Episode 65: Podcast Saga Part 18 - The Meta Episode (Kind of…)


(Music fades in)

            Maybe I shouldn’t be, but I am very fascinated with the lives of writers before they became writers. Or published writers if you really want to split hairs on this. And I say that I shouldn’t be so interested because I’m pretty sure this fascination came from an insecurity. Like, when I just started writing I was a literal child, so you would expect that barring some superhuman ability and all the pitfalls therein, I would suck at it. That’s not even just par for the course. That’s how the course works: you have to get all the badness out of you as if you were clearing a field before planting your crops.

            But as a child first, then preteen, and then teenager under intense pressure to produce something of great value, I didn’t see that. Rather, I had the perception--to put it politely--that I was behind some sort of arbitrary schedule. And I think I was looking for signs that this wasn’t the case. Except I only found signs that it was.

            However, mundane childhoods aren’t preserved in the public memory. True or not, the stories that make it onto the stage are ones of greatness or ones that more obviously foreshadow the greatness that was to come. If that seems odd, please remember that I grew up in the shadow of Stephanie Meyer. A shadow that was created not necessarily because our school administration thought her work was absolutely brilliant. The greatest lesson of Twilight is that perfection isn’t a requirement for significance, the irony of my experience in her shadow, aside.

            Actually, that could have been the real reason, for all I know. I’ll admit, I really only have the speculation fueled by rumor and potentially misremembered hindsight to go off of. All the same, my theory regarding their devotion to her is that this was done out of hope that if all of their chips were down, she could swoop and save them. Unlikely. She probably didn’t think of them. But maybe if they remember her really, really hard, she’ll suddenly think to remember them. Even more unlikely. But fairytales have their place.

            But there is one story I came across that I think is particularly noteworthy. And I don’t think you’ve heard of it because you’ve never heard of the person involved. Probably. That might be a little presumptuous, but I doubt there is much intersection between his fan base and the people who listen to this podcast. Maybe I’m wrong. I’ve been wrong before.

            Anyway, his name is Bruce McAllister.

(Music fades out)

            Hi. It’s M. Welcome to Episode 65.

(Music fades in)

            By the way, I’m pretty much just laying out the background that I think you’ll need to understand my perspective or why I thought that this subsection of the podcast world that seems way too crowded if not generally pointless actually matter. I think there is a point to them but not because I think there’s a point to every story that is told, even if it doesn’t have broad appeal or applicability. To explain my thoughts, I need you to tell you a story not of my own but one that matters.

The story that I want to tell you about Bruce McAllister and the result of a project he undertook when he was sixteen. It’s probably the most grounded way I could share my thoughts with you. And because The Oracle of Dusk just launched its second season, I’m going to need to use some training wheels this week because I am very tired and mentally stressed for no reason other than my workload.

            But this is a podcast saga. So I should probably get to telling you what podcast or podcast genre I’m talking to. And, hey, maybe you already know, but I can never tell how far my leading takes someone.

            I’m talking, of course, about the podcasts about other people’s creations. Like this podcast, admittedly, but when I came up with the idea for this episode, I was thinking more about the types of podcasts where a couple people, usually friends if it’s an amateur production, get together and discuss either one piece of media per episode, follow the course of a creation across time, or some other plan that makes episode lines easy to define.

            When I came up with idea, I was thinking about the Wisecrack podcasts like Show Me the Meaning!: a podcast about movies and their thematic impact, but I’m pretty sure everyone listening to my voice currently would has some show they could use as a frame of reference. Even if this is not a part of their listening routine.

            From an outsider’s perspective—and I mean completely outside of the podcast realm—this can seem like a weird and lazy product. Or it’s certainly not an idea that justifies the legitimate effort that goes into podcast production. Or it might just be a lesser product because it built so much off of an existing form. I’m not saying that these are common opinions, so much as these are things I’ve heard and the sort of things that rise to the surface.

(Music fades out and new music fades in)

            And these are frustrating things to hear not just because I make a podcast about media I didn’t make but because these are the sorts of shows that I love. I’ve always thought I loved them because they fit in with the odd ticks and misfires of my brain. Now, I’m not so sure. Actually, I am sure that this is part of it. But I think there’s a larger picture involved, and that’s the picture that involves Bruce McAllister.

(Music fades out and new music fades in)

            When Bruce McAllister was sixteen, he—like many teenagers—had a disagreement with his English teacher about symbolism. So to prove that symbolism wasn’t like buried treasure just waiting to be dug up, McAllister sent out a four-question-surveys on symbolism to 150 established writers, 75 of whom actually wrote back. And keep in mind, this was before the internet or email. It wasn’t impossible for someone who was willing to do the leg work to get all of these addresses. Which apparently McAllister did.


            That might have been part of the reason why so many authors wrote back. The effort he put into this—and would have to once all the answer came in—was admirable. But on the other hand, McAllister thought that part of their interest stemmed from the fact that no one was asking them these questions. At that point in literary study, the writer and their intention had been excluded from the conversation. Or, as McAllister put it, “Scholars would talk about symbolism in writing, but no one had asked the writers.” [Source 1]

(Music fades out and new music fades in)

            Question 2 in particular is worth noting. It goes, “Do readers ever infer that there is symbolism in your writing where you had not intended it to be? If so, what is your feeling about this type of inference? (Humorous? annoying? etc.?)” [Source 2]

            Some of the answers might be what you would expect, Ralph Ellison who wrote Invisible Man replied that, “Yes, readers often infer that there is symbolism in my work, which I do not intend. My reaction is sometimes annoyance. It is sometimes humorous. It is sometimes even pleasant, indicating that the reader’s mind has collaborated in a creative way with what I have written.” [Source 2]

            Or consider another answer from Saul Bellow, a Nobel laureate, wrote back, “They most certainly do. Symbol-hunting is absurd.” [Source 2]

            But of all the responses that I’ve read, Joseph Heller, author of Catch 22, wrote the answer that stuck with me the most. Regarding this “symbol hunting,” he said, “This happens often, and in every case there is good reason for the inference; in many cases, I have been able to learn something about my own book, for readers have seen much in the book that is there, although I was not aware of it being there.” [Source 2]

            I actually love this response. Even as a creator who can give herself intense anxiety at the thought of her work being interpreted in ways she did not intend, the optimism of Heller’s quote is a little contagious. After all, regardless of what a creator might try or not try, there is this sense that one’s creation, once made and released from the realm of the mind, is impossible to control. The author simply can’t. And any attempts to claim a sense of control is just going to poke the figurative bear.

            But this isn’t all bad. Sure, it would suck to have someone try to explain your own work to you. Or to twist its meaning into supporting something that you know to be vile and reprehensible. Those are things to be fearful of—to varying degrees. But Heller points out there’s a positive to this: sometimes you get to see things in a new light. A better, more inspiring light. And maybe—to extrapolate even further—you can fall in love with what you made all over again.

(Music fades out and new music fades in)

            And Heller’s comments aren’t so outrageous. Really, he was pointing out that an established part of the creative process doesn’t simply end when something is published. And that is running ideas past other people or letting another set of eyes look at a draft. These are things that we know can substantially improve a work, and it’s partially why editors exist.

            Sure, a consumer of your content isn’t really in a position to provide professional advice that should be taken. There’s the issue of training, whether or not they understand your intentions, and the fact that this thing already exists and cannot be changed. I mean, their comments might influence your later works or give you something else to learn from, but that just means the second point is more relevant. But it’s not impossible that a fan would find a moment in your work that was kind of incidental and celebrate it. They can take some part of your work that you thought was meaningless and show you that you were wrong. That it was actually kind of brilliant.

            And that’s pretty neat.

            But also not exactly relevant. Because the writer, director, or whoever might not care about these opinions and that’s their right. My point is largely that once something leaves the creative house it was born in, it takes on its own life. The ensuing consumers of the content would have their own relationships with these figurative beings, shaping them and themselves in the process. And in the digital age, this takes on a new form.

(Music fades out and new music fades in)

            Because for all the problems of the social internet, it’s easier to find others who like the things you do and build up a community of people. That’s the other side of this that Heller and really no one could have predicted. Sure, fan clubs have--in some shape or form--have always existed, but considering the vast potential of the internet for group formation, it’s making entirely different entities.

            I mean, I can just follow a tag on Tumblr to see fanart or go to any of the many fanfiction forums for fan creations from people I’ll never have to interact with. That’s pretty new. It was unheard of that you could forge any type of community for yourself from this type of tribalism, using that term in a neutral way. In the past, one was bound to the physical community that bore them, and if no one around you liked the thing or things that you did, then you were out of luck. Until something else came along, and you got to try again.

            To preempt a critique, the modern fan enthusiasm is just that: modern. But the power and appeal of stories is fairly timeless. I’m a firm believe that the media we love connects to something within us and our experiences. And that is kind of the premise of this podcast.

            Podcasting is another form of this community building, just one that has more clearly defined roles in the creator versus audience distinctions. But unlike, say a Tumblr tag, there is a clear central point for people to come around. That central point just happens to be the product of a specific creator.

            But it’s more than that. Podcasting adds another potential to this equation that didn’t exist in the past. It takes the act of dissection and the rediscovery therein and turns it into a communal effort with a minimal barrier of entry. Let me explain.

(Music fades out and new music fades in)

            You see, I’ve been in the world of academia as a graduate student. It’s a great way to get a glimpse into that world that might be a minimal commitment depending on the length of your program. Having gotten that glimpse, I will point out that this is not the life for everyone. That might have gone without saying, but I will say that this is a world of intense and very narrow scrutiny. Obviously, you have to specialize on a field and subfield. But there is also a pressure to narrow your focus even more: to focus in on a topic, era, author, or even specific text. Then you must find whatever insight may or may not be there and publish work about it. But these works that you make must be somewhat convoluted. I don’t know why. That’s just an observation.

            And I’m sure that part of this is the community of peers academics have to perform in front of. There is this sense in which academia is a perpetual competition not to take on a certain position, like first place, but to land in a tier of esteem that has a strictly enforced occupancy limit. With this in mind, Community and competition can be hard to distinguish between, assuming that’s possible.

            That isn’t to say it’s all bad. It’s a fine space for some people to work in, but the nature of the beast makes it incompatible with other people. But does that incompatibility matter? I would say it does. I think there is this desire in all of us to take something we have and get to know it better among people who could be considered our “peers,” however loosely we want to use that term. Or in other words, to draw from this seemingly valuable well in a way that might enrich the lives of at least a respectable portion of the population, if not the whole thing. But in the previously described case, the ensuing perception or outright result is then tucked away where only a segment of the population can do it and only at this caliber.

            Yes, nothing is stopping you from doing this in your own home or space, but at the same time, I would say there’s something about this activity that requires some sort of audience or community to be engaged in it. Or we feel a need for an audience of some kind for this to feel appropriately. And I think I understand why. Vaguely. I think on some level, discovery doesn’t end with the unveiling; there has to be a showing of sorts. “Discovery” as a concept can be thought of as making the unknown into something that is known. And “knowing” is an act that can only be done by people. Hence why you need someone to witness the discovery of symbolism or meaning or absurdity or whatever it is that you find in the media that you love.

            Enter podcasting. Enter a space that famously defined by the lack of a gate or gatekeeper. And suddenly, that act that was typically out of the hands of the populace becomes possible. I mean to say, in other words, that dissecting media for discovery or the related presentation—even for the most inconsequential tidbits—required interest from an outside person. And podcasting makes it possible for people to connect around this point.

(Music fades out and new music fades in)

            In the line between discussion and discovery is starting to look a little blurry. Everyone involved in this genre of podcasting would probably call their shows discussions, but because of the medium these discussions happen in, there are added dimensions to them, in the same way that the content of these shows adds to the original work. In some ways, this genre of podcasting is the central point around which all of these things come together. You have a space where anyone can enter—either as a creator or audience member—that can be used to create a product that focuses around discovering otherwise unknown aspects of established works, all in a communal settings.

            In other words, it’s the culmination of cures to various weaknesses. An author can’t control or account for every little piece or interpretation of their work. Despite being the creator, they cannot fully comprehend all the implications or avenues of their creations without assistance. Fresh eyes can enlighten them. Or--if they are not interested in this illumination--it allows their creation to continue to live on in new ways, bringing joy to the devoted fans who are participating in this.

            It also means that those who do have this desire to participate in the process of digging into the established to find new things or to make new discoveries who would otherwise be excluded from that activity because of the nature of the traditional space are now able to participate. But not just participate. They can do so without the need to perform in the same way that an academic or someone trying to support their career would have to. Podcasting is a no pressure space because there’s no fence post bearer telling you to jump if you want to keep creating or working. You just have to keep making your show. Sure, an audience may not come, but it’s not because one is being kept from you. It’s more complicated than that.

            To be completely transparent, this episode was born out of a question a colleague asked me that seemed a bit too personal. Was I considering going back to graduate school? I know there’s been talk in the office about whether or not I should be considered for promotions or if I’m just going to jump ship in a couple months or years to go back to graduate school, making all of that irrelevant. To tell you all the truth I did not tell this person, I don’t think I will. I think all of the part of academia that I miss, I’ve been able to create for myself here. I think all of the potential is underestimated, much like the entirety of new media as a whole. And even though this process of invention is still not fully settled, I think this is a place that suits me rather nicely.

(Music fades out and new music fades in)

            Thanks for listening. We’re working on a bunch of new shows at Miscellany Media Studios. So follow us on Twitter @miscellanymedia to stay in the loop.

(Music fades out)