The Comfort of Consistency

by Alec Glassford on 6/6/2014

  

On the occasional days I got out of class early in high school, I would listen to The Writer’s Almanac, a minuscule daily segment that ran from 2:55 to 3 p.m. on my local public radio station. The Writer’s Almanac, narrated by Garrison Keillor, whose melodious and calming voice is better known for the menagerie that is A Prairie Home Companion, follows a very rigid structure: a song, an array of histories, a poem, and a mantra.

 

The familiar consistency of this format imbues each new episode with a sense of a nostalgia. Even as I learn new stories each time I listen to the Almanac, the ritualistic elements of its craft always make me feel like I am returning home. Even in the experiencing of something so brief, my understanding of the show’s unchanging structure makes me feel snugly nestled in cozy and literary microcosm.

 

Every episode opens with an elegant piano version of a Scandinavian folk song called “Ge Mig En Dag ” (Give Me a Day), over which Keillor recites the introduction, “And here is the Writer’s Almanac for Sunday, the fourth of May, two-thousand-fourteen”—or whatever the correct day may be for the given show; episodes date all the way back to 1993. The main portion of the Almanac follows, with Keillor describing the significance of the current day in history. He then reads a poem, sometimes related to the content of the main section—for example, he recently read an excerpt of Anne Frank’s diary on the anniversary of its first publishing in English—but more often than not, a piece that stands completely alone. Finally, a reprise of “Ge Mig En Dag” rises up from the moment of silence following the poem, and over this Keillor reads the brief credits for the show and closes with the incantation, "Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.”

 

Most of the tiny stories that comprise the Almanac are biographies of writers whose birthdays occur on the day of the show, but other events are recognized and brought to life as well: The birthdays of Duke Ellington and Leland Stanford, the founding of the United States Post Office and the ending of the Civil War, the discovery of DNA, the first performance of Amazing Grace—basically anything that could be deemed notable in the grand scheme of the world. The Writer’s Almanac makes this variety of content accessible by marrying it with a familiar and consistent framework.

 

The consistencies of the show give it a personal and familiar mood; it easily becomes a sort of aural comfort food. “Ge Mig En Dag” now triggers a Pavlovian nostalgia in me whenever I hear it: I feel like I’m in my car, driving home from school and unwinding after a long day, and also like I’m sitting by a warm fireplace with good friends on a winter day; the former feeling is a product of the actual circumstances in which I’ve heard the song so many times, the latter a product of the perfectly languid and cozy composition and performance of the music itself. Moreover, Keillor’s voice has a tranquil and hypnotic tone, and he reads with an experienced patience that entices and holds the listener’s attention. Finally, the initiation and completion of each episode with exactly the same flowery, non-perfunctory language every time gives the Almanac an air of ritual and sacredness. By creating a mood of peace and respite, The Writer’s Almanac takes a very simple concept and makes it into a cathartic ritual with a unique aesthetic.

 

There is certainly a lot to be said for novelty—for inventive storytelling and for surprising one’s audience. And the idea of repetition, of doing something the same way every time, does not seem like it would be very engaging. Nevertheless, if you embed your narratives with consistent idiosyncrasies—a song to open, a proverb to end, a constant tempo—you will create tiny traditions for your audience to hold on to, little anchors that tie their hearts to your stories.