institute for documentary studies

{Week 2: Writing}

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