Print memoirists have long known a secret: Writing about yourself is not easy. In this era of online confession and self-branding, it’s tempting to think of memoirs as long-form versions of Facebook updates. But crafting a personal story requires writers to re-imagine their lives as story elements and establish ad-hoc ethical rules, hurdles over which even the most experienced journalist sometimes will not leap.
While memoirs have exploded in popularity over the past decade, the form itself has been centuries in the making and today’s memoirists follow in the tradition not just of Cheryl Strayed and Joan Didion, but also of Michele de Montaigne and Ralph Waldo Emerson—which is to say there is a canon and clear conventions.
Podcasting is only just beginning to grapple with the unique challenges inherent to memoir because the industry is only just coming around to the form. Unlike with print writing, there is no long and celebrated history of memoir from which audio storytellers can take their cues. Instead, as a narrative style, memoir represents a shift in the ways that audio producers tell stories and it challenges the industry’s rules and traditions.
Through much of the second half of the 20th century, public radio existed to inform and educate its listeners. It focused on current events and national news, and when stations went personal, they did so under the guise of the feature story, i.e. a personal story about someone else. There was little room for the “I” in public radio.
Even as podcasting began to leave behind its newsy roots and open up the medium to experimentation and innovation in the early 21st century, producers doubled down on the nonfiction feature format. Part of the reason this style of show remained so popular is simple: it’s what producers knew. Many of the industry’s most knowledgeable experts were trained in the model of public radio, and while they’ve innovated that classic form, their approach continued to reflect a loyalty to its journalistic underpinnings.
The current podcasting landscape is littered with documentary-style storytelling shows that investigate the relationships, science, politics, religion, sexuality, and sociology of their subjects. Indeed, rather than branching out to other styles, many networks have instead splintered these nonfiction subgenres into sub-subgenres (e.g. stories about people of a certain region or examinations of the gender politics of relationships). Though the industry is warming in the glow of its so-called golden era, it’s hard not to wonder if the ubiquity of documentary podcasts isn’t fatiguing even its most devout listeners.
It’s perhaps because of this fatigue, or maybe it’s the natural evolution of any medium, that narrative podcast producers have finally begun to embrace the memoir. These are shows where not only is the host a character in the story (a la gonzo journalism, which at this point is not unusual in podcasting), but the subject of the story is the host’s own life. Due to the low barriers of entry for podcasting, I’m certain you can find examples of memoir-style shows dating back to the advent of podcasting, but it wasn’t until the last few years that they reached a critical mass, with shows like First Day Back, StartUp, Not An Accident, Tell Me I’m Funny, How To Be A Girl, and Millennial (of which I am the editor) climbing the iTunes charts.
Though memoir-style shows are gaining traction among listeners and piquing the interest of networks looking to expand their catalogs, they are an entirely different beast of story from documentaries and they present new challenges to producers. But interestingly, many of the difficulties posed by audio memoirs are identical to those that face print memoirists, and producers would be well-advised to look to their print storytelling cousins to learn how best to adapt this style. There is no need to reinvent the wheel when a robust tradition of memoir exists in the printed form.
Producers who attempt to tell personal stories are almost always surprised to find how hard it is to make the leap from host/reporter to protagonist. Though bringing any character to life in a story is challenging, conveying a sense of yourself is especially difficult. For many, this feels counterintuitive; with unfettered access to yourself, surely you should be able to transmit who you are to listeners. However, in order to be able to do this, a producer needs to stop thinking of herself as a host and instead think of herself as a character.
In helping to create stories for Millennial, one of the tricks producer Megan Tan and I use is referring to her as a character, “Millennial Megan.” Though this person is of course Megan, and the events we describe are true to her life, considering her a character provides us with a distance to be able to select and shape those events as stories rather than anecdotes. It also allows us to zero in on who she is as a character, and we are purposeful about including those details rather than relying on listeners to discern a sense of self. In other words, we ask ourselves, “Who is Millennial Megan?” and we build her character around that answer.
This approach extends beyond character, though that is certainly one of the most difficult adjustments for producers. Producing memoir stories also requires that producers convey setting, context, and plot, all of which is aided by that same sense of distance. Instead of thinking of one’s hometown as a familiar place, producers must step back and imagine looking at it through new eyes. What does someone need to know in order to understand this place? How much history is important to understand in order to appreciate conflicts and friendships? What details are necessary for listeners to know, and how many details are too many?
Also inherently challenging to memoirists is the fact that they are telling true stories. Joan Didion said, “Writers are always selling somebody out.” Though this is often true of journalists, it gets especially thorny for memoirists. Can a memoirist tell a story about themselves without describing the people and relationships that shaped these events? As individuals, we are placed at the center of a web made up of our families, friends, lovers, and even the most ordinary of heartbreaks and scandals. From Thomas Wolff to Ann Patchett, a long list of writers have faced the wrath of readers who felt they crossed lines and betrayed confidences in telling their stories.
While truth is an absolute defense to claims of defamation, every memoirist must draw her own line in the sand to decide what personal stories are up for grabs. This gets really tricky for producers equipped with microphones recording their lives when their paths happen to cross with people who aren’t as keen on broadcasting their experiences. In states where recording only requires the consent of one party (meaning producers are free to record without informing anyone else), memoirists must decide whether or not to record others without their knowledge. All of this to say, memoir opens up a bevy of ethical questions producers must grapple with when deciding how to tell their personal stories.
It is refreshing to see podcast producers reimagine storytelling beyond the traditional documentary-style story, and memoir is a genre ripe for the form. But though these may be the early days of a nascent industry, podcasting is yet another incarnation of a long tradition of storytelling. Before stumbling into the field, recorder outstretched, would-be memoirists would be wise to study and internalize the lessons of print writers.