My Father

He was a monster who swore like a sailor, refused to wear seat belts, nearly poisoned me with a macrobiotic formula in my infancy, burned me with cigarette butts, bit me like a coward (bite marks disguised by long-sleeved shirts I wore to elementary school), and nearly asphyxiated me with a pillow. He was bad even before an auto accident in Fremont propelled him through the windshield of a VW bus, permanently scrambled his brain, and made him worse: more moody and abusive. He smoked Pall Malls. He sang and played guitar. He drank beer prodigiously. He sometimes gardened. He read books by Rod McKuen and had many other regrettable reading tastes that I thankfully didn’t mimic. He despised his job at the ZEP chemical facility. I’m pretty sure he loathed being a father. He was far lazier than I ever was, far lazier than I have ever been, and I suspect that one of the reasons I cultivated my crazy work ethic was because I remember his sloth and his entitlement, which shamed me and seemed permanently associated with the considerable physical and emotional abuse he meted towards me. I suspect his entitlement also made me angry towards anyone who felt entitled. Like him, I took up heavy drinking and heavy smoking at various times in my life. I am also quite liberal about my usage of the word “fuck” in everyday conversation, although I am decidedly cheerier about it than my dad was. His “fucks” were bitter missives hoping to decimate any and all joy around him.

I know that he’s in Oregon. Or was. The property associated with his name sold in 2016. So I have no idea where he lives now. He really liked to escape from people. He had paranoid tendencies. He had mental health issues, although, like my mother, he was never diagnosed. Perhaps a stubborn temperament was the cement that kept the unhappy marriage going so long. It’s one of the reasons why I am determined to leave the house and say hello to people every day, even though I simultaneously sustain the mystique of being the enigmatic bald creative dude in my Brooklyn neighborhood who says very few words about what he actually does. He aspired to be a writer. But, unlike me, he gave up. And I suspect this made him more bitter. I found a message thread a few years back in which he expressed how he had given up and how he made intricate toys pieced together from German kits and gave them to people. But it seemed to me that nobody returned these gestures and that he was very lonely and who the hell knows what else. Around the same time, I found a social media profile associated with his name and location in which a scantily clad woman was photographed in murky detail. Did he pay for someone? Why was this the only image? I do know that he cross-dressed. So who knows what the real sexual struggle was? Was my father angry because he could not be who he was? I do know that I get very angry when people demean and belittle me, especially when they make up stories and gaslight the narrative, although I am better these days about ignoring the haters and living a positive life.

The phone number I have for him is disconnected. I tried it about three years ago. I have not seen him in three decades. I spoke with him once on the phone when I lived in San Francisco. The call merely lasted for five minutes. I was in my early twenties. And I don’t recall saying anything of substance. I wish I had been wiser and stronger and bolder and more explicit about my need to reconcile this demon and the trauma his behavior inflicted on me. I wish I had tried to seek closure, to confront him with the pain that he caused me. But I wasn’t ready yet. I’m ready now, but I don’t have a working number.

Ten years ago, I wrote about him. My memories now are different, even though the reservoir of tearful thoughts I have to work from remains largely the same. I somehow don’t hate him. I just want to understand why he was such a monster and why he picked on a scrawny troubled kid and why he hated me. Because this screws a man up in ways that words can’t possibly convey, but that are best unpacked over a bottle of vodka with a trusted friend who will understand that I am trying my damnedest not to be selfish and that I am trying to be real and true and find new points of common empathy. I am still unmarried. I still do not have any children. I’ve reached the point in life where I wonder if it’s too late for me. For years, I’ve had this crazy idea that, if I can somehow start a family, I can erase the terrible one that I was cursed with and that caused me so much trouble in my adult years and that instilled my psyche with so many nightmares. But, of course, we all know that this is a stupid fantasy. You have to be honest about the hand you were dealt. But these are the melancholy thoughts you have a few weeks before your birthday. These are the thoughts you have when all you really have is yourself and you wonder if loving yourself can ever be enough.

Why I Will Not Be Celebrating the Fourth of July

In previous years, Independence Day was second only to Halloween as my favorite holiday. You’d show up to a park or a porch in your T-shirt and shorts, catch up with old pals casually overseeing a barbeque thronged with succulent chicken breasts slathered with promising sauce and glistening corn cobs that matched the searing hues of sunshine, and toss back a few beers while giddily tossing ground bloom flowers into the streets with a free-wheeling anarchy that was almost an instinctive homage to our founding firebrands. You’d set aside any stark political differences with casual unifying banter, knowing instinctively that the true quality bonding this nation was the invitational and subdued empathy of the American people. Very often you’d end up making out with a stranger, finding yourself in an unexpected summer romance and experiencing fireworks on the ground level that matched the bright showers exploding in the sky. The Fourth of July was the perfect midpoint to both summer and the year, allowing all to take stock in what had been accomplished and what was still possible. It was never an overtly jingoistic holiday — at least not for me or the people who I gathered with.

But I can’t find it within my moral core to party this year. Not while Trump blows $92 million on a fascist spectacle that is more befitting of a dictatorship rather than a democratic republic. This shameful and hopelessly corrupt administration would rather waste precious resources on empty jingoism, money that has been diverted from our cash-strapped national parks, that should be allocated to swiftly rectifying the traumatic conditions in concentration camps, perhaps addressing the lack of water and the indignity and the cramped space currently endured by the people who are needlessly criminalized there, much less punishing the cruelty of CBP animals who mock the deaths of undocumented immigrants when they’re not busy engaging in unacceptable racist rhetoric.

This is the kind of evil and unfathomable domestic policy that should cause anyone possessing even the tiniest sliver of a human heart to set aside their tongs and their big bags of fireworks to march loudly in the goddamned streets, vociferously denouncing the barbarism that our nation now practices without true representative resistance. But much like the epidemics of racism and gun massacres, we’ve grown accustomed to the comfort of looking the other way. We’re so seduced by the easy and enchanting susurrus of normalization, of pushing clear human abuses out of sight and out of mind to munch on our hamburgers, that the present administration only needs to keep ratcheting up the ghastly bar, counting on the fact that most Americans simply don’t or won’t give a shit.

In Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” she depicted a thriving city called Omelas united by a Festival of Summer. The citizens were blissfully happy, but there was one small cost for this revelry:

In a basement under the one of the beautiful public buildings of Omelas, or perhaps in the cellar of one of its spacious private homes, there is a room. It has one locked door, and no window. A little light seeps in dustily between cracks in the boards, secondhand from a cobwebbed window somewhere across the cellar. In one corner of the little room a couple of mops, with stiff, clotted, foul-smelling heads, stand near a rusty bucket. The floor is dirt, a little damp to the touch, as cellar dirt usually is. The room is about three paces long and two wide: a mere broom closet or disused tool room. In the room a child is sitting. It could be a boy or a girl. It looks about six, but actually is near ten. It is feeble-minded. Perhaps it was born defective, or perhaps it has become imbecile through fear, malnutrition, and neglect. It picks its nose and occasionally fumbles vaguely with its toes or genitals, as it sits hunched in the corner farthest from the bucket and the two mops. It is afraid of the mops. It finds them horrible. It shuts its eyes, but it knows the mops are still standing there; and the door is locked; and nobody will come. The door is always locked; and nobody ever comes, except that sometimes — the child has no understanding of time or interval — sometimes the door rattles terribly and opens, and a person, or several people, are there. One of them may come in and kick the child to make it stand up. The others never come close, but peer in at it with frightened, disgusted eyes. The food bowl and the water jug are hastily filled, the door is locked, the eyes disappear. The people at the door never say anything, but the child, who has not always lived in the tool room, and can remember sunlight and its mother’s voice, sometimes speaks. “I will be good,” it says. “Please let me out. I will be good!” They never answer. The child used to scream for help at night, and cry a good deal, but now it only makes a kind of whining, “eh-haa, eh-haa,” and it speaks less and less often. It is so thin there are no calves for legs; its belly protrudes; it lives on a half-bowl of corn meal and grease a day. It is naked. Its buttocks and thighs are a mass of festered sores, as it sits in its own excrement continually.

America has become Omelas. The eerie parallels between the horrific conditions that Le Guin imagined and the realities that the children now suffering in the concentration camps are too nightmarishly exact. I remember this story being taught in high school and college. And there wasn’t a single student I recall who would attend the Festival of Summer knowing that this child existed. Today, I doubt very highly that any of these grown adults would say no to a festive holiday. How little we learn from the fiction that is meant to imbue us with empathy and compassion. But at least I can do my part by resisting a contradiction that should never have become fact in the first place.

It is clear that what now passes for the United States of America is a travesty of meanness and gleeful shame inflicted on the wanting and the impoverished, a sick cartoonish sideshow writ large into a heartless spectacle tacitly endorsed by both bloodthirsty Republicans who refuse to remonstrate against these inhumane conditions and the spineless Democratic arm led by the tepid and ineffectual Nancy Pelosi. While true progressives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Elizabeth Warren have been out in the field trying to get more information, genuinely caring about the plight of those who suffer, our disgraceful Speaker snoozes and roosts like a smug barnacle patiently awaiting her soy milk latte as people in need desperately approach her for drastic change. In a lengthy report from William T. Vollmann recently published in Harper’s (bless the man for his indefatigable diligence), the prolific writer simply talked to the immigrants, photographing the “black insignia[s] of humiliation” around their ankles and observing the salient and very human reasons why these innocents would wish to flee to America — namely, to escape violence and mayhem. (A detailed study by The Marshall Project earlier this year showed no impact on local crime from immigrants. Numerous other studies reveal inflated numbers from ICE and observe that undocumented immigrants are less likely to commit crime than the average American citizen.)

Like it or not, the immigrants who are mistreated and debased in the concentration camps are Americans. They have lives here and they are deserving, like any human being on this planet, of nobelesse oblige. So long as Americans are starved and denied sleep and bedecked with life-scarring trauma by callous ICE stooges who would sacrifice empathy for the glee of seeing them dead, I refuse to participate in a holiday that now represents a country united by blissful and complicit ignorance. Instead, I will spend the day reciting the Declaration of Independence to remind myself of just what this nation used to be, burning an American flag (a legal act of expressive resistance we thankfully still have) to protest our collective culpability, and thinking about how I can spend my time fighting the bastards with everything I have. These seem to me the only true duties of a principled patriot. I hope that you can find it within your heart to do something similar.

How to Write Audio Drama

Anyone who has ever worked in an office is familiar with the self-styled “expert” who rolls in from London or New York. The grinning expert, who almost never listens to anything other than the hollow sound of his own voice, locks you into a conference room with a condescending four hour PowerPoint presentation. One often looks cautiously at such a mercenary, often paid an obscenely high sum for pablum, to see if he has a pistol concealed under the three piece suit. Why? Because the presenter’s vaguely sinister chest-thumping almost always feel more like a hostage situation rather than a true meeting of the minds.

Ego should never be the driving force when you advise other people. The collective journey must represent the true impetus behind any guiding effort. Unfortunately, the dreadful combination of arrogance and stupidity is an increasing affliction in American culture, which now prides itself on smearing a crowd with the soothing balm of anti-intellectualism, with hubris often serving as the prominent titanium dioxide. This strain was most recently evidenced by Tucker Carlson’s unintentionally hilarious but nevertheless dangerous notion that the metric system represents a conspiracy promulgated by revolutionaries. There are now too many circumstances in which wildly unqualified people — often illiterate and sloppy in their work product — anoint themselves as Napoleonic dictators for how to advance thought and who often do so without the nuts-and-bolts wisdom or attentive awareness that inspires people to conjure up truly incredible offerings.

I mention all this because I recently had the considerable displeasure of reading a typo-laden article written by a misguided audio dramatist who, while possessing a modicum of promising technical chops, remains tone-deaf to human behavior. To offer a charitable opinion, this dramatist is certainly doing the best he can, but his dialogue (which has included such inadvertent howlers as “Now dance with me, asshole,” “I envy your certainty,” and “I would have expected you to bring one of your underlings”) and anemic storytelling represents a form of “expertise” that my own very exacting standards for what constitutes art simply cannot accept.

You see, I really believe that audio drama, like any artistic form, needs to be written and produced at the highest possible level. But to give this guy some credit, we do have to start somewhere! As someone who has written about 1,400 pages of audio drama and who often labors months over a script until it’s right (as opposed to someone who bangs out an entire season in nine weeks), as someone who has gone out into the real world for months to do journalistic research to ensure that I’m portraying groups of people and subcultures realistically and dimensionally rather than subscribing to self-congratulatory, attention-seeking tokenism that cheapens well-intentioned inclusiveness through the creation of shallow stereotypes, and as someone who won a distinguished award for all this, if you’ll pardon my own statement of qualifications here, I think I’m reasonably well-equipped to offer better suggestions. Having said that (and as a free-wheeling anti-authoritarian who despises groupthink, who has never held a gun in his life, and who is writing this in a T-shirt and jeans rather than a three piece suit), I would also like to encourage anyone reading these collected thoughts to poke holes into my views and to challenge anything that I present herein. This is, after all, the only way that all of us truly learn.

Audio drama is a magnificent medium. It shares much in common with literature in its ability to challenge an audience and convey emotional intimacy. And while shows such as The Bright Sessions, Wooden Overcoats, and The Truth intuitively comprehend the emotional connection between audio drama and audience, the medium, on the whole, is populated by too many engineering nerds who are not only incapable of writing quality scripts, but seem reluctant — if not outright hostile — to probe moral questions or explore any difficult ambiguities that lead to human insight.

Here are some better guidelines for how to approach the exciting and often greatly rewarding realm of audio dramatic writing!

1. Before anything else, think of HUMAN BEINGS.

This is the true big one. If you don’t have human beings guiding your audio drama, you are dead on arrival. And you become no different from some engineering nerd who is less interested in narrative possibility and more concerned with being the cleverest guy in the room. Being in touch with human behavior humbles you and opens you up to wonder and empathy and insatiable curiosity that you can not only pass onto your actors and your audience, but that will help you transform into a better and more mindful person. If you want to connect with an audience, then you need to know how to connect with people. And your art needs to reflect this. One of my favorite audio dramas, King Falls AM, has literally confined its setting to a call-in radio show in a small town. But its two main characters, Sammy and Ben, are human enough to warrant our attention. We learn over the series’ run that Sammy is gay and that Ben is smitten with Emily, the local librarian. And the show’s colorful characters and the creative team’s commitment to exploring the human have ensured that the show has never once lost momentum during its eighty-seven episodes. (There’s even a charming musical episode!)

It’s also vital for human behavior to contain paradoxes. Very often, that means taking major artistic risks with your characters — even making them “unlikable” if this is what the story calls for. I recently revisited some episodes of the science fiction TV series Blakes 7 after its star, the incredibly talented Paul Darrow, passed away. Darrow, who appeared in many audio dramas produced by Big Finish near the end of his life, played an antihero named Avon — a man who ended up as the leader of a band of revolutionaries fighting against a fascist empire known as the Federation. Why was Avon so interesting? Because he contained so many contradictions! He could be smart, intensely charming, paranoid, inclusive, sarcastic, and self-serving. Much like Walter White in Breaking Bad, you never quite knew how far Avon was going to go. And there is no better exemplar of why Avon worked so well than an episode called “Orbit” written by Robert Holmes (who also wrote some of the best episodes of Doctor Who). Avon and his longtime partner Vila have five minutes to rid a spacecraft of excess cargo weight. The two men are seen frantically running around, ejecting bits of plastic through the airlock. It’s clear that they’re not going to dump the cargo in time. Avon desperately asks Orac — the ship’s computer — how much weight the ship must lose in order to achieve escape velocity. Orac replies, “70 kilos.” With great ferocity, Avon shrieks, “Dammit! What weighs 70 kilos?” Orac responds with an alarming calmness, “Vila weighs 73 kilos, Avon.” And it is here that the scene becomes truly thrilling and surprising! Avon now has a solution — one that allows him to survive but that also involves betraying his friend. Darrow instantly transforms, grabs a laser pistol, and the scene is among the best in the entire run of the show. (You can watch the scene here.) As a test, I described this scene to a wide variety of people who were unfamiliar with speculative fiction. One old school guy in my Brooklyn hood who I’m friendly with (and for whom I have been serving as an occasional consultant on his webseries), “Damn! That’s some gangsta shit. I gotta check it out.” Human predicaments like this are universal.

Don’t worry too much about your sound design when you’re conceiving your story. You certainly need to remember that this is a medium driven by sound, but, if you’re doing audio drama right, your characters (and thus your actors) will be sharp and lively enough to conjure up a divergent sound environment. It’s absolutely foolhardy and creatively bankrupt to enslave your actors to a soundscape. This represents tyranny, not creative possibility. Actors need to be free to create in a fun and relaxed environment. (In my case, I cook all of my actors breakfast, compensate everyone instantly after recording, and try not to work them more than three hours per recording session.) As perspicacious as you may be, as certain as you may think you are about the rhythm and the delivery, your actors will always have fresh ideas that you haven’t considered. You need to have a script and a recording environment that is committed to your actors first. If you’re looking to be some petty despot, become some small-time corporate overlord. Don’t toil in art. If your actors are hindered by your dictatorial decisions as writer or director, they won’t be able to use their imagination. At all stages, audio drama is a process of collaborative discovery. When you write the script, it’s about creating memorable and three-dimensional characters. When you’re recording with actors, it’s about listening to how an actor interprets the characters and shaping the scene together with openness, trust, and experimentation. Then, when you’re putting together the rough edit (dialogue only), you have yet another stage of discovery. The actors have given you all that you need. You’ll be able to imagine where they are in a room, what they’re doing, and what else might be with them. From here, you start to form the sound design. Worldbuilding always comes from human investigation. And if you’re fully committed to the human, then your instinctive imagination will be able to devise a unique aural environment.

But to get to this place, you need to have characters who are unusual and who contain subtlety, depth, and detailed background. What kind of family did they have? Are they optimistic or moody? What was their most painful experience? Their happiest? Are they passionate about anything? If you’re stuck, you could always try revisiting some personal experience. For “Brand Awareness,” a Black Mirror-like story about a woman who learns that the beer that she’s fiercely loyal to doesn’t actually exist, the premise was inspired by an incident in which I went to a Williamsburg bar, certain that I had ordered a specific Canadian beer there before. But when I mentioned the beer brand to the bartender, she didn’t know that it existed. (It turned out that I had the wrong bar.) I laughed over how ridiculously loyal I had been to the Canadian beer brand and began asking questions about why I was so stuck on that particular beer at that time. I then came up with the idea of a woman who spent much of her time collecting memorabilia for a beer called Eclipse Ale, one that nobody knew about, and decided, instead of making this character a rabid and obsessive fan, to make her very real. I placed her in a troubled relationship with a man who refused to listen to her, which then gave me an opportunity to explore the harms of patriarchy. I then had to answer the question of why this woman was the only one who knew about the beer and conjured up the idea of a boutique hypnotist who served in lieu of couples therapy. Suddenly I had a weird premise and some sound ideas. What did the memorabilia look like? What were the hypnotist’s methods like? Ultimately, most of my sound design came from my incredible cast. Their interpretations were so vivid that I began to create a soundscape that enhanced and reflected their performances. The process was so fun that our team’s collective imagination took care of everything. I would listen to the rough dialogue assembly on my headphones and physically act out each character as they were talking into my ears. And from here, I was able to see what the space looked like. I went to numerous bars and closed my eyes and listened and used this as the basis for how to shape the scene. These methods allowed me to tell a goofy but ultimately realistic story.

I can’t stress this next point enough. Audio drama should never be about being overly clever or showy. It should be designed with enough depth for the audience to use its imagination. Just as I consider the actors on my production to be my creative equals, I also consider the audience to my interpretive equal. Their takeaways from my show are almost always smarter than my own. It would be colossally arrogant of me to assume that I know better than them.

To return to the gentleman who wrote the article that I am partially responding to here, his advice concerning character tips should be avoided at all costs. Robots can be fun, but, however ephemerally vivid they can be, they are among the most tedious one-note characters you can ever drop into a story. Moreover, a character who appears on only two pages should have as much backstory as one of your principals. When the great Robert Altman made one of his masterpieces, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, he instructed all of the extras who were part of the Western town to develop detailed characters. This is one significant reason why that incredible film feels so real and so atmospheric. When in doubt, write vivid human characters with real problems. They always sound cool.

The misguided dramatist also reveals how pedestrian and unambitious he is in his storytelling when he tells you that you shouldn’t have more than four separate voices in a scene. This is only a problem if, like the misguided dramatist, you are too reliant upon seemingly clever ideas and don’t know how to write recognizable characters. If your characters are dimensional, then your audience will be able to follow the story. But you can also have your characters forget the names of the people who they are with so that you have an opportunity to remind your audience who they are. There are, after all, few people who attend a party and who manage to remember everybody’s first names. This expositional move doubles as a touch of realism and a subtle way of helping your audience keep track of a very large cast. Don’t squelch your ambition! If the dialogue is natural and the rhythm reflects real human conversation, then this will also help your audience lock into the narrative.

Also, I don’t know what living rooms the misguided dramatist spends his time in. But every setting is driven by sound. Only the most unimaginative and inattentive dramatist in the world would gainsay the textural possibilities contained in a car or a kitchen. These are seemingly familiar places. But if you spend enough time in various kitchens and simply listen, you’ll discover that each kitchen does have a separate tapestry of distinct sounds.

As for momentum, I have one firm rule: Have at least something on every page that drives the story forward (or, failing that, a good joke). If it’s not there, then cut and revise the page until you get to that ratio. Because you have exactly five minutes from the beginning of your show to grab your audience. If you’re bombarding your audience with over-the-top sound design out of creative desperation but you don’t have anything human to back it up, you’re dead. The audience will tune out very quickly, especially when there are so many other audio drama productions up to the task. However, if you’re concerned with the human first, then you’ll be on firm footing. The misguided dramatist writes, “The specifics don’t matter.” Oh, but they always matter. This is a profoundly ignorant and offensive statement that ignores the lessons contained in centuries of dramatic writing. Having some random kid walking by with a blasting boombox may pump up your hubris enough to approach the editors of Electric Literature and say, “Hey, I’m an expert! Can I write an article and pimp my show?” But if your inclusion doesn’t serve the human needs of the story, it’s gratuitous. It’s flexing your muscle rather than lifting the weights. And as you make more audio drama, it’s vital that you never stop evolving. In an increasingly crowded world of audio drama options, you want to be the dramatist who can bench-press to the best of your ability. And you’re going to want to build yourself up so that you can increase the load you can heave above your shoulders. You don’t stay in shape if you stop hitting the gym. And art rarely works when you phone it in. It involves hard work, great care, and daily discipline.

2. Imagination.

Well, I can mostly agree with the misguided dramatist here. You definitely want to paint a picture in your audience’s minds. But you don’t necessarily have to do this with a melange of bad exposition such as “Teeth, there’s too many teeth.” All you need to do is to imagine how a human being would react to a set of circumstances and then slightly style the dialogue so that it reveals just enough exposition (but not too much). You can then sculpt the sound design accordingly.

3. On “Gross” Sound Design

Once again, the misguided dramatist lacks the ability to comprehend how an audience vicariously relates to an audio drama. You can do kissing in audio drama. I’ve included it in The Gray Area. This doesn’t mean that you drop in a flagrant smooch that’s going to drown out everything else in the mix. You want a dramatic kiss to sound pretty close to how it’s actually experienced. For the first season, I recorded some kissing foley with someone I was dating at the time. It was one of the strangest experiences of my life, perhaps the closest I’ve come to feeling like a pornographic actor. But it had to be done for art! Imagine two people lying in bed, both of them with headphones on, and a condenser microphone mounted just above them. We proceeded to kiss until I got the levels and the mic positioned just right for a very soft sound that is quite close to the sound that you hear when you kiss someone. This was a little difficult. Because I very much enjoyed kissing the person in question. But I was able to find the right balance. And I mixed this into the story quite gently and subtly so that it wouldn’t intrude upon the story. The Amelia Project has a character who very much enjoys cocoa, yet the slurps and stirs of the spoon never sound intrusive. And that is because the producers are smart enough to understand that flagrant foley of natural human sounds is going to sound “gross.” But you do have an obligation to depict the human and that includes sounds that might be categorized as uncomfortable.

4. Be Careful with Foley Description

I learned early on that writing four seemingly simple words (“GIANT RATS SCAMPERING AROUND”) created far more trouble for me in post-production than I anticipated. And while I enjoyed the challenge that I presented myself, I spent a week banging my head against my desk before I finally stumbled on a sound design solution. If you’re working with a sound designer, try to be mindful of the difficulty in coming up with sounds that reflect creatures or concepts that don’t exist in the real world. Even if you add “LIKE HORSES GALLOPING” to the giant rats description, that’s going to offer the sound designer some creative ideas that will make it easier for her to imagine and come up with something. If you’re collaborating with a sound designer, you need to offer a clear blueprint for her to create and imagine. Make no mistake: the sound designer is just as much of an actor as an actor.

5. Don’t Be Afraid to Take Risks

You’re not going to please everyone. So why spend so much time worrying about it? There are incredibly talented and impeccably kind people who produce beloved audio dramas and even they receive hate mail and vicious criticism. Critics, by and large, are far less useful than the honest and experienced people you have in your corner who understand both you and the hard work that goes into making audio drama. You need to be surrounded by beta readers and beta listeners who will not bullshit you. Your duty as an artist is to not give into the often insane demands of rabid fans (much as one very popular audio drama did a few years ago, forcing this truly terrific show to ignobly close its doors) and to concentrate on putting out your best work. The real crowd, your truly loyal listeners and the ones who you actually learn from, will trust you enough to continue with the journey. The same goes with your actors. I took a huge risk on a Season 2 script. And I was incredibly surprised, humbled, and honored when the actors were crazy about it and told me what a thrilling twist it was and brought their A game when we recorded. You have a duty to keep on growing. Keep in mind that critics, especially the small-time character assassins on Twitter driven by acute resentment, reflect a vocal minority. You’re also probably never going to get a TV deal. So why chase that kind of outsize success? Besides, it’s far more rewarding to tell stories entirely on your own terms. If the work is good and you treat people well, you will attract very talented actors. And they in turn will tell their actor friends about how much fun you are to work with. But if you tell the same story over and over again, or you aren’t sufficiently answering the many questions you’ve set up, chances are you’ll be pulling a Damon Lindelof. And everyone will rightfully ding you for writing a lazy and inane climax.

Formulaic writing may win you an audience. There is no shortage of box office successes that are more generic than a supermarket aisle populated by no name yellow boxes. But are you writing for short-term lucre and attention or long-term artistic accomplishment? Are you writing audio drama to grow as a person and as an artist? Always remember that the work is its own reward. And that means taking risks.

6. Be Passionate About Your Story at All Times

Don’t write a script just for the sake of writing a script. If you’re telling a story, it has to be something that you absolutely believe in. Your vision must be large and passionate enough to get other people excited about it. You must also be committed to surprising yourself at all stages. (It also helps that I’m crazy about everyone who works on this show and am naturally quite thrilled to watch them get better as performers.) While I have drafted a four season plan for The Gray Area (and have a “Bible” of twenty prototypical scripts), the plan is just loose enough for me to continually invent with each season. I don’t write scripts from an outline (although I have done so in writing for other people). Because I find that, if I know where a story is heading, then it’s not going to be fun for me. After all, if I’m not surprised, why would I expect my audience to be?

If you’re just phoning it in, then why would you expect your actors to give their all? One audio drama producer recently revealed a horror story about one regular actor leaving midway through the series. But listening to the audio drama, it’s easy to see why. The passion contained in the initial episodes plummeted in later episodes. A friend, who was an initial fan of the show, texted me, asking “What happened? It was so good! Now I can’t listen to it!” Well, I responded, the character in question, despite being played by a lively actor who clearly has much to offer, became one-note and confined to a sterile environment. And why would any actor want to stay involved with a character who remains stagnant? If you don’t feed your actors with true passion, and if you don’t take care of them, then you’re not living up to the possibilities of audio drama.

At all stages of The Gray Area, I talk with my actors and tell them what I have planned for their characters over many seasons. I listen to their passions and interests. I regularly check in on them. I try to attend their shows when they perform on stage. Because it is my duty to remain committed to my talent. All this gives me many opportunities to find out where actors wish to push themselves as performers and to suss out emotional areas that other directors don’t seem to see. I cast comedic actors in dramatic roles. I point out to some of my more emotionally intense actors how funny they are and write stories with this in mind. I have to keep my characters growing so that I can sustain an atmosphere committed to true creative freedom. Because I love and adore and greatly respect the people I work with and I want to make sure that these actors are always having fun and that they feel free to create. I’ve got this down so well that, when the actors find out I’m writing a new slate of scripts, they playfully nag me, wondering when the stories are going to be done.

If you’re doing audio drama right, you’re probably going to be surprised to find yourself exhausted after a long day. The fatigue seems inconceivable because you were having so much fun. But it does mean that you were driven by passion first, buttressed by hard work. And that will ultimately be reflected in the final product.

7. There Are Many Ways to Make Audio Drama

There’s recently been some discussion about establishing a set of critical standards that all producers should agree upon for the “greater good.” I find this to be a bunch of prescriptive malarkey, more of a popularity contest and an ego-stroking exercise rather than a true exchange of viewpoints. Take the advice that you can use and ignore the rest. That includes this article. If you see something here that whiffs untrue, ignore it. Or leave a comment here and challenge me. I’d love to hear your dissenting views! I’m offering one way to make audio drama, but there are dozens of ways to go about it.

8. Be Wide-Ranging in Your Influences

Don’t just listen to audio drama. Listen to nonfiction podcasts. Read books. Take on hobbies and interests that you’ve never tried. Play music. Above all, live life. Existence is always the most important influence. I’ve listened to far too many bad audio dramas trying to offer cut-rate knockoffs of popular shows. This isn’t a recipe for success or artistic growth. You need to find your own voice and be true to who you are as much as you can. Every story has already been told. But it hasn’t been told in the way that you express it.

(I hope that some of what I’ve imparted here has been useful! For anyone who’s interested, I am presently in the final weeks of production on the second season of my audio drama. I’ve been documenting my journey on Instagram, passing along any tips or tricks I discover along the way so that other audio dramatists don’t make the same mistakes that I have! Plus, there are many fun behind-the-scenes videos and photos. Feel free to check out @grayareapod and say hello. We’re all in this journey of making audio drama together! It’s a very exciting time to tell stories for the ear!)

Appraisal

It’s a wonder you’re not dead. What keeps you alive? The shining hope you mine from the mire of dark dreams. An occasional kindness you didn’t expect from a stranger. The news that some fierce and sincere pep talk you delivered years ago resulted in someone living a better life. You saved two lives just this year alone: a friend who you tracked down in a doorway just north of Union Square who was carving into herself with a knife and who spilled blood in the tony entrance of a women’s clothing store, a woman who you patched up and took care of and eventually had to call an ambulance for, and another friend who was about to down a full bottle of Ambien in a East Village establishment that shall remain unnamed. You saw his mouth and the open orange container and you sprinted with every ounce of fortitude you had. If you had arrived just a moment later, he would have swallowed the pills. But you tackled him at just the right time. You’re still haunted by the relentless clatter of the bottle’s contents spilling onto the grimy bathroom tile. It took ten minutes to buy him a beer and to calm him down and to get him to laugh and to remind him why life was worth living. Which you seem to be good at doing.

You didn’t want either of them to die because New York needed them both. You were so certain of that and you were proven right. Both now thrive. And perhaps your empathy went into overdrive not just because you care about other people more than you let on, but because you had been there yourself five years before and little trickles of that fateful morning on the bridge, a morning in which a teeny isthmus separated you from Kings County and the undiscovered country, have sometimes dropped into your mindscape in the intervening time. When a spritzer of ideations sprinkled into your head after a resentful and hateful gang invented convincing lies and hounded for your blood, your therapist ghosted you because she had had enough of your blubbering feelings. The latest development seemed to confirm that you were a fuckup, even though you were doing much better. Or maybe the therapist saw you, as so many do, as an insignificant spectre. You seem to project such confidence and authority that it’s impossible for people to see that you want to stitch up the remaining wounds. They can never praise your accomplishments and will never see all the good that you do (not that you advertise this), but they always magnify one pedantic fault. Such is life in the 21st century. If you can’t live up to the unreasonably golden ideal, then get lost. And now no mental health professional in the New York metropolitan area seems to want to take you on, especially after you slam them with a precis of what’s troubling you. The war against authenticity includes even those who are supposed to provide help to those who are trying to be more real and thus more connected to others in an increasingly isolated age. Your messages fall on deaf clinical ears. And it reinforces this idea that you don’t belong or that you are unworthy of succor. Well, you privileged white male son of a bitch, what do you have to complain about? You had a free ride because of your genetics and you blew it and you deserve every hell for every mistake I’ve heard about. And you say solo and sotto voce, “No, I don’t. Who does? Aren’t you a humanist?”

You played two jokes in the first week of April, issuing a fake apology on Instagram and writing a goofy essay in which you claimed to have two daughters. But your problem is that you’re just too damn persuasive and convincing. Because people wrote in and asked if you were okay and who was the lucky woman and when did this happen and mazel tov. So many people seem to want you married, a condition that, in most cases, represents an illusory felicity. But the truth is that, well, maybe you’d like to be. Well, not necessarily. You just want to be involved in a situation in which your apparent attributes and considerable attention to detail after midnight don’t represent the sole reasons why a woman sleeps over. People never seem to see your kindness and your empathy and your affection, in part because you keep this on the q.t. and it seems churlish at this stage in your life to announce it. And it’s also difficult to articulate your feelings because it’s construed as a form of emotional manipulation, even as you are careful to find the gentlest candor to stand up for who you are. They say that you can’t beat the house. So maybe there’s just no one out there for you, other than that dude in the mirror. The only recent woman who seemed to care for you, who accepted you and offered handwritten cards, turned out to be married and was seeking multiple dalliances. You had to laugh at the irony, given how so many others had believed in the faith of this imperfect institution. So you had to say sayonara to her. At this stage of the game, you’re the “if only” choice. But you really want to be somebody’s only. This puerile game of musical bodies grows so tiresome. You’re far from the only one experiencing this plight. So why not shut the hell up? Besides, maybe it’s too late for you.

Still, there’s no getting around the fact that any self-appraisal inevitably turns you into the ignoble hero of your own self-serving story. In some sense, as Kiese Laymon has recently observed in his excellent memoir Heavy, you need to tell lies before you tango with the truth. Which is exactly what you did last week. So let’s do better. You feel that you give and they take, despite the fact that you also believe that life should never involve a ledger. But, hey, we all contain quite a few contradictions. You love and it’s always unrequited. You frequently wonder if your desire to be loved for who you are is the most selfish thing to ask for. You ask for favors once in a cerulean moon yet there’s always some camarera gently placing the onyx check presenter upon your mesa. You’re tired of paying your dues, but there’s no other choice. Men who have done far worse things than you are alleged to have committed are allowed to write cover stories for major magazines to state the bleeding obvious. It’s not that you’re resentful or envious. You don’t have a competitive bone in your body. But you do despise the mediocre and you want your work, especially the stuff for which you put in serious time, to be respected. But there’s no chance of that happening. Not in an age in which a tweet composed in five seconds is now considered just as worthy as a work of art that took years to put together. Your ship sailed in on the strength of your achievements last December and a feral horde collected invidious myths to smear you. Because of this, you put on about five, maybe ten pounds. And you’re now within a few tenths of that BMI sliver between normal and overweight that becomes ever more difficult to shave off at this metabolic stage of your life. The winter prohibited the walks that make you feel more alive and the stress-fueled drinking eroded your thinness. Now it’s spring and you’re pushing yourself hard, shaving sleep to dream, which is the one thing you live for and that you do best at and the one thing that keeps you sane. But it’s incompatible with the profit motive of the venal bean counters. You cut all ties with your selfish fucked up family. And when you tell a friend, only a few nights ago, why you’ve done this, pointing to the fact (among many others) that you attended five different schools during five formative years, and all this while enduring physical and emotional abuse, your friend replies, “Jesus, Ed, you have the most fucked up family out of anybody I’ve ever known. Now I understand.” Well, at least someone does. At least you’re committed to sharing more of yourself with the people who actually take the time to know you.

What ultimately keeps you giddy and alive is knowing that you refuse to play the sick game of being a saint in paradise. Likes, favorites, popularity. Christ, you actually bought into that horseshit not all that long ago. What you can do is allow the world to come around to you. Maybe one day they’ll see that you have a huge heart and that you have a lot to give. But, for now, anyone who wants in is going to have to talk to that big muscular guy standing next to the velvet rope. He’s pretty damn scary to most people in the club, but you’re not going to make the mistake of believing that all visitors into your VIP lounge are acting with the best of intentions. On the other hand, you’re really pulling all the stops in the places that count. So be you and let the haters choke on the bile of their failure to speak in a real voice. If you want to truly feel for others and make waves, then you have to be true to yourself. Don’t let the seductive propaganda steer you any other way.

Joe Biden is a Decent Man, Goddammit!

It was a warm May afternoon and my two daughters and I had been invited to Washington. Vice President Joe Biden was apparently a huge fan of my old podcast The Bat Segundo Show. Just three weeks before my visit to the Beltway, one of Biden’s aides called me out of the blue and said that I was to receive an award. Apparently, Biden very much enjoyed the introductory segments featuring my unsettling alter ego, Bat Segundo, who lived in a Motel 6 and often complained about his ex-wife.

“Every time Joe hears Mr. Segundo’s voice,” said the aide, “he starts hugging people around the office. Your podcast has really worked him into an affectionate frenzy.”

“Hugging people?” I replied.

“Yes. And smelling hair. You know the Biden way.”

“No, I don’t.”

“Well, he believes that the key to connecting with other people lies in taking in their fragrances, ideally through significant inhaling of their hair.”

“I don’t want Joe to smell my hair. Besides, I’m bald and I don’t have any.”

“Can he smell your armpit?”

“No!”

“Can you grow a beard? Joe really likes hair.”

“No. It’s too hot. You know the New York summers.”

“Well, he probably won’t stand behind you and smell your tender aroma anyway. You’re a man.”

“What?”

“He mainly does this with women.”

“I don’t know whether to be perturbed or personally offended! Shouldn’t there be equal opportunity sniffing?”

The aide coughed and quickly changed the topic.

“Listen, you’re doing a great service here. Your interviews with literary authors are top-notch. We want to give you an award. A Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.”

“Really? Gosh, I’m humbled. I mean, I just interview authors. I haven’t even published a book!”

“But you’re doing much more than that. You see, Joe really likes Mr. Segundo. As I said, there’s something about Mr. Segundo’s toxic masculinity that drives him crazy.”

“Uh, you do realize that Mr. Segundo is a fictitious character, right? He’s satirical.”

“Oh, I know that. But Joe doesn’t.”

“Ah.”

But my anxieties were soon put to rest after the aide told me just how decent Biden was. Sure, Joe was a touchy-feely guy. But he was our touchy-feely guy. If Joe liked to smell hair and leap upon total strangers with his ravening bearlike arms and take in other people’s fragrances, then maybe this was the slightly creepy human touch we needed to connect with each other as we advanced further into the 21st century. After all, every liberal I knew was so lonely. Besides, who was I to quibble with Biden’s failure to adjust to modern times? Who was anybody to criticize Joe after their visible discomfort? I was a registered Democrat and Joe was being Joe. It was more important for me to place party unity above such petty concerns as whether or not a man, even one on my side who possessed tremendous political power, was being weirdly inappropriate with his affection.

Anyway, I got on a bus with my two daughters. Lizzie, my youngest, had spent the previous afternoon drawing a large illustration of the kids in Syria. I encouraged Lizzie because I had heard that Joe liked it when kids talked about Syria. I was told by a journalist friend that most of Biden’s foreign policy had, in fact, been inspired by kids whispering nervous sentiments into his ear, often as they were wondering where mommy and daddy were, as he stood mere inches away from them and beamed that wide Biden smile. And this seemed decent, so profoundly decent, of him that I became genuinely moved and finished off the box of Cheez-Its that I had taken along with me on the bus. I wept with great inspiration into the empty red box, thinking about what a great and decent man Joe Biden was as Maggie (my oldest) tried to wipe the orange crumbs from my fingers and asked if I had seen my shrink that week. (I hadn’t.)

The three of us arrived at the Library of Congress shortly after being cleared by the Secret Service. We walked through a long hall into a decorous room, where the vice president was there. Or rather we found out he was there when he stood behind Maggie and shouted, “Boo!” Maggie jumped in fright, but was soon soothed by Joe’s decent hands, which were busy massaging her neck. It was so decent of him, so unusually good for Joe to think about how stiff my oldest daughter was from the bus ride. He was clearly a man who cared. And he soon moved onto my youngest daughter and started massaging her shoulders. It was a decent gesture and a decent massage. And I said to Joe, “Hey, what about me? Don’t I get a shoulder rub?”

Joe laughed, waved his hand in the air, and said, “You have two lovely daughters.”

The new narrative about Biden suggests that he is exploitative and solipsistic in his encounters with women. Although I did not witness what the women who have come forward to criticize Biden experienced, what I do know is that my two daughters had much looser shoulders inside the Library of Congress and that they had stopped paying attention to me, preferring to spend time with Uncle Joe. He habitually nuzzled, hugged, and kidded around with them. He tuned in emotionally, although, when I told him about the box of Cheez-Its I had wept into on the bus, he didn’t seem to listen. He also asked why my wife hadn’t arrived. And I told him that she was busy treating patients at the Kalaupapa leper colony and that she only came out to Brooklyn four months out of the year. “I’m really disappointed she’s not here, Ed,” said Joe. Then he leaned in very closely and said, “But if the two of you are ever in town, bring her along. I have a few comforting words I want to whisper into her ear. And you need to be there when I do this.” And this incredibly generous offer, which was so comforting, demonstrated again why Joe was so decent. I was very proud to be a Democrat that day.

And so I stand with Eve Gerber, Alyssa Milano and The View, and all the others who are willing to look the other way when a decent man presents himself as the inevitable choice for the 46th President of the United States! Let us surrender our moral standards when it comes to our party and honor this tactile politician, this decent man, this great avuncular touchy-feely saint of America! Yes, other presidential candidates are capable of showing the appropriate physical restraint when meeting and listening to strangers. But none of them are as popular, as likeable, or as decent, as Joe Biden!

I, for one, admire Biden’s deviant decency!