Tips From the Wire: Three tips from Jessica Abel’s storytelling podcast

By Kara Tabor

If you haven’t heard by know, comic book artist, podcaster and all-around storyteller Jessica Abel will be coming to campus later this month to impart her storytelling wisdom to Mizzou’s eager students and faculty. Before she dives into the nitty-gritty of crafting great stories across mediums in person, let’s look at a few of the invaluable storytelling tips and tricks that she highlights in her podcast, Out of the Wire.

Tip 1: Pay attention to what you pay attention to

When Jessica first introduces this piece of advice in Episode 1: Eureka, I initially found it kind of hard to wrap my head around. I thought, “How can I pay extra attention to what I’m already paying attention to? Isn’t that kind of meta?” She goes on to explain that the beginning of creativity and the journey of becoming a storyteller are based on the works and facets of life that you admire. That's when it all clicked for me. What you are already consuming—whether it’s long form magazine writing, audio storytelling, micro documentaries, or photo essays—will inform what you think is quality and what you seek to emulate in your own work. 

“You have to listen to yourself,” Abel says. "Pay attention to what excites you, what you talk about and then invest in it. Invest your time and attention."

In her explanation, she also uses tape from some of her conversations with Ira Glass, the creator of This American Life, who has also become well known for his advice on the importance of taste. Here’s a clip of his now famous talk on taste—that amalgam of the things and attributes we admire in creative work—and the elusive beginner’s “gap.”

Bottom line: Consume good work, because that’s what will inform you and keep you going through the earlier times of your creative career—as a journalist, a writer, a podcaster, a marketer and beyond. 

Tip 2: There are stories everywhere, so hunt for them

It can be easy to fall into a trap of believing that you are totally tapped out of ideas and inspiration for reporting, writing, or anything that you do that is creative (journalism students—I’m talking about us in particular). Yet a little awareness and a devotion to digging at even the most slightly interesting tidbits can yield leads, if not story results. 

Stephanie Foo, a This American Life producer who previously worked for the show Snap Judgment and has contributed work to countless others, is a testament to positioning oneself as a “hunter for stories.” In the same first episode of Out on the Wire, Abel features Foo to highlight how essential it is turn over ever metaphorical stone just to see if a story is really there. 

“You have to walk through the world assuming that you are surrounded by stories,” Foo says. "That is not the truth, and as I’ve come to become older I’ve realized that fewer things are stories than I necessarily thought. But I think that it’s a really valuable way to live, especially when you’re first starting out, is to waltz through the world thinking literally everything is a story.” 

Foo continues by encouraging creators to poke at the things that cause a reaction, like those events or parts of life that may even be irksome. 

“What I like to tell young producers when they are starting out is, ‘Don’t get mad, get tape,’” she says. "The second you feel yourself getting really irritated, delve really deep into that and think ‘why am I really irritated right now? Do other people have the same experience as I do?'”

Tip 3: Embrace personal and collaborative review

Have you ever worked on something and gotten halfway through, only to feel like what you have actually accomplished resembles nothing more than a heap of words, ideas, chewing gum and frustration? Abel, as a comic book artist with more than two decades of experience, stresses in Episode 6: Proof of Concept that this feeling is natural and bound to come at some point during the creative process. 

"You hit a point where you lose your sense of where you are, and it could happen very, very early in the process, and it will probably happen multiple times if you're writing anything with any kind of complexity at all," she says. "All this means is you need to reorient and revise. You've been experimenting in the lab and you're getting your first results, and you realize you need to revisit your hypothesis—your story mad lib."

The important part, however, is to not get stuck in that sad position. Revisiting your creative foundation and what you are trying to accomplish is a must according to Abel. But don't forget the power of external input! Give a draft to friend, even if you think its garbage, and reap the benefits of having another perspective on your work of art. As much as your own backtracking and deliberate refocusing can pull you out of a runt, leveraging the village to help raise the child that is your story or other creative work can only help further.

Have you listened to "Out on the Wire?" Do you have a very storytelling tip from Jessica? Share it with us on Twitter @ONAMizzou!

Correction: The number of tips in the title has been changed from five to three.

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