NONFICTION


On Podcasts, Glitches and Endings

By Shawna-Lee I. Perrin

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I’ve taken to listening to podcasts while I clean one thing or another or drive solo somewhere. When I find one I love, my kitchen sparkles and I run lots of useful errands. My favorites are fiction. Whether they hook me or not, each one teaches me something about telling a story, building a world, developing characters and their voices. When I get through a series, they teach me a lot about endings; what’s effective, and, just as educational, what isn’t. Respectively, I’m thinking of two podcasts in particular: Wolf 359 and The Black Tapes. Some spoilers ahead, but I urge you to listen to them (whether you read the rest of this piece or not) and decide for yourself.

       I don’t know anyone in real life who listens to the same podcasts I do, so Reddit has become my proverbial water cooler for such things. Last year, I discovered The Black Tapes while it was on a brief hiatus and shortly before it was due to end. Many on Reddit had listened since the show started a couple years earlier, so their wait between episodes and seasons was considerable, especially compared to my latecomer’s instant gratification up to that point. It was so good – scary, haunting, and smart. The longtime listeners had a lot of time and energy invested, which likely had an effect on their reactions to the short third and final season in general, and the final episode specifically. It didn’t really resolve – well, anything, but that was how the writers chose to end it. When the final episode finally came out, I paused my steel-wooling of dried-on beans from a pot, looked at my little speaker, and said, “Huh. Well. OK.”

       When I checked in at Reddit a day or two later, I quickly realized that fans were, to put it mildly, not pleased. People swore they would never give money to this group of storytellers or any of their other podcasts again. They said they would try to pretend that there hadn’t ever been a third season, and if anyone ever asked them about it, they would say just listen to seasons one and two, and just stop there. They said the finale’s writing was lazy, slap-dashed and half-assed. Amateurish and insulting and negated everything that they had previously loved about it. And goddamn it, we trusted them, and they do this.

       A typical episode was anywhere between 33 and 47 minutes; the final episode was only 27 minutes, 18 seconds. And that included three rather long advertisements plopped in the middle in two different spots. In retrospect, they did leave us hanging. There was a near-constant threat of world annihilation in the world of The Black Tapes, but they didn’t ever actually tell us the outcome. I’d bet that a certain sock company’s revenue decreased after that one.


"I tend to trust the storyteller. Whether or not I like the ending of something is irrelevant; once a thing is out there, how it ends is how it ends."

Conversely, Wolf 359’s finale clocks in at just over two hours (and they never ran ads – just did the Patreon thing). Not everything wrapped up as nice and comfortably as we listeners would have preferred, yet people almost universally adored the ending. The writers clearly took their time. They resolved important threads while unraveling another, and they did tell us what happened regarding the threat of world annihilation. We have no idea where these people will end up, but their story began, middled, and ended in a specific context; that context is really all they needed to resolve. I may have cried, but just a little.

       All of this got me thinking about what readers and/or listeners feel are owed to them in an ending. In these days of instant feedback and the possibility for interaction with people writing or voice-acting on something like this, we listeners can sometimes feel like we’re part of it. The reality is, we are not.

       I know what it’s like to see or hear or experience something arty and instantly feel a pull, a connection. Be it a book, music, a stand-up comedian’s set, or an exhibition at an art gallery, it’s like, “This is a something that I never even knew I wanted or needed, but now I do, and it’s in me, and I’m in it.” It’s powerful.

       I tend to trust the storyteller. Whether or not I like the ending of something is irrelevant; once a thing is out there, how it ends is how it ends. I see people calling bullshit on different endings (Twin Peaks, Lost, even the original Dallas – which, well, ok, actually, yeah.), and they always have reasons for their opinions, usually very well thought-out ones. But I always find myself thinking, “But how do you know that? How do you know better than this thing’s creator(s)?” And I really do want to know how they know that. Because I’m at a loss.

       There’s a significant character in Wolf 359 that’s an AI (Artificial Intelligence) autopilot for the space ship (trust me, they make it make sense). Her name is Hera, and when her computer voice speaks, it glitches sometimes; it sounds sort of like a stutter. And here’s where you should really skip the rest of this paragraph if you don’t want a spoiler from episode 41, “Memoria.” In this especially poignant episode, we find out that Hera’s programmer – the one who created her to not only know vast amounts of information, but also to kind of think for herself – hardwired the following two phrases to play in a loop in Hera’s brain/code: “I can’t do this. I’m not good enough.” Hera’s creator did this as a way to “clip her wings” if she started thinking for herself too much. Turns out, it caused the vocal glitch. It also caused Hera to not pull things off that she was actually perfectly capable of.

       What an insight into human nature! What a thing to identify completely with as we try to write, as we try to get better, as we try to get other people to believe in us and help us get our work out into the world. To get people to trust us, the storytellers.

       In my own writing, I know that what I need to do is trust my training, my reading, my knowledge of my characters, my connection with creativity and inspiration as much as – actually, more than – I trust other story tellers. But it’s so hard.

       At 47, I’ve completed writing and [for now] revising my first novel. I’m proud of it, and I’m trying to get it out into the world. Yet there’s this annoying glitch in my brain... Even if I wrote a scene that touches someone, or maybe even a couple or a few, if the ending isn’t what they would have done, will they feel let down? Will it negate everything that came before? The parts they liked or even maybe loved? I hate letting people down. But I gave it everything I had, I followed the characters into sometimes uncomfortable-to-me places, and I did my best to be true to them. And that’s all I can do.

       Podcasts are not just an escape, just as stories aren’t just an escape: they have the power to make us recognize things in ourselves, in humanity, and even the universe. They have the power to disappoint as much as enlighten and satisfy. What a wonderful and terrifying pursuit this is! And, like Hera, all we can do is recognize that glitch that makes us undermine ourselves, move the hell past it, and keep writing. Keep getting better. And if a few people are disappointed, so be it; let them try it.  

RESIDENCY RECOLLECTIONS


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There are no days more full than those we go back to. ― Colum McCann

Jemiscoe Chambers-Black—For many of us, the week-long residency at the Mountain View Grand Hotel in Whitefield, NH is something that we cherish. It’s a magical place, a retreat, where like-minds enjoy being away from the pressures of adulting, and rather, focus on nothing but their stories. Because we feel so strongly about our time together, we here at Assignment decided to ask some of the current MFA Candidates, the alumni and faculty what they missed, learned and loved about past residencies.

After attending three residencies, I can say with certainty that what I’ll miss most after my fourth residency week in January are the people. I’ll miss leaving the rest of the world behind to spend a week in the company of writers, people who intrinsically understand the challenges and rewards of practicing the craft of writing. I’ll miss the opportunity to dig deep into short stories in morning workshops. I’ll miss the chance to learn together from visiting agents and editors. I’ll miss the student and faculty readings. I’ll miss it all, but the community fostered by the staff and faculty—and my fellow learners—rests at the heart of what I love most about residency. ~ Margaret McNelis

My favorite moment of every residency is the Friday night slideshow. I’m always touched by the photos of students learning, writing, sharing, and enjoying each other’s company. The thoughtfulness and joy on everyone’s faces reflect the magic of residency. You can see the shift in photos taken early on in the week, to those taken toward the end. Friendships have been made. Confidences have grown. Dreams have been born. And cohort bonds have all become stronger. Plus, there’s always at least one cute alpaca pic. ~ Jo Knowles, Faculty

My family called my first week of residency, worried I’d careened off a mountain on my drive up after they didn’t hear from me for days. I told them I’d found my people. I couldn’t remember going to any other gathering where everyone else was just as passionate about the same thing as me. It just felt right. ~ Eric Beebe

The Mountain View is dead quiet at 4am. We walk the silent halls, my coffee cup is stained purple with red wine and his smells of cinnamon whiskey. We pause in front of a painting of hunting dogs.
       “It’s weird how every floor has the same pictures,” I say. 
       “They’re not exactly the same,” he says. “The painting on the second floor has twelve dogs. This one has eleven.”
       We rush down the stairs.
       “See," I say, not sure if I'm victorious or disappointed. "Eleven." ~ Sarah Foil

When I think about the four residencies I attended, the thing that sticks out most vividly is the mornings: 28 in total. Leaning over to the personal-size coffee maker (that I brought to every Residency) on the nightstand, flicking it on, and slowly coming to and watching the light slink across the walls and ceiling while my favorite coffee from home-brewed, making my room smell like morning. Then, sipping the dark roast with a billow of half and half, gazing out the windows at the sunshine-yellow clapboards of the Mountain View Grand, and around the room, which I set up just how I like it, reviewing the day’s schedule. Each morning, the cusp of bringing new learning into my mind and spirit. Each morning, looking forward to strengthening friendships with other writers. Each morning, giving myself permission to take my writing as seriously as everyone else already did. ~ Shawna-Lee I. Perrin

My favorite memories from Residency all center on how we, as colleagues, pushed one another to continuously perfect our writing and to hone our work into stories that deserved to be read. One semester, after having my piece workshopped, a colleague approached me for a personal discussion of the work.
       “How do you come up with such creepy material?” she asked.
       “I have no idea,” I said. “But I’m glad it made you feel creeped out. It was supposed to.”
       “I was creeped out,” she said, “but it was the wrong kind of creeped out. It was the I-don’t-want-to-read-this-anymore creeped out, not the wow-this-is-wrong-that-I-enjoy-this-stuff kind of creeped out. If you want to hold your readers’ attention, work on making your material more subtle and more complex.”
       Every word I’ve written in the almost two years since have been filtered through this piece of advice. ~ John Will

One special pleasure was the peer workshop group I shared with Lydia Peele. It was a mix of nice personalities and uniformly strong manuscripts. All such workshops provide to their leaders a mix of don't-do-that and yes-do-this in the storytelling, and it was great fun, over and over again, to find so many beguiling examples of yes-do-this. ~ Richard Adam Carey, Faculty

I call the top moments in my life: "Patronus moments." It's lame and nerdy as hell, but I think of them whenever I'm really sad and I need the extra boost of remembering a better time. Expecto Patronum is actually Latin for "bring out my protector," so it felt appropriate both for me and the other characters in the Harry Potter universe. These moments include bid day in my sorority, when I got my littles, my time in Budapest, the Twenty One Pilots concert, Leadershape, and now: residency.
      I'd cried for an hour when I first got the letter from Lisa telling me that I'd been accepted into the program. I don't have the words to explain the amount of shock and gratitude I felt, but I knew it was one of those rare moments where I'd get a taste of what it means to finish first. Residency exceeded any possible expectations I could've dreamed of and more. I'm surrounded by a group of wonderful, inspiring, dynamic people who all share a love of what matters most to me: writing. It's such a wonderful program, and I couldn't possibly praise it enough. At least I'll have the next two years to try. ~ Morgan Green

Every time I return home from a residency, I miss that insular feeling of being holed up 24/7 with other writers and lovers of books. I relish forgetting about the rest of the world, even as we think and write about our concerns for its fate. I love the deep immersion, the thinking and talking only about our craft. What a gift that is. And really, now that I've experienced it first as a student, then as faculty, I can say it is a necessity. ~ Amy Irvine, Faculty

Strangely, what I liked most and what I liked least about Residency are the same thing: Peer Review. It was painful. Being the newest of the bunch, I was scheduled at the end of the week, so I could get acclimated before entering “the box.” I’d come to the program because I needed help with my writing; I was stuck, but couldn’t figure out why. As I participated in my classmate’s peer reviews, something in my mind began to gel until I realized what I was stuck on. I write a great nonfiction landscape, but it’s just that—a landscape. It’s sterile and devoid of emotion because even though I’m in the story, I’m absent. I write around me rather than in me. When my turn in “the box” came, my mentors and peers were wonderful, and the overall theme was that my story was missing in my writing. I realized that either I needed to open up and expose myself and my family, or I needed to switch to fiction. I was overwhelmed with the fear of being vulnerable. When I came out of “the box,” I didn’t think anyone was more surprised than me when I started crying and couldn’t stop. It was a painful experience, but it was also a week of growth and insight. And as scary as it is, I’m sticking with nonfiction. ~ Debi St. Jeor

POETRY


Spin

By Shawna-Lee I. Perrin

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The summer sun inches toward high,
and I, schoolless, thumb through cassettes
recorded off top 40 radio shows;
fully synthed, effeminate British men
weeping words for lost, exotic loves.

Lurking in my sister's closet,
I push aside school clothes
and crane my neck to the back...
There I find my day in Sage green;
the spinny skirt without which no day
on the hill is complete.
Each tier, wider than the last, cinched
to my eleven year old, hipless body.

Out on the steep hill behind our house,
spinning relentlessly on baby-fat legs.
Guess which tree I'll see when I open my eyes, still.
Blind, deaf and dumb to cars whizzing by just past
two maples - one short, fat, one tall, slender.

Spin
Spin
Spin

'Til the sun drops.
'Til roast beef and rice.
'Til my feet are a deep, dirty green.


Shawna-Lee I. Perrin is a graduate of The Mountainview Low-Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.