Gut Churn: Radiolab’s Jad Abumrad Comes to San Antonio

Last night at Trinity University’s Laurie Auditorium, Jad Abumrad gave a lecture/performance titled ‘Gut Churn’. Sponsored by the Mind Science Foundation (MSF), Jad was there to talk about the creative process, innovation, developing ideas, and the shitty feelings that go along with all three.

Before the show started, the MSF had their inaugural “Brain Game Challenge” out in the lobby. After picking up your ‘passport’ at the sign in desk, you went on to five different stations to play games. Each station was for a different function: sight, sound, smell, problem solving, and word association. Putting on ‘drunk’ goggles and trying to throw a ball around was pretty entertaining. So was smelling thing’s blind. They had an assortment of film canisters (at least there’s one use for film canisters still) whose contents you had to guess based on smell alone. Have you ever smelled butter? No, I mean really smelled butter? It actually smelled like butterscotch candy. It was a magical experience.

After the brain games, we walked into the auditorium and took our seats. Set up in the middle of the stage was Jad’s laboratory: three laptops were perched on the table along with his microphone and stool. We waited and waited, and finally the show began. Jad took his place on the table and began the show. I wasn’t sure what to expect; I didn’t know if I was going to be treated to a live episode of Radiolab or if I was going to get lectured to from a podium. Sure enough, it was the former. Jad had set up visuals, audio snippets, music, the works.

It was really interesting getting to hear him talk about his creative process. As a creative myself (albeit a young creative), a lot of the feelings he was talking about still bubble out of my brain on a daily basis.

Possibly the most relevant advice he gave was what I took as being ‘Embrace your terribleness’. He had some interviews with a couple other NPR reporters, and Ira Glass’s explanation on creativity was one that Jad ran with.

In the creative process lives what Ira calls ‘the gap’. You get a job because you’re good. They can see that you’re good or they wouldn’t have hired you. You have a perspective that they want, and that’s why you’re there. So you start putting out work, cranking it out day after day. But when you actually sit down and look at what you’re doing, you notice that most of it is crap. Some of it is better than the rest, but you know it’s not really your best. It’s not what you want it to be. It’s not coming out the way you envisioned it. That, my friends, is the gap. Eventually, says Ira, if you keep working and keep pushing and keep cranking out as much work as you possibly can, you get past the gap and you start producing work that you want to produce.

This, however, is where Jad disagreed. He doesn’t think that you ever get past the gap. The gap is a constant presence in a creative mind. You might have a feeling of anxiety about your work for three hours or five minutes, it doesn’t matter. Everyone has the feeling that the work they put out isn’t their best, and you have to embrace that feeling in order to do better in your next project.

Another great creative pitfall he talked about was what he referred to as ‘the German forest’. Long ago, Jad was doing a show on Wagner’s Ring Cycle. If you’re not familiar with the Ring Cycle, here is a link to the show. I highly suggest you listen to it. Anyway, Jad was having a lot of trouble with this show. He had to take a 16 hour opera and compress his analysis of it into a one hour long radio show. He had to do so while having two huge opera snobs breathing down his neck in the form of editors.

Jad missed deadline after deadline and was having an insanely difficult time making the show. He panicked, he stressed, and one of his friends actually thinks he developed PTSD from doing all the stress. This feeling of dismay, this madness is what he calls ‘the German forest’: a dark, deep, foggy place where your mind goes when your have no hope for your creative process. Which, I think I can say with utmost certainty, we’ve all experienced.

Jad explains that he now expects to go into this place for at least one out of three stories that he produces for the show. Whether it’s just a few steps into the forest where he can begin to smell the fir trees, or deep into the darkest depths, one out of every three stories that Jad produces send him, in some way, into this sense of dismay.

But it’s okay. From the way he spoke about it, it almost seems as though he welcomes this feeling. And I can see why. I’m relatively new to the creative world, and I went into the forest much more in my last job than I have in my current position, but it’s an exhilarating experience. It’s amazing how much you can get done when you feel like you’re literally going to die. An even better feeling is when you don’t even know how you’re going to get something done, or even what you actually need to be doing.

You’re stuck. You’re dying. You’re so lost in this atrocious arboreal wasteland that you can’t see yourself ever getting out. But, as we all know, you eventually do. When you finally see the light poking its way through the fir branches, you know you’ve done it. And each time you find your way out of the forest, it makes you a little bit stronger. The next time you find yourself there, it makes this terrible place a little bit easier to traverse.

So the next time I head into the forest, I won’t be afraid of it. I’ll embrace it. It’s a place that the best ideas come from. ‘It’s always darkest before dawn,’ right?

Almost everything Jad said last night struck a chord with me in some way. It was an excellent lecture, and I’m so glad my friends and I had the opportunity to go. If you’re not familiar with Radiolab, you should be. A list of a few of my favorite Radiolab episodes can be found below.


The Ring and I: This is the episode on the ring cycle I referenced earlier. You might have no interest in opera whatsoever, but you need to listen to this.

Earworms: A great show on the power of music.

The Turing Problem: AI, Nazis, and Homophobia.

Colors: This was my first Radiolab and it changed the way I look at the world.

Crossroads: The epic story of Robert Johnson going to the crossroads and falling down on his knees.

Fu-Go: A WWII story that I guarantee you’ve never heard before.

≤ kg: What is a kilogram?

Los Frikis: Rock ‘n’ roll VS the Cuban dictatorship. What could go wrong?

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