Listen to the episode:
Julia DeWitt spent most of 2020 at a Zen Buddhist monastery and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in social work.
So…why is she on the Autonomous Creative?
Because for the prior eight years, she had an incredibly successful career in podcasting.
I met Julia in 2012, while she was l interning at “Snap Judgement,” and I was working on my book, Out on the Wire.
In this episode, Julia walks me through the last eight years, filling in the blanks on how she rocketed from intern to senior producer.
And most interestingly, why she decided to leave it all behind.
Though Julia ultimately pivoted away from creative work, her quest to prioritize the work most meaningful to her is familiar.
We discuss the challenges of walking away from a career — and identity — you’ve invested so much energy in, and Julia explains why she considers her past work a necessary “honing.”
We also examine how outside forces influence art, whether it’s pressure from the market or feedback from editors and collaborators. When should you make compromises and when should stand your ground?
More from the episode…
- In the early days of her podcasting career, how did Julia go from an eager outsider to producer at one of the hottest podcasts? How did she find the courage to put herself out there and make connections?
- Julia shares some the conflicts arise when telling other people’s stories when producing stories for podcasts like “Snap Judgement.”
- Julia tells the hilarious story behind her infamous anonymous phone chat story “The Superchat,” and what it taught her about being clear with her personal boundaries that feeds into her relationships and work today.
- We discuss how external forces affect creative work. Are they innately problematic? How can you stay true to your vision while finding market success?
- After building a hugely success career, when and why did Julia realize her career in podcasting was no longer fulfilling?
- “I became interested in more parts of my life than my career.” — How sobriety and Zen Buddhism prompted Julia’s massive career pivot.
- What is the underlying thread that connects Julia’s passion for storytelling with her new career path in social work?
- Julia looks back on her career in podcasting: “Those things are exactly what needed to happen so that I can understand this next career move.”
- We get real about the personal toll of career pivots, including how to cope when your identity is deeply rooted in past work.
Out on the Wire: https://jessicaabel.com/out-on-the-wire/
Click here to read the transcript
Julia DeWitt: it was trying to figure out, like, what is the question? You know, is it another show? Is something about the nature of this kind of interview format, and like long form radio? Is it getting paid to do creative work that kind of hitches two things in together in a fundamentally problematic way, like what is the question here?
AC intro3: What does it take to become a successful writer or artist?
There are some destructive myths out there about what a creative career is supposed to look like.
And we’re kept in our lane by the undermining belief that, as artists, we’re somehow incapable of building autonomous, sustainable careers– if we choose the work that’s closest to our hearts.
So we’re going to tear down those myths and get the truth by going to the source:
Incredible professional creatives who’ve followed every path but the expected one to success on their own terms.
I’m cartoonist, author, and coach for creatives, Jessica Abel.
And this is the Autonomous Creative.
What does it really take to make it as a creative? This is the burning question that’s driven me for– forever, really. I used to have to try to ferret out the answers one by one, when I got a chance to hang out with a fellow artist or writer. And when I judged it safe enough to ask that delicate question we’re all dying to know the answer to: how do you make it work?
Every guests I’ve interviewed so far has mentioned this. One of the secrets to how they’ve gotten as far as they have is that they’ve asked every creative pro they met, every chance they got asking the question often enough is a game changer.
We learn so much each time. Starting with the fact that, whatever we thought was working for that person? We were probably wrong.
We each imagine the other person has some kind of secret and that they’ve made the leap over the giant chasm between beginner and pro and feel safe on the other side. And inevitably, neither person feels that way at all and as amazed to realize that from the outside, they seem to have it all figured out.
I’m pulling that seemingly taboo conversation out of the shadows on the show. It’s also the conversation we take further every day inside the community of Authentic Visibility.
Authentic Visibility is our group coaching program designed to help dedicated creatives who are very reasonably wary of marketing and promotion into powerful advocates for their vision and their work, setting the stage for huge career growth and a major role in the larger cultural conversation.
Got a major project dropping soon, and you’re determined not to let it founder? Get the support you need to create a reasonable promotion plan that aligns with your goals and fits your life.
Don’t know how to talk about your work without squirming? You’ll practice and refine your messaging in a safe, supportive space inside Authentic Visibility.
Hate or fear social media, and dunno what else to do? There are lots of options, and you can workshop solutions that suit you and your approach with your peers.
You can learn all about Authentic Visibility and get a sense of my teaching philosophy in a free 90 minute class, specifically for creatives called "how to get people wildly obsessed with your work" and in it, you’ll get a headstart on developing clear, compelling language for sharing your work with your audience so that they get it and they want more.
If you want your work to make its mark in the world, check out the free wildly obsessed class and supercharge your ability to connect with new fans in just 90 minutes.
Go to Jessica abel.com/wildly and join the free class now.
That’s Jessica abel.com/wildly.
Okay, let’s start the show.
I met Julia DeWitt when she was an intern, uh, at the radio show and podcast "Snap Judgment." This is in summer 2012. Uh, when I spent a week at their offices in Oakland doing research for my book Out on the Wire and Julia was at the time working on her very first radio story for "Snap."
And it was really valuable to me to get to know her at that point because I was also trying to learn how this whole thing worked. And so having somebody else who was in this learning process next to me, uh, and was a few steps ahead was really, really useful. And I’ve found that over and over again that, you know, sometimes the teacher isn’t the best person to learn from.
It’s actually the student because you can talk about what you don’t understand and figure it out together. So I remember you showing me a big binder of notes, for example. Of like stuff you’d figured out like, and like things we were trying to figure out about podcasting and stuff.
Um, and so as I worked on my book and then publish the book, and then follow the podcast world in sort of a more, as a more passive observer, I saw you kind of rocketing to the top of your game and hitting senior producer at "Snap" in just a couple of years. You did that, class on CreativeLive. You started launching a show on Gimlet I think. You got on staff at "Love and Radio," and even like had a story on the granddaddy show of them all "This American Life." And so when I s- I knew all that kind of about you in the background.
And when I was thinking about this, you know, um, "The Autonomous Creative" I was like, oh, I really want to talk to Julia about how all that happened. And when I contacted you, when I contacted Julie, I found out she had made a hard pivot spending much of 2020 at a Zen Buddhist monastery and is now heading to a master’s in social work.
And so she said, maybe you don’t want to talk to me after all. And I said, no, no, no, no. I don’t know about you, but I have absolutely ruminated about the idea of just checking out on what I do and like leaving all the complication behind and just doing something different, just starting a new way. And I’ve even done it in various ways, like to different degrees.
So this massive life change was made me really eager to talk to you Julia and find out what caused the change and what has happened as a result. So thank you so much for being here.
Julia DeWitt: Yes. Very, very glad to be here.
Jessica Abel: Let’s start off with talking about the distant past now. How you got involved in podcasting and how that all developed for you cause I know for a lot of people who are gonna be, um, hearing this interview, they’d be really interested to hear like, how do you go from, well, how do you land an internship first of all, and then go from there through the trajectory that you had. Um, how did you get interested in the first place in podcasting and radio and what got you in the room when I was there with you at "Snap Judgment."
Julia DeWitt: Yeah. So I, um, when I was an undergrad, I studied anthropology and I was talking to veterans about their transitions home from combat as a senior, as a, for my senior thesis and realized that like, I was just much more interested in how other- how people talked about their own lives than I was about kind of the process of like analyzing them.
I’ve always been interested in like, I mean, I said at the time personal storytelling, but just it’s something, it also has become this through line that has now turned into wanting to be a clinical social worker and a therapist. Just like this sort of, um, yeah, the insides of people and sort of how their lives have sort of made them who they are.
And I kind of just like, I, I was, uh, bartending after school. I was bartending and like living at home and dealing with some life stuff and trying to kind of just like figure out how I start adulthood. And, uh, I was listening to a lot of "This American Life" and I was just like, this seems like a way that I can just like talk to people about their lives all the time.
You know, it always, I’ve always been a creative person and a sort of like cerebral person and very interested in people. And it felt like this, you know, I kind of put those factors together and was like, I’m going to work for public radio. Um, and my parents were like that doesn’t make sense, okay. Give it a shot.
My dad’s words were, "now we know who’s going to become the lawyer" because my parents were lawyers and there’s a lot of lawyers in my family. And so my dad, by which he meant like, you go try that and then like, you know, fall back on like a regular career.
Jessica Abel: Meaning you’re going to become a lawyer later, or you have a sibling who was going to take that mantle on you.
Julia DeWitt: I was going to become the lawyer later. Yeah. Uh it’s like. Yeah, it was, it felt like kind of this like pipe dream that I felt like I just was gonna give it a shot, you know. Little did I know it was just gonna be a lot weirder from there. Um, my life path, which I’ve come to really embrace.
But yeah, at the time it felt like a huge risk. And so I got in my car, I just got some recording equipment. Like I got a little zoom recorder and a microphone and I got in my car and I drove around the country interviewing my friends about the 20-something experience. It didn’t, you know, somebody was like suggested that I have a little bit more focus and that just seemed like ample focus to me at the time.
Um, I didn’t know. I would love to find those recordings. I don’t know where they are. I didn’t do anything with them, but it was sort of in this spirit of like, gi- just giving it a shot. And I kind of showed up in San Francisco. I was going to drive around the country, but by the time I got to San Francisco, I was like, there’s kind of no reason not to stay here.
And I contacted, uh, "Snap Judgment" first. I was a big fan of "Snap Judgment" nonfiction storytelling show. And for me, I was just like, if I get a job at this show one day and that’s it, that’s all. Like, I will have arrived. You know, like I’ll stay there for 20 years. And so I emailed the executive producer and I was just like, I want to work for you.
And he was like, oh, okay. Do you have any skills? And I was like, no. And he was like, oh, okay. Well. You know, I convinced him to get coffee with me. I am a huge advocate, if this is like a path that, any path interests anybody just contacting people. Getting your name, or if you can possibly meet people for like a minute, five minutes, get people to get coffee with you. Whatever it is, like, I mean that, I feel like it was just, that’s what started my career, um, is just having the kind of gumption to do that.
Jessica Abel: I mean, I just, I want to stop there for a second because like I remember, I mean, I didn’t remember all of these details, but I remember talking to you about this at the time in 2012, when I met you and just thinking like, this is amazing. This is like, you just threw yourself into it. You’re just like, I’m just going to go and make radio stuff.
And then I’m going to call up people and get on shows and, and it, and it totally worked. And it actually really similar to the story of Alix Spiegel, um, who did that essentially with "This American Life." And my first, radio illustrated guide, that I did in 1998 or whatever, she told this story of basically badgering Ira into giving her an internship back then.
Showing up, just showing up and showing up and showing up, you know. And, and Stephanie Foo’s example of making her show, "I Want to be on This American Life" and then sending it to Ira and sending it to "Snap" and like getting her job at "Snap" through doing the work, right? So I talk about this all the time with people, and I just feel like people don’t really believe me, but this is you do it by doing it, you know?
Julia DeWitt: Yes. Yeah. And I think there’s some, uh there also is something about, there’s some kind of like, I don’t know, you do it by doing it and you do it- I think when I look back on myself, it’s like telling the story. I’m just like, if I were to be hearing me talking, I would be like, wow, what confidence she had. I did not. I didn’t. It literally, it wasn’t even, it’s not even like, believe in yourself before somebody else believes in you. It’s not like, think you can do it. It’s like none of that, you know, it’s literally
Jessica Abel: Is it kind like an out-of-body experience?
Cause I’ve done this. where like I started a rock band when I was around the age you were when you were doing all this stuff. I was in my early twenties, like 22, 23 or something like that. I didn’t play anything. Like, I didn’t know how to do this. We didn’t have any songs or anything. My roommate was trying to learn how to play bass and she’s a musician. She actually could learn things, but I’ve never been a musician don’t. And I was like, I’ll get a guitar and learn how to play guitar. And we started a band and I would do things like inviting over like actual musicians to jam and then tell my roommate about it.
And she was just like, what are you doing? But within like four months we had a show and we had to come up with songs and like do all this stuff. And, um, we were a band for three years and like put out a coup- like put out a seven inch and like had a full, couple full sets of songs and stuff by the end. I never did learn how to play guitar, but I was a really good front person, as you might imagine. But the that feeling of like putting yourself out there, it’s not that you think you can do it, but there’s a kind of like out-of-body experience of like, I’m going to say this now and whatever happens, happens. Does that sound familiar to you?
Julia DeWitt: Um, yes. Certainly an out of body experience or almost kind of dissociation from it just like it’s just happening. And, and I mean, frankly, it’s something like the opposite. There was this kind of existential fear, I think under some of it. I was just that, especially like your early twenties, I have not shown the world that I’m going to make anything of my life. And so there’s this kind of like, it’s almost like a desperation or like a, a kind of "this is it" feeling. Not necessarily even, not always in a fun way. Um, just like a, in a, like, if I don’t, if I don’t do it, no one’s gonna.
Jessica Abel: Yes.
Julia DeWitt: And I was, and I was, I was stunned, so stunned to find out that it, that it worked.
Jessica Abel: Right. And in retrospect, I look around and I mean, yes, you’re stunned in the moment, but you look around and you’re like, oh, that actually happened for a lot of the people who were around me. Like, if I look at how they went from not being involved to being involved, it was something like that. That’s what I’m trying to say.
Julia DeWitt: Yes. I don’t want to imply that there aren’t real things in the way for people in, in getting into… you know, particularly when it comes to like certain kinds of privilege and certain kinds of self-belief that are, even though I was deeply self-doubtful, there’s another part of me that because of like, you know, my class and being white, there’s like a dull, thudding entitlement in there. And like, um,
Jessica Abel: Oh, for sure. No, no, no, no. I, yeah. I mean, I think it’s really important to hold on to that and to make sure that it doesn’t become, like, everybody can do this this way.
Also, it can not work. Like you can do this and you don’t get the results you want. It’s not like a guarantee, even if you go and take these steps that, okay, now everything’s going to be fine. That’s the other
Julia DeWitt: I guess I just, in the, in the sort of world of this, it’s, it’s hard to tell this because this is fundamentally anecdotal, but it is true that for people that I know where they were just like, I’m going to do it. And then they just like, tried as hard as they possibly could, like something materialized.
I mean, I have a lot of friends that are visual artists for instance, and like, nobody makes it, "makes it" as a visual artist per se. But like when they’ve thrown themselves into it completely, it’s like become the substance of their life in some deeply meaningful way.
Jessica Abel: Right. And it’s a little bit of survivor bias where it’s like, you see the people on the other side who are doing the thing and you look back and you think that’s how they did it. But the people who did, who tried and didn’t pass that threshold, we don’t see it. So. And again, I don’t want to overplay it, but I do think it’s really remarkable to observe that that is whether or not it’s necessarily successful, whatever other factors of privilege go into it, that is a key piece for everybody, I think, to get past, get over that gap from like not a pro to a pro.
Yeah. Okay. So let’s get back to the story now. So, so you’re making the story. When I was there, you were making your first story, which was Rocky. It’s a very emotional story, you know, a lot of very difficult stuff. And I do see the connection to what you’re talking about of interested in people’s stories and the emotional experience that they’re going through. And I feel like that’s the thread that goes through your work in general.
Julia DeWitt: Yeah, I mean, that was my draw to personal storytelling is, is that, um, And I thought it was more, it was as broad as just like nonfiction in general or something. But I did find that working at shows, you know, I, I spent six months at "Planet Money" and you know, like did a story for "99% Invisible" and did like, yeah. Shows where it’s a little bit less on. I mean, I dunno 99PI is also very, there’s plenty of room for all kinds of emotion, but, yeah, that’s certainly been my, been my bag.
Jessica Abel: Yeah, for sure. Um so how did your career, uh, develop from there? So you’re at "Snap," you’re an intern and then presumably they’re like, you’re doing a good job. We’re going to give you a job as a producer, and then you work your way up there. So that’s a kind of straight line. How does that then develop into the rest of the things that you did?
Julia DeWitt: Well, I don’t, there’s kind of a few, like. You know, all of that kind of hustle energy, just persisted into there was like sort of that first story, which is just like, as soon as you talk about that first story, I am just like, oh, there’s this feeling of, I remember so clearly like sleeping over in the studio and, you know, like how, like how horrified I was by the microphone and the sound of my own voice.
And like, it was just so, um, that kind of like fear and anxiety about learning in the process kind of persisted until, uh, I became a senior producer. And then once that started to clear a little bit, there was, um. That’s funny, there is, I’m trying to figure out, like, I don’t know quite how to talk about this because there’s some version of it that feels very negative.
And there’s another version that just feels like it’s kind of like the way that we tweak our lives as we go. But there, I mean, basically there is kind of, once like that kind of fire of trying to sort of settle myself in this career faded. I, I kind of almost after a couple of years, basically being at "Snap Judgment" I started to have questions about whether this indeed was the right place for me and career for me and whatever.
Jessica Abel: When you’re having questions about this, you’re having questions sort of at the same moment as you are full bore in this career, right? Like you’re making stories and you know, going from- did you go from "Snap" to "Planet Money?" Is that how that played out time-wise?
Julia DeWitt: Yeah. So, I was at, well, I was at "Snap Judgment" for four years. Then in 2016, I started to look at, you know, around 2015, I started to look around for other shows and, you know, I was interested in sort of what it might be like to work in, , I was just interested in kind of different, um, slightly different kind of show.
So I moved to, I got hired to help launch a show at Gimlet, "Undone" with Pat Walters who is, uh, an executive producer over at Radiolab now. That show only lasted a season just because the way that it was shows were working there at the time. I then went to "Planet Money" for six months and was a temporary, um, correspondent and then was at "Love and Radio" for a year.
Jessica Abel: So, I guess my question about that is, so you’re going from, you know, a show like "Snap" has a very specific kind of voice to it, which you had mastered over four years and you went from there to a whole new show that’s got a different host, a different voice, different thing, and then from there to plant the money. And you’re also saying that you were starting to kind of have questions potentially about your, like, is this the right path for you?
Do you want to be doing this? Are you tacking from show-to-show to kind of like figure out, well, is it the show or is it the work?
Julia DeWitt: Yes. Yeah. I mean, was trying to figure out, like, what is the question? You know, is it another show? Is it I’m wanting to start my own shows? Is it something about having bosses and something about the nature of this kind of interview format, and like long form radio, whatever. Is it media? Is it getting paid to do creative work that kind of creates a fundamental, hitches two things in together in a fundamentally problematic way, you know, what is the question here?
Jessica Abel: Okay, wait. Let’s stop there. Let’s talk about that question. How does getting paid for creative work, how is that fundamentally problematic for you?
Julia DeWitt: I mean, I was talking about this with, um with my boyfriend who was talking about an artist that he loves, a painter and, you know, having this encounter with him at an artist talk where he… basically this guy talks about how, like he has gotten stuck in his work because, he, because he’s, he started to actually be able to make money on it.
And so now has financial obligations that are based around that money, based around that income. And so you’re like when the work becomes about basically anything besides the work itself, and like in radio is not just, even if you’re not worried about money, which don’t go into public radio if you’re worried about money, but like there’s an audience, there’s an imagined million people.
It becomes difficult to make decisions without… There’s something that’s just like it, there’s the, fundamentally the creative process is this thing that, I want to sort of like gesture at gesturing at my chest and like my insides. Like comes from the inside out.
And as soon as you start speaking to these factors outside that it makes the sort of defilement of like having to make it go from the outside in creates this tension.
It makes those things at war with each other. And like, what is so amazing about the creative process is that it feels like this kind of thing trying to like come out from you and once you eliminate that quality, that vector, it, it there’s something that can feel kind of gross about it.
Jessica Abel: Yeah. I wonder if you make any distinction between cause like there’s the, there’s the commercial impulse of, You know, this is something from when I talked to Tom Hart on this show, like a little while ago, he said, you know, he, he asked questions of himself, like, is it worth it to me to learn how to market myself to stay autonomous?
Is it worth, worth it to me to try to bend the market to me in order to stay in my field? Like those are some sort of things that, that hover around any artist.
But thinking about your trajectory, for example, and like, if you are working freelance and you’re selling stories to shows you’re thinking about, is this story going to be buyable by this show? Will they want this show, this story? And so you’re modifying the way that you can present it and maybe even the content of it based on what you see as their priorities.
And I wonder whether there’s a distinction between that and the editorial process as depicted in, Out on the Wire that you were involved in at "Snap" and probably everywhere else where you have kind of intensive back and forth between you and somebody on the editorial team, or maybe many people on an editorial team who are helping you process and think through and, you know, figure out what is the, at least an optimal, optimal way to tell this story. Is there a difference there or are those really the same kind of thing?
Julia DeWitt: Yeah, it’s interesting. There’s some kind of like, it’s not, it’s not like I sort of totally romanticize the idea of just like the completely isolated sort of like, or that I believe that the creative process is just this kind of like spontaneous speaking of the spirit, you know, it’s like extremely hard work.
The collaboration is deeply valuable. Feedback, you know, being willing to sort of see when those, those things like emerge from your spirit, like don’t work and don’t make any sense. And like, you know, that it has, like, it has to stay in relationship to reality. And the editorial process is how you, in this particular field is how you do that.
You know, how you like make it something that can connect to the outside, um, in a way that makes it like worth making in the first place. It’s like the reason to make it and somehow the money… The money distinction is it’s not just that the like, I don’t know. Why do you think?
Jessica Abel: I mean, I think, I think there are
different it’s like, it’s, there’s there’s, but there’s also many, many gradations.
Like, I don’t think that it’s all one thing, you know. Like their are editorial situations in which they’re fairly toxic and somebody is trying to impose their will on you and there’s others where it’s incredibly, in most, in, in my case, like most of the times when I’ve had an editorial interaction, it’s been so much to the benefit of the work.
And to me as an artist, because I grow by understanding how, you know, new things about myself, my work and everything else. Right. So I’ve, I, it’s been really, really important for me in that way.
On the commercial side, I think my work can really benefit by thinking about the audience and thinking about, am I telling, am I communicating what I need to communicate to them?
You know, and, is, is my idea getting intact into their heads? Are they getting it? If they’re not getting it, like if they’re getting it, they’re going to buy it. They’re going to want to spend money on it. If they’re not getting it, they’re not going to want to. And there’s so much room between those things.
You know, there’s so many different ways that that can play out. But I have personally found it to be, I’d say 70 to 80% growth experience trying to market my work and explain my work because I’m trying to, I see where the gaps are and I see where I’ve missed stuff and I have not actually explained it well, and I haven’t helped people get what I’m trying to get across.
I see faults, you know. And people can be wrong about why they don’t like it, but they- it’s the thing that Ira talked about actually, that like Sometimes when you have somebody edit something, they’ll say like, oh, change this and they’re wrong about the thing to change, but they’re right that there was something wrong.
And it’s the same kind of thing. I think with an audience reaction and like a market reaction is like, if they’re not reacting to it the way you want them to, you need to really look at what you’re presenting.
But I do see that, like, you know, and it’s also, I think, partly down to the actual stories that you’ve done, like you, the stories you’ve done or so not everything, but like so many of them are so personal.
They’re so emotional. They’re so raw that the idea of trying to adapt that to like dominant market forces or something really does feel kind of like a violation to a certain extent and the stuff I’ve done, some of it’s like that, but most of it’s not, you know, so there’s a real, like I said, I think there’s spectrums in every direction.
Julia DeWitt: Yeah, and I think, so that was really where all of this kind of foc- I don’t know exactly how this is related, but that’s where my big question about the work itself came up is that I was, I was so interested in, in these like really like intimate sort of part parts of people and their lives and our experiences.
And fundamentally as an interviewer in our- the people that I’m representing are the listeners. So I’m kind of in that, in the interview, I’m supposed to be thinking about the what the listeners need to know, what questions the listeners would have right now. Like when would the listeners be skeptical when this person is, you know, like what are the listeners going to think this person is trying to not talk about, and interview from that position fundamentally.
And it’s helpful to know how to connect with that person. Um, but that is kind of second the person in front of me, but that’s secondary to being an advocate for the listeners. And that has to be even at the cost of the person or the relationship. If it, if the person is, you know, again, trying to talk around something that like the, I sort of need to ask a direct question, that’s going to make the person kind of uncomfortable or whatever.
And I, it felt to me that started to make it feel fundamentally extractive. And it feels, I can’t quite that I.
Jessica Abel: So that’s an interesting point I think that you’re talking about because the work that you were doing is at its core, it’s about telling other people’s stories. That there’s a level to which it felt extractive that you were actually taking somebody else’s stories and we talked about this actually in, Out on the Wire, like there’s this page, where we’re talking about this in, Out on the Wire.
We’re talking about this idea of editing people’s words and trying to get at what their meaning is in an as authentic way as possible, but you’re cutting their words.
You know, you’re not presenting them. It’s not like a, like direct tube to their brain. It’s like this processed version. Right. And one of the things that Glenn Washington, the, the sort of head of "Snap Judgment" would always talk about is how he tried to avoid reflection in that, on the, "This American Life" idea, Ira Glass’s idea of how you go from anecdote to reflection, to anecdote, to reflection. You have a piece of tape of somebody talking, and then you have the reporter saying something about it.
Right. And Glen’s philosophy was to avoid that, to not reflect on the tape. Because of, I think this exact thing, that he wants people’s voices to come through, but you’re still the work, editing their words, fairly intensively.
Julia DeWitt: Yes. And that’s the thing. And in fact, by actually, even in that case, by not reflecting on it, you sometimes have to, we had to just be aggressive with tape sometimes because like, you can’t say it, you can, you need to make them say it.
Which sounds, I mean, that sounds that’s, uh, that’s extreme. I don’t mean to say that people’s, it didn’t feel, um, unethical, you know, there is an ethical awareness everywhere about this, but there is, yeah.
There’s in some way reflecting openly about it is at least making, making sort of visible something that is just always the case, that making decisions about what you keep in and what you keep out, even just basic the most basic editorial decisions, is about what I think the story is not what they think the story is.
Jessica Abel: I think it’s fascinating that with where we’re at right now with your life trajectory, that the one place you appear in "Out on the Wire" really is in the voice chapter where you’re talking, we’re talking about interviews and characters and how do you develop this? And there’s the scene that I’m talking about here is there’s, I’m going to read from this.
You say, "I just want people to be heard. I want to be the facilitator for getting their stories to people who should hear them." And then we go back and forth about a bunch of things. And you talk about how it’s hard to stay, you know, producers labor very hard to stay true to what interviewees mean, but do so while making a huge number of alterations to what they actually say.
So you clear it, you clean things up, take out their likes, you know, kind of get likes and ums go away and like things get cleaner. But also you say "you actually enabled them to be heard in the way that they, it seems that they intended" and I had actually edited that. Like you’re you actually said a bunch of other stuff and I like edited it together.
And then I depicted it as like word balloons, taped together with tape, and I’m like holding it up, like, look, this is what she said. And um, and then I quote back to you, "I go seems like they intended and you go, "Right. Ha ha. That’s where things get a little hairy. That’s the rub."
Julia DeWitt: Yes, it sure is.
Jessica Abel: So I’m seeing like, now that we’re talking about this and I’m like going back to that and putting that this is a conversation with 2012, like I’m now seeing like a direct through line from that to this moment where you’re like, I’m doing something else now.
Julia DeWitt: Yes. It’s funny. I’m having, as you were reading that I’m having that experience of, I don’t know, I’ve like journaled on and off since I was eight and it is like every time I look back at a journal, I’m, what’s surprising about it is how I have basically like the same five thoughts over and over again. One was like, oh yeah, I’ve always been kind of preoccupied with like this area of the relationship sort of since the beginning it’s been like. It’s interesting to wonder why I’ve been so interested in it for so long, but
Jessica Abel: I am interested in that. I think that’s very interesting.
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Now let’s get back to the interview.
Jessica Abel: One other question I wanted to ask you about the whole, like the podcast show projectory. I just wanted to ask you about one story, cause people may not be familiar with your work and your kind of, one of your most infamous stories is "The Superchat" story.
Was that your first story for "Love and Radio"?
Julia DeWitt: Yep.
Jessica Abel: So, um, can you tell us what is the nature of that story is? .
Julia DeWitt: Yeah. So, so I, I was working at the, we came up with that story when Nick, uh, van der Kolk, who is the host of "Love and Radio" was still working at "Snap Judgment."
We shared an office and, um, "Snap" was doing an episode about, after midnight, where we were all supposed to like do something after midnight. And I was like on a reporting trip and I was supposed to, this thing was like due in two days. And I remember, and I was like, I don’t know how I’m supposed to do something after midnight in this like weird hotel room. I forget what city I was even in. And then I remember this like phone line that my friend had told me about, called the Super Chat. It’s in the Bay Area. It’s just a local number.
And, it’s like Chatroulette for the phone. So you get on and it says, you know, welcome to Super Chat. Um, and you start going through it, it matches you randomly with, um, another person who’s called in the line. And you can just, if you don’t want to talk, you can just press, I forget what it was, seven or something, and I’m moving on to the next person.
And so I was just like, okay and I gave it a shot and started recording. And it was just became this kind of wild ride. I ended up showing Nick the recording a couple of days, a couple of days later. And I was like, this is completely unusable for the radio, but like, what do I do with this?
Because it was some of the most like it was just… Uh, yeah, it was just this amazing tape that was, um, couldn’t be used for, for NPR, because it was completely sexually explicit. Like basically all, all the men that I was matched with were there for, um, nah that’s not true. My, most of them were there for phone sex, to try to proposition me for phone sex.
Um, you know, but some, some were it became really clear were lonely. Some were tried to proposition me for phone sex, but then it became clear that they were actually just really lonely and once we went to chatting, they were like, just as happy to be chatting.
They just kind of would lead with like, you know, talking about uh, things they wanted to do to me as their opener. Um, and, uh, yeah, so I just went on and I recorded a bunch of phone calls and, um, we made that into a piece and then sort of it’s like, it lives in this world of " Love and Radio" work that, that mixes fiction and non-fiction. And it was just kind of this like romp through this, like underworld with these, these men.
Jessica Abel: I mean, did you, do you feel like you did a lot of stories where your sort of personal boundaries got pushed in this kind of way?
Julia DeWitt: No, what was so fun about this was that you know, they’re propositioning me. And so I become this character in the story, in my response. I’m like half of the story. And when we edited, the editing process, Nick would listen to the tape and then he would edit and I edit me and then I would go back, go back onto the phone line and he would edit me, like my behavior.
Um, and at first I went in and because of the way, you know, these men were like talking about my vagina and I was just like, excuse me. I would just like hit right back, you know? Cause I was just like, I was anonymous too. And I was just like, it just seemed, I mean, it was like really fun, but I was like, I was sort of like righteously indignant, but also like thought it was hilarious. yeah,
And it kind of basically coached me into a place of expressing that I was not going to um, have phone sex with them, but like, it’s totally cool that that’s what they’re doing here and that’s what they want and it’s totally cool that like they’re into, you know, they are curious about my feet, you know, I’ll answer some questions until I don’t want to talk about my feet anymore. And it was, it was, uh, it was like basically teaching me, it was the first direct lesson in, boundaries. And what boundaries mean and how to have your own, while not judging other people.
And, uh, that, I mean, that was the most fun part of it was having sort of your personality and like the way you communicate with people edited.
Jessica Abel: I like that you, you, that this is framed for you in sort of like, yeah and I actually learned how to have boundaries as a result of this that’s, you know, and how to, to understand boundaries in a different way. That’s really cool. Have you taken that anywhere from there? Like, is that something that you’ve then you see yourself using that somewhere?
Julia DeWitt: Yeah. I mean, learning actually appropriate boundaries is a key to changing closeness in my capacities for intimacy in like romantic relationships. So many aspects of interviewing have taught me a lot about how to actually talk to people, in a way that creates, that actually creates connection and knowing how to state what’s happening for me clearly. And completely accepting what is happening, whatever is happening for you according to your worldview is a project that like, I mean. kind of like all I think about anymore.
Jessica Abel: Well, it’s kind of great training to be a therapist isn’t it?
Julia DeWitt: I mean, yeah. Like these are ended up being the things that I was most interested in, in the work. So, much so that I, it was just like, I want to do that as the, as the work.
Jessica Abel: um, that leads me to the turning point and the, the switch of directions. So was there like a moment or like some something concrete that happened or some short period of time when like you go, oh, this is really, I really need to change now. I need to go some and you take time off. And how did that all play out?
Julia DeWitt: Yeah. So like there, so there’s kind of what is happening in the sort of show timeline. What’s happening in my sort of personal life in timeline, there’s sort of like these. In 2016, I moved to New York. I started working for Gimlet and, uh, that same year I got sober. And that kind of changed everything for me.
I needed to do that and, uh, I was encouraged to develop a spiritual life in that process, as a part of that process, as a support in it. I hadn’t had none previously, you know, I was living on this very individual kind of anxious fire of like making myself and it totally was working professionally and not working personally.
It was like directly proportionate to how well I was working professionally, it was working personally, inversely proportionate. Uh, yeah, so I started meditating. I started, I went on a retreat and then quickly went on several in rapid succession, um, between the shows, once I left Gimlet, before I went to "Planet Money" I had some, you know, some time on my hands and I went to a bunch of meditation retreats and that pretty quickly became my focus really started to trance switch over to that.
Like I, um, my life focus became, I became interested in more parts of my life than than my career. And so my career became something that was still happening and, and supporting me while I did some really important, um, you know, personal work And then I got, I got really involved with, uh, Zen Buddhism in particular and you know, had teachers, was like going on regular retreats.
Um, and then my teachers moved up to through Brooklyn Zen Center moved up to start a monastery and I just kinda knew that I wanted to be doing it all the time. It’s a little bit hard to explain.
Jessica Abel: No, I get how and especially see how the, you know, as your, I mean, your career at that point. I mean, you’re in New York City, you know, some of the most visible shows out there.
having been at "Snap" I know that there’s a much more kind of like loosey goosey structure there, which can be good and bad. Right. But I’m sure you go to, like, I mean, I’ve been to "Planet Money" too, and they’re like, you know, deadline here, have a meeting, you know, it’s much more structured.
And I could totally imagine feeling like, oh, I’m getting professionalized. I’m getting kind of like on this track. And then meanwhile, trying to recover your mental health. And seeing the contrast between those things as they diverge. I think it sounds very like the trajectory seems very understandable. The question for me, I think, and I think for a lot of people is like going on retreats, you know, studying meditation, caring about this stuff seems to make a lot of sense. I totally see how that would diverge from any, any sort of news oriented deadline oriented pressure, you know, from a career.
But how do you make the call? Like, I am going to walk away from this life where you’ve been building it for close to 10 years. I’m just not going to do this anymore.
Like how, how does that decision happen? Was it painful? Did you like when I have made major pivots in my life, I’ve been confident about them. I’ve been glad I made them, but it also had to mourn my old life, you know, and sort of look back and think like, did it, you know, mean anything that I did all that stuff if I’m not doing it anymore.
Julia DeWitt: That’s interesting. I feel like I totally understand how it would feel that way and, and like so much so that I’m just like, I don’t know why it didn’t feel that way, but it just, it felt like that is, it was all part of the same path. And so for that reason, it wasn’t, I was just like those things that got me to this new set of questions and this one’s going over here.
This gave me two new set of questions and that’s not like, it doesn’t feel like an in sort of like a justification or trying. It just feels true that it’s not, it actually isn’t. all those things are exactly what needed to happen for this honing to happen so that I can understand this next career move that I want to make, which looks like a big pivot, but it just is a, it’s just a honing from all of that information gathering.
I think for, with media, the piece was there was a, and you know, Buddhism helps a lot with helps with this, like there was a piece of leaving, like a name behind, there was an ego piece. There was like a, this is something that people give me an iden- it was really an identity. It was like, you know, people, the thing that people want to talk about about me is that I am in like in podcasting and I’ve had shows on "This American Life" and blah, blah, blah, and like, or episodes on, on those shows.
And, you know, are just really sort of, um, interested in that like fact about me and yeah, having to recognize that that’s like, that will lead me astray. that kind of motivation is not gonna, it’s not how I’m going to find reward and just, I believe that completely.
I just, it seems also really important to then have other things that I have. Like I only had faith in my career and now I have, I just have other, I have other much bigger, deeper faiths now. So I can kind of let go of that identity and let go of what people think of me and whether people think I’m worthwhile or anybody knows I’m here on this planet, or anybody knows I was here at all. I have other bigger things that hold those kinds of existential questions, than just like the immediate, whether people like, think I’m cool cause I work in podcasting.
Jessica Abel: I totally hear you. And like I said before, I feel like the trajectory of your inquiry, the questions you’re answering, seems very direct to what you’re doing now, but that container of like building a career and the hunger to build a career and to be seen and to be known, to be on, you know, the shows that are you would, you know, you would aspire to "This American Life" and you got on "This American Life", right?
So there’s this kind of career-based thing going along. And I think that that’s actually the remarkable piece that I think most people would struggle with most. And I certainly know I would and do in the cases where that’s happened for me, like walking away from a reputation, walking away from something that the thing that people know about me.
The vast majority of creative people, I know they may not desire, you know, massive celebrity, but they want to be known for their work. Like they want to have people know their work and they want to be known for us to be somebody who does that work. So to be able to let that go is really interesting to me that you, you know, it seems obvious like Zen Buddhism, lots of meditation, you know, that’s exactly what it’s about.
And so I see how it happens, but it’s just, it’s an interesting piece to me that I think is, you maybe because you’re in the middle of it kind of underplaying how hard that is. I don’t know.
Julia DeWitt: Can you tell me one of those transitions that happened for you?
Jessica Abel: Well, I stopped making comics, for example, you know, like I’m not making comics right now. Like not making comics and don’t have any plans to make any comics. So, I’m still a cartoonist in that I have a body of work, but I’m not an actively making comics. And so when I go from that, when it went from that to leading this community that I lead now and teaching courses and stuff about Creative Focus, The Autonomous Creative, I was walking away from a reputation as a cartoonist.
And like, I don’t get invited to festivals in Sweden now because I don’t have any new books out. You know what I mean? I don’t people aren’t calling me up to do interviews for the New York Times cause you know, I don’t, I just. The longer, the time period is between making the, those works and now, the less effect that has on my, the way I can live my life.
And I don’t love walking into a room where nobody knows who I am. I’ve done talks where like, I go to, you know, I’m invited to do a talk at a conference or something like that. And the, the organizer knows who I am, but like the people don’t know who I am. Don’t like it. Do not like it. I want people to know who I am and why I’m there.
That’s that’s what I’m talking about, that I understand that from my point of view, that like my reputation as a cartoonist and walking away from like, I don’t talk a lot about not being a cartoonist because I know that a lot of people are going to be like, no, but you are, you are. And I’m like, well, I’m mean, I am. It’s a part of me. And it’s part of how I got where I am now. I couldn’t be doing what I am doing now without having done that in the past, but it’s not how I make my professional identity right now.
Julia DeWitt: Yes. And I think this is where I, I mean, there’s this kind of zooming in on this key question for me of just being like , the actual interaction that I’m having with the person feels fundamentally extractive.
You know, the people that I’m advocating for, that I’m working for, I’d never meet and they’re just kind of this imaginary million people.
That there was this shifting that happened where over the course of years. It was just like real zooming in on just like the actual day to day, in and out of the moment to moment, what the actual work feels like and what the actual work is for me.
And like . For all those times that I walk into a festival there’s like a thousand days when I’m just like in the office making the thing and like, is it inherently rewarding? Is it inherently from moment to moment, fruitful? And there was like that sort of, um, shift to valuing that experience over the valuing the going into Third Coast and people like knowing who I was and thinking like my career had just been off to a really fantastic fast start or whatever.
Yeah, for me, it was just this realization Like that’s what my life actually is. What my life is actually made up of is just the string of all of those moments. And that sort of hit you, like when you can really feel it like the hit you, I get off of those times when like people know who I am, it’s fleeting.
And in the moment I’m like these people think they know who I am. Like, even in that moment, there’s like fear and insecurity and a need to like, maintain and like, sh- they’re like, oh, they think I’m cool. Now I have to like, be that thing. Just all that, you know, when you actually look at it, you’re like, damn, it’s like, not even that fun when it’s happening necessarily.
Jessica Abel: I think it’s kind of fun. But I do. I do know what you mean. There are definitely moments where yeah. So in terms of moving, So you’re moving into a career in social work.
You’re going to grad school now, is that correct?
Julia DeWitt: Uh, yeah. Yes. In the fall.
Jessica Abel: Do you have a specific area you’re going to be going into, is it going to be therapy or that kind of thing?
Julia DeWitt: Yeah, well, I’m gonna, yeah, I’m hoping to it’s to be on the clinical social worker track, I’m going to get my MSW Master in Social Work. And then, then you get licensed and then kind of build a, like therapist career as a clinical social worker therapist. Um, kind of based on you kind of generally with social work, you like build credentials over time. So I don’t know what my focus is yet, but yeah.
Jessica Abel: Got it. What, uh, what would you as a younger person, what would you think of you today? Like, it’s, it sounds to me, like you said, feel like you, this is success right now. This is, feels like you’ve hit a great place, but like if we asked a 21 year old, Julia, what would she think about you and it right now?
Julia DeWitt: This is a great question. I ask my question this myself, this question was some frequency, interestingly. Um, um, I think she would be flummoxed. Like sometimes when I’m at the, you know, when I’m at the temple and there’s like incense and bowing and so 21 year old, Julia, it would be like, what happened? Uh, you know, like the one that doesn’t believe, didn’t believe in anything.
I think she would think I think she would like me better than she thought that she could like herself.
Jessica Abel: She wanted to interview you, I think.
Julia DeWitt: I think she would maybe want to interview me
Jessica Abel: Um, and what do you wish you could tell your younger self at this point?
Julia DeWitt: Oh, I dunno. I feel like everybody’s always trying to tell their younger selves to just like relax and let it, you know, like it’s gonna know it’s going to be okay. And it just feels like such a fundamental part of the process to not know it’s going to be okay. So it’s like, yeah, I mean, yeah. Listen to the people that are telling you that, like the panic is not necessary.
Jessica Abel: All right. Good enough. I asked this question of a lot of people that I’m mostly look at the answers are like, I don’t know, like relax. Like just like you say same thing right all the time. But I, maybe, maybe the thing to tell your younger self is it’s okay to not be okay now because it’s going to be okay later, you know?
Julia DeWitt: yes. Yeah.
Jessica Abel: All right, so we’re gonna wrap this up in just a second. I just want to make sure if there are any questions that they get out to us.
Okay. Um, after you have, after you’ve released identifying with your career and work as your substance, do you feel any freer to create, does it feel more expansive or less like limiting or limited?
Julia DeWitt: I mean, I have one audio project. This feels specific to the medium somehow. And I have one audio project that both feels like I can just feel my ideas being willing to move around, know like a much broader way. And I am much less likely to actually do it. So there’s something important to note there, I think. That sort of broadly speaking, my creativity feels broad. My creativity feels much broader and it’s like, it’s less motivated and a little bit more, and a lot more unpredictable and can kind of bounce. I have this new sewing machine I bought. And like I’m building things, and it just has a way of bouncing around much more unfocused, in a much more unfocused way, which I think has some real downsides to it.
Jessica Abel: Definitely. I mean, do you feel like there’s, um, it’s less product oriented, you know, you don’t have to like finish a thing to feel like you’re being creative. Does that feel like a loss to you?
Julia DeWitt: No, I don’t know why it doesn’t feel like… I’m just, for some
Jessica Abel: That’s fine. I mean, I I’m, I’m interested in that.
So what are the downsides then?
Julia DeWitt: I mean time and money will at some point limit. I happen to have a lot of time right now, but it will, at some point limit my ability to like, I feel like that’s why you hitched their wagon to that horse is because you’re just like, I want to do this thing all the time. I live in a capitalist society that requires my labor be, you know, financially productive. So it feels like a natural thing to do. And you make that kind of that like Faustian bargain. But so that, yeah. And that’s the truth. Like there’s a reason that we all do that. It’s because
Jessica Abel: yeah. I mean like you want to spend more time on the thing then you have available. And so you have to figure out how to make that pay for your time. Right. But like, if you’re not feeling that way, like you don’t have too little time you’re just doing what you’re doing, then maybe it’s not really a drawback, you know?
Julia DeWitt: Yeah. yeah. And there’s something else in here about that, the sort of things, it is true that like make people’s people, seeing something has inherent value. It’s like they’re producing a thing that people encounter. Isn’t just about sort of money and recognition. There’s something like really, there is something important and meaningful about like communication and connection in there. But I don’t feel that loss of that at the moment.
Jessica Abel: Yeah. Maybe sometime you’ll feel more motivated by that.
Julia DeWitt: Yeah.
Jessica Abel: Yeah. Um, second question. Any thoughts on working with friends as creative partners? How do you navigate differences and, uh, when you have to present a united front to your audience and hopefully sponsors.
Julia DeWitt: I, so I was, Nick is a very good, is a very close friend of mine. Um, Nick van der Kolk, who was my boss at "Love and Radio" um, Pat Walters, who was my boss at Gimlet, um, was also a friend of mine and we were roommates before we moved to New York. And I worked for him as my host. Um, this radio was just like that.
Uh, yeah, it had really different, there was really different outcomes and really different ways it affected our relationship because of those relationships and because of the nature of the shows. You know, like basically in some cases it’s just inherent to the relationship. And so it makes it, it makes the work and the, and the friendship even more fruitful.
And, um, yeah, other times you just need to, like other times it undermines your, your connection. And, um, I think just being like really honest with yourself about kind of, which of those you’re you’re in and like admitting when it, when it’s, uh, when it’s a good idea and when it’s a bad, it, it can really cut both ways and just being honest with yourself about when that’s, which is which.
Jessica Abel: Well, and maybe understanding the, understanding the choices you have in front of you, you know, like, should you be, uh, like which choice do you want to make? You know, like if, if you have the choice of like, I’m going to go with my creative partner and do what they want, or I’m going to not do what they want and potentially damage the relationship. I mean, it puts different weight on those decisions.
Julia DeWitt: Yes. Yeah, yeah. Right, exactly. And in each case, yeah figuring out whether you’re prioritizing your relationship or the work,
Jessica Abel: Right. Okay. We’ve got one last question here. Um, and this is from Andrea, who’s a podcast producer who’s moved from public radio, to independent, to a commercial media company and is now grappling with all of this. Uh, how to be true to her creative spirit and facing the reality that the mass market successes feel so different from what I do.
So she’s trying to figure out how to stay true to myself, but create something that takes a page from market success. Any thoughts about that?
Julia DeWitt: Takes a page from market success.
Jessica Abel: Like you know, if she’s going to say to herself, like I’m not going to aim for like the top of market success because it’s just, it’s going to be too destructive to my vision, but what can I do to sort of take, I think this is what we’re talking about here. How can I take just a little element of, enough elements of what creates commercial success without totally destroying like what I’m trying to do and like my own voice. Does that make sense?
Julia DeWitt: Yes, these things I feel to me like they just work in, like all the best things in life, just in total paradoxes. And I do think that the market and audience recognizes authenticity. And I think when you feel like you have that choice, from moment to moment, to make strategic choices from moment to moment when taking edits, you don’t have to just decide, I’m going to just take this page from the market success book out and then otherwise do whatever I want.
It’s just, it’s going to be an ongoing negotiation of like, can I compromise there? Can I not?
I do believe that there actually is- sometimes you have to make really hard decisions about favoring that and walking away from a job, a career, like being willing to follow that as far as it goes. But I do think that the, that Um, as long as you’re willing to stay open to editors and feedback and be flexible, always taking a shot at what you think is the right creative choice from edit to edit, for instance. Um, cause the market will pull you back.
Jessica Abel: Right. You can count on the market to be like trying to do what it’s going to do. Right. Yeah. But I also think maybe even creating something, that’s like, here’s my vision for this story or in general, like here’s what my values are, here’s what I care about.
And writing down something about like, here’s what I see being successful. And maybe these things are okay and these things are not okay. And kind of doing some sort of strategic thinking about it. So that in the moment you’re like, "oh my God, they’re telling me to do this. And I don’t know," you know, you have more of a Sort of underpinning for thinking about it.
Julia DeWitt: Yes. I’m just like a pretty intuitive liver. So, you could probably tell. So I’ve never been very good at those kinds of things, but I
Jessica Abel: That’s my specialty. So
Julia DeWitt: all,
Jessica Abel: Decision matrices. Let’s do it.
Julia DeWitt: Oh, those sound so good. I wish I had one of those.
Jessica Abel: talk to me. We’ll we’ll work it out, man. We’ll,
All right, well, we’re going to wrap it up here. Julia, thank you so much for hanging out with us today. It’s been a pleasure and an honor.
Julia DeWitt: Cool. Yes. Thank you so much. Thank you everybody for listening.
Jessica Abel: All right, bye. Bye everybody.
Thank you so much for joining us today for the Autonomous Creative.
Our show is produced by Matt Madden. Our production coordinator is Lousine Boyakhandjyan, and our production assistant is Rhiannon Sunday. Music is by Matt Madden. And I’m your host, Jessica Abel.
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