang around with, the sort of awkward wunderkind that gets so excited about a story that he accidentally knocks all the papers off his desk. Even the minor characters like Alix Spiegel come to life through subtle repeat shots of her looking at the clock, sour-faced, wondering what’s taking everyone so long.

Alix Spiegel eyes her nemesis.
Alix Spiegel eyes her nemesis.

This book stopped being simply a guide to creating radio stories and turned into something more when Abel discussed the German Forest–a Radiolab description for the state-of-being where the pressure of finalizing a story saps the creativity and, really, the whole person outside of themselves. Getting lost in the German Forest creates self-doubt; questions arise like, “Why did I even start on such a stupid story?” Nights are sleepless and brain is fried.

Pretty much everything I’ve created throughout my life, for work or for art, has left me in the German Forest, and more often than not, I never find my way out. The pressure gets to me, and instead of finishing a project, I decide to start a new one from scratch, using what I learned from my previous trip to the woods. In fact, I’m in the German Forest right now, presently on my third edit of my novel that seems to be going nowhere, the more I think about it. I progressed to the edits where I shared my ink/blood with my wife and some friends. They responded, and they helped, but I didn’t get the response I was hoping for, the sort of response I know I should get. The kind of response my next novel would get. And I want to give up and start from scratch and escape the German Forest by helicopter.

Jessica Abel made it out of the German Forest, and so can I!
Jessica Abel made it out of the German Forest, and so can I!

Thank you, Jessica Abel. Your book showed me that my “ugly baby” might never be cute, but I need to take him out in the light of day nonetheless. You allowed me to realize that dealing with critical voices that didn’t respond as I hoped is all part of the process. And most importantly, you shared your story, your German Forest, and you let me know you survived; you made it out; you saw it through to the end, so I could read this wonderful book before bed and reaffirm that the struggle is universal, and I’ll make it through.

Thanks for not taking the easy way out, and I hope someday that my novel or podcast or movie or all-of-the-above will be my ticket out of the German Forest, sans helicopter.


About Michael

Hello, I'm Michael Cullinane, a high school English and Journalism teacher presently working toward my Masters in Digital Storytelling, using every free moment to complete the revisions of my first novel.

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