Lessons from a poop story

Lawrence David finished his story about collecting his own feces for a year straight to a boisterous round of well-deserved applause.  And in that moment – I realized how artfully science and storytelling could be merged live.  Let me back up (like a reverse wave of gastrointestinal peristalsis) to explain.

I used to do science research.  I trained gray seal pups for my master’s degree and I tagged killer whales for my doctoral research.  All along, my two favorite things were interacting with people inside and outside the lab, and sharing stories about my science work.  After wrapping up my PhD, I became a freelance journalist in Boston and I began telling stories about science on the radio and the Web.

A few years into that pursuit, I heard my first Story Collider podcast and adored the premise of telling personal stories about science live.  I learned that there had been a couple of Story Collider shows in Boston, but Brian Wecht, who’d been running them, had recently left town.  I decided to get involved.

Fast forward a year or so, and I was co-producing my first Story Collider show with Ben Lillie at the Oberon Theater in Cambridge, MA.  The theme was “It Takes Guts” and our stories ranged from the most adorably gross love story you’ll ever hear to a tale involving one man’s pursuit of a leafy beast called a phytobezoar.  Lawrence David – now an assistant professor at Duke – was first in the lineup.  He talked about a bet he’d made with himself as a graduate student at MIT where he would say yes to whatever crossed his path, no matter how bizarre.  Which was how he ended up – at his advisor’s enthusiastic suggestion – collecting his feces for an entire year to understand how the bacterial composition in his gut changed over time.

I loved the way Lawrence was able to tell a theater of 150 people about his dissertation work in a way that was rich with narrative, memory, humor, and information.  It wasn’t a PhD defense.  There were no charts or figures or bibliographies.  But it was full of science and story.  After the show, I congratulated Lawrence on what he’d done: condense years of work and thousands of data points into a 10-minute narrative arc that took the audience on a journey halfway around the world and all the way through his GI tract.

When Lawrence then thanked us for the opportunity to share his tale, it seemed to me like an ideal exchange.  We strive to build our shows out of stories like Lawrence’s – strong human narratives that are grounded in science.  In exchange, Story Collider offers a platform to empower storytellers – many of whom are scientists like Lawrence – to talk about their lives and their science in a way that can be appreciated by a general audience that’s sitting right in front of them.

For me, the occasion of a million podcast downloads is a testament to the value of that handshake, as listeners like you virtually consume and appreciate those very real stories that bloom and boom on stage.  Thanks for being a part of our journey.

Ari Daniel is The Story Collider's Boston producer, as well as an independent radio producer.

My Side of the Story

Picking which Story Collider experience to write about in celebration of our millionth download was not a difficult choice for me. To my mind, there's one Story Collider story that towers above all the others we've ever done as being the most emotionally resonant, the most narratively compelling, and by far the most personally relevant: the story my wife Rachel told about how we met.

In 2005, I broke Rachel's heart. Granted, she wasn't my wife at the time – in fact, we weren't even dating yet, and that was the source of the heartbreak – but the fact remains that I caused the person I now love most in the world an unbearable amount of pain.

And six years later The Story Collider put out a podcast about it.

The story I'm referring to is "Time and Pressure," by Rachel Bitney Wecht. There's an offhand chance that I might be biased, but I think this is the best story ever. In her (incredible) performance, Rachel describes how (adorably) she and I met, how (bravely) she asked me out, how (cruelly) I rebuffed her, and then how (finally) we started dating and ended up getting married. Rachel's performance really is wonderful, and it's a great story – our story – and I listen to it whenever I'm on the road and want to hear her voice.

But it's not really the easiest thing in the world for me to listen to. In fact, listening to it makes me kind of furious with myself, and that's because one of the central events of the story is when I told Rachel that I couldn't go out with her because I was dating someone else. In the story, Rachel describes how traumatic this was. And having heard the raw version from her in person many times over the almost eight years we've been together, let me just say that the "official" version of her story understates how hard this period in her life was. It was a horrible, horrible time for her, and I really don't know how to describe it other than complete and utter heartbreak.

And although I know I didn't do anything wrong, that if anything, I clearly did the right thing given the circumstances, that decision caused my now-wife to experience one of the worst periods in her life. For that, I will feel forever guilty, and to some extent I won't ever stop beating myself up over it.

But here's the thing. From the point of view of a Story Collider producer, I think that the fact that Rachel experienced a "darkest before the dawn" moment works like gangbusters, and makes the fact that she finally achieved her goal (i.e., me) even more meaningful. If I hadn't been a major player in the events of the narrative, this is exactly the kind of punch-you-in-the-gut stuff I'd want to see in a story. Plus, it's guaranteed to play huge in front of an audience – it's a really sympathetic moment. But as Rachel's husband, it pains me to know that I personally was the cause of one of the most painful periods in her life, even if things did work out in the end.

I love Rachel, and I love The Story Collider. But sometimes what's good for one isn't so great for the other. I guess that, when it comes to Rachel's story, I have to be happy that even though I hurt her, she was able to turn it into a freaking great story, and let us run it on the Story Collider podcast. And for that, I love her even more.

Brian Wecht is the founder and London producer of The Story Collider, as well as a theoretical physicist.