Out on the Wire is the show about making stories, step by step. Join cartoonist Jessica Abel as she breaks down the principles of storytelling and puts you on the path to crafting your own story—in prose, comics, audio, video—in any narrative art form, fiction or nonfiction. Featuring radio and podcasting star producers from This American Life, Radiolab, Planet Money, Snap Judgment, and many more. Listen, learn, and collaborate with us at jessicaabel.com/podcast to make something great.
Episode one is about ideas. We investigate how to find them and how to follow your taste with the help of Ira Glass, Alex Blumberg, Stephanie Foo, and more.
Listen to the show:
First, let’s go over how this thing works. Every week we pick a storytelling topic, like finding ideas, characters, or creative crisis, and I break down that topic using the never-before-heard audio I recorded during my Out on the Wire book research. You’ll be hearing from producers like Ira Glass as well as voices from Planet Money, RadioLab and many others. I believe that there are tools and strategies that are useful for all types of narrative media, for fiction and non-fiction, comics, movies, documentary radio, any medium you can imagine. We’ll be exploring those strategies, and at the end of each episode I’ll challenge you to put the things we’ve learned into practice.
We’ll have a new episode every two weeks, and in between, a workshop episode, recorded live, where Ben and I, with Matt Madden, discuss some of the most interesting material posted in the community during that week.
Here’s a transcript of episode one, it’s adapted from our scripts so it’s not quite perfect, but it should be useful if you’re looking for a written version of the show.
You never know what your stories will lead to
Learn more about how I first started working with Ira Glass and the deep origins of Out on the Wire, check out my new blog post How Jessica Met Ira, featuring a story I drew for an alt-weekly newspaper back in the mid-90s.
This Week’s Challenge:
- Come up with an idea for a narrative project. We’ve got lots of suggestions for way to generate ideas in the episode, and, if you’re working in fiction, you can try the juxtaposition game I used to create Trish Trash. Cut random words out of newspaper headlines, and combine them with random Instagram photos. Just whatever picture comes up in your stream. Write down whatever you come up with, no judgment. Or get the actual set of character prompts used to spark Trish Trash.
- Once you have a list of ideas, pay attention to your taste—which idea starts turning your wheels? Which one is keeping you up at night thinking about it? Which one are you telling your friends about?
- When a random association or notion attached to that idea comes into your head, chase it down. Research your idea by looking up related things online, or by questioning your friends about it, or by painting a picture. Get deep, and start attaching information and inspiration to it. You’re going to need a notebook with you at all times.
Your mission is to write up a short, one-paragraph description of your idea. Do not ramble! Just write what’s intriguing about this idea, and what directions it’s leading you in. What is starting to stick to it?
Also: name your medium. What are you intending to do with this idea? A fictional short story? A nonfiction brick of a book? A 10-page comic? A short video?
Make as many notes as you can, but don’t go further. In the next episode, we’ve got a bunch of tools to assess and strengthen your ideas. We’ll poke some sharp sticks at them, and see if they hold water.
Next time on Out on the Wire
We’ve got a workshop episode coming to you next week.
And then after that, Episode 2: Focus. It’s a doozy, we’ve got a couple of killer tools for you: The focus sentence and the XY story formula.
Plus, a story from Ira Glass about a reporting trip gone sideways, a visit to the transom workshop, and Jay Allison’s “slow radio” philosophy.
Here’s Ira’s “gap” video we excerpted:
More about Trish Trash
In our first workshop episode, we take a crack at some of the great ideas popping up on the Out on the Wire Working Group. Join Jessica, Ben, and Matt as we dig into how to make your story ideas stronger.
Here are the story ideas we talked about on today’s show:
From Leah Yael Levy:
I found this old notebook at a yard sale, i liked it so much it was given to me for free. I believe its an old autograph book of a young lady named Emma in 1890-1 New York.
It is very fragile and falling apart. Only a few of the pages have little(very hard to read) notes on them, otherwise it is mostly blank. Theres a little sketch too (see images) and stickers.
I think the format lends itself nicely to a strip. I’d like to fill some of the empty pages with an exploration of who Emma may be, and could she actually have been Lilian? Or somebody else? was she gay? potentially to be made into a little zine later.
I am an illustrator, recently enrolled in MFA in comics program at CCA. I have never really written fiction and I just recently moved from New York to SF, where I found this little object. I think it can make a nice little side project while I work on my thesis and other things.
From Roxanne Palmer
A woman who runs a horse sanctuary seems like the last person you’d expect to want to bring back horse slaughterhouses to the U.S. But the current regime—where horses bought across the U.S. are crammed into trains with little food or water for a long journey to the abbatoirs of Canada or Mexico (which are often facilities designed for cattle, and not horses), may be perpetuating more cruelty than animal advocates intended when pushing to ban the practice*. Meanwhile, wild horses in the U.S. are overpopulated way past the point of sustainability, while horse sanctuaries cannot keep up with housing unwanted animals, domestic or wild. “Horseflesh” is a medium length (i’m thinking 25-40 pages) nonfiction comic exploring a knot of curious ethical, scientific, historical, and culinary issues surrounding horse meat. Can we give horses a good death?
*the ban was lifted a few years ago, but is still basically in place because the fed gov’t will not fund inspections of horse slaughterhouses, without which they cannot operate.
From Kara Westerman:
AmagansettLand is a podcast from the local library. Besides offering live recordings of authors and interviews with authors, it is also about place. We are in the Hamptons, but we are also a small town.
I want to develop local stories that highlight the diversity out here. We have farmers and surfers and fisherman and Rolls Royces and homeless…
This week a friend and I were on the phone and I heard the train go by, but the distortion made it sound like an ominous giant dog or monster. He was standing in his yard which is only a stones throw south of the tracks. He told me that he’s noticed that the different conductors play with the horn and make different combinations.
In keeping with the idea of paying attention – this has stuck with me.
I want to play with this germ to see if I can make something that is not the usual cliche about the other side of the tracks, etc.
The Long Island Railroad runs the length of the island and divides the communities along class lines – those south of the highway and closer to the ocean are the wealthier. We have such extremes of wealth and poverty out here.
From Patrick Wheatley:
I’m constantly looking for interesting science narratives for audio stories.
One of my current ideas begins with Jean-Baptiste Lamark.
He did some incredible and fundamental science in the early 1800s. But most people (if they have heard of him at all) only know him for one reason; he got evolution wrong. Lamark thought that the characteristics you aquired during your lifetime could be passed on to your children (think giraffes evolving because they constantly stretched their necks to reach high leaves). Darwin comes along and sets us straight with natural selection.
Fast forward 200 years and it turns out maybe Lamark wasn’t so wrong after all. The field of epigenetics is showing that some aquired traits can be passed on to offspring (e.g., grandchildren of people that experienced PTSD have chemical/hormonal signs of being stressed despite living normal lives). Your experiences (and not just the genes you inherited) could affect your great great grandchildren in ways we never dreamed possible. Some predilections or phobias you have in your own life could be the result of things your relatives experienced 100 years ago or more.
Other things we talked about today:
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Check out the Out on the Wire Bonus Pack. Featuring all of the new interviews we conducted for the show, plus our soundtrack music by Matt Madden. It’s ten bucks (or more, if you’re feeling generous.) It’s a great way to spend more time with our fabulous guests and support the show.
Includes full length interviews with:
- Stephanie Foo (This American Life)
- Jonathan Mitchell (The Truth podcast)
- Larissa MacFarquahar (The New Yorker)
- Kazu Kibuishi (Amulet)
- Our edit with Robert Smith and Jess Jiang (Planet Money)
- Rob Rosenthal (the Transom Workshop, How Sound)