The Magic of Listening to Stories

by Meghan Modafferi

If you tune into NPR, sooner or later you’ll hear the phrase “driveway moment.” It’s when you’ve reached your destination, but you just can’t bring yourself to turn off the radio, to get out of the car. You have to hear the ending of the story that’s airing on, say, This American Life.

Ever wonder how the writer did that? When attention spans are shorter than ever, how do you keep someone hooked when you have access to only one of their senses—hearing?

Like anything in writing, or life, there are millions of answers to every question. But for me, I keep coming back to the essay. Or, rather, the essai; in French, the meaning is “to attempt.” It describes an intimate perspective, with a narrator who’s searching rather than concluding. While traditional nonfiction delivers the results of a study or investigation, literary essays focus on the journey—as interior as it is exterior, full of wrong turns and dead ends, where doubts and emotions are not detours to avoid but the very meat of the story. Where how the sausage gets made and the sausage itself start to blur. Where the narrator shows themself in the attempt to understand rather than already understanding.

If you’ve listened to The New Yorker Radio Hour or watched a video essay on YouTube, you’ve likely heard this approach. It’s powerful to the ear because of its intimacy. Think about it: we all live in a state of searching. We don’t live in neat, cohesive stories; we live in a muddle that we make sense of until something breaks that sense, and then we have to find a new angle to make sense of it again.

And when someone speaks directly into your ear and tells you about that journey in their own mind, it’s electric, like a magician sharing their secrets. Because what’s more magical than taking the mess of life and making it into a story? It’s what we spend all our time doing—as writers, yes, but also as humans. Joan Didion wrote, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

So when, inevitably, the narrator in your ear doesn’t find what they were looking for but something else that’s even richer and more meaningful, it gives us hope. Hope that we, too, are on a journey of discovery that only gets sweeter with each wrong turn. And with that kind of magic, you simply can’t help it: you put the car in park and keep listening.

Learn to Write and Record a 3-Minute Essay with Meghan

THREE THURSDAYS, FEBRUARY 8, 15, & 22: “The Sound of Writing: Writing and Recording the 3-Minute Essay,” 6:00-8:00 p.m., Charlotte Art League, 4237 Raleigh Street, Charlotte 28213. Info and registration

In this three-session course, you’ll learn what makes a great spoken essay; draft, get feedback, and edit an essay; learn the basics of being recorded; and record your three-minute essay in a professional sound studio.

Meghan Modafferi is the editorial director of Crash Course, an award-winning YouTube channel reaching more than 70 million people per year. She has taught writing and podcasting at Georgetown University, and her written and multimedia work has been published by National GeographicSlate, and NPR.