Tell Me a Story

Every now and then I see calls go out for people’s favorite writing podcasts. And I always offer my favorites.

But . . . I think I’m doing it wrong.

I mean, yes, Writing Excuses is excellent. What’s not to love about listening to Brandon Sanderson, Mary Robinette Kowal, Dan Wells, and Howard Tayler break down the intricacies of writing into thoughtful, helpful pieces?

But those aren’t the kinds of writing podcasts I listen to. I always end up offering a list of my favorite storytelling podcasts instead, which is not the same thing, but which I think may be as or more essential to writers than podcasts about the craft of writing.

These podcasts are true stories, told by the people who experienced them, and they are wild, funny, heartbreaking, absurd, delightful, painful, and wondrous by turns. Each of these stories has something essential to offer novelists who are creating experiences and sometimes even worlds out of nothing but imagination. They’re a foundation to build on, maybe even a manual for getting it right.

The sad stories teach us to find our humanity, to remind us that there is nothing antiseptic about pain. It is immediate and visceral and we should not write a convenient distance between us and it.
The absurd stories teach us that sometimes reality outstrips our imaginations in the most fantastic ways and challenge us to match it.

The funny stories remind us of the very necessary breath that humor allows our readers to take in our novels.

And on and on and on.

My all-time favorite, ALL TIME favorite, is The Moth storytelling hour. It’s magic. These are true stories told without notes in front of a live audience. Sometimes they’re organized around a theme. Sometimes these are professional raconteurs, but often these are ordinary people who have experienced something extraordinary. Sometimes it’s extraordinary in a quiet way and sometimes it’s on a grand scale, but always in a way that changes the teller. A recent favorite story was about a tattoo gone horribly, terribly wrong.

Before I discovered the Moth, This American Life was my hands down favorite. Ira Glass understands storytelling in a way that has influenced the entire current field of story-driven podcasters, and he says incredibly smart things about storytelling in this short, utterly worthwhile clip:

(Ira Glass on Storytelling from David Shiyang Liu on Vimeo)


This American Life will take you to unexpected places and give you glimpses into American life that will alternately enthrall, enrage, and energize you. It is by turns funny and touching and befuddling, depending on the episode, but they go to a depth and breadth in exploring a story that I’ve never found anywhere else.

A much lesser known but totally great podcast is The Mystery Show. There are only six episodes and each one explores some tiny mystery for an entire hour, but it’s fascinating. For the sheer delight of it, you should listen to the one about the belt buckle. My husband bugged me until I did and I love him for it.

Snap Judgment describes itself as “storytelling with a beat.” Sometimes I find the incessant audio editing à la Radio Lab a little off-putting but I’ve learned I’m in the minority on this. That aside, in one recent episode, the black radio hosts tells what it’s like to grow up in a white supremacist Jesus cult. I mean . . . how are you going to pass on that?

I think the whole reason I love telling stories so much is the countless hours I spent listening to my dad, uncles, and grandfather regale us with tales both harrowing and hilarious of their experiences. The simplest stories became art in their gifted hands, and these podcasts take me back to that. A good story—and a true one—well-told reminds me to push for that kind of magic in my own work.

Go on . . . download a little magic for yourself.


Melanie Bennett Jacobson is an avid reader, amateur cook, and champion shopper. She consumes astonishing amounts of chocolate, chick flicks, and romance novels. She lives in Southern California with her husband and three kids and a series of doomed houseplants. Melanie is a former English teacher who loves to laugh and make others laugh. In her down time (ha!), she writes romantic comedies for Covenant and maintains her humorous slice-of-life blog. Her sixth novel, Always Will, hits shelves in October. Melanie’s contemporary YA novels are represented by Alyssa Henkin.