Brendan O’Meara, M.F.A. ’08
Run Your Own Race
By Molly Englund
In early 2013, Brendan O’Meara, M.F.A. ’08, was in a bad headspace, “a morass,” he said, that he felt his career, and maybe even he, was sinking into. A professional writer since 2005, O’Meara had worked for two newspapers and published a book on horse racing. Now, he was freelancing full time from home as he worked on another book, and feeling both the grind and the loneliness of it.
While he was creating slideshows for sports websites and writing the occasional column—“grabbing pennies together,” he called it—other writers, his age or even younger, seemed to have more success.
“I was frustrated that I couldn’t make a go of it,” he said.
What he did next was an attempt to work through those feelings: he started a podcast. It was the beginning of the second podcast boom; the first one, in 2009-10, brought about popular podcasts from comedians and media personalities like Marc Maron, Chris Hardwick, and Joe Rogan.
O’Meara enjoyed listening to creative people discuss their process, and he wanted to be part of it. “No one in hell was going to call me to have that conversation,” he said. So he started a podcast on the art and craft of telling true stories, interviewing writers and other creatives. He called it #CNF, short for creative nonfiction. This was “a bad move,” he said, “because no one knew what that meant at all.”
The first episode aired March 30, 2013. He was finally having the conversations he wanted to have, with writers he thought deserved more attention.
Over the next three and a half years, O’Meara produced about 30 episodes—a sporadic effort, more than a concerted one. Sometimes months would pass without a new episode, then he would post three in a row before letting it fall off again. The early episodes were rough; O’Meara didn’t have professional audio equipment yet.
In 2016, O’Meara was moving from New Jersey to Oregon, still freelancing, working some other jobs. He stood on a threshold.
“I thought, ‘I’m going to table my writing, to an extent, and focus on the podcast,’” O’Meara said. He would do one episode a week, every week, for a year, and see what happened. Renamed The Creative Nonfiction Podcast, he would publish on Fridays. “I figured #CNFridays was a cool hashtag, and it gives people something to listen to on the weekends,” he said.
O’Meara showed up every single week in 2017. His download number went from 1,600 to 16,000 for the year. “That’s just from showing up,” he said. “I wasn’t doing any advertising.”
O’Meara started to land bigger fish. He has interviewed titans of nonfiction writing—Mary Karr, Susan Orlean, Tracy Kidder, Andre Dubus III. In 2018, his downloads shot up to 40,000. O’Meara had become one of the people leading the conversation about the art of nonfiction. He began to think about expanding the audience through the Patreon crowdfunding platform and through advertising. Today, Goucher’s M.F.A. in Nonfiction Program sponsors the podcast.
Despite all the new listeners, and the bigger names, O’Meara’s direction for the podcast remains the same. He regularly seeks out new authors and unsung ones. He now realizes it wasn’t helpful to compare himself to other writers; “We all have to run our own race,” he said. O’Meara tries to demystify that process for others, to remove the feeling in listeners that he used to have: “I try to put my arm around the audience and let them in on the joke; that they’re not alone in this enterprise, it’s an ugly process, and even the best are dealing with the same stuff.”
The process for making a podcast can be just as ugly. Each episode takes about 20 hours to put together, as O’Meara reads each guest’s work, researches, interviews the guest, produces the interview, and edits it down—he usually cuts at least 10 percent of each interview. He then puts the package together: the show notes and the social assets, including audiograms, which make audio clips more appealing on social media. And he’s writing again, doing freelance journalism and marketing, and working on a few book ideas, maybe even one based on The Creative Nonfiction Podcast.
In 2019, that grind is what it can take to make it in the world of media. O’Meara modestly accounts for his podcast’s success in this way; most people don’t have the endurance to do a podcast for seven years and do it every single week, waiting for a gain in audience that might never come. “People fall by the wayside,” O’Meara said. “But if you can keep getting a little bit better, keep showing up, eventually, you’ll be a 10- or 15-year overnight success, and then it’ll be like you were there all along.”
The Creative Nonfiction Podcast is available through your preferred podcast app and on social media @CNFPod.
(Photo at top): Brendan O’Meara, M.F.A. ’08