3 Ways Podcasting Has Made Me a Better Writer
This is the next post in my ongoing series about how podcasting helped me recover from my PhD and led to my publishing a non-academic book. It’s intended for academics and current graduate students wondering how they might branch out into new areas of research and writing.
In this post, I discuss the top three ways that podcasting benefitted my writing in the ennui that hits after finishing graduate school. Here goes…
1) I recovered a natural and purposeful writing voice
More than anything else, podcasting put me back in touch with what I think of as my true writing voice–the style of writing that best reflects who I am at my core. After years of honing the craft of academic writing, I felt dissociated from not only the ease with which I used to write prior to graduate school but with my very self. This may not be everyone’s experience, but academic writing never felt fully me—it never quite touched the deepest corners of my creativity, never quite encapsulated what it was I actually wanted to be saying in my writing.
Perhaps because podcasting involves one’s actual voice—the kind that comes from your trachea, not just your pen or keyboard—it was almost therapeutic in bridging the gap between me and my writing. Then as now, I typically develop episode scripts through a combination of typing and dictation so that they are suitable for spoken-word audio. This requires me to (literally) listen to myself, my thoughts, my ideas. Probably there are some proven neurological reasons for why this has helped me recover what at least feels like a more authentic voice in my writing–brain connectivity and whatnot. I’m no neuroscientist; what I can say is that all of this has not only furthered my career as a writer, it has been immensely healing on a human and personal level.
2) I learned the benefits of an audience
Although, during my PhD, I had presented at a lot of conferences and met a multitude of scholars at all levels of my field, I never sensed I had an audience. In fact, as I look back now, I am not even sure I knew what having an audience felt like. I had plenty of friends and acquaintances in my field, but for some reason, I didn’t know what it was like to connect meaningfully around a specific topic, at least not one I was actively working on. I didn’t know what it was like to forge bonds with folks who were interested in what I had to say. Perhaps I was shy about my work, perhaps I didn’t put myself out there enough, perhaps I just didn’t communicate my topic in a way that was engaging or comprehensible to others. Whatever the case, my work was largely an exercise in solitude and I assumed that writing and researching simply meant being the only person interested in one’s work.
When I began podcasting, however, something interesting happened: people listened. And commented, wrote emails, or Facebooked me about what I was saying. Mind you, not in droves, but enough that it slowly dawned on me that what I did seemed to matter to people. I began to see my work not only as a personal hobby but as a service and bridge to others. Those “others” slowly evolved into an audience, which sounds intimidating but is really just a collection of people who have similar questions as you do (which is why they like your work). What you all have in common is your collective attraction to and fascination with those questions. Thus, your work is simply a conduit for forging a community around those questions. In other words: it’s not about you, or at least not mostly! I think recognizing this takes the pressure off this aspect of writing and producing.
But anyway. Having an audience, I’ve learned, is important for a ton of reasons. For one thing, it’s plainly and simply more exciting to encounter folks with similar interests and struggles–you’re not alone in the world! But more than that, my audience constantly challenges me to go deeper. They give me ideas I wouldn’t have thought about. They help me learn to communicate in a variety of ways so more people can understand me–and so I can see things from multiple angles. The only thing I can compare it to is teaching–we learn more from our students than they will ever learn from us, said every teacher ever. The beauty of podcasting, though, is that I’m not stuck with a room full of students who are only there because the course is required or they’re hoping you’re an “easy A.” Everyone who listens to a podcast (or reads a book they purchased, etc.) is there because they genuinely want to be there, and that is an incredible privilege and honor.
3) I reimagined my research
The best podcasts out there do not just provide information, they invite their listeners into an experience, a new world. To create this world, podcasters work hard to create aural scapes that draw on the five senses. What are the sounds I encounter when I do my work? What are the sounds I imagine when I’m reading my research? What does my work feel like when I touch it with my hands?
Merging my intellectual work with the actual, material world around me was a total game-changer for me. I found myself spotting pictures, colors, and sounds in my everyday life that reflected some small wisp of what I was trying to convey in whatever episode I was working on. For example, the first thirty seconds of an interview I did with my friend Kerry features the sound of making tea–because that is often what we drink when we get together and talk. It took me hours to mix and render all those sounds until it was both pleasing and realistic to listen to. It makes you feel like you are there with us, having a tea, talking about poetry and Mennonites and religious conversion. As a producer, those thirty seconds were a painstaking journey, but it brought a richness to the way that interview unfolds and helps me listen to it with greater depth.
No matter who our audience is or what kinds of material we write, as human beings we crave meaning and connection. We crave unity between ideas, objects, people, and places. Somehow my imagination, as a writer and as a person, became bigger and richer as I started paying attention to my senses.
And as that world began opening up, so too did the possibilities for my work. I began to reimagine the ways my research could speak to people outside of strictly academic circles. I began to see the relevance of my work from a bigger lens. I’m convinced that the projects I’m now working on would never have come about without podcasting and the way it stretched (and continues to stretch) my brain to build conceptual and sensual connections between intellectual concepts and questions, and the material world that surrounds me.
These are three of the ways podcasting has benefitted me as a writer and thinker in the wake of earning my PhD. If you’re in a similar boat and want to know how you could begin to reconceive of your research as podcast-able material, make sure to check out my previous post where I gave some thought-starters!
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