Listen to smart people plus me

I appeared on two podcasts recently that I really enjoyed. Both are hosted by people who I could talk to forever. 

You can find both podcasts wherever you get your podcasts, or you can click the links below to listen online. 

Slate's The Gist with Mike Pesca 

Mike and I speak about storytelling, film, Bruce Springsteen, and other sundry topics.

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Roxanne Coady's "Just the Right Book"

Roxanne, owner of RJ Julia Booksellers, and I have an expansive conversation on storytelling, books, productivity, happiness, and much more. 

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I performed in the dark. Without amplification. The results were surprising.

The worst experience I ever had while telling a story was on election night 2016 at a live show of Slate's The Gist. I was telling the story about my run for the Presidency of my college when things started to turn in the election returns and eyes quickly shifted from me to phones. 

Trump was winning. The world was ending. People were literally hugging one another in the audience. And I was still blabbering onstage. There was a moment in my story when I nearly said, "I should stop. This is ridiculous. You don't want to laugh. I want a hug, too."

I persevered, but I'm quite certain that no one has the faintest recollection that I performed that night. Deservedly so.   

My second worst onstage experience was during the Mayor's Charity Ball years ago. I was emceeing the event, and while the entire evening was lovely, but no one was terribly interested in what the emcee had to say. It was nearly impossible to get anyone's attention, and once again, I'm fairly certain that no one has the faintest recollection that I was even there. 

I thought that last night might go just as poorly. I was scheduled to tell stories at a benefit for a local television network, but strong wins from the Northeaster had knocked the power out about an hour before I was set to perform, depriving me of a microphone or any light save candlelight. The room, which I have performed many times as a DJ, minister, and storyteller, isn't easy even with a microphone. It's long, cavernous, and unforgiving. 

Trying to get the attention of 200 people with no amplification in the dark was not going to be easy.

One of the organizers proposed that we just scrap my performance. People were laughing, drinking, and having a good time already. No sense in disturbing their fun in these conditions.

"Yes!" I thought. "Cancel me. This isn't going to work!"  

Ultimately it was decided that I should give it a try, so reluctantly, I slid two wooden boxes over to the center of the room, climbed atop them, asked a few people to point their cellphone lights at me, and I started speaking.


Instead of telling three stories covering 30 minutes, I told two stories that filled about 15 minutes before my voice wasn't going to allow me to tell a third. Though I didn't capture the attention of the entire room, I managed to grab a sizable portion and made them laugh with two stories that I punched up on the fly.

I wasn't great, but it wasn't terrible either. People listened and laughed.

When I was done, I sat down beside a woman who I know but hadn't seen in years. It turns out that she hosts a show on the TV network now with three friends. She asked me appear as a guest.

As I was leaving the building, an attorney stopped me in the lobby and asked if I would be willing to consult on storytelling and communications with his firm.

Someone in the parking lot then stopped me and thanked me for the laugh. A tree had fallen on his house that night, and he was heading home to inspect the damage. "I didn't think I'd be laughing at all tonight. I really appreciate it."

I'm constantly counseling people to say yes when an opportunity presents itself, even when that opportunity is less than ideal. I know people who would've refused to perform under those conditions last night, and honestly, I wouldn't have blamed them. It was an awkward, almost impossible situation. Had they asked me to cancel my performance, I would've happily obliged.

But I agreed to entertain an audience, so when they proposed that I give it a shot, I said yes. I stood up on those precarious wooden blocks, spoke with all the volume I could muster, and told two funny stories 

It wasn't perfect, but people laughed and enjoyed the performance. I received an offer to appear on a television show, an offer to consult at a local law firm, and I brightened the evening of a man who was having an otherwise very bad day. 

Not bad for performing in the dark, without amplification, under the light of a handful of phones. 

If you enjoy a glass floor, don't forget to look down and thank your lucky stars

"But for a couple of bad breaks, especially visited upon vulnerable people, the outcome of life would be so different." 

This is a sentence that Slate's Mike Pesca spoke a couple months ago on his podcast The Gist in the midst of an interview.

I wrote the sentence down immediately, and I've been thinking about it ever since.

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Mike is right. As a person who has suffered from a couple of bad breaks while in a vulnerable position, I can assure you that it doesn't take much to send a life reeling into desperate, uncharted, potentially life-changing waters. 

It's so easy to judge the circumstances of others if you enjoy a proverbial glass floor: a familial support system that will prevent you from ever falling too far.

I've seen it more times than a can count. 

  • Legal troubles eliminated thanks to exceptionally skilled professionals paid for by parents
  • College tuition, mortgage downpayment, automobiles, and infusions of cash offered by parents in desperate times
  • Family owned businesses, legacy employment, nepotism, and second, third, and fourth chances given to someone thanks to the influence of a parent

If you're fortunate to be blessed with a glass floor, please don't forget how devastating a bad break can be for someone who isn't as blessed, and how incredibly stressful life can be for someone who is living without any safety net whatsoever.  

Think about this: According to a recent New York Fed study, one-third of Americans would not be unable to come up with $2,000 to deal with an emergency like an urgent home repair, medical crisis, or car accident.

This means that not only could they not raise $2,000 themselves, but they have no parent or family member capable of raising the money on their behalf, either. 

For many people, this situation would be unimaginable. But for almost a decade, I lived that reality, not because of bad decisions on my part or an unwillingness to work, but simply because of bad breaks. A cycle of poverty. A lack of support systems of any kind. The victim of a violent crime. An arrest for a crime I didn't commit. Homelessness. 

And I was lucky. I was physically and mentally healthy. Fairly intelligent. Capable of working 80 hours a week when necessary. I lived in a state with a strong social safety net. I had friends who put a roof over my head in a time of need. I wasn't the victim of racial discrimination.   

Still, I almost didn't make it.

Imagine what life could have been had my bad breaks had been coupled by mental illness. A physical disability. Addiction. Imagine if I had been unjustly convicted of that crime. Imagine how my life might be different had I been African American or female or any other marginalized member of society.  

It's so easy to see someone down on their luck, spiraling, and assume that they are to blame, when so many of us suffer similar breaks but are saved by the support systems that many don't enjoy.   

"But for a couple of bad breaks, especially visited upon vulnerable people, the outcome of life would be so different." 

It's so true. 

Mike Pesca's favorite sentences of 2015 (and mine)

Back in January, Mike Pesca of Slate's The Gist discussed some of his favorite sentences of 2015. When Pesca attributed the sentence to someone., I included the attribution. 

  • Bill Raftery on how he enjoys learning something and immediately sharing it: "That's why I went into broadcasting rather than espionage." 
  • "It's easier to condemn than to figure out the charge."
  • "They're against changing the flag because that's against they're identity. I don't mean the flag is their identity. Being against change is their identity." - Mike Pesca 
  • "Grief is our compensation for death."
  • "Some voters do not share democratic values, and politicians must appeal to them as well." 
  • "The tradeoff of living in a country where California gets to set the standard on auto emissions is that Texas gets to set the standards on textbooks." - Mike Pesca
  • Frank Luntz, acknowledging the anxiety of Trump voters: "But they're also out for revenge."
  • "Bravery is easy when you defend yourself from other. Humanity is more difficult. It's when you defend others from yourself." - Nino Markovich of Montenegro 

Like Pesca, I am a serial collector of words, sentences, dialogue, images, and ideas. You can't write five novels, three musicals, a magazine column, and a blog post every day for almost ten years without being a good listener and connector of ideas. 

 Inspired by his list of favorite sentences, I went to my Evernote to recover some of my own favorite sentences from 2015:

  • “What is happiness? It’s a moment before you need more happiness.” - Don Draper
  • "In a world where superheroes, and more importantly super-villains, exist, being a glazier must be a great job." - Michael Maloney
  • "He was the fourth of three children."
  • "Whisper to yourself what you love most, and that's how you can be brave." - Clara Dicks
  • "The saddest of all the ribbons is the white ribbon." - Matthew Dicks
  • "You make me want to come to school every day, and that is what every teacher should try to do before everything else. All the other stuff isn't as important as that. Just fill the classroom with hilariousness and love." - a former student (currently in eighth grade) writing to me
  • "None of us marry perfection, we marry potential." - Elder Robert D. Hales
  • “I trust my story. I always betray my heart with my tongue.” - Clara Dicks while reading Neil Gaiman's Instructions

A lesson on the importance of stakes in storytelling - Plus the story of the day I posed as a charity worker for nefarious reasons

On my most recent appearance on Slate's The Gist, I discuss the importance of stakes in storytelling and some of the tricks that I use to build and maintain them throughout the story.

Plus I tell the story of a time when I posed as a charity worker for less-than-charitable reasons and got a lot more than I bargained for. 

Sleeping with goats on The Gist

I had the pleasure of appearing on The Gist this week. Host Mike Pesca interrogated me about my life story, and we talked about how you can take a life event and craft an interesting story from it. I talked about sleeping with goats, shotguns to my head, and being arrested and tried for a crime I did not commit. You can listen here or subscribe to The Gist in the iTunes music store or click on the Soundcloud link below:

This was my second appearance on The Gist. My first, in case you missed it, was a couple of weeks ago.  

The purpose of these appearances is to discuss storytelling. In addition to these discussions, we are taking story pitches from Gist listeners, and one lucky listener will have the opportunity to work with me on his or her story, with the goal of taking the stage and telling the story at a future storytelling event. 

If you would like to pitch us a story, listen to the episode for details.

Storytelling on The Gist

If you’re not already listening to Slate’s The Gist, the daily podcast hosted by Mike Pesca, here’s another reason to do so:

I’ll be appearing on The Gist as a part of a new project that seeks to teach the art of storytelling to listeners. Whether you are telling stories at a dinner party or the water cooler or on the stage, our goal is to explore how stories are found and crafted and perhaps help people become more engaging and interesting conversationalists.

In addition to all that, we are accepting story pitches from listeners, and one lucky person will have the opportunity to work with me to perfect their story and ultimately perform it on stage. 

You can listen to the first episode here, or by subscribing to The Gist in iTunes, or by listening through Soundcloud here.

My segment begins at the 9:40 mark.