David Foster Wallace wrote that the path out of a rut is “to work your way somehow back to your original motivation – fun.” At last month’s KCRW IPP workshop, we followed this advice, suspending our editor-minds in favor of play. The goal was to stop worrying about making things good. Just for an afternoon.
I teach and edit a lot these days. An in-class critique or group edit often goes something like this (and it probably sounds familiar): What are the parts of the story that you really love, that you’d hate to lose? Were there any moments when you were bored? What about moments when you were confused?
This is, of course, a good and efficient method for making perfectly good stories, sometimes even great stories, in which no one is bored or confused.
But this kind of thinking too early in the process can also stop us from making work that is strange, risky, and joyful. It veers very close to what the cartoonist-writer Lynda Barry calls “The Two Questions”: Is this good? And, Does this suck? The Two Questions lodge deep in our bones. And, when you (or I) set off to make something new – all hope and promise and risk – they can be entirely paralyzing.
Besides which: what’s so bad about a little boredom or confusion? What new possibilities might open up if we stop resisting and invite them in?
Lots of you probably already know about Miranda July and Harrell Fletcher’s Learning To Love You More project from the early-2000s. It’s a website where July and Fletcher posted “assignments” – say, ‘take a picture of your parents kissing’ – and participants posted their responses. The archive is really great. (As is July’s old radio work, like this piece).
On the website July and Fletcher wrote about how art itself can act as an assignment:
It is so vibrant that you feel compelled to make something in response. Suddenly it is clear what you have to do. For a brief moment it seems wonderfully easy to live and love and create breathtaking things.
In a sense [experiences of great art/writing] are assignments — in the same way that the ocean gives the assignment of breathing deeply, and kissing instructs us to stop thinking.
Taking a cue from this, I put together a list of audio works that are less concerned with perfection, and more interested in exploration and risk. How might they inspire us to respond?
Audio Playground Mini-Playlist (Ten audio works that are, in their own ways, startlingly alive)
- Cat Names by Joseph Keckler, via Radiotonic
- Espera by Sayre Quevedo
- The Leaves, Frost Crisp’d, Break from the Trees by Jaye Kranz for Falling Tree Productions
- The Rebuttal by Leah Menzer and Maya Goldberg-Safir for The Rebuttal
- Burn from Buzzfeed’s Another Round
- Artificial Treatment by Gretchen Bender
- Dunkin’ Donuts by Erica Heilman for Rumble Strip
- Subtext: Communicating with Horses by Jay Allison
- Frozen Garbage: Other Peoples’ Dreams by Natalie Kestecher and Sophie Townsend for Radiotonic
- Lesson Two, Sell Your Heart by Cathy FitzGerald for The Invisible College
During the workshop, we listened. And we took on low-stakes assignments. For instance: Re-write a story you’ve been working on, but this time just for one specific person. (Your mom? Sterling K. Brown? Your high school Chemistry teacher?) Or: In a small group, with a set of constraints and only an hour, make a 2-minute long morning show (welcome to the world, “The Daily Despair,” “Wake Up, Rage Cry” and “Morning, Dad”).
The results of the assignments were unpolished, they were wild, they were sad, they were funny. We laughed a lot. Sometimes yes, we were confused. Occasionally, we were bored. But we were also fortified to go out in the world and make more adventurous things.