institute for documentary studies

{Week 3: Writing}

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:




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.