2020 Miller Audio Prize Runner-Up in Humor: “Quarantine Careers: Voiceover Edition” by Tess Adams

We are so excited to share “Quarantine Careers: Voiceover Edition” by Tess Adams, which was selected by 2020 Miller Audio Prize Guest Judge Alex Sujong Laughlin as the runner-up this year in the Humor category.

Tess Adams is a Connecticut-based writer, singer, and actor. She is currently a rising senior at Quinnipiac University double majoring in English and Theater with a minor in Business. Other honors and recognitions include Wilder Short Fiction Prize Honorable Mention, Alpha Psi Omega National Theatre Honor Society, Sigma Tau Delta National English Honor Society, and Quinnipiac University Honors Program. She hopes this little quarantine project brings you some joy!

Listen to “Quarantine Careers: Voiceover Edition” below:

Artist Statement

“Quarantine Careers: Voiceover Edition” arose out of an assignment for one of my spring semester classes, ​The Audio Narrative​. Being an actor, I was simultaneously brainstorming ways I might find work or be artistically engaged during quarantine; one of those ways happened to be voiceover gigs. In researching how to “break in” to the voiceover industry, I found that I needed to put together a reel. I was then struck with the idea of creating this piece – an actress attempting to DIY a voiceover reel with marginal success. Prior to taking this course, I had very little experience with sound editing or exposure to this form of storytelling. Thanks to my very generous professor, Dr. Ken Cormier, I was able to learn and refine new skills. You can also hear “Quarantine Careers” on the ​The​​ Benjy Section​ and ​Isolated Together​ podcasts.

2020 Miller Audio Prize in Humor: “Everything is Alive: Magic 8 Ball” by Ian Chillag

Ian Chillag’s “Magic 8 Ball” was chosen by 2020 Guest Judge Alex Sujong Laughlin as the winner of this year’s Miller Audio Prize in the humor category. Today, we’re so excited to be able to share Chillag’s hilarious audio project with you below.

Ian Chillag is the host and creator of Everything is Alive. Previously he was a producer for NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross, and he co-created and hosted the NPR podcast How To Do Everything. He’s also worked on videos for the New York Times, contributed regularly to the literary magazine A Public Space, and has recorded four episodes of a podcast about a post-apocalyptic public radio pledge drive besieged by pestilence and death that he can’t quite figure out what to do with.

Listen to Chillag’s “Magic 8 Ball” here:

Artist Statement

“Magic 8 Ball,” produced in collaboration with Jennifer Mills and performed by Bill Kurtis, originally appeared as a special episode of the podcast Everything is Alive.

2020 Miller Guest Judge in the Spotlight: Alex Sujong Laughlin

2020 Miller Audio Prize Guest Judge Alex Sujong Laughlin shares her journey to becoming an audio producer, the lens through which she sees the world, and how TikTok makes her laugh.

The Missouri Review: To start, could you tell us a little about how you came to be an audio producer? Was this something you always thought you wanted to pursue? What drew you to the medium?

Alex Sujong Laughlin: I’ve been in love with radio since I was little — I would sit in my bedroom floor and listen to NPR while I made collages out of garbage. I discovered my first podcast (The Ben Lee Podcast, RIP) when I was in ninth grade, and I listened to its six episodes on repeat on my iPod during gym class that year. Later on, I discovered This American Life (classic gateway), then RadioLab, and that was it for me. I took a little detour in college and post-grad to work in social media, but I always felt like audio was my home base.

TMR: You teach journalism at Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism, you work at Transmitter Media, you helped to create an alarm clock for Google Alexa, you are very active on social media, and the list goes on, yet, you also find time to write. How do you juggle so much at once and still find time for writing? Do you have any tips for those of us who are also trying to carve time out for our writing?

ASJ: It’s extremely hard!!! I don’t want to understate how hard it is!!! My mentor, Marie Myung-Ok Lee, challenged me last year to carve out at least 15 minutes every day to work on my WIP, and once I started doing that, I found I could get so many more words on the page. Still, there are ebbs and flows. I had a massive deadline at work that took up a ton of time and brain space over the last month, so I haven’t made as much time to write as I did in months prior. It’s been important for me to learn to forgive myself for time not spent being “productive.” Sometimes I just need to sleep, and if I don’t do that first, my art will not be good!

TMR: You’ve done a lot of work that explores the concepts of race and identity, including your podcast, “Other: Mixed Race in America.” How do your thoughts on identity factor into your creative pursuits?

ASJ: I’m a mixed race, Korean and white woman who grew up in a middle class military family of divorce with a Korean immigrant mother. That is the only way I have experienced the world, and even though I read and research and interview folks, everything I make is created through that lens. I try to be aware of the blind spots that arise from that, but I also hope to represent the nuances of this particular intersection of identities. I published “Other” three years ago, but I still get emails from people telling me that it was the first time they’d seen themselves represented in media, and that it inspired them to tell their own stories. That is the best response I could have hoped for from that show, and it’s what I aim for with every piece of work I publish.

TMR: Now we’re going to do the thing that all writers do and ask you to tell us about your favorite books. We know you’ve compiled reading lists for your followers in the past; are there essential books/texts that always make your list?  

ASJ: Oh my gosh, Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel is practically a religious text for me. All of Ruth Ozeki’s work is amazing — I can’t even pick one book. Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing turned my brain inside out last summer. I return to Anaïs Nin’s diaries in between other books — I love reading published diaries and hers are gorgeously written. I also have a deep love for all things Carson McCullers – we went to the same high school in South Georgia, and I always felt a kinship with her. I recently read Reflections in a Golden Eye and was tickled by the extremely accurate descriptions the houses I grew up in on Ft. Benning.

TMR: One of our categories that you will be judging in the Miller Audio Prize is humor, and we love that your social media handles (and website!) are “@alexlaughs.” We’ve got to ask: What makes you laugh, and what makes you laugh in a way that makes you want to hear the bit again?

ASJ: I have a really juvenile sense of humor. I feel like 2008-era Tumblr memes and Spongebob Squarepants are the roots of my humor… which is not cool, but I don’t care. TikTok always gets me laughing to tears. My sister and I discovered this video over Christmas break and it BROKE us for two weeks. Why is it called “pants hair”?!? Why is she standing like that in the picture?! I can’t explain it, and I am sorry.

TMR: A hard reality that all writers and artists have to deal with is rejection and you’re doing this incredible thing by collecting those stories @hellorejection. What is one of the most memorable stories about rejection that you’ve collected? Did it change the way you personally think about rejection?

ASJ: I think just seeing the accumulation of all the stories has been really comforting to me. We all know that everyone experiences rejection, but when you’re in the thick of it, it can really feel like you’re the only talentless reject in the world, and that you should probably give up. It’s comforting to see the feelings I’ve had reflected in so many other people across industries and disciplines. It’s a reminder to keep going!

TMR: And of course, as writers ourselves, we want to know if you have any advice for other artists/writers dealing with their own rejection?

ASJ: Just to remember that it’s part of the process, you’re not the only person going through it — and submit your screenshots to @hellorejection 😉

TMR: We couldn’t sign off without asking some questions about the adorable Pangur Bán that we’ve been seeing a lot of on your Instagram page. Can you tell us about his name? When is he at his most adorable?

ASJ: We usually call him Pong or Pongey, but we named him after a cat in an Old Irish poem written by a monk. My partner is in grad school, and we anticipated that the two of them would spend a lot of their days together in the apartment. Here’s an excerpt of the poem translated by Auden:

Pangur, white Pangur, How happy we are

Alone together, scholar and cat

Each has his own work to do daily;

For you it is hunting, for me study.

Your shining eye watches the wall;

My feeble eye is fixed on a book.

You rejoice, when your claws entrap a mouse;

I rejoice when my mind fathoms a problem.

Pleased with his own art, neither hinders the other;

Thus we live ever without tedium and envy.

Turns out, cats are little terrors, but Pong definitely has his moments when he crawls into bed while I’m reading and snuggles up with me.

Alex Sujong Laughlin is a journalist and writer who works in multiple mediums. By day, she works at a producer at Transmitter Media, and in her spare time she writes fiction and essays about identity and technology. She teaches interactive journalism at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism and collects rejection letters at @hellorejection.

Enter the 2020 Miller Audio Prize on our Contest page here.

Advice for an ERA

Time to address a seldom discussed but alarmingly common trend I’ve noticed in creative nonfiction submissions — a specific kind of essay I call the Embarrassing Restroom Adventure.  

The details of ERAs vary widely, limited only by the number of ways going to the bathroom can go horribly wrong. Still, almost all ERAs follow the same basic trajectory: narrator enters restroom and gets comfortable; narrator notices that something isn’t quite right (the door won’t lock, the toilet paper’s gone, etc.); someone else shows up and suddenly there’s a big, embarrassing mess; narrator cleans it up, vowing to avoid similar situations in the future.

If one were to bust into the mail room of any literary journal that accepts essays, steal all the submissions, scatter them randomly over a five-acre plot, and stroll back across it blindfolded, guaranteed that person would step in a couple ERAs. I’ve been a reader for three literary journals, TMR included, and I can report that ERAs show up pretty often — about as often as essays about losing a pet or experimenting with sex or illegal drugs, but not quite as often as essays about cheating on a spouse, living with a debilitating illness, or attempting to finally reconcile things with mom or dad.  

The impulse to commit the ERA to paper is easy to understand, but hard to resist. They are stories told to make our close friends laugh, and in that sense they’re practically failsafe. If ERAs were employees in a corporate workplace, they would be low-level sales reps, the funny, jokey kind that bristle with personality and form quick rapports with others — and they’re great at their jobs. So great, in fact, that it will be suggested by others that they be promoted. “That’s a hilarious story, dude,” friends will say of the ERA. “You should totally write it down!” And in a move familiar to anyone who’s ever done corporate work, this promotion will remove the low-level ERA employee from a position where it almost can’t fail and install it in a higher position where it almost can’t succeed. 

In an ERA, the speaker assumes a position where there’s trouble but not danger, where taboo is flirted with but not violated, and where the audience is invited to laugh and sympathize but isn’t called upon to reevaluate or challenge. The subject matter’s universality makes it immediately accessible, so very little setup is required to contextualize the story up front besides where and how long ago it occurred. An ERA provides ample opportunity for the use of awesome literary devices like narrative suspense and colorful exaggeration, which are tricky to pull off in other personal writing endeavors.   

What’s really tricky, though, is making a case for an ERA’s literary value. While the story might be immediately accessible, there are also a lot of readers who will immediately choose not to access it. The purpose — to entertain — could be misinterpreted as an attempt to shock. Humor takes a privileged position, making insight and reflection secondary, and pretty soon the reader questions whether the piece should have been written at all. 

Then there’s the fact that there are so many ERAs floating around, and I admit I’m personally to blame for some of that. My Masters thesis is clogged with ERAs. I dropped an ERA on my creative writing workshop just last year. I can no more explain why I wrote so many — surely was aware I wasn’t breaking new ground — than I can explain why going to the bathroom without incident is hard.  

I still cheer for just about every ERA manuscript I get, and I pass my share of ERAs up the chain. However, take note: No ERA I’ve passed has ever been accepted for publication. Likewise, none of the ERAs I’ve sent out have ever been published.

Therefore, my advice to anyone planning to write an ERA is this:

Make it very good. Make the language captivating and the scenes vivid, but don’t be gross. Don’t let it even approach shock value. Don’t cuss. Make it so funny that it validates its own existence, but not so funny that the humor overshadows whatever insight it arrives at — which, incidentally, had better be more breathtaking than “…and that’s why I’ll make sure and go at my house next time.” Make it somehow touching but not emotionally gooey. Make it bigger than the confines of its situation without allegorically implying that life itself is a toilet.

Most importantly — and I think this goes for all essays — make the engine behind it be powered by something other than just the circumstances, because circumstances can seldom ever be unique, but with some careful thought, accounts of them can.