You know why it sucks to be the last to sign a birthday card? Because there's no space left. Margaret from accounting wrote War and Peace in the bottom left corner. Alex from sales thinks he's John Hancock right there in the middle. And you? You're stuck with a tiny little slice in the top right corner. Crappy real estate. So you scribble "best wishes" in your smallest penmanship. No fun.

Sometimes, life feels a lot like birthday cards. You and I? On the scale of human history, it feels like we got the card last. Like we're carving out a tiny bit of real estate in the top righthand corner. Newton and Jesus and Galileo and Mozart and Hemingway took all the good spots.

But life isn't like a birthday card. This place expands out in infinite directions, literally forever. There are endless combinations of creativity that can yield new and novel results. In any field, in any discipline. Forever. And if your discipline feels saturated? It's either obsolete or you're not thinking creatively enough. Either way, there's more space. Plenty more space, actually. In the scheme of infinity, pretty much all the space is still available.

Right now, in this moment, I have a story inside that desperately wants out. I've spent the last two years radically transforming my life, and I'm ready to talk about it with the world. I broke up with my fiance. I quit my job. Left my life. I traveled. I reoriented my goals. I started over.

You want know how many times that story has been written? Count every book. That's your answer. It's in literally every story ever, from Eat. Pray. Love. to Moby Dick. But something feels different about my story. Something always has. I started from a different point and I came to different understandings. We all do. Because there are infinite possibilities. There's plenty of room for my story - and yours. We just have to find new ways to tell them. Moby Dick is Moby Dick because no one told a story quite like that ever before. Mad Men is Mad Men for the same reason.

There are, when it comes down to it, only three variables to seriously consider in any venture: content, medium and execution. That's it. What are you saying? Great. How are you saying it? Perfect. Now go say it as best you can.

It turns out, I found blank space on the canvas. Here's how I did it.

1. I learned what existed

You know why a grown man just earnestly mentioned Eat. Pray. Love. in a blog post? Because it's on my mind. Not so long ago, I picked it up and I read it. It's damn beautiful, actually. It's a worthy read. And you know why it was special? Because nothing like it existed before. No one had written Eat. Pray. Love., not quite, anyway. No one had written Into Thin Air or Wild, either. There had been books about spiritual experience and mountains and hikes, of course. But Elizabeth Gilbert and Jon Krakauer and Cheryl Strayed found new space on the canvas. That space is now occupied. But there's plenty more. And so I thought one question: how can I tell this story differently?

2. I learned what was possible

Those three stories I mentioned? All three were written in a world in which so many fewer things were actually possible. The internet only marginally existed when Krakauer wrote Into Thin Air in 1998. It was a shadow of its current self when Gilbert wrote Eat. Pray. Love. in 2006. And it existed in earnest when Strayed penned Wild in 2012, sure. But wasn't her story among the final forms of a craft on the precipice of transformation?

So how has storytelling changed since 2012? That's a dissertation in itself, but there are two easy places to start. The first is obvious because 2012 was the benchmark final year of a dead era. In 2013, Netflix released its first original programming in House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black. It's really not controversial to say that these two releases transformed storytelling. Prior, stories were told in one sitting, long-form. Very few took television seriously as a serious storytelling mechanism. There were standouts, of course. West Wing and The Sopranos and Community all existed, but they were the exceptions that proved the rule: there's more to be done in this space. It can work. And very few are doing it.

Simultaneously, serialization exploded in another medium altogether. After dying with the radio at the dawn of the television, audio storytelling was rebirthed through podcasting. By 2012, roughly 11% of Americans had listened to a podcast in the past month. In 2020, that number has risen more than threefold, to 37%. It shows no sign of slowing down.

So what did I learn? Well, serialization is rising. Serialization was not in the cards for other creators. Not like it is now.

3. I looked for what wasn't there, not what was

How can I tell this story differently?

When I initially asked myself that question, I recognized there were two answers. Firstly, I can explore different content. How is the substance of what I actually have to say tangibly different from these stories? But secondly, I thought about the medium. How can I tell this story in a different manner?

And so I thought about my skills. I'm a seasoned salesman with a deep voice. I'm an above-average public speaker. I'm gifted with the pen. By writing my own Shmeat. Shpray. Shlove., I'd only execute with one of my three root gifts in the world of storytelling. My writing can be powerful, sure. But the written word alone leaves so much on the table. I'd be firing on a third of the cylinders I truly have. 

So I decided to investigate that podcasting thing a bit deeper. Quick guess: how many travel podcasts do you think there are?

I'm waiting.

I shouldn't have phrased it like that. I don't know. But there are 102 that are taken seriously in some way or another. 102 sounds like a lot. But there are 850,000 podcasts, as of June 2020. 102 of them are semi-serious travel podcasts. Of those, about 50 are oriented around travel tips and advice: how to travel during the pandemic and the 10 best beaches in Mexico. That's great. The other fifty are interview-style podcasts. Meet this guy who climbed Kilimanjaro. Also, great.

But how many travel-oriented non-interview storytelling podcasts are there?

Two.

How many of them are seriously immersive, first-person memoir serials?

Zero.

In fact, how many immersive, first-person memoir podcasts of any genre exist at all?

Zero.

None. There are none. There's a bunch of stuff that uses the word memoir, but it's mostly either fiction (like this super weird and dark thing that's also pretty awesome) or it's an old writer or celebrity interviewing their parents. And then there are the non-serial memoirs, like The Moth, which platform different storytellers in each episode. The Moth is awesome, but it's not remotely the same. Anyway, I found my blank space.

So let's run that back. I knew the story I wanted to tell. I learned what existed. I learned what was possible. And I looked for what wasn't there.

Now, I just have to execute.

The first three episodes of Baggage Claim: travel stories no one tells will be released on Tuesday. That'll be my space on the canvas. I hope you take a look.

Click here to listen to the trailer for Baggage Claim.

Will Conway

About

Former political software guy. Now a traveler and adventurer, which isn't a job, and host of the @heybaggageclaim podcast, which really isn't either. Travel stories no one tells.