Embracing the German Forest

BY DORA GROTE | APRIL 09, 2015 5:00 AM

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Rumbling stomach cramps, universally synonymous with hunger, remind us of a necessity in our lives. But that growling isn’t always paired with food. That gut churn, the gastric acid muffled in our stomach, can resemble anxiety, frustration, and the hunger to accomplish something significant, all while being confused — or perhaps completely lost. 

“Everyone goes through it; it’s totally normal,” said Jad Abumrad, the host of “Radiolab” — a radio show and podcast, who addressed this idea of gut churn in an episode.

On April 4, during Mission Creek Festival, Abumrad wove his voice through the deep growl of gut churn, antelopes dancing across the screen, trilling notes of Wagner’s compositions, wonky sounds bouncing through the air, and science facts. This might sound like an odd mixture, but for “Radiolab” listeners, it’s not. In fact, it’s probably rather familiar. Except something was different about this episode: It was live in the Englert Theater, 221 E. Washington St. 

As an NPR fan, I attended the performance April 4 to hear Abumrad explore the challenges and dynamics of being an innovator in the creative market: What does it mean to be an innovator? How do you find your voice as a creative writer?

Andre Perry, Mission Creek’s director and the Englert’s executive director, said bringing Abumrad to the festival had been on festival’s radar for a long time.

“He really speaks to the heart of Mission Creek,” Perry said at the show. “Someone who really understands the intersection of art and culture and human thought.” 

As a senior journalism major at the University of Iowa, I’m often faced with writer’s block and the inability to think of something new. I’ll sit there, staring at a screen for hours, fingers on my keypad but no movement. 

We’re told to think outside the box, be curious and go beyond our comfort zone into the bridges of unfamiliarity but be able to keep up with the times while telling stories accurately and effectively. The nature of the field keeps me on my toes. We’re forced to come up with new content daily. 

Although the world we live in is a fascinating, ever-evolving place, changing with every heartbeat and bustling with new traditions and fads, it’s not always easy to brainstorm.

Abumrad hit this nail on the head. He gave me hope that even though you might be going through a “gap” in your innovative life, don’t give up. Everything takes time. 

He clearly knows what he’s talking about.

Radiolab branched off from NPR, started off slowly, but is now thriving with more than 2 million listeners. It’s “a show about curiosity. Where sound illuminates ideas, and the boundaries blur between science, philosophy, and human experience,” its website says. 

“Radiolab” and Abumrad were introduced on stage by the opening act Derrick Brown, a paratrooper poet, who called his show “a reformation of journalism, podcastism, janky sounds, and science.”

Abumrad cited a difficult story he worked on about the German composer Wagner’s Ring Cycle, who has the most books written about him, second to Jesus — a story that left him confused and sleepless for months. That feeling when he was lost and didn’t know what to do, he referred to as “getting lost in the German Forest.” 

“The first time is scary,” Abumrad said. “The second time: scary. The third time: scary. But the fourth and fifth time you know you can get out of it … And now I challenge myself to make a story hurt, just a little bit.”

I can definitely relate. Easy stories are nice, but there’s no sense of reward or accomplishment without doing a little digging and investigating and going out of your comfort zone. 

In 2011, “Radiolab” received a Peabody Award, the highest honor in broadcasting, and Abumrad received the prestigious MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship. So when he said Saturday, “There’s a moment when you just figure things out,” I believed him.

“You start to see the German Forest for what it is, a tool … A tool to find yourself a little bit,” he said. 

The next step of my life comes in May, when I graduate and will head off to New York City for a fellowship. Though I have plans for nine weeks, I have the rest of my life ahead of me to figure out. It’s scary. Daunting. And overwhelming. But with my boyfriend at my side, I know that we’ll get through it together. 

As Abumrad said at the closing of his story, “When walking through periods of doubt, walk with someone.” 

So go ahead, embrace your German Forest, fill your hunger, and devour the darkness. And do so with someone else.

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