Detroit Week continues here on Storyboard, with an appearance by radio storyteller Glynn Washington, a Motor City native and host of the hot NPR show Snap Judgment. We recently ran Part 1 of our conversation with him, about the contextual lines between journalism and entertainment storytelling. “This is not the news,” Washington told us, “but if we’re telling certain stories that have real-world implications, we have to use certain journalistic tools to make sure the integrity of the piece is correct.” Today, Part 2, edited lightly for length, covers the second half of the chat and a follow-up email conversation, on how Washington came to storytelling through his unusual Detroit childhood. He also talked about race politics and his erstwhile law career, and dropped some of the best narrative craft wisdom we’ve heard in a while.
Storyboard: How did you get started as a storyteller?
Washington: I come from a storytelling family. All my uncles and my father, they are big tellers of tales. But I think the thing that was most impactful for me was my experience growing up in a cult. It was the Worldwide Church of God, a fundamentalist end-of-days type of organization that taught a lot of fire and brimstone, and that the end days were upon us. They occasionally would pick dates that Jesus was gonna return by, and if you say a date and Jesus doesn’t show up, you’ve got some real ’splainin’ to do. I was a true believer, you know? Overall I thought, “Here’s the truth.” When you’re in an organization like that, you’re so cut off from the outside world in so many different ways. I felt like I was Harry Potter and the rest of the world were muggles. I felt we were fighting the dark lord, and stuff like that. It’s really intense and you’re immersed: Demons are being cast out, we’re trying to save the world from going over to the anti-Christ — all this stuff is happening all the time and you feel like you’ve got a front-row seat to history being made. You know, Armageddon is nigh and nobody understands it but we’ve got the special keys to the puzzle, and all this kind of stuff. I grew up in a Biblical fantasy world. I was scared of demons popping up behind walls sometimes. I thought that certain people could manifest powers and healings. All that stuff was true to me. So, I say all of that to say when I put all this stuff down I thought, “Wow, I just had a crazy misspent youth at the seat of religious charlatans,” but it did give me a storytelling background.
The story I once saw you tell live (about salsa lessons) had such great edge and almost — I almost want to use the word “anger,” though you might describe it differently. The edge made it hilarious on a whole different level. I also thought I heard a bit of the tent revival preacher.
Well, ours was a little bit different strand of Protestantism —
I thought I heard some of those cadences — I’m from Mississippi, which also has a strong storytelling culture, and some of the performance felt so familiar —
Yeah don’t get me wrong: I grew up in a family that was very attached to the church. My family is from Mississippi. Detroit is a northern suburb of Mississippi in a lot of different ways. My mother was from a place called Coldwater, Miss., and my father was from Alabama and Mississippi, so there’s no getting around that aspect, of infecting my storytelling. That’s very deep — deep inside of how I tell stories.
In storytelling what I’m trying to do — this is Snap at its essence — is put you where I am. To give you an immersive sort of experience: Come sit on my shoulder for a minute. If you’re doing it right, the person who’s listening to the story will feel the same highs and lows that you do. They feel angry at injustices that are visited upon you. They feel glad when the tension comes down. They feel proud when you do the good thing in the end, or whatever it might be. That’s where we’re trying to go. We hear from a lot of listeners and they say, “I feel braver after listening to your thing” or “I feel like I can do some things that I couldn’t do before.” And I think it’s because we’re almost trying to give you a vicarious experience. And yeah, if you’re in the stories like we’re in the stories, you feel like maybe you did live somebody else’s challenge for a while, and in the course of that challenge if it has an obvious aspect of injustice or something like that, hopefully as a listener maybe you will feel anger, or joy, or whatever it is. But I would hate to come off as someone who — I just can’t be anybody’s angry black man. Especially in an NPR context. It’s been such a political challenge to navigate getting a show on mainstream radio. We were very, very deliberate from early on with this show: Yes, I’m a black person; yes, my black experience in America is going to animate the storytelling on this show, no question. But it’s not just a black show. We really try very, very, very hard to have perspectives from all kinds of different people, from around the globe.
So “anger” is a trigger.
It’s a trigger for me I guess from a political perspective or just a background thing, because — here’s the thing about professional black men in America: Don’t be an angry black man. Obama is the perfect example of this. Obama gets disrespected in ways that U.S. presidents have never done in the history of time. But you’ll never see him pull essentially an angry black — Michelle might!
It’s just one of those things. The idea of the angry black man plays the stereotype so much in this country that you have to be really, really careful about using that term, because it’s a trigger: “Oh, I get it, he’s one of those angry black males.” It’s a box, and once you’re in it, you never get out.
It’s cool that this has brought up this whole other conversation, because I was just talking about, like, storytelling delivery — narrative voice.
I’ve got to be somewhat circumspect in how I say this, because this is what happens right now. I speak with ethnic inflections. When I do that, sometimes it’s interpreted — like on public radio stations sometimes I’ll hear, “What’s all that jive talk that guy’s doing?” And, “This is an NPR station and there’s all that hip-hop jive talk being spoken on there and it’s really turning me off.” I have to hear this all the time from NPR member stations.
It’s America. What it is — our show is as smart if not smarter than anything that’s been on public radio. But because I use an African-American cadence it’s sometimes demeaned and put down as lesser or raw or unpolished or not quite there or not up to NPR standards —
Are you serious? Are these listeners or station managers or —
Sometimes both. People have said things like this to me since the very start of the show. You can go on listener comments and see all kinds of comments like this. We’re aiming to be a mass market show. We think that everybody — black, white, gay, straight — could dig a lot of this storytelling, and we’re serious enough about it that we try to get people from different groups to tell stories. That’s the whole outreach. I’m basically saying that I have to be careful about how I — the fact that I speak in an African-American cadence leaves the show open for certain types of criticisms that might not otherwise exist. It’s been really interesting to deal with it. You know, race in general in America feels like shadow boxing. You don’t know where certain criticisms are coming from or what they’re based upon. It’s been a challenge for us: How do we stay true to who we are? In the same way that Boston informs Car Talk or Minnesota informs Garrison (Keillor), Oakland informs Snap. And Oakland has just this huge crazy jumble of ethnicities and people and lifestyles and sexuality choices, and it’s normal for us here. And that’s where the world is going as well. Public radio hasn’t caught up with that aspect of America, let’s put it that way.
Your career trajectory wasn’t radio storytelling, right? You got your show by winning a radio talent contest.
Oh, yeah. I was very fortunate in that when I was mentally pulling away from this cult background that I had, I got a fellowship to go study in Japan. It really gave me a year to just kind of clear my head, away from all this nonsense that I had been born into. I was interested in international relations in general and policy specifically, and so I started doing all kinds of stuff. I was on TV shows in Japan; I was helping do different kinds of policy related to social activism. After leaving Japan I went to law school and had been running nonprofits since law school, different types of policy-based international nonprofits. I was working with the United Nations. We didn’t have any money, so whenever I talked to some sort of policy maker the only currency I had was storytelling. My goal then was similar to my goal now: We could move someone to do something based upon the story that I tell. You have a few minutes with Mr. Biggity-Big, you better make it good. Even though they might be a big politician or whatever, they’re still people. And people respond to narrative. I didn’t think of it in those terms when I was doing it, but yeah, I was telling stories basically for my career, just in a different type of context.
What’s the secret to great storytelling?
I think there’s a lot of secrets but one of them is believing what you’re talking about. What’s happening right now, with this kind of renaissance of storytelling that’s going on around the country, is that people are tiring of the sort of leaden, deadening weight of CGI factories. They’re searching for something that means something to them, that can relate to them on a deeper level. And storytelling is stripped down — it’s raw. And how do you strip down and be raw? When you want to tell a really good story sometimes you’ve got to ask yourself, “First of all, can I get to this place myself?” You want to get raw with yourself before you get raw on stage, or with a microphone. It’s a thing that you see with musicians and artists — you just have to go inside, and figure out what it is you want your story to be. “Know thyself” is a key to good storytelling. You have to know your own story, see your own narrative. One of the things that’s going on is that people really don’t see themselves as the center of their own story. They see themselves as being involved with someone else’s. People often don’t see themselves as central to their own narrative, that their choices have unique weight that could potentially resonate beyond themselves. One of the real keys to great storytelling is to forget all the bigness, all the largeness, all the desire to go huge, and to go as small and granular as you can, with a story that means something to you. Conversely, the more resonance it will have with the people who hear it.
In a journalism context, storytellers are oftentimes going for an institutional response: “What do the big guys say? What does Obama say?” And sometimes they downplay the real-time history that’s happening in people’s lives that resonates with other people. It’s still fairly rare to see that done well, and when you do it’s like, wow. Our nation has devolved into braying asses, as far as our national dialogue is concerned. But when someone tells you a story — “This is what happened to me. This is what went down for me” — it’s amazing how impactful that can be, as opposed to two jackasses on TV, shouting at each other. Narrative is designed to create empathy.
Structure is something that a lot of narrative journalists struggle with. How do you decide where to begin a story, and how to shape it?
We often separate the various building blocks of a story, and then play with the order to arrive at some sort of flow. Almost always, the simplest, most linear, version of events works best in narrative storytelling. It’s really easy to confuse people, and you never, ever want that to happen.
Pacing is another critically important aspect of storytelling. How do you approach it? How do you keep the listener riveted?
Comics have to continually reach for laugh lines, at least one every 30 seconds or so. Poets get to create a riot of mental images, the more the better. But as a storyteller, you have to be disciplined and laser-focused on the overall story arc. I can’t have you laughing if it doesn’t serve my larger narrative. I can’t have you thinking of various fantastic imagery if doesn’t serve my larger narrative. If an aspect of your piece does not serve your greater arc, it has to go. Even if it’s interesting. Even if it’s hilarious. Even if it’s heartbreaking. It has to be worked into the greater narrative, or it has to be cut with extreme prejudice. Every line of the story must be considered with the ending in mind. So we’re always thinking, “How do you build toward that final step?” But storytellers also have to keep it interesting right this moment. To keep audiences on board, I generally need some type of decision point ever 90 seconds or so. Something’s gotta change, someone’s gotta be introduced, something’s got to actually “happen.” We construct stories to build toward an ending that both grabs listeners by the throat and allows them to appreciate the journey our hero has traversed. And I don’t want our audiences to see it coming. I want listeners to live vicariously and be just as surprised as the storyteller when the twist comes. That’s the whole goal, letting people live the life of another — even if only for a moment. And while a listener may have made different choices for themselves, I want them to understand why our protagonist did what they did.
For you, what makes a good audio narrative — how do you decide a story is actually a story? (See the handy flowchart, above, created by Snap Judgment‘s Stephanie Foo, to learn how the show helps potential contributors discern Topic from Story.) What are the key elements of a great narrative?
Great narratives often start with a fantastic speaker who has something to actually say. As a listener myself, I want to go somewhere I haven’t been. I want a real dilemma with real consequence. I want to think a thought I haven’t thought before. I want to wear someone else’s skin. Really wear it, smell it, feel it, shove my feet into their boots and know that whatever happens, I’m gonna make a real decision and I’m going to live with it.
This is the second of three installments of Detroit Week on Storyboard. In case you missed it, on Tuesday the New York Times Book Review’s Jennifer B. McDonald wrote about Rebecca Solnit’s “Detroit Arcadia.” Tomorrow, Fast Company’s Chuck Salter takes us behind the scenes of a multimedia project on the city’s twisting narrative: a longform magazine story brought to life on the stage.