institute for documentary studies
 

{A Week in the Life Blog}

Week 10: Writing

“Usually you will have to rewrite the beginning–the first quarter or third of whatever it is. Don’t waste much time polishing this; you’ll just have to take a deep breath and throw it away anyway, once you finish the work and have a clearer sense of what it is about. Tear up the runway; it helped you take off, and you don’t need it now. This is why some writers say it takes “courage” to write. It does. Over and over you must choose the book over your own wishes and feelings.” – Annie Dillard, Notes for Young Writers

Before I begin, I need to preface this blog post with a warning; I woke up with a kink in my neck this morning. A “kink” — a monosyllabic, teaspoon hitting-the-side-of-a-teacup kind of word — sounds small, slightly uncomfortable, maybe even fun. No. I cannot turn my head to the right, which, it turns out, cuts my perspective of the world in half. If I move, or chew, or laugh at a joke, my neck goes into spasm and cry out and scream in a way that my boyfriend said “reminds him of childbirth.”

So. This is all to say my neck is in a knot, and I am on various painkillers and muscle relaxants. I don’t remember their names because I was in too much pain to ask those investigative type of questions, but they are oblong and white and make me feel like I am encased in bubble wrap. Proceeding forward, please take all that I have to say with a grain of Salt.

Being immobile and incapacitated has its upsides, though, including my aunt coming over to bring me ginger tea laced with whiskey, and, because I cannot lift my right hand without triggering my neck, forcing me to get off my computer and read (I am, I’ll have you know, currently typing with one hand). While resting against a mountain of pillows,  I read the compilation of essays, “In Fact: The Best of Creative Nonfiction,” edited by Lee Gutkind, who was named by Vogue the “Godfather behind creative nonfiction.” Gutkind has published an innumerable amount of books on the subject, and rather than having to decide which volume to buy, I picked up the “Best of,” which marked the tenth anniversary of the collection.

In the introduction, Annie Dillard mentions the courage it takes to write. As I wrote earlier in the semester, overcoming that initial fear and getting down to business can be hard. Often you end up feeling like a lump on the bed with a kink in your neck (or something). But once you do recognize that you’re not a waste of space, and get the wheels turning, you’ll be so pleased with yourself for starting that you’ll think whatever you write down is brilliant. Like pure gold, Pulitzer-Prize winning sentences.

My friend once told me that while she runs she murmurs to herself “You go, baby girl!” which I thought was both strange and adorable. But I do the same thing when I write, just not out loud, and when I come back the next day, I read the first paragraph again, and think “Damnnnnn that’s still good”, using it as my anchor to continue writing. I get attached to my words because they’re the first thing I put down on the page — like a first love, right for sixteen, but not the person you’re meant to spend the rest of your life with. So when the editing stage comes around, I am too attached to the idea of my sentences, too nostalgic for what they represent (sharing a locker, the last of my youth) to give them up.

Being high on painkillers is not too different from beginning the writing process: a rush of excitement, a lack of clarity, insusceptibility to self-doubt or pain. Right now I am the sh**t guys, because I am writing, and all it takes to be a writer is to write, right??

Nope. Lee Gutkind waited ten years to publish his “Best of” collection because excellence takes time. The good stuff takes a while to rise to the top. What I think is treasure is probably trash, and just because I wrote it doesn’t mean it deserves a place in my final draft  (the culture and practice of blogging, unfortunately, encourages this kind of word-vomit writing behavior). Listen to Annie; “take a deep breath and throw it away anyway, once you finish the work and have a clearer sense of what it is about.” By getting attached to our prose, we are doing ourselves a disservice.

I probably won’t remember writing this blog post. What feels so clear right now might make no sense in the morning. Tomorrow, I might be able to look in both directions, and then I’ll have a clearer sense of things.

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Week 9: Multimedia

With only five weeks left, it seems we’re heading into what I’ve started referring to as Salt’s “third trimester.” I feel pregnant with possibility, bloated with potential, and my ankles are swollen, at least from all the driving I’ve done in the last few weeks. I’m definitely on the verge of squeezing out something. I just hope and pray it will be a bouncing-new, highly riveting body of work and not… something else.
 
I’m exhausted, to be honest, but it’s the good kind of exhausted, so I’m not complaining, believe me. In the last week alone, I’ve hung out with beauty queens and a roomful of strangers dressed up as characters from Mad Men. My fieldwork has taken me from soup kitchens to male burlesque classes. I’ve won over husbands who were clearly suspicious of me taking pictures of their wives and children. And I’ve started shooting video that actually looks good. Like, really really good. If only I hadn’t blown the damn sound by forgetting to press the proper button on my audio recorder. I’ll spare you the rest of the boring, pitiful details, but for now I just need to take a moment and type, “AAAAARRRRRRRGGGGGHHHH!!!!!!!”
 
When it comes to this whole “multimedia” thing, it’s like I’m one of those one-man band guys who marches around town with a drum on his back, crashing cymbals between his knees while strumming a ukulele and blowing on a kazoo. Lugging around so much equipment and trying to catch as many moments as possible all at once, it’s an inevitable fact that you’re going to make a wrong move and miss something. I keep trying to make peace with this and understand that no one is perfect, that we’re all only human in the end. But when you spent 48 straight hours out in the field, taking over 2500 pictures and capturing up to 20 minutes of pretty decent audio, and you still drive home feeling like you totally blew it, it’s hard to maintain any sort of Zen-like perspective on your life and art.
 
But as a band of wise men once sang, you got to learn to roll with the changes; otherwise, you get tired of the same old story. I may be tired and a little bit weary, but I know there’s some new tales growing in my belly. I can see their heartbeats on the Ultrasound we Salties call Adobe Lightroom and Final Cut Pro X. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must go binge on pickles and fried chicken and mint-chocolate cookies…
 

- Smith, photo

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Week 9: Photo

I didn’t realize, before Salt, that photography is its own form of poetry. Because of my own inexperience and ignorance, I short-changed the whole medium, never able to connect to it as a fluent language, instead seeing it as a series of disjointed fragments.
 
No surprise then that reading a photo book proved a greater mystery, given my lack of photographic literacy. The past few weeks at Salt, then, have been one extended, persistent question:  What makes a photo book worth reading?
 
Richard Billingham’s collection of photos, “Ray’s A Laugh,” was one I couldn’t work out. Almost all the images within its pages are riddled with grain, and blurred photos are scattered throughout.  There’s one in particular of two dogs sitting on a couch, their faces indistinct from a too-long exposure.
 
“Why is this photo here?” I asked in class the other day, perplexed. “What makes it worth including?” The response, from Nelson, my photo instructor: Turn to the page before, and turn to the page after, he said. How do these images speak to each other? How do they relate?
 
The image before: a man and his son. The image after: the man and his son, throwing a tennis ball at his father’s unsuspecting face. “Do you see how it goes from one pair to another?” Nelson asked.
 
At the flip of a page, the connection between one image to the next can be rooted in a color, a character, a theme. It might be the same color or a contrasting one, the same character or a related one, the continuation of an idea or the conclusion of one. Vague — but it can sometimes be that simple, he said.
 
Like a poem, with each line paving the way for the next, photography is just as much about fluidity as any other medium.  Sometimes the technique doesn’t say so much about the image, as the image itself speaks to the mood of the book or the intention of the author – even if it’s technically flawed.
 
“Basically, I don’t think you’ve spent enough time with the book,” Nelson said. I missed the point of the book for focusing on its technical flaws.
 
Nelson told us about how he’s pondered some books for years. It took seven before he understood Robert Frank’s “The Americans,” he said.
 
Sometimes he’ll ask himself, Why this image and not another? What does it mean? Like the way you consider the meaning of a line, he’ll ponder the significance of a transition or the selection of a certain image. Much in the way that written words will stick with you, or a lyric will stay on the edge of your tongue, so will the mood of a photo book linger in your thoughts.

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Week 9: Radio

One of the radio students with a proclivity for pop culture compared the Salt program to a reality television show. A lot of the basic ingredients of “The Real World: Portland” are there. We are 20 strangers picked to live in Maine. Our lives aren’t taped, yet we are always recording (with cameras, with audio gear, with pens and paper and memory). At Salt, it’s entirely possible for your colleagues, roommates, and friends to be one in the same. The emotions are raw. The stories are true.

No quasi-reality documentary program is complete without a quick-fire challenge, which are by nature small, intense, and all consuming infernos of fear and struggle. They are microcosms of the real thing. As a novice chef, you cannot prove your cooking mettle in a ten-course meal until you can serve up a decent fish soup. And before you attempt a 5-minute multimedia piece, you have to survive Doc in a Day.

Doc in a Day – short for “Documentary in a Day,” but long for “DID” – is the first assignment you receive in multimedia class. You are paired at random with someone in another track and sent to a disclosed location to produce a multimedia piece in 24 hours. Last semester, the class ventured to the Oxford County Fair and returned with tales of lumberjills, gemstones, and demolitions. This semester, we went to Sebago Lake for their annual an ice-fishing derby. Ice fishing is like regular fishing, with the added feature of the water being frozen. And as with regular fishing, there is a high potential for boredom. A man dangles a line into the water and waits. How could ten teams possibly bait and tackle ten unique stories about THAT? Of course, the whole point of Salt (and by extension, the whole point of documentary work) is to find the most appealing parts of real life, the human parts that would ignite the curiosity of others, and do our duty in conveying that through sound/images/print. To “find the story within the story.”

Determined to go fishing and not return with a story about fishing, Mike and I sought other angles (or anglers). We called up and down Cumberland County in the hunt for the quirkiest aspect of ice fishing. There was a guy who digitized fishouse poetry. There was a polar dip on Jordan Bay. I finally got a hold of the retired director of the derby. He whispered sweet nothings into my story-sensitive ears. Apparently…there was a man who owned the best ice shack in the area—one insulated with cedar wood and pine and outfitted with a cook top, a heater, and a trap that rattled when the fish were biting.

Even better: He had a brother. They’d gone ice fishing together since childhood.

It was our brass ring.

We pitched our DID story to the class as a meditation ice fishing through the eyes of the Blanchard Brothers—two brothers who had seen it all! How cinematic is that? The Cohen Brothers couldn’t invent what we had discovered in real life. We set out for Jordan Bay at 4AM with a box of Joe and the smug overcoat of confidence, thinking we had found a story that was a sound investment and fully insured. We expected to return that evening with exactly the story we came for.

When we arrived at Dave’s house, the brother we spoke with over the phone, it was snowing on Jordan Bay. In the white glow of the headlights, you could see it spiraling through the air. There were two snowmobiles parked at the edge of the bank, mist billowing around their engines, and the lake stretched mystically beyond that. It was too dark to see how far beyond. I remember standing on the bank, clutching a microphone, and gaping at the sight of this infinite space. The light was beginning to brighten. As we turned a corner in the snowmobile, the ice shack came into view. It was perfect cube that seemed to float above a horizontal plane, like a geometric sunrise. Though I had contemplated the fishing part, the ice part hadn’t occurred to me until I stepped off the snowmobile to chance a step. My footprint melted through the top layer of now. The ice wasn’t white at all. It was green and dark blue, seeming to borrow its color from the water beneath. 

There’s a word for this: the “field.” It’s the place of data collection, where Salt students gather the raw materials to later dissect using Final Cut Pro X at 561 Congress Street. It is the place you go laden with equipment and expectations, hoping to get something good. It is the place that no amount of pitching or e-mailing and cold calling can prepare you for, where you confront the truth of your story and the reality of your ignorance. Mike once called it “the beautiful, infinite wilderness of possibility.” He set up his camera and slowed down the shutter speed. I should have known then, when the frozen gaze of the field was staring me in the face, how foolhardy it is to have expectations about what we would catch.

The next fourteen hours were spent in the company of Dave and the friends he was fishing with, documenting their activities and asking them questions. Dave said his brother would show up eventually. While we waited, Paul taught us how to drill a hole through 24 inches of ice with a power auger, how to tie a knot in a line so you know how far to lower it, and how to bob a jig rod to imitate the motions of a fish. Dan told stories of sleeping out on the ice, of falling through the ice, and of fishing for carp in pools of melting ice at night. Between mouthfuls of bacon, egg, and cheese sandwiches (and complaints of how badly I burned the bacon), we listened to country music and NC-17 jokes around the fire pit. Jen caught the biggest trout of her life. I got her reaction on tape. Tom filleted the fish. Mike took detail shots of its bloodied intestines. It was rich material, but not our story. At some point, we began to worry. Where was the other brother? He was the linchpin of a tale about brotherhood that was rapidly disintegrating as the sun went down. 

After dark, on the snowmobile trip back to shore, we found him. The other Blanchard. He was sitting alone, in the very same ice shack we were in that morning—the blue-ribbon ice shack that was famed throughout Cumberland County. It turns out that he had been sitting there for hours. “Why?” I asked him. He told me to turn off the tape recorder. It turns out he wasn’t a fan of “the media.” He had never intended to talk to us at all and had made himself scarce that day on purpose. The story of the Blanchard Brothers was doomed from the start and we, the storytellers, were the last people to find out. 

I stumbled back into my car, shell-shocked and wondering how I could have missed this. Just because two people are brothers doesn’t mean they live their lives in tandem. Knowing that, it is all the more ironic that the most foundational fact of our story—that both brothers would be there—was actually an assumption made in the heat of deadline. Dave said that his brother might be there. “Might.” Why did I latch onto a “might” and mistake it for “will”? It’s as foolish as deciding your catch for the day. Perhaps in my determination to get a story that wasn’t boring, I fished for a story that wasn’t true. I came away empty-handed. 

The problem with trying to lacquer real life with something you think is “more exciting” is that it denies real life the chance to be exciting. It blinds you with a surface-level of understanding as you wait with myopic certainty for what you expect to reveal itself. The meat of your story is swimming in deeper waters. Fail to pay attention and it will pass you by. It’s a valuable lesson whose parallels to fishing were not lost on me, even while thawing my feet and reeking of minnow.

Picking through the audio files and digital photographs one by one, Mike and I pieced together a different story over the next few weeks. This one was about the relationships between six people for whom ice fishing was just another way (albeit, one of their favorite ways) to spend time together. It wasn’t the story we expected. But it was the story we caught.

See the video HERE.

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Week 9: Writing

This is the beginning.
 
This is the middle.
 
This the end.

 

I went to the store.
 
I bought a toothbrush.
 
On the way home, I dropped my toothbrush.

 

Simple, yet riveting! A, then B, then C. But what if the middle began, and the beginning ended, and the end fell somewhere in between? Does the story still make sense?

 

I bought a toothbrush.
 
On the way home, I dropped my toothbrush.
 
I went to the store.

 

Or how about…

 

On the way home, I dropped my toothbrush.
 
I bought a toothbrush.
 
I went to the store.

 

Stripped of their details, these barebones nonlinear stories are devoid of logic. You can understand the gist of the subject matter, maybe, but not the sequence of events. They remind me of the nights I sat on my couch, reading a book, while my mother tried to skip over the commercials on T.V.; first, she fast forwarded too far ahead, then rewound too far behind, and then was back where she started, forced to watch the commercial again.

 

Even if the structure of the story is reversed, or crisscrossed, or overlapping with different perspectives, a story is still there—moving the reader forward even if they are going backwards or sideways through time. Playing with time is a dangerous exercise, as the writing can topple over itself into an incoherent mess, leaving you ten miles behind where you started at some unforgettable Burger King rest stop off the highway. But if done right, a story, once freed from the confines of a linear structure, can pack a more powerful punch. With the narrative agency to rearrange time, the writer can manipulate the raw elements of the story to make a greater and more lasting point.

 

I am in the process of completing this week’s writing assignment, a 500 word non-linear essay, and mixing my audio for my multimedia profile. Despite the different mediums, the work is the same; by disregarding the natural sequence of events, I can create a seamless story with its own narrative logic. I’ve been moving around sentences on the page, copy-paste, delete, go back, copy-paste, with the same haphazard frequency as audio clips on my timeline. The more I work, the more I lose perspective and become overwhelmed, held hostage by my own work. I have to remind myself to step away, take a breath, go eat, and come back with fresh eyes.

 

I finished my story.
 
I forgot to eat lunch.
 
I started my story.

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Week 8: Photo

I thought you all might want to know what it’s like to be in the field, so I’ve compiled an emotional play-by-play for the fledgling documentarian, as informed by my own experience. It’s likely that you’ll pass through all of these stages, in their various forms.

 

You’re all like, “I got this.”

Radio blogger Emily Kwong and I were congratulating ourselves for getting our acts together and being ahead of the curve. We’d rounded up our equipment, I’d bought a sick new tripod, and we were all set to do a practice video interview, just to prepare – unprompted and solely on our own initiative. We spent an hour or so on the interview, perfecting the frames, filming b-roll, angling for the natural light to flatter the others’ features. I forgot to record the sound.
 

Things will get uncomfortable.

It’s not uncommon for me to feel as though I’m overstaying my welcome. Often times, subjects will ask if you’d like to join them for a meal — at which point it’s your cue to do one of two things: feign fullness, or pull out your Tupperware with the homemade PB and J melting inside.
 
There are other precarious moments — you’re involved in the very minutiae of your subject’s life — and sometimes, after a few hours, it can be hard to stay focused. Try being professional while stifling a yawn or grumbling stomach.
 
Sometimes, too, I’ll have my camera poised inches from my subject for several minutes – unmoving — just waiting for them to make the right gesture. I’m not sure what the other people in these very public settings must be thinking.

 

Panic!

Your subject no longer wants to be interviewed, or the camera defaulted and you’ve taken two days’ worth of photos in jpeg instead of RAW.  The wind will not cooperate. Stay calm and smile a lot.

 

Extreme gratitude.

I’ve never spent so much time with people who have led me into the most private corners of their lives, and had so much patience while I used their stories to help me learn my craft. Subjects have let me stay with them for 24 hours uninterrupted, and had unfailing tolerance as I maneuvered around my equipment and hobbled behind them in front of their neighbors, with camera, audio gear, and tripod in tow.
 
You’re also there for some of the most intimate moments of a person’s day, and while there are times you’d rather shrink into the wallpaper and let them have their space, you have a responsibility to your story to be present for the moment, in all its privacy. The access my subjects offer triggers my inner guilt, because they give so much of themselves for my story, and I’m using it for my benefit.
 
And I’ve been blessed – not only in finding the right subjects, but in getting the right story. I’ve been so surprised and fortunate to have found subjects with the sensitivity to understand the piece I wanted to produce, who offered me both the joyful and painful moments of their lives, just so I could get it right.

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Week 8: Multimedia

This past week a new tone set in amongst the Salt crew. I would characterize this tone as “panic,” while others would say things merely got “real.” Whatever you want to call it, things are ramping up around here. We’ve most certainly exited the practice stage and are full into our projects – still making mistakes, not getting called back and troubleshooting all day every day.
 
The takeaway from this week for me is two-fold: show up and keep trucking. Trucking means that maybe it will take somewhere between seven and fifteen combined emails and phone calls to get access for your final project, but that’s just the work you’ve got to do to get what you want. As I was complaining that a subject wasn’t calling me back, a fellow Saltie exclaimed, “Well, why don’t you just go there!” This made me realize that sometimes being pushy is a means to an end. No journalist got anywhere by asking once and taking silence for a “no.”
 
The other part of this week’s takeaway is simple: show up. If you are there when the workers arrive for their 5am shift, you’re going to have a lot more cred with them than if you had showed up at 9:30am chewing on a bagel. People notice this stuff. It’s not about proving how dedicated you are to the project, or enticing anyone to tell more of their story than they otherwise would. You are demonstrating your respect by taking their life seriously, and they, in turn, are more likely to respect you and take your project seriously. Again, this isn’t a means to an end. We aren’t putting in effort to demonstrate our respect in order to “get the story.” It’s about not being a leech. It’s about a human exchange that leaves both parties feeling heard and valued. That’s what we should strive for in every interaction between storyteller and story.

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Week 8: Radio

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

- Ira Glass

 

Writing is running, with each writer excelling at various levels of speed and distance.  A daily writer for the Boston Globe moves his pen across paper (or fingers across keys) with the rapidity and fire of an sprinter: quick out of the gate, picking up speed as the clock ticks, and ending strong. Short quick bursts of energy expenditure. The writers for the New Yorker are marathon runners. They churn out long-form articles of innumerable pages, pacing themselves but pressing ever forward.

Each of our radio features has a glass ceiling of 7 minutes, not a second over. It’s an ideal length for radio amateurs—a race that leaves us neither too winded nor too fatigued—but the real challenge is not in finishing the race, but in covering the distance in a powerful way. This is what makes the difference between someone spinning a yarn to a sleepy-eyed crowd at the bar room and someone captivating the airwaves of National Public Radio: blue-ribbon storytelling that is unmistakable when you hear it, but very difficult to achieve on your own. In order to tell stories that appeal to everyone and not just to your own sensibilities, seeking the counsel of others is essential.

Though I knew in advance that Salt was a highly collaborative environment, I didn’t anticipate how I would rely on other students and how much of my time would be spent in editing boot camp. Our seven-minute pieces begin as scripts, about 2 ½ pages long, and are combed over weekly by our peers and Michael, our radio instructor. By routinely critiquing the pieces of fellow students and receiving feedback about my own pieces, I have become a better editor and self-editor. I’ve learned how to identify the story points of a story, the weak points of a story, and developed a rough notion of how to solve narrative problems. Critique is a huge part of learning process at Salt. In times where my skin could molt from its own thinness, I try to remind myself of this. “It’s nothing personal, its just critique. Nothing personal.” It’s become a mantra, best deployed in moments where my opinion of my work and my opinion of myself are one in the same.

Sometimes it works, but this week, it didn’t.

We came to class Tuesday with the latest copies of our scripts and a mix of our piece. As we went around the room, listening, reading, and critiquing each other’s work, I was astounded by the unity of other students’ pieces. I gazed sheepishly down at my own patchwork of quotes. The words I chose didn’t service a coherent story. My script was in its fifth iteration and I had already hacked it apart more times than I cared to admit. I stared at the floor, looking for the false bottom. There was no escape. My turn came and I plugged my computer into the external speakers. The volume was cranked up, the radio equivalent of putting a specimen beneath a microscope.

“Back to the Future” music and mention of time travel provided an amusing diversion, but with time, the weaknesses of my piece (which was 3 minutes too long) became the loudest thing in the room. People seemed to shift in their seats as they listened, perhaps uncomfortable beneath the structural defects of this ramshackle house. Or was I fishing for visual proof that my piece was flopping? Brows knitted together, or so it seemed. I watched their faces in agony. My brow was deep enough for a farmer to plant seeds. Some ugly thoughts sprouted. Did I really just make THAT – that terrible thing? The more we listened and the more there was for me to be ashamed of, the more heat I could feel creeping into my face. The piece eventually finished and everyone began offering advice, but I was only half listening. My intestines had assumed the intractable shape of a Gordian knot. There wasn’t anything anyone could say that would convince me that this piece was anything but horrific.

When you enter a creative profession, it’s important to be self-aware and assess the quality of your work objectively. A healthy dose of honesty makes for the best editing, but there comes a point when the honesty is too brutal. Or (as was the case for me this Tuesday): When the determination to poach your work and declare it awful becomes just as delusional as a blind faith in its own brilliance. It’s inadvisable to allow your ego to get in the way, but its equal parts unwise to demean yourself. If you stand a chance in this profession, you have to honor your ability to make something. Give your creative work the respect it deserves.

Another student tracked me down in the lounge afterwards and despite my insistence that coming to Salt was a colossal mistake, looked me square in the eye and said that my piece was far from terrible, just disorganized, and that feeling like a failure is a part of the process. She affirmed that making mistakes was a good thing and in fact, making mistakes was the only way to learn radio production. There were no shortcuts, only formative experiences that build your radio musculature. Furthermore, she reminded me that the only way to truly fail at Salt would be to abandon your story before you gave it the opportunity to grow. I revisited the script several times over the weekend and sure enough, it came together. It isn’t perfect, but it’s complete and salvaged it from the wake of self-destruction. That was a crucial lesson to learn. I’ve been much kinder to myself in radio class every since.

I promise you that if you come to Salt, no one will let you call yourself a failure and get away with it. Your Salt radio editors—your instructor and your fellow classmates—are your running coaches. They will monitor your story’s health and put it through its paces. They will correct its form. They will police its energy expenditure and give your story a well-deserved slap on the butt if it needs to pick up the speed. Under their tutelage, your story will stand upright and strike hot asphalt with its heel. It will hug the turns and pick up speed towards the end, ending strong with its arms held aloft. And while you may not leave the Salt training ground a champion, you will at the very least have crossed the finish line.

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Week 8: Writing

I am on a train from Boston, making my way back up the New England coast. With two seats to myself, I stretch my legs across the row, watching from across the aisle as tired mill towns, trucks with weeds growing out of their beds, above-ground pools, and mini-golf courses shaped like castles pass by in the window. Two sisters climb to the top of a wooden fence to wave.

I went home to paint eggs with my family, and marked up my Salt readings as each egg dried.  Yesterday morning, I transcribed two hours’ worth of interview — pounding my fingers against the keys to keep up with my subject’s rapid stories, laughing at her jokes for a second time, cringing at the sound of my own voice. I speak painfully slowly, as if I am inventing the words as they come out of my mouth. My “likes” and “ums” and “you know what I means?” make my sentences sag into incoherence, like pigeons squatting on a telephone pole.

It is spring time, I am told. Salt is closer to the ending than the beginning. My notebook, once blindingly white, is full of red, black, and blue writing, depending on what I could find at the bottom of my bag. Filling a notebook feels somewhat sacred to me.

Upon visiting Salt last week, my boyfriend learned two ways never to start a conversation with a Salt student:

1) So, the program’s ending soon, isn’t it?

And, most regretfully…

2) What do you plan to do after?

I was told by more than one successful Salt alum that internships are an inevitability after Salt; like buds sprouting after the rain. Maybe I am stubborn, or reactive when told a path is “the only way”, or out of touch with reality, but I cannot, I will not, be an intern again. I had nine internships in college, at least the ones I can remember, one after college, and one year-long “fellowship” where I was called an intern by my coworkers anyway. For me, working without pay (I prefer that over unpaid, which is defined by its lack, essentially legitimizing free labor), or for a stipend that covers ½ my sandwich for lunch, is a financial impossibility, but also an emotional one. Yes, I need to pay rent, and buy food, and occasionally would like to see a movie, but more so, I refuse to be undervalued for my work, or told that my six years of internships, jobs, and freelance writing amounts to no experience.

Embarking on a job search for the second time may, inevitably, lead me back to internships, or the artfully ambiguous “full-time fellowship”, while juggling a coffee-shop or waitressing job. As I’ve found in the past, this work schedule will leave me with little time to write like John Jeremiah Sullivan and take trips with my spouse to Cuba, but sometimes (I am told by Tim Gunn and I keep learning), you have to make it work. We’ll see what life after Salt brings…

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Week 7: Photo

I mentioned to my photo instructor my newly gained peace of mind, which he met with relief: “I was getting a little worried,” he said.

Sometimes, when it comes to self-evaluation, a bit of leniency is called for to appreciate your circumstances — and in cases when you’re the one guilty of applying the pressure, sometimes it takes a few weeks to get the hint.

I’ve been really hard on myself thus far, and more so than most. So in a conciliatory move to myself, I’m going to refrain — in a surprise turn — from carping about my setbacks, and instead wax lyrical on what I’ve learned and what I’m grateful for during my time at Salt. I’m really happy to be here.

It’s an incredible blessing to spend a semester honing your skills. Halfway through the program, I feel competent in programs and with equipment I’ve never used, and have the beginnings of a portfolio I’m proud to call my own. I’ve never been pushed this hard to create something — work so intensive and at a higher caliber than I’ve ever produced, and the effort and heightened expectations show: I feel more likely to tackle stories I would never have attempted before. Mostly, I feel more confident in my ability to get sh*t done.

Twice a week, my subjects embrace me into their lives. Last Friday, we made Easter-themed Twinkie treats. Now that I’ve known and spent time with them for several weeks, they’ve become more relaxed, and cognizant of what it is I’m trying to photograph. The kids, too, sensing what I need from them, often provide it freely: Every once in a while they’ll look at me, unasked, to offer me the photograph I want to take. These images — with their stuffed animals, in their classes — transcend their age, and they’re photos I would never have taken before.

“I didn’t know you could do this,” my friend told me after looking at my recent work. Neither did I.

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