The Tapestry of a Story

Over the weekend, I sampled the S-Town podcast while I was on the treadmill.

Aaaaaand THERE went the rest of the weekend.

Sure, I ate and drank and went outdoors and got the newspaper and did the Sunday crossword. But I also listened.

Here's some background.

A. It's produced by those who brought the Serial podcast to the world, which in turn was made by experienced folks from This American Life, and focuses on the life of a character in a small town in the southern U.S.

B. It's in a significantly different format (aside from being a story told by voices on the radio): all seven episodes were released at once. It thus lacks the "simultaneous reporting" feature of the two seasons of Serial and other true-crime or investigative journalism podcasts, when attention to the initial story brings forward information that can shed light on or solve the initial mystery.

The fact of A made me, frankly, a little leery. I liked Serial, but I've heard storytellers on This American Life cross the line from an "Oh really? That's interesting; I'm listening" question to a "I'll let you keep talking while I snicker at your ignorance" question. Especially when it comes to people and places in the southern U.S. (I'm not pointing fingers at anyone or any story in particular. Your mileage my vary. I've been told I'm over-sensitive and I may well be so.)

Still, I heard NONE of that in S-Town. Brian Reed, the host, is open about the times he's unfamiliar with cultural issues and the times he's in uncomfortable situations. He does a great job of asking for explanations, of allowing people to speak for themselves, of calling people on it when he thinks their story is self-serving, of running difficult truths past interview subjects--in short, of standing in for a reader. I felt no disrespect, either from him or from the editing process, for the people he talks to or the culture they came from.

Still, I think it's the B element that makes the podcast so compelling--and yes, controversial. Questions have come up regarding the ability for interview subjects to consent, the possibility of identifying people who might like to remain anonymous, the framing of some sexual practices and types of relationships, and other concerns that are discussed and illuminated in this article by Aja Romano on Vox.

But S-Town is worth listening to if only in relation to storytelling. It provides lots of food for thought and discussion:

* The difference between content being released serially (Dickens) vs. all at once (Eliot and most novels). What type of content works well for serial release and how are those individual epidodes structured? What type of content works better for "all at once" release, and how are those episodes structured differently? How do podcasts like Serial create themes that make it easy for a listener to follow, while also allowing room for new information and updates?

* The ability, with an "all at once" release, to craft the total content in a way a writer can't predict when you begin to write the story. In S-Town, themes--identity and belonging, intelligence vs. education, regrets and sacrifices, clockmaking and life directions--all wind and turn and support the individual episodes. Symbols recur: gardens, fertility, growing things that take on a life of their own; mazes, puzzles, the final unknowability of another person. Some of this might have been predictable from Reed's first visit to S-Town, but most couldn't have been.

Neither type of storytelling is superior to another.

Some stories benefit from close attention to each procedure. A needle pulls thread through canvas. One stitch leads to another, some stitches require skipping ahead and filling in backwards, a stitch goes in a slightly different direction, one leads to another. Meanwhile, across a swath of blank canvas, someone else is stitching, too.

Another type of storytelling benefits by being crafted before any of it is exposed. A tapestry can contain repeating elements--gold threads can appear in a sunrise, in the reflection of life from a glass in a bar, in a mirror. A shape (pear) can appear literally, in a fruit bowl, in rising smoke (inverted), in human figures. Et cetera.

It's Wednesday and I'm still scrambling to catch up from the time I spent listening to the podcast instead of finishing paperwork and paying attention to deadlines. But my time in S-Town was worth it. I highly recommend it.