A Conversation with Laura Joyce Davis of the Stanford Storytelling Project
Laura Joyce Davis is the host and executive producer of Shelter in Place, which won the “Changing the World One Moment at a Time” award at the International Women’s Podcast Awards. She is a full-time lecturer and managing editor at Stanford University's Storytelling Project, the CEO and co-founder of Narrative Podcasts (an online course), and one of Podcast Magazine's Top 22 Influencers in Podcasting in 2022. Her work has been recognized with a PR News Social Impact Award, a Fulbright scholarship, and occasional praise from her three children.
Beginning on September 1, 2022, Laura joined the Stanford Storytelling Project (SSP) as a full-time lecturer and Managing Editor of SSP’s student-produced podcasts, including the award-winning State of the Human. SSP is an arts program at Stanford University that teaches students how to use story craft and practices to create personal and social change. (from press release)
Sangeeta Mediratta, PWR instructor, met Laura to talk to her about her podcasting adventures during the pandemic and beyond as well as her experiences at Stanford.
Sangeeta: It is so wonderful to meet you, Laura, and a real honor to have the opportunity to interview you. I know our colleagues in PWR, and more broadly at Stanford, would love to know more about you and the brilliant work you have been doing. I know you arrived at Stanford in Fall 2022. How has your first quarter at Stanford treated you?
Laura: Great to meet you too! Well, you're getting me in the last week of the quarter, so I'm tired right now, which I'm sure you are too.
But I have to say that my first impression of this place still stands, and that is that I am so delighted to be here. From the first week I was here, it was immediately clear to me that I was in a room full of people who really care about doing meaningful work and giving the students a place where they can be seen and heard and struggle–and understand that the struggle is a really important part of the process that we all go through.
Sangeeta: Thank you so much for saying that. We are so lucky to have you with us! PWR really is a special place. Laura, please tell us about your now famous and award-winning podcast Shelter in Place. What specifically inspired you to launch the podcast, and do share with us us anything that felt really wonderful as well as challenging.
Laura: The origin story of the podcast is a little bit of a strange one in that I didn't have a plan for it at all. I basically had a microphone and I knew how to press record, and that is actually about as much as I knew about podcasting when I did episode one of Shelter in Place.
March 16th, 2020–you might remember this day–was the first day that my three little kids were home from school for the first time, and we had just gotten the news that we were going into lockdown that next day. My husband came home from work and took one look at me and was like, “why don't you go for a bike ride?” And so I did, and I remember it was magic hour. I'm biking up into the Oakland Hills and everybody was out. And I remember just feeling this weight of everything that was coming and everything that had been behind me.
When we tell stories, we talk about conflict, right? And I think the immediate conflict in my little story was that I had suddenly become a stay-at-home mom with three young children whom I had to figure out how to homeschool–which I was not really that thrilled about, to be honest. But the bigger conflict was I had been sort of working as a fiction writer for about 20 years at that point, and really struggling with identity. “Am I a writer? Am I a mom? What do I do about the fact that I feel way more satisfaction in my writing than I do in my parenting, even though of course I love my children?” And so in that moment when I was biking up into the Oakland hills, I got this idea that felt like a lifeline: I’d start a daily podcast called Shelter in Place.
The initial idea was basically that I would have a creative outlet to make sure that I could survive a couple of weeks at home with my kids, and I'd do it six days a week. I would take all of the perfectionism that had plagued me all my life as a writer, and I would say, you know what? I'm gonna write a personal essay each day about what's going on, what I'm thinking about that day. I will record it in one take and I'll press publish, and I don't care if anybody listens. I'm only doing this for a couple of weeks anyway. I went in really thinking that this was not going to be something that the world would see. All I needed in that moment was to be able to find a way to connect with my identity as a creator and a writer.
Two years later I had 200 episodes, the podcast had become what it is today, and we'd won awards and were in the top 1% globally. My husband and I had launched a narrative podcasting training program that turned into an online course (Narrative Podcasts). And that's what has led me here today.
While I wouldn't recommend that path, I'm really grateful for it because there's no way I would be here right now talking with you, if not for every single thing that had happened from that point on, from that first day of the pandemic to all of the joys and struggles since then, of which there have been many.
Sangeeta: That is such an inspiring story, Laura. The pandemic was not an enjoyable time, but if there was enjoyment to be had in that moment, in this creative act, what did that enjoyment look like? What did it feel like?
Laura: I think that what's so interesting about that question, is that it was not an enjoyable moment. But the act of creating this thing was enjoyable, and it really did end up becoming exactly what I'd hoped it would be, which was a lifeline. From the beginning there was this delight in the process. I wasn't doing it so it could be published. I wasn't doing it so that I could win awards. I wasn't doing it so people would listen. All of those things ended up happening and that's wonderful. But where it started was my delight in the process of just telling a story in an intimate and personal way and putting it out into the world as a gift, I hoped, for others.
Sangeeta: You totally upped the game for everybody, right? People were getting, getting into pods or they were getting pandemic puppies. We got a table tennis table, and you just did 200 podcast episodes!
Laura: I'm very aware that on the surface, it's like wow, Laura was so productive during the pandemic–but it happened completely by accident, at least at that stage of the game. It gave me something to show up for every day. And honestly, it probably kept me from sinking into depression during the pandemic, because having that daily episode gave me a sense of purpose, to come into each day, create this thing, put it out into the world, and usually feel really gratified in that process. And then I had something to give my family, which was a part of my life that also felt really intense.
Two weeks became four weeks became two months–and then it was, “well, I guess we should at least go to 50 episodes.” And then we got to 50 and then I went “well, I'm doing this interesting thing and I’m learning so much and maybe we should try to get to a hundred.” And it just sort of happened because the moment called for it. I will say I was very, very burned out at the end of the first hundred episodes.
Sangeeta: I'm so sorry you were burnt out at the end of it.
Laura: I am also sorry about the burnout. But it’s all part of the story, right? The story's a lot less interesting if everything went great and life was just easy.
The real story is that there was a lot of exhaustion and financial and familial struggle and all of the things that all of us were experiencing in our own way during the pandemic. My husband got laid off two weeks into the pandemic, and while we were making episodes we were also just struggling to survive as a family. That’s the backdrop of Shelter in Place. It was painful living through it at the time, but I also think it refined my storytelling skills in a way that just never would've happened otherwise. I wouldn't have been able to force myself to get there on my own. Life kind of put me in this furnace for the better part of two and a half years. And, again, I can't wish that on anybody, but I'm also grateful for the experience because that conflict is part of what has shaped me in really profound ways that I think I'll be grateful for forever.
Sangeeta: Does podcasting give you anything that you carry over into other facets of your life? And if so, could you describe what that is?
Laura: I think it's given me a lot. One of the most important things it's given me is the ability to trust myself, to trust my gut a little bit more, and also to realize that even if I make a mistake, it's not the end of the world, that actually it’s a healthy part of the creative process to make mistakes to have to figure out how to either fix them or do it better next time.
It's funny to me in some ways that I ended up with a creative nonfiction/memoir podcast. There are a hundred interviews in there, so it's many other voices as well. But ultimately the backbone of Shelter in Place is my story. I think it's not an accident that that happened after 20 years as a fiction writer, completely resisting the idea of ever telling my own story. Because frankly, I didn't think my own story was very interesting.
Shelter in Place was the first time in my life that I really gave myself permission to show up in my work as myself and to let even the not-so-nice parts of myself be visible. I wasn't trying to polish myself up. I was trying to be as real as I could be and just say, you know, today this is what I have, and I know it's not enough, and I know I need to do better, but this is the best I can do today. And I'm trying, and here's what that looks like.
Doing that over and over and over again in podcast episodes gave me permission to do that a little more in daily life. Believe me, I have parenting failures every single day. My kids are little right now and they challenge me and they are awesome and also so, so hard. And my husband and I are in that together–and we screw up and fail each other every single day. And I think the work I’ve done on Shelter in Place has given me a lot of compassion, both for myself and for other people, when they maybe don't show up as their best selves.
Sangeeta: Your audience would have so deeply connected with how real you were and also with how that moment elevated your experience to a shared experience, to something that people could really connect with. Laura, are you still writing fiction?
Laura: I still think of myself first and foremost as a fiction writer. My fiction generally speaking is pretty grounded in reality, but it’s a place where I'm allowed to dream and explore the beautiful and also the really ugly parts of myself, of this world. And to just sit with them and let it be okay that things are not as they should be. I love the process of writing fiction. It’s still the first thing I do almost every day, is to spend a few minutes chipping away at a scene in my novel.
Sangeeta: What might you say to people who don’t listen to podcasts?
Laura: I think most people I know who don't listen to podcasts have the impression that all podcasts are interview shows. And I think it's important to say that narrative podcasting, which is what I do in Shelter in Place, what the Stanford Storytelling Project does with State of the Human–those are podcast episodes that are probably more like an audiobook than they are like an interview show. You get the sound design, you get the vividness of scenes, and you get a narrator or characters who are really taking you along for this ride of a story, and they're going to tell you something interesting, surprising, delightful. If someone tells me they’re not into podcasts but they like listening to audiobooks, I’d say, “well, you might actually really like some of these podcasts that are essentially little audiobooks, broken up into bite-size nuggets that you can stop and start, and they’ve been created with your listening habits in mind. There’s an assumption in podcasting that you’ll probably be walking your dog, or washing your dishes, and the story is crafted in such a way that you can stay with it even with those interruptions.
Sangeeta: What are your favorite podcasts? I think our readers would love to get some recommendations from you!
Laura: Oh, so many. They change all the time. When I'm not listening to student work, which is mostly what I've been doing this quarter, Sound Judgment is probably the one I'm going to the most right now. It’s a wonderful show by Elaine Grant where the “best hosts unpack their magic.” I had the honor of being a guest recently, which was so fun. She’s interviewed some of my podcast heroes like Glynn Washington, the host of Snap Judgment. That's another one I love listening to and have listened to for years. Of course, Radiolab, This American Life, those were the podcasts that got me into podcasting. I also want to share Deer Humans, a new award-winning show produced by Eve Bishop, one of my former students. It’s such beautiful work and I could not be more proud of her.
Sangeeta: Talk to us about your experiences thus far with Stanford students, with State of the Human as well as with your new course Narrative Podcast Labs.
Laura: I think that my experience so far is like with any new job; there's always that period where you're just kind of trying to get your bearings and making sure that you don't drop the ball on anything. But I have to say that my favorite part in all of this is getting to invite students into the creative process to understand it from the inside. You often get people who have no prior experience with any of this stuff. To see somebody come in and not even really be sure they understand what a story is, and in a very short amount of time, be able to say, yep, I understand how to tell a good story, and now I've created this thing that I can share with others. Seeing the light bulb go on and seeing things really fall into place for them in their understanding of that process. I never get tired of that.
I think they get to know themselves in that process. Finding your voice really means learning how to tell a story in a way that is exactly you, that is your unique take. I'm hesitant to use that word ‘unique’ because is anything really unique? But I do think with storytelling, even if it's just the smallest distinction, each of us has a way that we come at that story–the details we notice, the ideas we're exploring–that’s really particular to us. I'm speaking of our voices, but I'm also speaking of our writing, because I think those two things are always linked in good podcasting.
Sangeeta: What are you looking forward to most in your job for the rest of the academic year and onward?
Laura: I think it really comes down to two things: I'm excited to teach and I'm excited to learn. On the teaching end, I've had a blast teaching this quarter, but I'm very excited to be coming into the winter quarter already having the experience of a Stanford quarter behind me. I understand the system, the context in a way that I just couldn't until I'd experienced it. And so there's a sense of okay, now I can kind of settle into this a little bit more and not just be reacting to each day, which is a lot of what you end up doing in a new job. Also, maybe I shouldn't commit myself to this publicly, but I'm really excited about the spring course that I am just beginning to create. I've wanted for a long time to do something with stories around climate change–and not just the stories that we're used to hearing about, about how awful everything is, but stories that can really help us imagine a different future.
And I'm excited to learn. I'm very aware that being in PWR, being in VPUE, being at Stanford, but especially I think at PWR, I'm sitting among these brilliant minds who have done such intriguing work, who I can learn from and I want to learn from. I’m looking forward to hopefully sitting in on some of my PWR colleagues' classes, or grabbing lunch or coffee and getting to know them better.
If you are interested in reading a longer, unabridged draft version of this interview, please follow this link.