institute for documentary studies
 

{A Week in the Life Blog}

Week 6: Multimedia

Let’s see, when I last checked in here, I said approaching strangers and asking to take their picture made me feel like an awkward teen asking someone out on a first date. Well, a lot can happen in three weeks, because I now sort of feel like I just got back from a senior trip to Tijuana – not quite so innocent, a bit more experienced, and maybe just a little bit cocky. I’ve seen and done things I’ve never, ever done before. And I came back from with some pretty good pictures, too.

 

Some of my classmates started calling me “Smith 2.0.” It happened after that one weekend that involved two assignments: For photo class, I hung out with drag queen for 24 uninterrupted hours, and for multimedia, I shadowed a local actress in the hours leading up to curtain time for her one-woman show. Both subjects were incredibly generous with their time and granted an unexpected degree of access and intimacy. Considering that the first Salt assignment I ever turned in consisted of nothing but storefronts shot from the opposite side of the street, that I was now finally seizing the moment and stepping in to catch some intense close-ups was a big, big deal.

 

But the Salt experience is nothing if not moody and bi-polar, and with such ups come the inevitable downs. Just a few days ago, I received the clearest, plainest, most flat-out “NO” from a hopeful subject. And while it didn’t make me cry [bites lower lip], it did make me feel like laying in the fetal position for about a half hour.

 

And I did. (If you haven’t laid in the fetal position lately, I highly recommend it.) But then I got back up and picked up the phone and made another round of calls and suddenly one of the subjects of my final multimedia project was inviting me over for dinner with her husband and their four kids. Yet another case of that darn proverbial door closing and then opening, and I’m sure it’ll hit me in the face two-three times or more before the semester ends.

 

Until next time…

 

- smith, photo

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Week 6: Radio

We’ve been talking a lot in radio class lately about “tracking,” which is the narrated portion of a radio feature. Much like the host of a three-ring circus, narration provides the connective tissue of production that would otherwise be an assembly of noise. There is a canonical sound to NPR: commanding, authoritative, a crystalline symphony of journalistic merit and humanity. Think of Edward R. Murrow or Orson Welles. Whether announcing the London Blitz or a Martian invasion, their voices maximize the meaning of written copy. This is the lesson to keep in mind at Salt when you are standing in the sound booth at 2 in the morning, attempting a narration of your own pieces and detesting the sound of your voice upon playback. Compared to our forbearers, it will surely sound like a child wearing his father’s loafers, immature and clumsy. Take baby steps. Learn how to play the instrument you’ve been given. There’s some coming-of-age work to be done in radio production and “being confident in your voice” behind the microphone is a predictable milestone.

The sound booth at Salt is a near-perfect square and insulated with soundproofing material – foam pads that look like egg cartons line the walls, there’s a shag carpet on the ground, and a smattering of pillows. These are soft, absorbent things meant to soak up traces of the room. Done correctly, your voice should sound pristine. There’s a music stand for you to prop your script on, to stand in front of as you allow your diaphragm to expand and contract, your nerves to calm, and the sounds of your story to fill you from top to bottom. Our instructor Michael coached us to think of it as a performance. He advised us to bring another person into the sound booth, interpreting the story for them as a stand-in for listener X. It’s helped enormously, but is still nerve-wracking. I’m suddenly hyper-aware of my mannerisms, vocal tics, and the way I explain things, the natural consequence of confronting my own sounds. If I can push past that hurdle, however, perhaps I can also circumvent the tendency to read straight from the paper, and if I do that, perhaps my story has a chance to come to life. Perhaps.

NPR Morning Edition newscaster Carl Kasell says he imagines he’s summarizing the main points of a presidential speech to an imagined “Aunt Martha.” The method acting must work, for his voice sounds exactly as it would if those conditions were true: warm, conversational, and clarifying. The emotional timbre of his voice matches the meaning of his words. People do this naturally when telling a story, but it’s surprisingly difficult to recreate under studio conditions. It’s all too easy to be the mouthpiece of a message, instead of its interpreter. A salesman, instead of a friend.

The Super Bowl, a pageantry of sales pitches, was televised on February 3rd. It was the night before I left for Salt. In between chip loads of bean dip, my parents and I talked about the advertisements on television. A baby parachuted into a Kia Sorento. A goat consumed hundreds of bags of Doritos. Two men bickered about the better part of an Oreo in a library (i.e. traded whispers of “cream” and “cookie”). All told, it was a montage of gimmicks meant to shock, meant to provoke, and meant to amuse, but not to substantiate a powerful or profound idea. The radio equivalent would be a shock jock – loud noise conveying little information. “Stupid,” my Dad would grunt. I had to agree. It was like binging on the contents of a vending machine, a sugar rush without staying power. “Wow, look at Robin Williams eat a Snickers. That’s cute. Next.”

There was, however, one commercial made by Ram Trucks that held our attention. We even talked about it. It taught us something. The premise was simple: a two-minute sequence of still photographs cataloguing American farms and American farmers. Some of the images were black and white, while others were in full color. They appeared and disappeared on our television like candle flames, introduced and snuffed out by black cross-fades. Yet the most spelling binding part of the whole presentation, the thread that united the visuals, was a searing narration by the late Paul Harvey. This was a voice that didn’t echo the sales pitch of the other advertisers, cajoling, strained, and begging for attention. Instead, he let the copy—the substance of the words—make his case.

And no wonder: Harvey was an American broadcaster for ABC Radio Networks, someone who couldn’t depend on visuals and knew how to command a listener with his voice alone. The narration was excerpted from his “So God Made a Farmer” speech at the 1973 Future Farmers of American Convention. He spoke in praise of the American farmer and the humble acts he performs as a divinely appointed caretaker of the land. It’s a riveting account, but what makes it memorable in my opinion, what made Ram Trucks resurrect it forty years later, and 14.8 million people watch the commercial on YouTube, is how Paul Harvey delivers the speech. I showed it to another student at Salt and even now, six weeks later, it makes hair stand on end. In the hands of a lesser orator, there’s no telling whether the phrase “shoe a horse with a hunk of a car tire” would mimic the farmer’s work ethic with the same plodding rhythm. It’s unlikely that a farmer “who’d plow deep and straight and not cut corners” would sound as steadfast or “somebody gentle enough to tame lambs” as compassionate, or “somebody who’d bale a family together with the soft, strong bonds of sharing” as downright heroic as the farmer of Paul Harvey’s reading. Harvey’s cadence matched the tenor of the farming livelihood in all its hope, all its frailty, and all its determination to endure. The farmer is animated by a voice that understands his life. There’s one line where this proves particularly true, where Paul Harvey slows his folksy pacing, takes a hypnotic, pause, and allowing each line to breathe, says:

 

“I need somebody wiling to sit up all night with a newborn colt.

And watch it die.

Then dry his eyes.

And say, “Maybe next year.”

 

In those few seconds, you the listener are taken on an entire journey through the life, death, and rebirth of a man’s faith. The narration has done justice to the subject. It services the story. It holds the listener’s attention. This is what the best kind of radio voice can do.

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Week 6: Writing

Write like a M*****f*****.  Hopefully by some leap of the imagination you can guess. A Midsized Forest. A Military Fort. A Marbled Furnace. You’ve got it.

The aphorism has become something of a meme in the writing world; written across mugs, pencils, and maybe even somebody’s chest. It came from the mind of Cheryl Strayed, affectionately known as “Sugar” in the Dear Sugar Advice Column. Along with every other devotee, I want Sugar to be my mother and my best friend and my penpal and my mentor and, well, I just want to be her, if there was room for two Sugars in the world. Unfortunately, I am not half as bada** or as charming, and I have no credentials or right to give other people advice. As per Mira’s recommendation, I will give myself advice instead. As an ode to school and sodium, my pseudonym will be Salt.

Here’s my letter, to myself:

Dear Salt,

I am tripping over words. Getting tangled in run-on sentences. I am a 20-something year-old writer who doesn’t write. I think about writing, I talk about writing, I obsess over my future career in writing, but I don’t write. Or, well, what I do write could hardly be considered writing; the dregs of a poem, the first lines of a story, an e-mail to a writer friend. I sit down to write and end up reading instead. I become paralyzed by words that I could never string together, and the jarring discrepancy between my “future potential” and my present shortcomings. My perfectionism bleeds into procrastination. Every sentence could be better, every story has been written before, so what’s the use in trying?

I know, I know. I am the first to recognize this is a flawed mentality, perpetuating a cycle of inactivity. Tolkien wasn’t letting his self-doubt get in the way of creating middle-earth. In fact, The Hobbit gained notoriety by accident–the manuscript fell into the hands of a London publisher, who urged Tolkein to submit it for consideration.

Somehow, obsessing about my hypothetical life as an accomplished writer leaves no time for me to write. Like so many others, I am worried I will end up drowning in “what could have been”, with nothing to show for it but a half-attempted dream.

Sincerely,
The Writer Who Doesn’t Write

Dear The Writer Who Doesn’t Write,

When I was around your age, I sat on the carpeted floor of my childhood bedroom and began to panic. I was about to embark on a yearlong trip to Thailand. Why was I such a masochist, I wondered, forcing myself into discomfort, leaving somewhere good for somewhere uncertain? I stared blankly at my five-page packing list. My mother had painted my blue walls egg-yolk yellow in preparation for my return from college. But I was leaving again, after only a few months, and my suitcases were empty, and I couldn’t find enough pairs of matching socks, and I couldn’t speak Thai, and I thought to myself: maybe I just shouldn’t go at all.

And you know what happened, sweetpea? I went, because I had made a commitment and I had paid for my ticket and I could buy new socks in Thailand. I lived alone in a studio apartment, where I cleaned the dishes immediately after I used them–because there was no one else to blame–and I made the bed each morning. If I told you I didn’t ever question why I was there–when green sewage water splattered up my leg, when my communication ability was reduced to pointing, when my job in the tropics turned out to be nothing more than dull days in an air-conditioned office–I would be lying.  On the hottest and most miserable nights, I looked up the price of a ticket back to the U.S., and hugged my computer like it was my mother. By the time the year was up, I wanted to stay longer.

What I’m saying is, you have to start. And just because you start, doesn’t mean it’s not going to suck, but at least you started. You may cringe at the sound of your writing read aloud, but I promise you honeybun, you’re going to be cringing a lot more when you look back at your life and realize that you mistook potential for success.

Keep reading, writer. Read until your eyes hurt. But don’t take down a book from the shelf just to marvel at a writer’s talent and pity yourself for falling short. Obsequious readers are the most lazy kind. Read like a writer should; analyze, unpack, annotate to fill the page.

Remember, babies don’t pop out speaking in full sentences. You have to learn your way around a language. If a passage reads as smooth as butter melting on a pancake, it probably was written with most scrupulous care. Whatever sounds effortless takes effort. Great writers work hard to be great, and if they say otherwise, they’re lying.
You’re scared, Writer Who Doesn’t Write. But you’ve got a problem, because you’re cocky too; you think you can have the job title without the work. If that’s the case, then everyone else is a writer, too. We are all capable of manipulating language, and even the most prosaic folk speak in poetry. A street sign on my block says “Dead End”. Is that not the most beautiful thing you’ve ever read?  I am proud of you for identifying the writer within yourself, the voice that needs to be heard, the neat cursive of your fourth grade diary, because that’s ballsy and crazy and brave, but now it’s time to get dirty, and back yourself up with words. And by that I mean, be rigorous. Be accountable for your work. Push yourself like a drill sergeant. Write until your mind is out of breath. You have to earn your title, and standing around waiting for perfection to come is a waste of your time.

I still make my bed everyday. It’s a small pleasure, a habit I started in Bangkok on purpose because I thought the world was divided into people who made their bed, and people who didn’t, and I wanted to be on the other side. I assumed developing the habit would be arduous, because I was not, innately, a “bed-making” person, just a non-bedmaker who strived to do better. My conversion was easy; I found out the only difference between the two groups, is, really, the act of making the bed.

 

Want to know what separates writers and those who say they write? A pencil.

Start your habits now, darling. Grab that pencil. First, it will feel strange and unfamiliar and weird, but soon it will become like brushing your teeth—you can’t go a day without doing it. Emails and witty g-chats don’t count. Write a daily poem, keep a journal, or whatever it is you need to do to practice your craft.

 

You’re never going to be perfect, sunshine. And if you don’t start trying, you’ll never realize that that’s okay. Forget your best, most brilliant, writerly self. All you’ve got right now is an empty suitcase. Start packing.

Yours,

Salt

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Week 6: Photo

Apparently, I’ve adopted the Asian beat.

 
I’ve been trying, for the past couple of weeks, to find a story on the traditional Asian immigrant family.  I thought it’d be a good way to explore my own family’s history, and also — as a California transplant in a new city with relatively very few Asians — to figure out why people come here to live, instead of say, New York, where the community is significantly larger. How do people hold on to their culture when the community is a fragment of the size? How do they stay close? — All questions I wanted to explore.

 
I can’t speak too much about my current project, but I will say that I found a Chinese family that is, perhaps, the complete opposite of what I had originally envisioned. Their family is a non-traditional one, and one I would have never thought of when doing my initial research – it goes to show you (or rather, me) the unexpected places your stories will lead you, if you let them.

 
Their friends — also part of a non-traditional Chinese family – even offered me two story ideas (one even involves a half-Asian guy, I was told.) My instructors have been telling me that everything settles once you start working on your projects, and I understand now what they meant. Having my story and knowing what I need to do lends itself to a new focus, and calm.

 
Earlier in the week, with only two out of my three projects accounted for, I told myself to follow any and every hint of a story I might have. Sometimes I procrastinate on putting out calls, because still, even with experience cold calling, I have to pump myself up in order to act the proper journalist. Over time, I’ve developed an intricate process of phone call prep that involves practicing my intro, anticipating the arbitrary responses, not actually making the call — then telling myself, “you got this.”

 
So I followed, calling contacts I’d put aside from my Asian immigrant story research, and from there, the stories flowed. One woman, as it turns out, will gladly participate in my video profile assignment, and the members of the Chinese Gospel Church welcomed me, and served the first real Chinese food I’ve eaten in months! I’ve met some more people to speak with — and if nothing else comes from it, at least my website got a couple more hits.
 
The class as a whole has been struggling with its multimedia stories: We all want them to be perfect, and for some of us, we’ve been hemming and hawing over our pieces, waiting for everything to align just-so. Our instructor, Anne, gave us the talking-to we needed: Just get started, she said.
 
It may not be the idea you’ve imagined in all its perfection, but you need to have one in the first place, she told us.  Stop waiting. For me, it was the dose of reality I needed to get moving.

 
It’s hard when you want everything to be the model of sophisticated technique, when you supposedly are in control of all the elements of the piece — to remember that ultimately, these projects are experiments. We’re students – not professionals — ultimately here to learn, and for most of us, this is the first time we’ll be finding and shooting our own multimedia work. Imperfection will be a part of the process, too.

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Week 5: Multimedia

A month and a half into Salt and our brains are starting to melt.  Photo, video, audio, writing – it’s a multimedia cacophony on south Congress right now. To go along with the din, we got our social-media butts kicked into high gear at a lecture by Jeff Howe, that king of the tweet. I learned that, although I had been on Twitter for three years, I had never really been “on” Twitter. If that wasn’t jolt enough, according to various media panels at SXSW this week, if you’re still using the term “multimedia,” you’re behind the curve. It’s “transmedia” now, y’all!
And the projects are starting to pile on. There’s a moment at Salt when all of your classes and efforts seem to dovetail into one massive media Goliath to your David. And all you can really do is work.

This is where all the conversations about method and aesthetic and technology pay off. We’ve been discussing it for weeks, so once we need to plow headfirst into video portraits, profiles and features, we cling to those rules and structure like they’re the cliff edge. We’re used to the critical stance. We all want to create our own rules – make our little aesthetic nest in the great wall of Media Artistry. But when it comes down to the gristle, the making, I think we’re all realizing that we’ve got some ropes to learn first.

There has been a lot of talk in the Salt kitchen about pressure – the pressure to find leads, the pressure to make something out of nothing, the pressure (self-inflicted!) to have our work at Salt be our magnum opus. This is when I remind myself about the true luxury of Salt and the true luxury of being at school in general – we can fail here.  What a humbling statement that no one actually believes! This is when I remember that in order to be a provacateur, a leader, a true maker – we’ve got to be able to deal with making a big flop.

- al, radio

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Week 5: Photo

This week, out of my roommates, Mike took a wandering country drive up Route 1. Emily went to Boston for a weekend with friends and family. Erika and I stayed home.

When you feed off a regular diet of day-old coffee and panic, constantly caught up in repeating waves of despair for not having found your final project – or one satisfactory enough – it is nice to, as Mike puts it, “go outside.” And sometimes, even if you can’t get yourself out the door, the very least you can do is give yourself a break to watch and complain about the inconsistency of ‘Girls’, season two.

It’s a real blessing that for those times I don’t make it outside — choosing instead to stress purposefully from the living room papasan — I have the company of my roommates. Salt students live in the other apartments that make up our complex, and for me, our weekly dinners are a source of relief and comfort. It’s the only time in the seven-day cycle when I get a properly made meal, and I revel in the intellectual discussion (i.e., our collective crush on our multimedia instructor). And it’s an opportunity to nerd out in a totally judge-free environment: The other day, a flashing cop car pulled up in front of our building; two housemates rushed outside with their cameras, wanting to capture the “beautiful light.”

But for me, the moral of the week is to check out. Take a walk or a run (or a cookie break), because until you get your story, the regular research and cold call schedule can become a slog. There’s nothing like that particular feeling of dread, when your personal project has been rejected on the phone all morning, and your list of calls to make is still a foot long. Step away from the list.

This week has had its triumphs, too: Erika and I turned in the final draft of our Doc In A Day piece, and I have to admit that I’m pretty pleased. As total novices, we’ve created a finalized piece to add to our portfolio – and I’m not even all that embarrassed by it. I also heard back from a possible story subject today, who seems ready and on board to work with me. Could it get any better?

Probably. Call me shortsighted, but it’s sometimes hard to remember the good when you’re also subject to the inconsistent emotional highs and lows of a stressed-out Saltie life. But while the story-finding process is part good luck and part persistence, I’m finding out that I can at least relieve the burden, too, even if it’s just by closing the laptop, and stepping away.

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Week 5: Radio

Since introducing the radio production track in 2000, Salt has acquired some serious clout in the broadcast industry. This in in part due to the quality of the work produced by the students, disseminated through websites, blog, and radio collectives (e.g. PRX, Transom, Hearing Voices), the airwaves of major stations (e.g. MPBN, NPR), and presented at the Third Coast International Audio Festival. Post-graduation, Salt alumni ride the coattails of the portfolio they created to professional heights, landing radio production jobs, freelance gigs, and funding for independent projects. This, in turn, encourages the radio curious to apply. The Salt loops feeds back on itself. In fact, it was through tracing the footsteps of people I admired that I came across Salt in the first place. The name kept popping up in the “About Me” section for young producers, like a specter of radio past – “at Salt,” “from Salt,” “produced at Salt.”

 

Furthermore, Salt radio instructors are distinguished in their field. They know people who know people and lucky for you, bring said people into the classroom as guest lecturers. Last week, the NPR Northeast Bureau Chief vetted our pitches. This week, Robert Smith of Planet Money will be Skyping in from New York. Sean Cole of RadioLab might be offering his wisdom in the coming weeks. At this very moment, our instructor Michael is working with Ira Glass on an act for This American Life and once, after our class sung the praises of Starlee Kine, Michael mentioned he had a phone conversation with Starlee that very morning. Crazy right? After hearing her voice on the radio for years, weeping over the plinkity chords of her Phil-Collin’s-approved break-up song, the idea that she was a real, workingwoman was staggering. I suppose it’s natural to be gripped by a celebrity chokehold when you are in sitting (or Skyping) proximity with any member in the 21st century radio pantheon, which in the case of the Salt radio track, happens all the time. It’s a fact of life here and speaks to the caliber of the program. Suffice it to say, the public radio community is well aware of the Salt Institute and a growing number of alumni have joined their ranks.

 

While I’m well aware of specter of radio future, there are more pressing matters at hand. We are barreling through the production of our first feature. Graduation isn’t until May and at the moment, the takeaway message I find most comforting in the notion of Starlee Kine owning a cell phone is this: real people make radio. They are human, they set things in motion, and they make mistakes. At some point, I imagine even Carl Kasell has forgotten to press record. And if you are a person with two ears, two eyes, a voice, and opposable thumbs, you can make radio too.

 

It stars with finding a subject. That much is obvious, but is nonetheless an intimidating feat much like pulling out a loose tooth—one I can only believe ex-post-facto upon holding the pearly artifact in my hand. For the past five weeks, scouting for story leads has compelled me to approach a lot of strangers. I’ve shook hands and smiled. I’ve sent e-mails. I’ve made cold calls from white pages, business cards, and Craigslist replies. I had never posted on Craigslist before Salt and was amazed by the immediacy of the response, watching half-a-dozen invisible hands shoot up in the dark in response to my open call for “You: The Documentary.”

 

This practice, of gathering volunteers from a virtual, undefined crowd to perform a job, is called crowdsourcing. It was a word coined by Jeffrey Howe in Wired Magazine in 2006. Through a Skype call last Wednesday, Jeffrey explained the application of crowdsourcing to social media platforms. He pointed to Twitter as a prime example of how online tools can create communities out of thin air. Jeffrey’s explanation provided the theoretical explanation for the Craigslist response and his talk demonstrated how Twitter could be used similarly, if at the very least to generate interest. Let’s say a user writes a comment that’s 140-characters long, tags it with an organizing word or phrase, and rockets it into the abyss. Other people might share it (“retweet”) or respond. With time, a public conversation develops around this emergent topic. Right now, on Monday, March 11th, the exchange of NFL wide receiver to another team is trending. In a few hours, it will be something else. Through Twitter, you can take the pulse of public opinion on an issue and as Jeffrey suggested, become a contributing voice in the conversation enveloping that issue.

 

But what about conversations that don’t take place online? I kept thinking this throughout the Skype lecture, reminded of how Internet access is a luxury, not a universal law. Not every community requires bandwidth for the exchange of information. People converse in other ways. The real discussion is often offline. Conversations take place in homes, schools, and meeting halls. They take place in in places unlisted, places that are private and untagged, unmarked, untrendy. No matter how many replies I send, none will get me so far as returning a phone call, getting in a car, and showing up. If I wish to be a part of any of these conversations, I can only secure a place through my physical presence. At the end of the day, the kind of work that will enrich my radio piece and those of my classmates is very old and very simple. Standing. Sitting. Listening. Talking. Waiting. In clicking and scrolling through these new forms of social interaction, I never want to forget these mechanics.

 

Perhaps the best approach to garnering information is one that combines the strengths of both methods Social media is indispensable for skimming the dearth of new information, allowing you to cover the terrain of the world’s events and opinions like a downhill skier and broadcast your needs. Yet when it comes to finding stories and fulfilling needs, Twitter, Craigslist, and the like can only take you so far. Much like the parent who drops you off at school, these websites will only chaperone you to the doorstep of an interesting person or place or idea. It’s up to you to get your foot in the door.

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Week 5: Writing

I count the weeks on my fingers – one, two, three, four, five – and end on my pinkie. Five weeks since I started Salt. Five weeks since I drove up to Portland from Boston, watching from the car window as the buildings blurred into empty fields of snow. The earth keeps spinning, but the space-time-matter consortium that is The Salt Institute for Documentary Studies belies all sense of movement. Winter has overstayed her welcome, snow covering the sidewalk, coated with dirt, sealed by ice. When will winter be over? I ask a snow bank, my fingers curled inside my mittens. Why can’t Salt last forever?

 

This week, for the very first time, I called myself a writer. The site of my confession was less monumental than one would imagine; the bathroom of a convention center. AWP, or, The Association for Writers and Writing Programs, hosts a yearly conference , which brings in established writers, editors, and publishers, and more noticeably, gaggles of “emerging” writers, looking lost and in need of literary guidance, a notebook clamped to their chest like a defibrillator.  Isaac Fitzgerald, Managing Editor of The Rumpus, calls AWPee his favorite urology conference.

 

At 6:45 a.m. on Thursday, Mira and I packed into Donna’s (Salt’s executive director) truck and headed southward on our pilgrimage. Through sleet, snow, and Boston traffic, we arrived at the AWP Conference, soggy but smiling. The registration line was as long as one at Disney World, but replace children’s tears and spilled popcorn for New York City sighs and lost chapbooks. We waited. And waited. Mira’s baby bump eventually  bumped us to the “Elderly and Special Needs” section, which was half as long. Staff members rolled office chairs down the line to provide standers a moment of respite.

 

Standing was making me thirsty, so I left the line to find water. The concession stands were closed, the water fountains impossible to locate, so I squeezed past the line outside the women’s bathroom and sipped tap water out of my cupped hands like I had just found an oasis in the desert. As I leaned down to the sink bowl for a third helping, a cheerful girl next to me using the soap dispenser asked “Who are you here with?” She was an MFA student and she was thirsty, too. I explained that I was with Salt, and that I was a writer.

 

A small admission, I know, but it was the first time I was completely surrounded by my own demographic; twenty-something writer-somethings, who read books in bars, live in coffee shops, and fight over etymological theory.

 

In writing class, we are knee-deep in our second drafts. With only four of us, each piece gets almost an hour of attention, and we all feel invested in the development of our classmates’ drafts. I have seen them in their infancy, and now they are somewhere in their awkward middle-school phase – all gangly and in need of affirmation (mine included), But drafts grow up so fast….

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Week 4: Multimedia

In honor of the new skills we are learning in class, I set out to make a multimedia piece for my blog post. Despite efforts to the contrary, what I created is best described as an homage to this week’s take-away message: sometimes you have to create not-so-good work before creating great work. There are no two ways around the fact that what I made is not so good (which is to say it’s bad). Writing an introduction to what should be just an audio/visual piece gets to the crux of my dilemma with multimedia: it’s not writing.

The thing about writing is that you make it up. Not the content of course, but the words. With the exception of direct quotes and facts, writers have the entire English lexicon at their disposal when creating a piece. While I sometimes find this freedom daunting, I know that all of the words are out there, somewhere. In the realm of multimedia, familiarity with the flexibility of writing is debilitating, particularly when it comes to gathering audio.

You can’t make up audio. Week four taught me that there are no multimedia equivalents for ellipses or quotation marks: you either record the subject saying what you need or you don’t. If you fail to get the precise quote on tape then your story suffers, or never becomes a story. I approach audio gathering like the characters in “The Tortoise and the Hare.” I dart in with rapid-fire questions, never waiting long enough for a deep and meaningful response, or I allow the subject to talk about anything and everything while my recorder runs out of battery power. Unlike in the children’s fable, neither technique has gotten me ahead. Audio is one of the weak links in my multimedia work. Photography is the other. But, I hear that not trying is worse than failing, so I present this brief semblance of multimedia about multimedia.

- Alison, writing

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Week 4: Photo

Now is the hump period, I told my roommate’s boyfriend. That is, now is the time I wish were already over.
Except for today, when I neglected my work, obsessively curating my Internet presence and “personal brand” (liz-mak.tumblr.com). But other than that brief – and necessary — respite, it’s been a non-stop week, leaving me exhausted, overwhelmed, and a bit unhinged. For testimonial, just ask my roommates.
The work for our Documentary In A Day project is still incomplete, and the project is becoming an increasingly belabored effort. Because we both live and work together, Erika and I have come to the point of, in editing sessions, staring at our computer screen while cursing Final Cut X, communicating in grunts and complaining about not having showered.
The issue of the day: In editing down for time, we also cut out the soul of our piece. We fell in love with our subject in the editing room, and ever since, have been struggling to separate out the gems we need from those redundant to the story.

Part of my fatigue is owed to this weekend’s 24-hour assignment — when we spent a full day’s time with a total stranger. My subject was the friend of a friend of a friend, a musician, and in recovery from the previous night. For the first three hours, we watched hangover movies — “Doubt” and “The Passion of the Christ” — while she dozed off, alternating between couch and bathroom for the occasional commercial — and purging — break. We went to her concert performance later that evening, but even with the change of scene, I found it difficult to conjure interest in my photos, which don’t feel all that different from those I took in Week One.
We ended up separating for the night, planning to reconvene in the morning; but she didn’t call me back until after 4 pm the next day, when she woke up.

Continuing research on final photo and multimedia projects, while completing the week’s assignments – process shoot and video interview included – has been a scheduling feat. So far, I’ve been following a local sports team during practices and meeting with local community organizations. But while the team has embraced me with surprising receptiveness, I haven’t yet figured out my approach to the story. And when it comes to the organizations and the individuals they’ve suggested I speak with, I still don’t know how to react to their overwhelming skepticism of me and my photo project. Sometimes it feels like the mere idea of a camera prevents people from letting me do the work I need it for.

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