institute for documentary studies
 

{A Week in the Life Blog}

Week 4: Radio

“Kill your darlings.”

Or

“Kill your babies.”

Or (as William Zinsser eloquently puts it):

“Look for clutter in your writing and prune it ruthlessly. Be grateful for everything you can throw away.”

 

William Zinsser wrote On Writing Well, a guide for nonfiction writing our radio instructor Michael assigned us in January. I read it quickly then, but am reading it slowly now. For every chink and Achilles heel in my writing character, there is a sentence of his book to puncture it. “Never say anything in writing that you can’t comfortably say in conversation.” “Writing improves in direct ratio to the number of things we can keep out that shouldn’t be there.” “Writers who doggedly pursue every last fact will find themselves pursuing the rainbow and never settling down to write.” Is this why it took me eons to begin writing papers in college? And why the paragraphs thickest with jargon curried no favor among my professors and TAs, while the sentence I wrote plainly was a “Great point”? Needless to say, I’ve been learning a lot from this book and from this class about how to communicate on paper, in person, on the air. Simplify, simplify. I now realize that long and rambling is best left for the blues.

Writing for radio has all the qualities of good writing with a premium on 1) simplicity, 2) clarity, and 3) rhythm. Radio scriptwriters are ultimately writing for conversation, so grammatical purity can be sacrificed for the sake of vivid storytelling. Radio also demands an economy of words. By its nature, you cannot skim radio (you can listen to it at an accelerated rate, but then everyone sounds like a chipmunk and no one is taken seriously). Each word bears a time stamp, so you cannot afford these lengthy, flowery introductions. Just cut to the heart of the matter. Get to the good stuff.

Michael showed us a 1997 episode of This American Life called “Running After Antelope.” It was riveting from 0:00 to 59:01. Curious to know this witchcraft Ira Glass was practicing to bewitch me (and all of America), I looked up the transcript online. Check out this introduction:

Ira Glass: At this point, all Chris McKinney has is a positive attitude, because, frankly, the facts do not look too promising. What am I talking about? I’m talking about man against nature, one boy’s story. Every weekend, 17-year-old Chris McKinney wades out into knee-deep water, alone, with a shovel, and a wooden contraption, and nylon sandbags. And he proceeds to fill 20 sandbags, 50 pounds each, one at a time.

Now, I’m not the writing police, but I know there are one too many modifiers in some places and not enough punctuation marks in other places. Some teachers might ticket Ira Glass for writing a run-on sentence or crucify him for introducing the forbidden “I” in “What am I talking about?” I was taught good writing must maintain the illusion that “I, writer” never figured into the story being told, like it was passed down by an invisible orator on papyrus. Pristine. Radio – thankfully – is not beholden to the standards of my language arts teachers. There is a host. He (or she) is the mouthpiece for something outside of the listener’s experience and anything that beckons the listener forward, anything that approximates the kind of affable conversation that marks all great spinners of yarn, is good radio writing. Read what Ira Glass said aloud. Go on. You see how “alone, with a shovel, and a wooden contraption, and nylon sandbags” has a nice plodding rhythm? It’s exciting, unveiling one element at a time in a guessing game of words.

Our class spent all last week revising the scripts for our student profiles. It was an arduous process. All Tuesday, I stared at my computer screen trying to conjure up a cleaner Ira-Glass-way of saying things (WWIGD?). There were a lot of sentimental mother-daughter platitudes, as if the writers of Full House had kidnapped my pen. There were moments of ambiguity. While trying to explain how Catherine communicates with her daughter through Skype, I wrote, “With the six time zone difference, the window for conversation is small, but intimate.” My instructor diplomatically brought this sentence to my attention, asking, “What does that even mean?” He had a point. Peter, another radio student and great writer, told me explain it to him as if he were drunk, asking, “What are you trying to say? What are you really trying to say?”

For whatever reason, this is a very difficult thing to do.

Words are not written with the same progressive ease as putting one foot in front of the other. It seems to require a blind surge of creative energy, which can be snuffed out in an instant by a misstep, and whose circular futility I always suspected but never plumbed the depths of myself. How can one endure such a mentally taxing and absorbing process as the fixation on a single word, or paragraph, for hours, days, or months, aspiring to a vision that can never realized but persisting all the same? It’s an absolute miracle that anyone has written a book or produced an hour of radio at all.

I am not a writer, nor will I likely ever understand the tiresome courage it takes to be one, but for those who are, were, and whose work we readers and listeners have so enjoyed and will one day enjoy, really anyone who has dared to grapple with language and won – thank you.

For now, I will return to my desk in the radio room.

“Following this herd is like following a school of fish. They blend and flow and change positions. There are no individuals, but a mass that moves across the desert like a pool of mercury on a glass table. They split again, burst into five pieces, and it’s just too confusing. We can’t tell whether we’re chasing animals that have run for two minutes or 20 minutes or two hours.”

Those are Scott Carrier’s words, from later in the episode, when he’s describing what it feels like to chase antelope. He might as well have been describing what it feels like to hunt down the words you mean to say.

 

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Week 4: Writing

“The writer must believe that what he is doing is the important thing in the world, and he must hold to this illusion even when he knows it is not true.”
– John Steinbeck

I heard this lil’ piece of brilliance read by Garrison Keillor on his daily podcast, “The Writer’s Almanac.” Mira plays his podcast at the beginning of class—a writerly tradition to warm us up in the morning, or during our post-lunch haze. Our class nodded in unison over Steinbeck’s sentiment; it made us feel more, not less, proud of our medium.  At Salt, we are a fraction the size of the radio students, and without the fancy equipment of the photo. But with a shelf life longer than radio, and photography, and multimedia, and requiring only a pencil and paper, writing always wins. We have to make it from scratch, guys.

This week felt something like being in a confession booth. We went around and discussed our first assignments, aired our dirty laundry, and laid our inchoate drafts out to dry. Last week, Mira said “all you need is a bad first draft,” and that is what we brought in. But being the sensitive literary folk that we are, we still wanted our bad to be pretty and our drafts glowing with promise.

Mira gave us some reading relief by putting on a documentary about Alice Neel—a bohemian artist known for her portraits of family and friends, each rendered with bright colors and distinct brushstrokes.  While Neel painted portraits on canvas, Pop and Abstract art were in vogue, making her “quaint” art form a thing of the past.  Not until she was in her old age did she achieve notoriety for her work; we watch old footage of her retrospective exhibition at the Whitney Museum, where she grips onto the arms of her two sons, her smile glowing in the limelight.

What distinguishes Neel’s work is her ability to give life to her subjects, making each painting a timeless embodiment of the subject’s character. Neel’s bold style is definitively her own, which adds a layer of complexity to her portraits— of the subject, but by the artist. Her work led me to reflect on my profile assignment. How does an artist, or writer, maintain objectivity while staying true their own style? Is objectivity even possible? Am I too much of a novice to have my own style?  It seems the harder I strive for “truth”, the more I am creating my own version of reality.

When asked to give advice to writers just starting out, Jo Ann Beard says in her interview on Days of Yore; “Understand that you will always be just starting out.”

 

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Week 3: Multimedia

My name is Smith Galtney. I’m a 41-year-old entertainment journalist, and after really getting into photography about a year and a half ago, I decided going to Salt was the perfect next move for me. I’d long been bored writing about pop culture. I was eager to tell good stories about real people. And since I thought I was (a) an all-around nice guy, (b) an above-average conversationalist and (c) a novice but not-bad shutterbug, I had a feeling this multimedia, documentary-studies thing and I would fit like a glove.

And the first week, it really felt like it did! Being in class and meeting the other students, who are all focused and driven and supportive and fun as could be, I was like, “Hey, this glove is making me feel so warm and happy and excited!” But now it’s Week 3 and I’m all, “Is this the right glove for me? I mean, what is this thing covering my hand, anyway? Should I just swap it for an oven mitt, head back home and call it a nice-try?”

Seriously, I haven’t felt this petrified and wracked with self-doubt in a very long time. BUT. I know that’s a good thing. I know life only happens when you put yourself out there and take a risk. And if I hear one more person – be it my sister or a Salt staffer or a former photography instructor – say the words “comfort zone,” I’m going to apply for an internship at the Oprah Winfrey Network.

So, what exactly yanked me out of that zone? It’s not the workload, though we’ve been very busy and seem to learn, like, five new skillsets a week. (Audio kits and Final Cut Pro X and DSLR video, oh my!) It’s not the finding and writing and pitching of stories. (Guess I still have a knack for that, ahem.) It’s not being out in the field, either. (For our Documentary in a Day project, we covered the annual Polar Dip on Sebago Lake, and I was rather surprised/impressed with how “on it” I was – running back and forth across the ice, stomping through big puddles of freezing water, snapping over 800 pictures in a span of 90 minutes.)

Nope, it’s the alarming realization that, when it comes to approaching strangers, I am actually completely terrified. Here I was, thinking I was this really outgoing guy, a seasoned journalist who’d spent years interviewing and writing about people. But it’s one thing when an editor says, “Write 500 words about so-and-so, who’s expecting your call,” and quite another when you have to call someone totally out of the blue and say, “I think you’re really interesting. Will you let me into your life so you can tell me some really personal stuff? Super, I’ll go get my microphone and camera!”

So far, several of those calls have left me feeling like a stalker, or a teenage boy asking someone out on a first date, or both. But in classic just-goes-to-show fashion, the call I thought would be easiest went the worst, and the call that scared me the most – the one to the owner of a gun shop – went swimmingly. In fact, two days ago, I actually went inside that gun shop and hung out with the owner and his wife and another guy who worked there for almost an hour. Turns out they were big foodies, and there we were, amongst all the guns on the wall and the poster of George W. Bush that asked “Miss me yet?” and a mounted t-shirt that said “I neutered my cat, now he’s a liberal,” talking about where to get good Afghani food in Portland!

It was my first time in a gun shop. Ever. And it kind of blew my mind. I may be outrageously outside of my comfort zone, and that glove still feels really strange on my hand, but now I feel like Frodo. There’s no going back to the shire…

- Smith, photo

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Week 3: Photo

One of the radio kids said it best: Things are starting to get real.

Final project ideas were due this week, and in the aftermath of a long and embarrassing pitch session, stories got trashed, idea babies killed, and hustling ramped up to a new level. This week for me is a limbo state, with the intense highs of weeks one and two now tempered by the conundrum of week three: Your work and ideas are terrible; you know it; and yet you have no idea how to make them better.

Earlier this week, I took a portrait of an artist. Feeling desperate and unlucky, I emailed someone I’d met at the laundromat, acknowledging the precariousness of the situation with my usual “I know this is crazy, but…” prelude, asking if he would invite me into his home so that I could complete my school assignment. Sometimes I get more good fortune than I am due, and this guy, an art student, was of the understanding and non-vigilant kind, generously allowing me to spend an hour in his home, most of which I spent moving his furniture and telling him to look at me.

I left his apartment under the influence of a rare high, energized from the experience of playing photographer for an hour, during which I felt I had channeled my best, bravest self. I spent time with a virtual stranger in his home, taking his portrait, and learning about his life, his parents, his siblings. What I’m beginning to appreciate, after various assignments that have struck my introverted heart with fear, is that photography allows for so much access.

It was an elation so rare. And fleeting, because then I saw my photos.

They flopped for a variety of reasons: I was trying so hard to be amenable and to make conversation, to make my subject feel comfortable as I invaded his home. I socialized intently, so as not to outstay my welcome — so much so that I wasn’t able to focus on the photos I was taking. Because he spent so much of his time responding to my questions, his mouth was open in a majority of my frames.

I sought advice from Anne Bailey, multimedia instructor. ”You have to let it be awkward,” she said. “You’re there to work. You have to be like, ‘I’m a photographer, and I have to do my thing.’” I’d been more concerned with the situation I was in than the work I was producing.

This week has been a tough one for me, and marked by uncertainty and doubt. Nelson assigned us to follow someone home and document it, and while I’ve completed the work — having targeted with specificity dog-walkers, those who walk more slowly than me, and other, non-threatening individuals – I’m not proud of it. It feels like the product of something uninspired and hesitant, abiding to the narrowest, easiest parameters of the assignment. I’m grappling with an intense anxiety and dread at the thought of approaching people blind, and of invading their personal space, and it shows.

I tell myself that making mistakes is vital to the learning process, and that the anxiety and fear aren’t indications of anything, but only hurdles to overcome – it’s sometimes difficult to remember, when shining examples of past students’ success surround you. But part of Salt, for me, is a process of faking it until I get there: Tomorrow, like yesterday and the day before, I’ll be out there again, trying to follow someone home.

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Week 3: Radio

The day began with lobster pie and ended with walking through a cemetery knee-deep in snow.

Let me explain.

The first week, our instructor Michael gave us an assignment to create a profile about another student. Much like the audio postcard, the student profile was designed to get us comfortable with field recording and to stretch our ProTools wings (that’s the editing software we use at Salt). But unlike the audio postcard, in which we sought subjects in exotic Portland destinations, we were each other’s interview subjects. At the time, this seemed harmless. I trusted my classmates, their judgment and sensitivity, and was curious to learn more about them. Over Chinese food one evening, a small group of us traded stories about our ancestry. It was fascinating and surprisingly easy. I told them the basics: my father was Chinese; my mother was a Western European hybrid (English/Irish/Welsh/Hungarian/Polish). Her father (the English/Irish/Welsh part) was born in Maine, forty minutes outside of Portland. We’ve been coming to Maine since I was a child.

 

Catherine, my partner in the project, is an especially easy and fascinating person to talk too. She works for a Canadian trade union and has spent her life advocating for the rights of working people. She came to Salt out of a desire to introduce her communications department to better storytelling practices and secured a ten-month sabbatical to move to the United States. Among this semester’s radio students, her journey is especially unique. I was excited to get to know her better and to share my own to story, to speak on the other side of the microphone for a change. Through this exercise, we would learn what it felt like to be an “interview subject.” It was the radio equivalent of those empathy suits that pregnant women make their husbands wear, but with hopefully less bladder pressure and irritability.

 

After chatting for an hour about interests both shared (social justice, art) and unique (open source technology for her, lobster for me), we decided to build profiles around each other’s family relationships: her relationship with her daughter in Norway and my relationship with my grandfather. We conspired to take a road trip and on Valentine’s Day, piled our audio kits into her compact car and fled down the spine of coastal Maine. Not long after that, the stories about my mother’s father tumbled out. My grandfather’s name was Robert Stanley King. He was born on December 17th, 1929 in Sanford. Our best moments together were invariably tethered to Maine, not only because it was his place of birth or because it was where we vacationed every summer, but also because Maine was the place where he seemed the happiest. Memories of those July weekends in York and Ogunquit perch like Polaroid pictures. Grandpa sitting on the beach beneath an umbrella, baseball cap, and several layers of sunscreen, gazing sleepily at the waves rolling in. Grandpa plowing through a carton of steamed clams, drenching them in clarified butter. Yanking the tendon of a disembodied lobster claw to show me how it opened and closed. He was a manufacturing engineer and forever imparting his fascination with how things worked. My grandfather built airplanes for the Korean War and worked on engine parts in Connecticut, simultaneously maintaining an antique clock repair business in the family’s basement. He would tinker in that workshop until his vision failed him and by the end, had to be pushed in his wheelchair up the hill of the Nubble Lighthouse parking lot to pose once more with his family: his wife, five children, three daughters-in-law, one son-in-law, and three grandchildren. If you put the Nubble Light pictures in order, it makes for an amusing time-lapse flip book. My orthodonture changes radically and so does the fullness in my grandfather’s face. We both get older. But he looks perpetually happy.

 

It had been a few years since I had been to this part of Maine and since the beach was closed, I opted to take Catherine to a family staple: the Maine Diner in Wells. The last time I had been there was 2010, the year after my grandfather died. Our family rushed through the meal. We rushed through the weekend. Everybody wanted to keep the tradition alive, but nobody wanted to stick around long enough to feel the brunt of his loss. This time around, taking an inventory of the low-lying countertops, I was nonplussed. It was just a diner.

 

Now, if you’ve ever revisited a childhood haunt with a new friend, you can probably guess what happened next. In all that is shared and withheld, said and not said, you become the reluctant character in your own Lifetime movie. All the pauses seem dramatic and not just because you’re chewing lobster pie. In the company of a person such as Catherine, who is both on a mission to get you talking and possessed with a natural aptitude for conversation, your resistance towards the past softens. You stop sounding so matter of fact and start sounding more speculative, more interpretive, trying to make connections between what’s happening right now – lunch at a diner – and general truths about your life. I told her about how much I loved Maine. I wondered aloud if my hidden agenda for coming to Salt was to have an excuse to live in Maine for more than a weekend. I wanted her to understand something I didn’t fully understand myself. I told her more, but can’t remember most of it now. Mostly I remember this light pressure behind my temples, the sensation of entrusting someone with something buried away. I tried to peel back, to redirect the conversation toward more neutral territory, but Catherine kept listening. I found myself reaching for my phone to call my Mom and to ask her where Sanford was. We got back in the car.

 

My grandfather was the only child of John William King and Ethel Frances Bland. John and Ethel are buried in the Oakdale Cemetery, along with their son Chester who died when he was two days old, on a hill next to the entrance, beneath modest headstones so lowly the grass blades shade them from the sun. That Thursday afternoon, it was overcast. They were buried beneath an additional two feet of snow. I tore fruitlessly through the snow looking for the plot, determined to show Catherine where my grandfather’s family was buried and furious with myself for not being able to remember. Granted, Sanford wasn’t a usual stop in our family’s annual Maine pilgrimage, but I wanted desperately to provide her that scene. Why? I didn’t know. It was a crucial element for her radio story. Surely it was. But there was no logical reason to drag Catherine through a cemetery to find it.

 

In the dimming February light, the ground was turning pink. It was time to go. It planted myself on a nondescript plot, next to the headstones of some other girl’s great-grandparents entombed in snow, cresting like the backs of dolphins, and turned to face Catherine. “How do you feel standing here Emily?” I could barely furnish an answer. Embarrassed. Like I was taking this project too seriously. Like I take everything too seriously. I tried to fictionalize my way through the confusion, saying something about the past being buried and how Maine could mean something different to me in adulthood, testing different hypotheses in a stand-up narration of events simultaneously occurring. It was too overwhelming. I had meant to show Catherine something old and reconciled, a tombstone, and in staging this moment, unwittingly walked into the moment itself – standing somewhere in the vicinity of great-grandparents final resting place, in the town where my grandfather was born, in the state where I’ve come to live. I underestimated how all those pieces would reverberate upon collision and how their composite would register as ambiguously as a Rorschach inkblot. Was it melancholy? Was it sentiment? I couldn’t tell. It was the type of moment I would have preferred to experience alone, but don’t think I could have were it not for the Catherine’s gentle encouragement. She asked me twice more, when we got back to her apartment, how I felt standing in that cemetery. It was an important question and I talked around it for a long time. The answer arrived with all the earmarks of clarity – all at once and incontestable. “I miss my grandfather,” I told her. “I wish I could share all of this with him.”

 

Is this what it feels like to be interviewed? Prone? Like anything could happen and some puzzle piece could click innocently into place, radically changing the whole picture? Not all the time, we’d ring our subjects dry if we did, but it’s difficult to say whether I would have realized something profound about myself were it not for that afternoon and Catherine’s inquiry.  It makes me wonder how my classmates and I will affect the people we meet in the coming months as we pursue our radio features. Maybe we’ve already knocked a peg loose in someone (maybe in each other) without even realizing it, kicked the marble at the top of a Rube Goldberg machine awaiting the perfectly aimed question. “How do you feel?”

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Week 3: Writing

The days are stacking at Salt, along with my dirty clothes—the past three weeks have been a blur of black tea, Final Cut Pro, and illegible field notes. I can’t discern yesterday from today, today from tomorrow, except for my change in socks.

A whiteboard fairy left a to-do list in the conference room. It reads:

-Eat

-Sleep

-Breathe

We’re not on the verge of breakdown. Most of us remember to shower. We thrive in this kind of environment; 24-hours of learning and living. It’s like the show The Real World, but minus the tequila and screaming matches in the kitchen.

This morning, I got an email from Photographer and Chicken-Pot-Pie-Maker Liz with the send-off “Soldier on!” Her words encapsulate the communal morale at Salt. There’s no competition–just a showering of hugs and compliments, with the occasional nudge from a classmate to leave the Salt premises if your eyes have glazed over and you’ve only had a slice of Otto’s pizza in the last 24 hours.

We need this support from each other more than ever, because the experience of tracking down a story is a lot like a tumultuous relationship. There are highs; an e-mail response, a returned phone call, a signed release form, that make you want to go dancing around the red room, and then there are the lows; an empty inbox, a capricious subject, or the painful sound of an automated recording–”this is a non-working number”. At one moment, everything can be working out perfectly, and the next, I am back to square one, and have to start all over again.

In writing class, we went around and shared our field notes from our first assignment. I had five pages of notes, most of which were incoherent, and no obvious story. I had showed up to the potluck empty-handed.

“There’s definitely a story here,” said one of my classmates. Mira began mapping out the overriding themes from my notes, and I walked out of class with a sense of direction and a new-found confidence.

Four days later, I called up my subject and he told me he was pulling out of the project. Alas, I am back to zero. So it goes in the storytelling world. But with a few more phone calls, and a dose of chutzpah, I know I can get back to ten. Like anything else, I must embrace the unexpected and prepare for the unknown.

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Week 2: Multimedia

Hi! My name is Alice Quinlan. I’m in the radio track here at Salt. My path to Salt started at Sarah Lawrence College where, in my senior year, I decided to veer away from my major (philosophy) and take a class on writing for radio. My future was sealed! Since I graduated from college I’ve been living and working in the small town of Marfa, Texas, trying to figure out how to make a career out of a love for radio and multimedia work. It’s only my second week at Salt, but I already know I’ve made the right choice – my butt is being sufficiently kicked!

This week, our multimedia class was focused on our Documentary in a Day assignment. Basically, we had one day to get all the content we needed to create a one and a half minute audio slideshow. The inimitable Anne Bailey gave us a central event to focus our story ideas around: The Sebago Lake Ice Fishing Derby. Our task was to research and work those phones to find a good story and a good subject.

For me, the takeaway from week two:

1)   Learn to duck and weave! Two days before the Ice Fishing Derby the ice was deemed too thin and the derby was canceled – cue a lot of students rushing to find new stories and new subjects. Got to go with that flow.

2)   It’s all about the telephone. This was a big challenge for me. I just hate talking on the phone! But it’s really the only way to make the connection you need to make, and people really appreciate a human voice at the end of the line, rather than an email.

3)   People love to talk! I was floored by how open people were to us. The subjects we focused on really brought us in to their ice fishing experience, and even opened their home to us. It was really humbling to see how open and kind Mainers tend to be. It became an equally important part of the weekend to respect this, as well as getting the story.

So far, the one thing we are all feeling right now is exhaustion. The pace here is not to be underestimated – but that’s what makes the work happen. Deadlines, deadlines, deadlines!

- Al, radio

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Week 2: Photo

Like last week and undoubtedly the week to come, it’s been a big one: I’ve rarely been quite as provoked to thought as I have these past few days. In photo class, we presented last week’s work, when we went out into a neighborhood and tried to capture it visually. I myself have never been critiqued on my work — it’s easy to feel pleased about your photos when the only critical engagement you’ve had with them is x number of Facebook likes — so I was glad for the honest review that Nelson, the photo teacher, gave:

Me:    Here’s a photo of a couple looking at each other lovingly.

Student 1:    That’s nice. You captured a nice moment.

Student 2:    Ooh. That’s great.

Others:        (Agreement.)

[Pause]

Nelson:        But is it a nice moment?

Woah. Nelson called me out: “I think you failed and they won in this photo,” he said. “They gave you exactly what they wanted to give you.” Your job, he said, is not to capture what they want you to capture. As a photographer, you’re supposed to outstay your welcome.

Nelson said a lot of smart things in the span of two days that have touched on a lot of different aspects of being a photographer; they’ve made me reconsider my approach to photography, how I’ve come to rely on exaggerated angles and shortcuts to visual relevance, and my role and responsibility in documenting. Over the last week, we’ve looked at the work of Garry Winogrand, Henry Wessel, Robert Frank, and other greats, and I’m beginning to see differently and feel as though I’m in the middle of my own photography coming-of-age story; I’m becoming, if not a better photographer, at least a more thoughtful one.

For the past week in Multimedia class, we’ve been prepping for our latest project, Documentary in a Day, where you and a partner record audio and take photos to document your story in the course of 24 hours. The final product will be a minute-and-a-half long audio slideshow, and the only restrictions were that the story take place on or near Sebago Lake — an ice fishing destination only 45 minutes away from Portland — and that it not be absolutely terrible.

Erika — my project partner and roommate, with whom I spend far too much time — and I hustled to get this storyWe spent all of Monday calling people, talking for hours to anyone and their voicemail. A little advice from a barely seasoned Salt student: When you have six possible pitches, are overly optimistic about the first one and spend all your time trying to clinch it, even driving out there to ingratiate yourselves and then get turned down — you are not in a good place. I’m not sure we ate at all that day, and we ended up turning in five vague pitches when two strong ones were due.

We focused our story on a simple idea: Around Sebago Lake, there’s a ton of summer camps. My question was, what happens to them during the winter? We found our subject at the eleventh hour (or more accurately, after the eleventh hour)a caretaker who’d worked at a camp for over a decade. When I got the confirmation that we could come up to document him that weekend, and when I heard him say, “You have my full cooperation,” I might have cried; there’s something extremely satisfying about being able to conceive of an idea from nothing and to form it into a real story.

Things I learned from that day: Photographers do not have it easy. Running after this guy and his two dogs in knee-deep snow was a physical feat, and sweating in 30-degree weather while surrounded by ice was an act that defied nature. I learned how hard it is to coordinate, as a photographer, with an audio producer — to make sure they get the sound they need while you get the shot you want, and how difficult it is to constantly think of the story you’re trying to make and the photos you’ll need to illustrate the audio you’re recording. I learned that you need to be on at all times, for fear of missing a single moment.

But I also learned what it was like to spend a whole day with someone, and how touching and wonderful it is to see how much he can open up to you within a single day, and welcome you into his life. It’s not easy being in someone’s personal space, to ask them to tell you their stories honestly and openly with a camera a foot away and a microphone in their face; being welcomed in makes a big difference.

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Week 2: Radio

Radio is a composite of several discoveries:

 

  1. That radiation waves could propagate through free space.
  2. That those waves could be transmitted without conductors from one point to another.
  3. That those waves could travel very long distances. Miles. Able to cut corners, scale buildings, jump over bridges, and walk through walls. Radio is the Superman of wireless communication.

 

In this way, it’s difficult to determine when radio was “invented” because radio is not a machine. Your computer, that dial-by-station unit in your car, that antique contraption with the gaping wooden mouth is not “the radio,” but the penultimate stop (the last stop being your ears) of a signal that was sent to you by someone you cannot see.

 

Who is that someone? He or she might be stationed in Jakarta or Shanghai, Miami or Cairo. He or she might be soaked from monsoon rains or dabbing sweat from his or her forehead beneath studio lights. A sock might have crumbled down to the bridge of his or her foot, laden with the soil of some country you’ve never been to, but whose current events you know something about because this unseen journalist labored to give it to you. And what astonishes me time and again when I listen to the radio is how uniformly calm these men and women sound in spite of their varied circumstances. Walls may be falling and cities burning, but their measured cadences will usher you through every report without the slightest betrayal of the measures they took, large and small, to be there and gather those moments. They sound dignified, authoritative, and controlled. It sounds like the news just landed in their lap.

 

But that’s a falsehood. It took hard work, patience, and frantic seizures of opportunity. And if my first foray into the field is any indication, some serious juggling skills.

 

At Salt, each radio student is bequeathed a magnificent audio kit: a Sony PCM-D50 flash recorder that can record up to 12 hours of tape, an omnidirectional microphone, and a pair of headphones by which to hear the medley of recorded words and ambient sounds. We’ve been given the essential tools for making radio and in the week since, have mastered the comparative technics of a walkie talkie (On/Off, Record/Play/Pause). The real challenge of Salt radio (and one that will endure throughout our radio-making lives) is to use these tools well.

 

It seemed impossible at the time—a polyphonic documentary dance. You know that one-man-band suit Dick Van Dyke wears at the beginning of Mary Poppins? With the harmonica strapped beneath his chin and the cymbals at his knees? That’s about as graceful as I felt donning an audio kit.

 

Our assignment was to create an “audio postcard,” a 4-minute radio piece that evoked the feeling of a specific place – a bakery, a roller skating rink, a burlesque dance class. In addition to interviewing a person (or many people) and capturing the sounds of our chosen environment, our instructor Michael invited us to record a stand-up narration of what we were seeing in real time. He showed us a radio piece by Kelly McEvers from her night spent shadowing a Syrian activist. Her narration was ideal for on the ground reporting, more reflective than those play-by-play announcers on ESPN but less detached than those anchors reading a scripted version of the news. It was the voice of an intelligent and articulate witness that must have taken years of practice (and natural talent) to pull off.

 

With Kelly McEvers as our model, it’s no wonder I walked away from the Aucocisco III discouraged. My grand plan for my audio postcard had been to follow Portland’s morning mail ferry as it delivered packages to various islands in Casco Bay. Mail has only so much mileage as a topic of conversation, so I scrambled for new question material. Training my microphone beneath the chins of crew members, passengers, and the captain, we talked about the parts of the ferry, the route of the ferry, the weather (a lot about the weather), some stories, but not much beyond that. The insights didn’t arise from the wellspring of their high seas experience as freely as I thought they would. I blamed the equipment for interfering with any potential for rapport. “The only thing preventing us from having a normal conversation is this microphone,” I said to a pair of construction workers. But upon listening to my tape, I realized that the most stunted, flat answers were in response to my most close-ended questions. While seated outdoors at the back of the ferry, my interview with Anne went something like this:

 

Q: Do you live on Great Diamond?

A: I do, I do.

Q: Okay, yeah. And uh…so you’ve been taking the ferry for a long time?

A: I have, yes.

Q: Do you have any fond memories of riding the ferry?

A: Um, I have to think about that.

 

Poor Anne might as well have been talking to a ballot box. My questions bespoke a binary preconception of the ferry meant to its passengers. “Do you” and “So You’ve” can only be answered with a Yes or a No. There was no openness and no room for Anne’s interpretation, so our initial interview abounded with false starts and question stairways that led to nowhere. We both turned away. The sounds of the conversation deflating were audible. I remember scanning the water line for something to talk about.

 

Off the starboard side was a cliff face with these orange and green bands that caught light in an unusual way. I had never seen anything like them before. I began to account for their presence off the starboard side  and heard Anne venture, in a hesitant way, “Those are all the minerals. The mineral deposits in the rock ,that you see.” She embellished further, painting a vivid portrait of tide soaking the minerals with sea water. She talked about how the tide changed colors and how ice bowls formed upon their recession in wintertime, using language only a witness to the daily rhythms of an island ever could. I sat in riveted silence, basking in the sun of her words. For the first time that afternoon, instead of listening for something, I was listening to someone. It made all the difference.

 

A day later in the editing room, while cherry picking for usable moments, Anne’s interview was distinct from the rest of the tape. There was a momentum to her voice. An energy. It seemed to cut through the wind and settle freely wherever it wanted to. My microphone was merely a receptacle for this performance of herself. The more I appealed to her inner world with genuine curiosity, the more generous Anne was with her words. It made me wonder what would happen if all my interviews deferred to the subject’s expertise, handing over the reins and sitting shotgun, making the road ahead free of obstacles so the conversation goes and goes and goes.

 

I’m beginning to understand what will happen if you do. That respect will show in your face. It will read in your body language. It will inspire your next question. If you do your job well, neither you nor your subject will notice the equipment. You’ll be like Kelly McEvers or Dick Van Dyke, never once allowing your professional suit to outshine the human inside.

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Week 2: Writing

Walking down Congress Street towards the hardware store, I passed a Thai restaurant called “Saeng Thai House”. The windows were dark, framed by unlit Christmas lights.  A potted bamboo stalk, dressed in Mardi Gras beads, rubbed up against the glass.  Neon signs said “Welcome” and “Enter”. I kept on walking.

On my way back, I thought about what I had been told while living (and eating) in Thailand; be weary of white napkins, avoid floating candles, and scoff at anything resembling ambiance. For the best food, seek out places that aren’t meant to be found; a restaurant with no sign at the back of an alley, or seafood sold by the gutter.

Putting aside my aspirations for a rigid Salt semester budget, I went inside Saeng Thai House and ordered tom yum kung, a sweet and spicy shrimp soup that took me right back to the monsoon-soaked streets of Thailand. It was delicious.

Finding a good story is a lot like eating at a Thai restaurant. At first, I am tempted to go towards the glitz and the glamour; a story with a capital S that is fit for a lifetime movie. But stripped of its sparkle, is the story still there?

This week in writing class, we read an interview in “New New Journalism” with Adrian Le Blanc and Susan Orlean, two great literary journalists with vastly different styles of reporting. Le Blanc says “I like to write about people who don’t necessarily see what their story is, or what my interest might be.”

When approaching people to talk to at the ferry for our first writing assignment—a profile of a person or place—I was met with the same reaction. Why me? What’s so interesting about my life? Of course, if some fresh-faced reporter with a backpack and a recorder wanted to profile me, I’d have the same response. As the subject, we can see our reflection, but not our stories.

Orlean also eschews the obvious for less chartered seas, but she doesn’t have to look far. Tackling the obscure and the mundane, she makes accessible the anatomy of an American subculture, or holds a magnifying glass to our quotidian existence. “I have a kind of missionary zeal to tell my readers that the world is a more complex place than they ever thought” she says, “to make them curious about things they’d never ordinarily be curious about.” Read her profile on grocery stores, “All Mixed Up” or “The American Male at Age Ten”, and you’ll see Orlean has the chops to turn a freezer aisle into poetry.

As a writer, my curiosity is perpetually piqued. But with the final pitch deadline looming, I might need to put a cap on my inquisitive nature and hone in on atopic. Fish taxidermy, or tuna-carving, or a goth vaudeville show. How can I choose!? I can hardly pick a soup off a Thai menu. My mother used to say I was “as fickle as a pickle” when it came to picking out school clothes, and while this rhyming sobriquet makes no literal sense, I see what she means.

To help me with my search, my teacher Mira brought a stack of local newspapers into class. For a city the size and shape of a foot, there are more publications per square foot than I have ever seen, each with its own interesting angle. The Munjoy Hill Observer is running a contest to come up with a slogan for the Eastern Promenade. “For example” it says “Nike’s slogan is ‘Just Do It’”. In another pamphlet-sized newspaper for Casco Bay islands, the verso side lists the obituaries, and on the recto side, people who have recently found employment.

I aspire to one day make that list – an employed, full-time writer living in a cottage on the rocky shore of Peaks Island– but first, I have to learn how to tell a story

- Emma, writing

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