Morgan Givens is the creator of Flyest Fables, a hopeful young adult podcast about a magical storybook that travels from child to child to help provide comfort, support, and knowledge in their time of need. It is specifically geared towards uplifting the lives of Black children and representing them in fantasy where they are not often represented. Givens is a producer at NPR’s 1A, a nationally-distributed radio talk show, a storyteller (you can hear some of his stories on The Moth and NPR’s Invisibilia), and an absolute gem of a human being.
You’re told this story about 100 times, but it’s really good and cute so: what was your impetus for starting Flyest Fables?
I have a little nephew. He’s a goofy little kid, fun, brilliant and bright and joyful. I love to get him books because books were such a sanctuary for me when I was growing up and I wanted to find this book of fables that would reflect him back to himself, that would have little black kids as the heroes of their stories, that would have their friends be other black kids or brown kids without centering whiteness.
When I was looking for a book of fables for him, I couldn’t find it. When I was growing up, one of my favorite books was The People Could Fly; it was this collection of Southern Black folk tales. At one point, folks who were enslaved literally took flight and flew to freedom. I wanted him to have something like that that was always full of hope.
But I couldn’t find it. And so I decided to make it.
You’re a producer at NPR’s 1A, you’ve participated in the Transom storytelling workshop where you produced Runaway, and you also produced the storytelling podcast Dispatches. What would you say you learned from any of those experiences that directly informed your work on Flyest Fables?
1A was the place where what I could do with audio really clicked for me. When I first started there in September 2017, I was an intern back working with one of the editors, Eileen Humphrey, and she was so patient, showing me Adobe and showing me how to put our podcast together. Every day, I had about two hours to go back and listen through one of the two hours that we aired that day and figure out how to edit it down, what to cut out and make sure it was uploaded by about 3:30 or 4 p.m. I got really good at hearing what was unnecessary in tape. Now, when I go back and listen to some of the episodes from the first season of Flyest Fables I’m like, “Oh, I could’ve killed a darling there” or “I could have condensed this a bit and it would have helped the story move in a way that didn’t seem brisk”. I can hear the way that I would want to improve.
Transom was just a great confidence builder, as far as learning how to put stories together with more than one voice. Transom gave me the confidence to know that it was okay to step outside of what others were trying to do in audio, and it reminded me that it’s okay to take what I need and leave what I don’t. I went to transom knowing nonfiction isn’t where I really want to be, but I knew there were skills I could learn there about how to put audio together. When I went there, I was like, “All right, I will try to make a piece of audio that I feel is way outside of my range that I don’t know if I could do it because I’m here at a school.” If I’m going to fail, you know, let me fail while I’ve got people who can teach me where I failed at and I can take that and then use that as I go forward.
Oh God, Dispatches. I learned a lot about perseverance. I had no idea what I was doing, but I’m still proud of it because you know what? My story matters. It doesn’t matter how I get it out there.It doesn’t matter what shape it takes. It doesn’t matter if no one hears it or not. The point is, I won’t let myself be silenced. I can listen to dispatches and hear how it influences Flyest Fables in the way that I don’t really give conclusive answers to what a person should do. I just show the story and let people go where they may with it when they finish listening.
It reminded me that it’s okay to be vulnerable in my art, but taught me how to draw that line between what I share and the vulnerability of my art and maintaining my own personhood outside of my art. People will often see what you make and say, I know you as a person. You know a part of me, and that’s the part that I let you see. And that’s OK. Dispatches helped me figure out how to start establishing boundaries between what I want to share, knowing it’s okay and safe to share that, and what I want to keep to myself.
I remember seeing you at Podcast Movement last year where you were talking about how you come from a family of storytellers, and I’m wondering abou how your personal background, growing up in that environment, shows up not just obviously in the content, but in the way that you approach what it is that you are making.
I always remember that first line, that first word is what really hooks people. It’s what makes them lean in like, “oh, I want to get more of this.” because when I was growing up, that’s how my family always started stories. “Y’all.”
And you hear that y’all and you’re like “what?” Like, what are you going to say after that? Get people early, get ’em quick; the pitch and intonation of my voice is very important because I don’t speak on the phone with the exact same timbre that I use on Flyest Fables, but I know how to make my voice warm. I know how to bring characters to life. I learned that from my family. When I think about all the things I do, it just reminds me that we’re all storytellers, but the world sometimes makes us forget that we are. It wears us down with the everyday grind of I gotta go to work, I got to make money and sometimes I just feel like we forget that we are storytellers in our own right.
My family showed me that. I learned performance from my family because in a way, that’s what we were doing, performing these moments and these stories. I got support from my family regardless of what stage I was at. I try to pour how I felt when I received that support into the stories that I write for folks who might need it, too, because I know what it’s like in the moments where I feel like I didn’t have it and I didn’t know how to get it.
What’s one struggle or roadblock you’ve encountered in the process of producing Flyest Fables that has stuck in your mind as important, even if it didn’t seem to be at first?
I have a friend named Paige Osburn, and she’s now one of the senior producers of 1A. And I was at work one day working on something for 1A and I was like, “Ah, this could be so much better!” I’d already put so much work into this, way more work than I needed to. And Paige was like, “Morgan. I’m sure you’ve already heard this, but I’m gonna say it again. Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.” And I was like, ah! you know? Because that happens to me with Flyest Fables. I’ll sit there and I’ll get anxious because it has to be perfect.
No, it doesn’t. I started taking the same concept I have when I tell stories on stage and slowly bringing it to the podcast: The audience doesn’t know the story I think I’m going to tell when I step onto that stage. They only know the story I tell them. If I get on stage telling the story and I blank on a sentence and I just kind of wing it and make up a sentence or two, and it’s not the sentence that I wanted to say — they don’t know that. I’m the only one who knows. Their experience doesn’t change.
But then I have a tendency to work myself until I can’t move. It’s not healthy. I love to work on creative projects. But I will work and work and work until I’m exhausted, and then I might not be able to touch the projects for two or three months. I’ve gotten to the point where I check in: am I tried? I deserve to rest. I’m creating free content. OK, I’m going to rest.
I’ve started treating myself better as I’m making this stuff. I’ve had to because what good does it do to run myself into the ground? Now I’m not doing something I like, and people ain’t getting something they want and now everybody’s unhappy. Maybe I get so energized by the creation that I’m not paying attention to the fact that my battery is dwindling.
This is why I post so many tweets telling people to go take a nap.
I am one of those people that you have to post that for because like most of the time, I’ll see it and realize I’m tired. So, thanks for the reminder!
What’s been the most rewarding thing to come out of starting Flyest Fables?
I love the joy I see it brings to other people. I get e-mails from folks and parents who are like, I can talk to my kid about the fact that I have breast cancer now because I have a story I could play for them, so they’re not scared. That’s beautiful for me. I think it’s helped me kind of reconnect with my own joy and my own inner child. And it’s also a nice reminder that my imagination can do much more than I’ve been giving it credit for. The stories just fall out of me now. Maybe I’m at a place where I’m happy enough and centered enough that my brain is not so tense with stress that I have more room to be creative in that way.
Just tell your story. Don’t let nobody tell you that you can’t, even if you gotta scream it into the wind.
Podcasts Morgan Recommends:
- Therapist Uncensored: Two therapists in Texas go through psychology, neuroscience, and neurobiology, and talk about how our body systems work together to produce our mood and emotions.
- Death by Dying: It’s very dry and funny, and definitely not everyone’s cup of tea. I’m eagerly awaiting its return!
- Chasing Cosby: Trigger warning for sexual violence. It’s heart-wrenching to listen to but they do it in a very respectful way, allowing these women to tell their story. It’s hard, but it’s a good show.