Category Archives: Public Radio

Send in the Trolls

One of the first rules of the Internet is Never Read the Comments, especially when it comes to something you have written. As most of us have witnessed first hand, there’s something about the relative anonymity of the comments section that transforms people into hate-spewing cretins. People routinely misinterpret – often willfully it seems – each others’ words and then clamber up onto their virtual soapboxes to preach their version of the gospel. Or call you a goddamn stupid motherf*cking a$$hole licker. Or, you know, whatever.

But sometimes it’s impossible to resist reading the comments.

trolls

Pretty sure they’re telling me to kiss their respective asses.

A few months ago, I wrote a story for xojane.com* about the time I spotted an old flame making balloon animals at Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco. This guy had 1) broken my delicate eighteen-year-old heart, and 2) once been a moody and pretentious aspiring filmmaker, so there was some satisfaction in seeing him surrounded by sugar high children. My story received hundreds of comments, ranging from amusement to solidarity to irritation. Some accused me of pettiness and insensitivity. One commenter was outraged that I was picking on balloon artists.

Over the last two years, I have written and recorded a number of short pieces for the Perspectives segment of my local public radio station. This experience has taught me that even public radio listeners can be over-reactive, albeit while using more polite language. My tribute to my former-hunter-now-elderly cat inspired a heated exchange between an angry bird lover and a defensive cat supporter. When KQED aired my analogy on the nature of prejudice and race relations, let’s just say I was grateful not to get any death threats. Two weeks ago, I was at the station to record my latest piece about staving off a panic attack at 13,000 ft, and the segment editor joked, “I’m sure the commenters will come up with something. Perhaps self-indulgent?” We laughed and I prepared myself for whatever would come.

In this day and age when it seems that everyone has a righteous opinion on just about everything, what does it say that my piece did not receive a single comment, good or bad? To most creative types, the worst reaction to our work is indifference. While I have received positive feedback from friends and acquaintances, I admit that I am somewhat distressed that my writing failed to inspire even one listener to indignation.

I really ought to stop checking the comments section. Seeing that “0 Comments” is breaking my heart.


*For the record, the bordering-on-cheesy heading and subhead were not mine.

 

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Are You Ready to Get Mortified?

Writing is generally a solitary experience. Whether you write at your kitchen table or in a bustling café, you are still alone with the words on the page. And while most writers intend for their work to be read, they are not often present when it is. In short, we don’t often get real time reactions to our work unless we hover over our readers’ shoulders. And that’s just, well…creepy.

Last year, I made the first big jump from the relative anonymity of the written (or web) page to a more public forum. Four times now, I have written and recorded personal essays for broadcast on public radio. But even in the studio, it’s just me and the sound engineer — an audience of one. While I’ve received a good deal of feedback post-broadcast, thus far I’ve listened to all airings alone and in the safety of my own home. I have yet to witness a “live” reaction.

So the next big step is a live reading. This both excites and terrifies me.

I love to attend live readings. Let me rephrase that: I love to attend good live readings. Or at least awesomely bad ones. Enter Mortified.

610-stage-frightFor the uninitiated, Mortified is a celebration of all things awkward teenager. At each event, several brave souls take the stage to read cringe-worthy poetry, song lyrics, love letters, and excerpts from their teenage diaries for the entertainment of the crowd. It is hilarious.

At the end of each Mortified show, the emcee puts out the call to anyone who may be interested in participating in a future show. A few drinks in and still wiping away the tears of laughter from my eyes, I always think: “Maybe I should do this. I have a ton of truly terrible teenager writing to pull from. Certainly, I could put together a good reading.”

And then I sober up.

In high school, my favorite subject was drama (literally and figuratively, ha ha). I both loved and feared taking the stage. During a performance, I went on automatic, and the play seemed to go by in an instant. If I’d stopped to think about what I was doing — essentially pretending to be someone else in front of my peers — I probably would have blacked out. But the post performance high was almost palpable. The adrenaline rush lasted all night, and I was immediately pumped for the next opportunity to get back on stage.

Of course, I was performing someone else’s play, someone else’s writing. At Mortified, I would perform my own writing. So there are two ways to bomb: in delivery and in substance. Then again, the beauty of Mortified is that the writing is supposed to be bad.

But what if my writing isn’t bad enough?

I’ve thought a lot about what I would read. For better or worse, I have a lot to choose from. As a preteen and teenager, I was a prolific writer: angsty poems, ranting hormonal diatribes in my journal, notes passed in class…oh and of course all of those mortifying stories about dating various members of Duran Duran.

Bingo.

A never-been-kissed 12-year-old girl’s take on sex and romance? My cheeks get hot just thinking about it. But counter-intuitive to all of my fight or flight instincts, I know that whatever makes me squirm the most is what will best entertain the crowd. And that’s what I’m there for, right? To play to the crowd? To get a reaction?

But to stand up on a stage in a roomful of buzzed people, spotlight on, hundreds of expectant faces peering up at me…

Dare I?

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Whose Story Is It?

Writing about real life can be tricky.

I am currently writing a new KQED Perspective that includes less than entirely flattering assessments of several former boyfriends. The piece is not mean-spirited nor does it call anyone out by name, however these men would surely recognize themselves by my descriptions. And although I am clearly telling my side of the story, I can’t help but feel a little prickly about doing so in such a public forum.

I am a product of my experiences. And as a writer, I write about these experiences. I share my stories, my viewpoints. I decide how much to reveal about myself, and have the power to portray myself – and others – as I see fit. Because it’s my version of events.Two Sides

But what about the other half of the equation: the people with whom I’ve shared many of these experiences? How do I walk the line between MY story and THEIR version? If we were both there, whose story is it anyway?

If this new Perspectives piece is accepted, I will record it in my own voice, and then it will be broadcast to thousands of people across the Bay Area, and very possibly to one or more of my former boyfriends. For the sake of the piece (length, tone, etc.), I portrayed each of these complex people and my relationships with them in one sentence; it’s not quite an emotional sucker punch so much as a sharp pinch. But I doubt anyone would be pleased to hear him or herself summed up in this way.

It’s unclear to me how to balance people’s feelings with my version of the truth, and also create compelling work. Do I cross my fingers that none of my former boyfriends ever hear my Perspective (or read this blog)? Or do I kill the piece all together in order to avoid potential strife? After flip flopping on this for a while, I started to wonder how memoirists tackle this conundrum. So I asked my dear friend Mari, who has published two graphic memoirs and has a third in the works. She encouraged me to tell my truth, but also noted:

“If there’s the remotest possibility they could hear it, you should give them a heads up before the rest of the world knows, as a courtesy. Trust me, it’s ultimately far less awkward this way.”

In short, if my Perspective is accepted, I’d better be prepared to send out some slightly uncomfortable emails. And be prepared for some less than favorable reactions.

When it comes to sharing our real life experiences, I think we writers must ask ourselves this question: Is the story worth a potentially awkward conversation? If the answer is no, then the story must not be very good.

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Just Don’t Write About This

This past weekend, two different people said to me the exact same sentence: “Just don’t write about this.” Both made this statement immediately after sharing deeply personal information about themselves.

Top-SecretOf course, I pledged my confidentiality without hesitation. But I was intrigued that both individuals – whom I’ve known for different lengths of time and in completely separate contexts – felt the need to “state for the record” that I did not have permission to memorialize their personal lives. Does this mean I have achieved some kind of writing milestone, when friends and family start to recognize the potential dangers of confiding in a storyteller? Have I arrived as a writer?

I admit I am flattered.

David Sedaris wrote a great story called “Repeat After Me”, in which he swears total secrecy to his sister even as he reaches for his notepad. I too often reach for my mental notepad when friends divulge their most difficult personal struggles. They talk about their troubled marriages, sick children, chronic health problems, heartbreak, depression, and mental illness. Their stories are deep and often dark, at times humorous, always compelling. They are the stuff that shows like This American Life and The Moth storytelling series are made of. They are Real Life.

But they are not my stories to tell.

For me, it is liberating to transform an embarrassing or painful memory into an experience I can share with others. By making myself vulnerable, I can make myself stronger. I can mine humor from humiliation, relief from anxiety. Because we are all struggling with Something.

I recently wrote an essay about the stigma of crying in public, revealing my own mortifying experience of breaking down into tears in the middle of a busy train station. Last week, my local public radio station KQED aired an excerpt of the longer piece as part of their Perspectives segment. My topic hit a nerve, as evidenced by the feedback I’ve received from friends, colleagues, and strangers chronicling similar incidents in their own lives. I will refrain from repeating their stories here, but suffice it to say, I was not alone in my suffering. And now, neither are they.

When we share our experiences, we share ourselves. We create community. We feel a little less alone. I encourage every one of you to speak up. Or at least write it down.

But rest assured, I promise to keep your secrets, well…secret.

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Two Minutes of Fame

Every writer dreams of having thousands of people read his or work. The very first time I shared something I’d written with that large of an audience, the piece in question was an edited version of a post on the blog that I write about writing (this one!). Talk about meta.

Last month, when I wrote about my heartbreak over the closure of my hometown Denny’s, scene of many teenage hi-jinks (https://lisathomson101.wordpress.com/2014/07/08/an-ode-to-dennys/), I received a lot of feedback from folks who fondly remembered their own youthful hangout spots, whether it was Country Kitchen in rural Iowa or Carmine’s Pizzeria in Brooklyn, New York. It seemed I’d hit a nostalgic nerve.

So I decided to take my story to the radio. old_radio_by_hkgood

For years, I’ve enjoyed a segment on my local public radio station KQED called Perspectives, a two-minute commentary written and recorded by a Bay Area resident, and covering topics that range from local politics to social commentary. Think This American Life meets open mic night. My piece about Denny’s was: 1) regional, 2) reflective, and 3) touched on the bigger issue of the ever-increasing pressure on kids to compete for college admissions. I figured it was ripe for public radio.

And apparently I was right. I read KQED’s submission requirements, edited my piece for length, and emailed it off. The very next day, I received an enthusiastic response from the segment editor Mark, saying how much he liked my submission and asking to schedule a phone call so that I could read it for time (in radio world, a two-minute segment is two minutes, not two minutes and a few seconds).

Over the phone, Mark couldn’t have been nicer or more complementary. He loved my piece, he said. It was well written and compelling, with varying sentence lengths. In short, perfect for radio.

The following week, I went to KQED to record. There I met Mark, who again told me how much he loved my piece, as well as the online producer and recording engineer, who also complimented me and listed off their own teenage hangout spots. Everyone was so friendly and enthusiastic – even for public radio – I started to wonder if the building had a nitrous leak (happy gas). But then it was time to get down to the business of recording.

I’d practiced reading the piece aloud a dozen times, but something about being in a sound proof recording studio and having a stranger listening carefully to my every syllable made my mouth a little dry. I read it through three times, stopping periodically to sip from my water glass. And less than 15 minutes after I’d entered the studio, we were done.

On my way out, Mark told me he would air my piece in two days. Only two days? I’d barely wrapped my head around the fact that I was going to hear myself on the radio. I made haste to alert my friends, family, and select colleagues.

radio_mainOn the big day, I set my alarm so that I could listen to the 6:05am airing while still in bed. I listened to the 7:35am airing while in my kitchen, making coffee. I felt exhilarated and a little embarrassed. And proud. I didn’t sound half bad. Later that night, I fired up the voice memo app on my iPhone and recorded the final airing at 11:30pm. I wanted a record of this cool, surreal, mouth-drying experience for a long time to come.

My friends and family were of course full of praise, but I was pleasantly surprised to receive compliments from several past and present colleagues who, as it turns out, are also avid KQED listeners. And the word seems to be spreading among my co-workers. Since the airing last week, I’ve had multiple requests for the link to the audio file on KQED’s website, which you can listen to here: http://www.kqed.org/a/perspectives/R201407310735

Who would have thought all of those hours spent at Denny’s would have amounted to anything?

Next stop, This American Life? I’ll keep you posted…

 

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