Episode 37: Alice Isn’t Dead - The Power Of Our Voices


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            Big news. I'm launching an audio drama. Somewhat have launched because I've got some trailers up on the feed, but the first episode won't be out until January 30th which is very close and giving me reasons to panic a little bit. But it's okay. It's going to be good.

            With the trailers now up, it should hopefully be in the same player you're using to listen to this podcast so maybe look it up since you’re already here? I’ll include one of the trailers at the end of this episode.

            So check out The Oracle of Dusk here or on Twitter @oracleofdusk. No spaces.


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            I'm reluctant to ever call myself the product of my insecurities partially because I'm too insecure to make such a bold statement even if it is my own judgment about my own life, and therefore by sheer virtue of its character logically sound and consistent. Meaning, there’s no real reason to be so reluctant. Then again, I'm not so worried about being wrong. I'm more worried… well I wouldn't call it “being worried” at all.

            I'm just acutely aware that words don't always fit right in my mouth. And I'm afraid that everyone else has noticed, that it is so obvious that it can't go unnoticed, and that this noticing has consequences that I do not notice. I am also concerned that when the words do seem to fit right in my mouth it is only because that I—located squarely in my own mind where everything is as I dictate it—do not notice that everyone not in my head has a very different experience.

            Ultimately, I've spent my entire life trying to meet other people where they are. Trying to help them and understand their own views and whatever led them here but that has only led to me losing track of myself regularly. And thinking I'm the only one this happens to.

            When making this show, that all feels a bit more obvious. One example of this is that I tend to question my topic selection way more than what is healthy, only to end up more often than not right back where I started. Because on one hand, there's the trains of thought trying to navigate poorly laid out tracks, and then there's the old-fashioned sailing vessel that is my gut. It's a little out of date, sure, but because it's following the immoveable North Star, it's more likely than not to find its way.

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            Hi. It's M. Welcome to Episode 37.

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            I'm well aware that I repeat myself. Not just from episode to episode, rehashing the same ideas or thoughts because I'm under the impression that with the way the show is laid out, you might feel free to skip episodes on topics that don't interest you, which is partly what I was going for. Because it's something I do with a few of the podcasts I listen to. Distance makes the heart grow fonder and all that. Skipping uninteresting episodes can keep your enthusiasm alive. And it's not like this show moves along a linear plot of any sorts.

            But I also repeat topics, clearly. And I seem to be staying grounded in the Night Vale Presents camp of programming. I'm sure that's been noticed. Which made me want to put off this episode, but I couldn't stop thinking about it. And that's the most fatal of all fatal flaws of this show: it is dependent on a mind that has a tendency of latching onto things and never wanting to let go regardless of the logic.

            It's subjective, both the phenomenon and the word I've tended to use to describe what this show is. But right now, it's also me going back to a topic I've discussed before. To something that should technically be settled and not brought up again.

            But look, in my halfhearted defense, I did say I would make an episode about the Alice Isn’t Dead novel, a reimagining of the podcast story. I had been waiting for the novel to make the episode, only to put it off the week the book was released when a fairly attractive person at my workplace asked me about the premise and seemed intrigued. (Pause) That didn't go anywhere in case you were wondering. Not even a friendship.

            When I made that decision public or as public as this podcast is, I thought at the time that this idea of a reimagined story could prove to be insightful. It’s an opportunity to essentially meet a story for the first time twice and something could be learned from that relatively rare experience. And yes, it’s something you get whenever there’s a book to movie adaptation, but there almost seems to be a set formula to those or the perception of such that lists overwhelming disappointment as one of the final products. To the point that we aren’t so much meeting a new story but grieving its artistic integrity whenever a book to movie adaptation is announced. Sure, you’ll get the occasional good adaptation but the figurative tale has played out so many times before that we can’t be bothered to muster up the long suppressed inclination to be hopeful.

            On the other hand, podcasting is a fairly new phenomenon. And podcast to book adaptations are even newer. I have one case in mind when that has led to disappointment until the story took a hard left turn, the same hard left I thought this novel was going to take in my life, but I was mistaken now and then. That’s a topic I’m not opposed to talking about on this show if I can find the right occasion, but there’s that insecurity talking again.

            In reading this novel, in re-encountering a story I loved so much, I did learn something. It wasn’t what I expected to learn, and it can seem like a slant against the novel in the wrong light. In fact, the clickbait title of this episode would be something like “The Alice Isn’t Dead novel disappointed me.” But this is a podcast, I don’t have an algorithm forcing me to clickbait anything.

            So the actual point: the Alice Isn’t Dead novel made me see one of the many things that makes podcasting such a powerful medium, recognize something in human nature that is truly worth celebrating, resolve a philosophical contradiction, and reevaluated an aspect of myself that I need to work on.

Yeah, it’s been a long week.

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            Alice Isn’t Dead, both the podcast produced by Night Vale Presents and the novel by Joseph Fink, is the story of a woman who takes a job as a truck driver largely as a pretense to find the wife she had long assumed was dead only to see her on the news once. Not like “local woman brought back from the dead” type story. No, instead, Alice was in the background of the coverage of some other event, an observer who managed to steal the spotlight for one particular person.

            In the podcast, the story is told by Keisha, the aforementioned truck driver, who speaks into her radio trying to reach someone. Preferably Alice, but as the conspiracy unravels, she becomes increasingly willing to take whatever help she can get, regardless of who it is from. Well, there are people she wants to stay away from, but let’s not split hairs on this.

            The novel, on the other hand, has a more omniscient view of the story. It includes certain aspects of the larger tale that Keisha has no way of knowing but doesn’t detract from that sense of discovery in anyway. In fact, the reader’s sense of discovery is more divorced from Keisha in the novel than it in the podcast

            It’s reflective of another difference between the two. It almost seems inevitable. Because  podcasting is an auditory medium and novels—unless you’re talking about audiobooks—are not. And even with audiobooks, they tend to have a different feeling, particularly here where there would elements of the story that don’t following the experiences of a single person.

            Hold onto that thought for a moment or two. I’m sure you’re all wondering what I thought about this long awaited novel, and if the only reason this episode took so many months is that co-worker held onto my book far longer than what was socially acceptable. Nope. That’s not what happened. Also that’s not the reason we went nowhere.

            Coworker actually enjoyed the book, more so than I did.

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            It’s this puzzle that delayed things. I’d spent months waiting excitedly for this book to come out, hyping it up in my mind, and yet when I finally had it, I lent it out after only one read-through and long before I actually got around to making this episode. And that’s very “not like me,” not that you’d know that with certainty, though you might have guessed it.

            I think most people who read a lot or who are really into reading can understand the whole “I don’t want to give my books out. Ever” thing. For us, our books carry a great deal of sentimental value and importance, and we have learned—often the hard way—that this is not a universal opinion. So don’t set up a friendship to fail by loaning out a book. It’s just not worth the emotional distress. I learned that the hard way when I loaned someone a book in high school, and it was returned to me as if the first half of it had been submersed in water. And the other person thought this was completely normal behavior.

            But there I was, giving out a book—a signed first edition, mind you, without asking for collateral or a signed contract of responsibility. And it’s not just because of a romantic inclination or fascination or a desire for friendship. Historically, none of those things had the power to make me turn on my books

            At the time, I thought it was just my love for the story. The kind of love that makes you try and recruit every potentially worthy person into something that is starting to look a little cultish. But now, I’m not sure.

            Now, I have the book back and need to reread it again for this review, which has forced the question even more. Why did I feel comfortable giving this book out and why can’t I get into it now?

            I think the simplest explanation is that hyping anything up in your mind to the degree is only going to end in disappointment. Reality and fantasies are never going to completely line up. Or, if that isn’t a satisfactory answer, there’s the law of marginal utility, the idea that the more you have of something, the smaller the pay-off you get from each item, and I have a lot of Alice Isn’t Dead in my life. Subtle differences to the story aren’t going to make a big enough difference at the scale we’re talking about here. It’s like a ten pound bag relative to an elephant. No one is going to notice that difference.

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            But it was more than that, I think. Really, I think my inability to connect was just a matter of voice. Not perspective or narration or writing style. But the actual voice—the sound of another person speaking—that comes with a podcast and its characters.

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            Personally, I’m not inclined to talk much. And maybe having a podcast is a contradiction in that regard, but it’s not like I don’t want to talk or don’t have anything to say. I think there is a time for me to speak, but it’s a hard time to find, and I tend to get caught up in the words of other people before I can find it anyway. Not that I don’t value my words but that I tend to seek other people’s out. In general, I seek other people out. Because I don’t want to be completely alone and isolated in life, and losing my dad at a young age forced me to realize and over-exaggerate how delicate that balance really is. And how easy it is to lose someone.

            But why I latched onto voices of all things is a bit inexplicable. Why I fixated so much on whether or not I remembered what my father’s voice sounded like when there were so many other things about him that I lost. In my mind, it really is largely about the voice. A physical presence can sometimes be off-putting. Silence, especially so. Much like an evil sea-witch, it’s the voice that I’m after, and I haven’t been able to explain why.

            So here’s where I find myself. I have two versions of the same story with the most fundamental difference being the presence of someone speaking, of Keisha’s voice. Yes, Jasika Nicole is an amazing performer, but watch a bad movie that happens to have a famous cast. Cough, cough Collateral Beauty. Cough. Cough. And you’ll know that a talented performer or a cast of talented performers are not going to salvage a horrible, horrible story. Which Alice Isn’t Dead is not. So why am I suddenly having a hard time appreciating it?

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            All of the questions I’ve tossed around have the same answer. Or really, they seem to converge on the same point.

            If no matter the context, I find voices important, then there’s something in the concept of “voice” or “speaking” that carries some sort of significance to me, and maybe even to human nature more broadly.

            Hannah Arendt agreed, actually. I mentioned her in my holiday special. The story goes that I read a single line in one of her books and found the kindred spirit I had been looking for because she too felt the need to condemn an impulse that offered me up as a sort of sacrifice for other people’s sense of fulfillment. Pity doesn’t help anyone. Even if it spurs you to act, it leads to destruction. I admired her not just for thinking or saying it but for writing it down. Once sealed with ink, words endure much longer than what is said. Verbal words—up until recently—were fleeting. Once uttered into the air, they would dissipate, rather quickly, the exact speed depending on the wind.

            Now we have a way of recording them, sure, but back then, I remained skeptical. After all, we aren’t (hopefully) being perpetually recorded, so not all spoken word will last forever. And even with recorded words, it doesn’t feel the same, right? Or is that just me? That there is a dimension to people that can’t easily be captured. Like fresh versus frozen vegetables.

            I don’t mean to sound so anti-technology so much as to point out where we need to go and why I had thought what I did back then. Because that was before Alice Isn’t Dead. Before podcasts became a staple of my life. Before I got into it myself and the hashtag-podern-family. Once I did, suddenly, “voice” became important, or at least, I became more aware of the importance, building up to this moment when the Alice Isn’t Dead novel caused everything to click into place.

            Because here’s the thing, I don’t think I was so wrong in thinking there’s a difference between fresh and frozen vegetables or in applying this metaphor to this context. I just misplaced it at the last moment.

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            In text-based communication, each person might have their own style or cadence to what they write or how they write it out. For example, Joseph Fink’s novel reads very differently from the work of philosopher Simone Weil that I’m also reading for a Miscellany Media Studios project that will seriously not launch for at least eighteen months. Seriously. I’m focusing on making The Oracle of Dusk right now and getting that up and running. (Pause) That’s me making a commitment.

            But the point… Both writers don’t just focus on different subjects or have different beliefs; rather, they each have their own linguistic styles, influenced by their personality and experiences. To the point that, I can easily tell them apart.

            In real life, I have a friend who sends a new message after every sentence or even a couple words and a mother who sends block text messages with minimal punctuation. It makes it easy to tell their messages apart, but there’s a finite number of identifiable quirks. As in, I’m not going to be able to do this for every person in my phone. In fact, I can think of two people whose texting style is indistinguishable.

            But voices are different, somehow. Yes voices can sound similar and can be manipulated if you were going to act or needed to act for some reason. But we can’t always put up fronts of various kinds. We often do, but we can’t always.

            One’s authentic, natural, everyday voice is fairly unique. It’s tied with the physical form that you dwell within. After all, the voice is produced by one’s throat and the movement of the vocal chords present therein. If we are emotional, those things—our joy and our sadness—can seep into this specific sound. Laughter would be the closest substitute, but we could never convey the full extent of our thoughts in such a specific type of noise. A voice is both medium and canvas all tied to someone’s figurative core.

In the case of a fictional character, they are borrowing the actor’s voice just like their borrowing the actor’s body. The audience tacitly acknowledges and approves the arrangement, letting the actor be a stand-in for the person the creator wants us to reach.

            Given the rise of podcasting, I can’t be alone in having this feeling or interpretation. Voices must be an important part of this appeal and of us. After all, with no visuals, they are the only part of the actor that we get: not facial expressions or body movements, just the voice. The voice has to pull the audience in, and if it cannot guide them, there is no podcast.

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            I like to think it was clear in my last episode on the topic that Alice Isn’t Dead really resonated with me. Themes about love and agency are always going to be powerful ones, but that was especially true here. I can remember listening to the season 2 finally walking home from the bus stop with tears building up in my eyes. My job had beaten me down, true, and I was far more vulnerable than I had any business being. For my own sake, that is.

            But it wasn’t just me. The subject matter pulled that emotion out of me, but I didn’t just see it or hear it. I didn’t just acknowledge it and the connections between me and my life. I felt it. And when I got into those parts of the novel, I read them in Jasika Nicole’s voice. With that, I found myself in the story again, pulled back into that moment and with my love for the story reignited.

            No, it couldn’t have just been the words. The voice must have been a part of it all.

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            Back when I was in college, I used to hand write thank-you letters (not just notes) to the professors who had taught my favorite classes or had the biggest impact on me. It was something my grandmother had taught me to do. It wasn’t just the tradition she wanted to preserve. Rather, she thought that doing something like that truly meant something, particularly as we move towards the digital more and more. And the responses I sometimes got from some of my professors seemed to confirm this. That in an age when handwritten items were strictly decorative and uncommon, to have a student take the time to write out a note in the best penmanship she could muster really meant something.

            But I didn’t say any of the things I wrote down, even when I was in their office hours for questions they didn’t have to answer. In fact, I found it hard to talk to these people much at all outside of what intellectual inquiry I was having right then. Not that they had been mean or harsh to me in anyway, but like I’ve been saying, I’m not inclined to speak. And I find the written word comforting. Up until I hand that note over, I can rewrite and redo whatever parts I need to, all those things that don’t come out right the first time. It gives me time to think. I don’t do well spontaneously. It’s just not in my skill set. So when I’m desperate—regardless of the reason—I default to what I know best: writing and not talking.

            You see, my new show The Oracle of Dusk is based on something that happened to me. Its narrator is an unwilling oracle of sorts, someone who gets nightmares about real people, but they aren’t normal nightmares. They are filled with the current struggles of real life people, and if Delphi is willing, she can guide people through their trials. The map is in her dreams. She just has to speak, and they have to be willing to listen.

            Once upon a time, I had a dream that a professor who had greatly influenced me was going through internal trials, that he was suffering underneath the weight of a great burden he was able to hide from everyone around him. That he felt alone, struggling to remember the goodness in his life. I wonder now and worried back then, that maybe I could have helped him, and it was cosmic duty of mine to do so. And even if a responsibility assigned to me by a merciful deity much like the Christian God, I owed him that much for the gift he had given me.

            By then, I was in a different city, but I would visit campus from time to time. I could have arranged time to sit with him and said something, anything. I didn’t even need to bring the dreams up if I didn’t want to. Maybe I could have just thanked him for his work. I did that in a note or two, but maybe it would have made a difference if I said it aloud and stood behind my words more literally. I could have also done that before I graduated. Maybe that would have been even better.

            But who knows? Speculation never works out, but the temptation to do so remains. It will always remain.

            I did leave a note on his door on one of these visits once. With a small figurine of the saint that my family considers our patron. The note explained a little bit of what I’d seen. But I didn’t include the worst of it. I didn’t know how.

            From time to time, I google his name. Yeah, I’m not thrilled by the way the digital world has a lot of weak points perfect for invasion in our day to day lives, but I’m willing to bite my tongue about that for now. Because from time to time, I’m desperate to know he’s okay, and I don’t think I can just shoot him an email asking that. Not in this context. He’s alive, so there’s that. As long as he’s alive things can get better for him. He can have the happiness he deserves both as a person and for the work he does for his students. I know the rest ofmy class didn’t appreciate it, but I did. It was the final push forward towards the rest of my life, a good one. One I’m happy in.

            And then there’s the person who can only be described as my life mentor. We’re still in contact from time to time, having met in college, but I have a tendency of disappearing for months at a time until I’m nearly at my breaking point only to come crawling back to him then. For him to fix everything when we could have avoided so much had I just reached out three months ago.

            When I was at my lowest, he called me to help me through it, and to this day, his distinct voice is a lighthouse in my storms. It’s not fair to him that he only hears mine when the reckoning is coming. And yet, that’s what tends to happen. After all, I don’t value my voice like he does.

            We live with our voices so much that it’s easy to forget that they matter. After all, it will always be there for us. Why think about it? The only thing that will make us notice it is its absence. When we are encountering a similar story but without that one element.

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            So why did the chicken cross the road? Because it heard a voice, and that voice pulled it forward. It was one the chicken thought it knew and that felt familiar somehow. It was hard to say. The chicken certainly couldn’t say. It didn’t have a voice of its own but one’s outside of it that it had learned to rely on and lean again.

            The chicken took a deep breath. Everything was going to be okay. The voice was there, and it said so.

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            So here’s that trailer I promised you. And remember to check out The Oracle of Dusk wherever you are currently listening to my voice.


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I saw you in the store today. I didn't follow you in or anything like that. I was already there. Then you walked it, and I saw you. Once I did, I'm sorry, but I couldn't look away.

I was getting some medicine. You see, I've been having trouble sleeping lately. The… the dreams... are getting harder to ignore. They've been getting more intense and more frequent. I've never fully understood them. And even if I did, that doesn't mean I would know what to do. I just know that if I sleep deeply enough, I don't dream. Or--at least--I don't remember my dreams, and that counts for something. So for a while, I tried something I started calling sleep cycling. I'll be awake for twelve hours and sleep for two. When you're freelancing, a sleeping schedule like  isn’t impossible. It’s just not advisable. And you're right, the numbers aren't adding up on that front. It's the only thing that has worked so far, though. Even if it's not sustainable.

Or it did work, for a while. But now I’m dreaming of you again. I don’t know what to do.

Melatonin is supposed to help you sleep, right? That's Plan B. And it’s a completely safe as a plan B. Maybe it’s not the best Plan B I could have. I know what I should do. But I can't do that. It would be too hard for me. I know what I can do, though. The question is: (Music cuts) are you listening? (Music fades in)

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