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“You’d think I’d asked to sleep with the football team.”

“Ok, Tweeple, let’s clean up the language.”

“I became a vegetarian in Africa.”

“You might not know, but I’m watching you.”

Sitting around the seminar table, Keith and I listened to opening lines written by fellow creative writers, some less experienced like us but mostly veterans including a National Book Prize winner. All of us came to learn The Art of the Radio Essay at Writer House in Charlottesville last Saturday. 

“You only have 3 minutes to tell your “I, me, mine” story, so start with a grabby opening,” said Janis Jaquith, the queen of radio essays with over 100 to her credit.

What is a radio essay, and how is it distinct from a personal essay in the tradition of Montaigne, Annie Dillard, or blogs? Similar to personal essays, radio essays draw on personal experience ranging from witty ironies and whimsical musings, foolishness and rants to serious commentary. Many anecdotes focus on life turning points, inconsistencies and larger, “everyman” messages. But the real difference is the temporal, auditory quality of the radio essay, a different medium for most writers.

The writer as reader only gets one shot, then it’s over, no rewind, no reread. That’s why an opening hook is so important – to grab the listener’s attention while in the shower, crunching morning cereal or checking teeth, face and hair in the rearview mirror on the way to work. Rather than flowery, literary references, “Velcro words”, pacing and delivery drive the piece. People like to listen to conversational, friendly voices and stories that take them some place else, preferably local, for some occasion. And, perhaps most of all, they want a break from the bad news, to think about something else, even your son’s head lice or stories about your favorite eccentric Aunt or Uncle, for 3 minutes and 15 seconds.

So what was my grabby opening? “You killed that chicken? How could you kill that poor chicken?”

Stay tuned…

What’s your favorite grabby opening?

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