The Transom Review

Volume 1/Issue 2

Paul Tough

April 1st, 2001 | (Edited by Carol Wasserman)

A Word From Jay Allison

03.07.01

Welcome to Paul Tough’s topic. I’m very glad Paul agreed to join us as a Special Guest, even though he warned me he might run out of things to say about radio and have to talk about journalism and writing and communicating in general. No problem. One idea behind this site is to get some cross-current, some breeze through the windows. Indeed, some people say that public radio can be stuffy. I’m a big fan of Paul’s site, openletters.net, and of his general effort to sort out personal narrative and journalism. Another thing: my daughter wrote a letter for Open Letters. Lillie showed me Paul’s edits. They were perfectly thoughtful, out-of-your-face and helpful, not just for a twelve-year-old, but for anyone. In considering good editors to be Guests here — people with a track record in radio, writing, the internet, and encouraging new voices — Paul’s name came first to mind. He wrote something to start things off, a “nonifesto” he called it, and he’ll be here soon to post it.

Welcome, Paul.

Paul Tough’s Nonifesto

Special Guest Paul Tough
03.07.01

Thanks, Jay.

About this “nonifesto” thing: please allow me to explain. It’s not like I have a big anti-manifesto to post: no more rules, smash the radio-industrial complex, microphones for the masses. Not at all. My reluctance in writing something manifesto-like is merely a symptom of the anxiety I feel following Scott Carrier, who is an actual radio producer, and a great and innovative one. I am not a radio producer, not really, and so in Scott’s footsteps, I’d feel silly trying to give advice or sound wise, or even astute. Instead, out of necessity, I’m going to try to define my job here differently than he did: as a radio listener, rather than as a radio creator.

As I explained to Jay in those paragraphs he quoted for my bio, I started working in radio at a young age, doing interviews for “Anybody Home?,” a weekly kids’ show broadcast on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. I believe I am still the only twelve-year-old ever to interview Chaka Khan. After doing a couple dozen interviews, I became one of the show’s two rotating underage co-hosts, which meant I got to do the top-ten countdown every other week. Back in the early eighties, that meant a lot of intros to Hall and Oates songs. I was very enthusiastic about “Maneater,” as I recall.

The program was cancelled in 1983, and then I didn’t have much to do with radio for about a decade. In the early nineties, though, I met David Isay and Ira Glass, through different circumstances, and they started to change my mind about radio and what it could do.

I met Ira by phone in 1992, I think, and we got to be friends, and he started sending me tapes of “The Wild Room,” a weekly local show that he was doing with Gary Covino in Chicago. I remember one that had a long segment of clips from the Clarence Thomas hearings played over a hip-hop beat. That was pretty cool. Another episode, a piece by Ira about a haircut, was a real masterpiece of personal story-telling, and I listened to it over and over.

I met Dave Isay through Rose Ortiz, a bartender at the International Bar on First Avenue in New York, which Dave and I were both frequenting back in 1992. He gave me a tape of Ghetto Life 101, which also kind of blew my mind. It was flawlessly produced, another masterpiece of narrative — but it was also defiantly democratic, in that it was created by two kids who were way, way outside the corridors of media power.

Getting to know Ira and Dave and their work got me interested in radio again, and eventually led to me working for This American Life, in various capacities, and recording a few stories for them. I’m still a contributing editor there.

A lot of what I’ve liked in public radio over the past decade has seemed to follow from those pieces by Dave and Ira that I listened to on cassette: journalism that emphasizes story-telling, that showcases a broad and surprising array of voices, and that uses imaginative and entertaining production styles.

The last thing I heard that I loved, that has all of those qualities, was this show, which This American Life ran a couple of months ago. I listened to it on tape last week, driving around Milford doing errands. I rushed through the aisles at the Stop and Shop, eager to get back in the car.

So I like radio because it’s democratic (or at least it can be), and because it’s so well-suited for narrative story-telling. The other thing I like about the radio is that it’s random. When I listen to the radio these days, I usually stay away from public radio, or at least the national kind, and instead I flip around, trying to find something interesting, or at least different. What excites me the most about the flipping approach is the possibility of finding something new and surprising in an unexpected place.

My favorite piece of writing on that subject is by a zine writer named Iggy Scam. In his zine, Scam, he wrote this beautiful description of his repeated mysterious encounters with an underground radio station in Miami. When I worked at This American Life, we put it on the air as part of a show about the mystery of radio. You can listen to it, along with a great set-up by Ira, here. (Iggy’s piece is about seven minutes in, but I’d suggest that you listen from the very beginning.)

Since my CBC days, I’ve only done a few radio pieces, all for This American Life. The first one I did was an interview with Catherine Chalmers, a Soho artist who raised little animals, and then took photographs of them eating one another. It’s in this show. I also co-hosted this hour with Ira, about obsession; in it I interviewed an artist named Liza Lou, about beading, and also a former girlfriend, about the number two and its role in her life and our relationship. The main reason that Jay asked me to be this month’s guest, though, probably has less to do with my radio work, and more to do with my work as the editor of Open Letters, a currently dormant online magazine that published a daily dose of first-person writing, in the form of personal letters.

One of the questions I hope we’ll be able to discuss in this topic, and elsewhere on these boards, is whether any of the letters in our archives would benefit from being turned into radio pieces. I think it’s happening to one of them already — a letter by Paul Maliszewski is going to be on “Savvy Traveler” soon, I think. But perhaps some of the other letters archived on our site would work well if they were put through the Transom process. Suggestions welcome.

The other question that I’d like to bring up is something that was on my mind a lot when Open Letters was publishing regularly. In order to find material to publish, I pursued a lot of writers that I liked, but just as the Transom is doing, I invited submissions from the public, as well. What I found was maybe not too surprising: the batting average for the public submissions was quite low — I got hundreds that I couldn’t use, and often felt like I wasn’t able to respond to them helpfully (or on time).

One of the things that surprised me the most about reader reaction to Open Letters is that readers liked it best when we published someone they’d never heard of. We’d publish sublime pieces by established writers, and readers took them in stride. But whenever we ran rawer stuff, from teenagers and weirdos and drug addicts, readers responded with great enthusiasm.

I’m sure that’s one of the things that draws people to the Transom, as well: the chance to hear an authentic voice, before it’s put through the media meat-grinder. My experience as an editor, though, is that it’s very hard to make that work — it’s hard to find unprocessed voices that are coherent and honest and clear. I’m guessing that Jay and the other producers at the Transom are finding that true as well.

So that’s another thing I’d like to talk about — how to make that process work well, how to help the Transom people find new and different voices, and how to help make those voices effective on the air.

I’m also here to answer any questions anyone might have, to comment on new pieces as they go up, and to help the contributors and potential contributors as much as possible. Just ask. I’m glad Jay invited me to stop in.

Highlights From the Transom Discussion Boards

Barrett Golding 03.07.01

i’ve been wandering this web for 5-6 years now. used to visit lotsa sites, but my interest waned over time to where i would regularly visit only a very few urls: several trade sites (audio, computer), and just a single site i could depend on for entertainment and inspiration,
http://www.openletters.net. so, first, thanks. so much great reading there. my fave might be the women who substitute taught six-graders poetry, Poetic Licence: http://www.openletters.net/000724/oneill000725.html from: “There was nothing personal in any of the poems. You couldn’t even tell whether a boy or a girl had written it. What a waste of time…” to: “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Toilet” and: “Laurence, meanwhile, was comparing Salma Hayek’s eyes to faucets leaking grape juice… Alex said his purest desire was to have twelve Japanese women dressed in blue lingerie singing him Britney Spears songs every night. ‘Whoa,’ I said. ‘We’re in school. I could go to jail for letting you write that stuff.’” and, of course: “One boy asked for ‘poetic license’ to punch his best friend in the head.” that story, and many other openletters, was radio to me. i could hear the sounds, the chatter in the classroom, the kids arguing and spouting off.

kinda thought some publisher would come along and drop a load of advance cash in your lap, and say “make a book out of openletters” guess it hasn’t happened yet.

won’t wonder why you had to drop it. do wonder you could keep it going

Open Letters Online
A. Knight 03.07.01

I absolutely agree with the “raw voices” statement. Personal favorites were Mike Welch’s Birthday letter, the X series, the Cancer series (Aliza Pollack), the Other Peoples Mail week, the interviews, Lauren Zalaznick, Eilis Dolan Klein, Dishwasher Pete (who writes like a pro but is always quite raw) and the guy who applied to Microsoft.

A great many of the OLs would translate to radio well. Two quick questions for Paul: what’s happening as far as online OPM? Was the Starlee in your TAL piece (Kindness of Strangers) Starlee Kine?

Drawing Definite Lines
Gibby 03.05.01

I like what you and the guys you mention do. It’s real thoughtful and deep. But don’t you ever get angry and want to draw some definite lines? Sometimes I’m listening to these stories or reading openletters and its like “jesus, why is everything so inspirational with some lesson to learn?” I think that’s why I like the raw voices you speak of because you can hear it. The decisiveness.

Paul Tough 03.07.01

Gibby: I think I take your point, but I’m a little unclear on what you mean. Can you expand a bit on that idea of “drawing definite lines”? Are there any particular stories or books or radio docs or other forms of expression you can think of that accomplish that particularly well?

The story A Knight is talking about was rebroadcast last weekend, but originally aired three years ago. It was about two neighbors who lived down the block from me: young Starlee, a recent NYU graduate, and less-young Olga, her next-door neighbor who had lived in the building for thirty years. Olga had become convinced that Starlee was a drug dealer, and had begun a campaign of intimidation, via weird notes, to get her out of the building. That’s what the story was about. You can listen to it here.
www.thislife.org/pages/descriptions/97/75.html

Yes, Starlee is Starlee Kine. She’s now working at This American Life, which is a nice ending to the story, I think. You can see her photo on this page. As you can see, she really does look like a drug kingpin.
www.thislife.org/pages/staff.html

I haven’t heard anything recently about the OPM web site, but I hope it happens. I’ll email Abby and see if she’ll drop by to answer that herself. (Meanwhile, you can read the OPM/OL letters here.)
www.openletters.net/001211/archive11-17.html

Barrett, I agree, Heather O’Neill’s first letter was a rare gem. It would be great to get her to turn that into a radio piece. Here’s a question, and it’s one Jay’s asked me in the past about open letters becoming radio pieces: What would it gain by being heard rather than read? Would it need something extra, like sound or music or other tape, or should we just ask Heather to read it into a mike?

Your opinions, please.

Letters -> Radio
Jay Allison 03.07.01

Some of the best radio is just someone talking. My question to Paul was about the fact that many of the open letters were perfect as they were. They were letters. There was no need to make them anything else.

On the other hand, a lovely read can elevate/transform what’s on the page, can add layers of information. If that could happen, I thought it would be worth trying and putting it here…. and eventually on public radio, where of course it would enjoy a much bigger audience and surprise people in their cars, which may be enough incentive.

Music and sounds and other voices are options, of course, but mostly I just didn’t want to take something perfect and expend effort making it less perfect.

Examples of Drawing Definite Lines
Gibby 03.07.01

Paul wrote: I think I take your point, but I’m a little unclear on what you mean. Can you expand a bit on that idea of “drawing definite lines”? Are there any particular stories or books or radio docs or other forms of expression you can think of that accomplish that particularly well?

Examples: Nightline, CNN, New York Times. Look I mean why do public radio/open letter people feel they can only work in the background, the world of grants and endowments.
If TAL and OpenLetters are so good, which I feel they are, why not reach a bigger audience?
Why not challenge the big boys? Why be quaint?

Paul Tough 03.08.01

Jay,
It’s an interesting question — under what circumstances can something in print can be improved by putting it on the radio? That piece by Iggy Scam that I mentioned (and linked to) above: it improved it for me to be able to hear his voice. The connection was stronger for me once I heard him telling the story.

One Open Letters writer I was wondering about vis-ˆ-vis Transom is Sharon O’Connor, who lives in Cabot, Vermont. She did two letters for us: one, right here, about her daughter; and the other one, here, about a pregnancy. It’s the second one that I’m wondering about, especially. Any thoughts on how that would work on the radio — or what to do to make it work on the radio — from Jay, or anyone else?

Gibby: I’m not trying to be dense, here, but I’m still not entirely following you. What makes stories in the Times or on CNN more “decisive” than stories on Open Letters or This American Life?

And in terms of reaching a larger audience — I’ve never worked for any media organization that didn’t want to reach a bigger audience. But I don’t think small necessarily equals quaint. Smaller places are often more imaginative, risky, unorthodox — not to mention angry and decisive.

Personally, I like getting my news from a mixture of large-audience and small-audience shows and publications. The New York Times (circulation over a million) gives me one vision of the universe; Scam (circulation several hundred) gives me another. I don’t think my mediascape would be complete without both.

What Audio Could Add To Print
Cheryl Wagner 03.08.01

Paul wrote: What would it gain by being heard rather than read? Would it need something extra, like sound or music or other tape, or should we just ask Heather to read it into a mike?

You would ask Heather the writer to do not the same letter but another piece entirely. You would ask Heather the writer to become Heather the talker. If you want to keep the letter form for some reason, you’d tell her to send a tape letter to a friend. I’ve gotten lots of tape letters and they have nice surprises that written letters don’t. Snakes in the can that pop out and gurgle and what not. It also depends on if you’re talking about a “real” letter of course or an orchestrated and edited down audio story that sounds like/appears to be a letter.

I agree with whoever it was that said they were hesitant to take something perfect and try to make it better. In the effort to make something different, rehashing often happens.

Tape letters are often audio diaries. The ones I’ve gotten anyway. With not even four track (okay sometimes 4 track) mixing/editing capability. One long piece of linear goodness or clock or a combination of the two. It’s kind of like asking someone to draw a picture w/o picking up the pen. That’s what a real tape letter is I think.

Revealing the Self
A. Knight 03.09.01

Waaaay back in the early weeks of OL.net (about 9 months ago) Paul made sort of a plea, or off-handed request for submissions from people who were going through something big, or going through a big change or whatever. This brought about the great, touching, might be made into an Oprah movie-of-the-week, cancer series. Paul, have you considered writing/recording something about the big thing you’ve gone through, from leaving Saturday Night to starting your own publication to shutting the doors on it less than a year later? I’m sure that between your daily editor’s letters and some undeleted correspondence you could piece something really good together.

How ’bout you, Jay – have you considered putting something together to follow you through your experiences with Transom? How long do you think it will be before you get fed up (with us) and go back to dealing strictly with pros?

Paul Tough 03.09.01

When I started Open Letters, I was hoping that the experience of editing all that good first-person writing would help me get better at writing about myself and my own life. But it didn’t work out that way. Instead, I just got intimidated by the ease with which our writers were able to reveal themselves.

I’m not sure why it is, exactly, but it’s true: Paul Maliszewski writing about sitting by the side of the road, watching people walk into a house = endlessly fascinating, to me. Me writing about quitting a couple of jobs and roaming around the country for a year = boring, boring, boring.

I recognize that I have some issues.

And Jay, how about you?

Jay Allison 03.10.01

I’m with you. Once in a while I find myself intriguing, and even make a radio story or write an essay about ME AND MY LIFE, but it’s mostly other people who interest me. Plus, there are more of them.

Writing first-person helps keep in mind what it’s like to reveal yourself (er, I mean MYself)… but if I don’t have something I’m burning to say, it’s more considerate to shut up about it.

What Writers Think About Producers
Carol Wasserman 03.15.01

My ambition, as a child, was quite ordinary. To become a ballerina. The working conditions seemed ideal: sublime music at the jobsite, pink tutus, the company of other ballerinas, and – of course – the applause and fixated devotion of well-behaved strangers sitting in the dark, watching all the leaping and bending.

As you have no doubt guessed, my career ambitions were derailed early on, for the usual reasons. I do not have a dancer’s body. And I lack any kinesthetic sense. With or without music, I don’t have a clue where my arms and legs are supposed to be or what they are supposed to be doing.

As it turns out, though, a facility with words, and an unreasoning love of stories, can get you a job in radio. Which is a pretty good second choice. Plus they let you wear a tutu into the studio if you absolutely must.

Anyway, there are probably tired ballerinas who listen to public radio on their way home from work, and think, “Oh, Tatiana, if only you had gone out for the school newspaper, or at least paid attention in English class, you could be on the radio, instead of in these stupid toe shoes!”

Which is to say that none of us are ever completely happy with the particular set of talents, skills, and limitations which are assigned to us by the Great Program Director. Those of us who can write a broadcast script feel feeble and silly when we compare ourselves to those brilliant, gifted people who record and produce tape.

And we are baffled to hear them express oblique regret about the ‘intimidating ease’ with which other people dance around.

Finding Stories/Constructing Narratives
Cal 03.10.01

I’d like to get a better perspective on how you (Mr. Allison and Mr. Tough) envision(ed) the democratizing of both radio and online print stuff actually working. Technically the Open Letter forum seems easier – pretty much everyone can type – but Mr. Tough mentioned that finding good pieces from unknowns was hard. Add the equipment/production issues of radio and, although still accessible, you’ve just added more obstacles to the already tough job of constructing good narrative. Because isn’t that the real trick? In the introduction to her new book, Susan Orlean talks about first convincing her editor to let her do the kinds of pieces she does. Her description of their major concern was something like “When these kinds of pieces fail, they fail in a big way.” It seems to me that Open Letters and maybe Transom offer pieces with the same potential problem. With so many of them there’s a sort of wispy quality that is just so delicate and whether it works really depends on the narrator.

I think your posting of the behind-the-scenes Neal Pollack piece is a really great, honest, perspective-giving thing. It’s harder than it sounds– technical stuff is doable, but not without an investment. That’s workable. But what about the narrative? What about the gut-feeling, going on faith, won’t know if I can pull it off until I’m in there sort of thingÉthat bit that makes the wispy piece work or not work. The only way I can think to illustrate what I mean isÉwell, the Neal Pollack piece (not to undermine the amount of work or qualify the quality at all! No, no.) seems to me to have a bit of an edge simply because of the subject. My guess is a fair amount of NPR people have heard of Dave Eggers and thus Neal Pollock. There is at least a bit of a nugget built in there. But what if the story doesn’t have that name-recognition nugget? The subject is interesting and there’s some sort of story, but won’t things depend more on finding a story and then effectively telling it? Can you offer some tips, ideas, guidance?

Mr. Tough – if those archives do make the transformation to radio, please consider working in the editor’s letters. I loved that bit of context and maybe that could somehow work-I think of weaving the letter with the editor’s letter somehow (like Mr. Allison’s Freaks radio piece) and overlaying the voices.

Paul Tough 03.10.01

Good question, Cal. I hope that Jay will give his own answer to it here, since the Transom is his brainchild. But I’ll jump the gun on him a bit and give my answer first.

I think the idea of the Transom is to try to remove that extra technical obstacle you talked about — the “equipment/production issues.” To give tools to people with a good story to tell but little idea of how to make it into a radio piece.

But I don’t think it’s about putting any old story on the air. My sense is that a good narrative is a prerequisite for assistance from the Transom. They/we won’t make up a good story for you, but they might help you tell it. That help will be partly technical, partly editorial — and partly practical, in terms of helping you figure out how to negotiate the public-radio bureaucracy.

Check out this great project that Sound Portraits is doing right now. It’s called Youth Portraits. (The two people who are working on it, Stacy Abramson and Susan Burton, were both involved with Open Letters, but I think that’s a happy coincidence more than anything else.) The site describes the project thus: “Youth Portraits seeks to give voice to young people who have been in prison — to help give them the tools to tell their own stories, teaching them an important set of skills and empowering them to speak up about their own experiences.” As I understand it, Susan and Stacy are working with these kids closely, helping them turn their life stories into good radio.

I think that’s what the Transom is about, except not just for young people who have been in prison. (Youth Portraits’ focus makes it both harder and easier to pull off than the Transom’s project: harder because young people who have been in prison sometimes have short attention spans, and easier because young people who have been in prison often have pretty compelling stories to tell.)

So to answer this question: but won’t things depend more on finding a story and then effectively telling it? I’d say yes, absolutely. The Transom’s editors and producers can help that process along as much as any editors and producers can, which is to say: a little. But any potential Transom participant — like any open-letter writer — has to start with a good story, and a good voice to tell it with, before the Transom can be much help.

Jay, is that right? Or am I just free-associating at this point?

One additional comment, on Cal’s question: One thing that I think links the Transom and Sound Portraits/Youth Portraits and Open Letters is this idea: True, not everyone has a story to tell, but the best stories often come from surprising people.

That’s what Dave Isay demonstrated with Ghetto Life 101 — before he made that documentary, no one really thought LeAlan and Lloyd had an important story, or the ability to tell it for themselves. (Note to Gibby: They sure weren’t getting calls from Nightline.) Dave showed that they did, and he helped them tell it, and get it on the radio.

The ability to tell your story in a compelling way is certainly not universal — in fact, as Jay and I both copped to above, neither of us really thinks we’re all that good at it ourselves. But it’s a talent that shows up in the weirdest places. Like check out this story. It’s by a teenage girl burnout (and proud of it) in suburban Ottawa, Ontario — traditionally not a demographic with access to the media, or even to a patient ear. But man, she can really write — she brings her story to life as vividly as Frank McCourt does.

Getting stories like hers exposed to a broader audience — that’s part of what Open Letters tried to do, and sometimes succeeded at. And I think it’s part of what the Transom can do — and should do, for that matter.

Writing, Radio Style
Cheryl Wagner 03.13.01

I agree that there seems to be a terse style one has to adapt for radio. But is this because the listener truly won’t “get it” or because that structure has become standardized and enforced by editors? I personally find that the lack of diversions and tangents challenge me (the rambling writer). Even if I loop back to the “main point” to remind the listener what they’re listening to, I wonder if I’m cutting enough and if what is left is any good. This is the number one problem I am currently having in converting my free associative writing style to radio script.

Jamaica Kincaid is a great writer who works well with short sentences that always seem to be teeming with importance. She can also get a nice flow going even though much of what she writes is simple and declarative. For reference for writers who are trying to go from long winded to short winded, I suggest taking a look at her books: Lucy, An Autobiography of My Mother, Annie John, and others.

Finding Surprising Voices
Jay Allison 03.13.01

I hold with all that that Paul said. Transom hopes to do that, and also work in another direction too. Yes, we want to encourage voices from “nowhere” to come out and be heard. We want to use the Internet to find and encourage those voices, and then bring them to a much larger audience through public radio.

But along with the general citizenry, we also want to offer tools to people already in public radio or in college radio, people who’d like to be “producers”, who might want to tell more stories than their own, but in new ways. We’d like to build a place where public radio can examine the way it tells stories, the assumptions it makes, the tone it takes. Perhaps in some public radio news rooms, they are lucky enough to have these discussions every day. Many are not. Maybe that’s something we can help with, by creating dialog here, based on material that gets posted.

So not all Transom pieces will be from unknowns. I’d hope we can keep the focus shifting, accommodate many styles, avoid stereotyping. One goal here is to make it impossible to say, “oh, that’s a transom.org type piece”

The Editorial Process
Oakland 03.15.01

Paul, can you tell us a little bit more about Openletters’ editorial process? If the process of how a piece of writing became a finished, polished url-ready openletter varied greatly, as I imagine it did, please tell us about a couple of specific and different examples. Also, perhaps you could tell us about a case where you received an “unprocessed” submission and were able to make that work. What did the editing entail? Lastly, was there any particular common-denominator to why most of the public-submissions, left you at a loss? How did most of them fail?

Results Not Typical
cal 03.17.01

I didn’t ask, but I was curious about the editing process of Open Letters. Not so much the process, I guess, but in Paul T.’s early post he says the “batting average for the public submissions was quite low” and if you’re someone who’s never been published but who wants to be, well, you can’t help but wonder if there’s some common mistake or illusion being made. He got hundreds of submissions he couldn’t use and I don’t want to waste his (or transom’s) time and I don’t want to be one of the unusables. Are we kidding ourselves, being fooled by the modesty of talented people who produce accessible, deceptively small pieces? Inspiration is great, but should there be a disclaimer, “Results are not typical”? Just how many single moms on public assistance are going to show up on NPR’s doorstep and be Carol Wasserman? Or housecleaners turn out to be David Sedaris? So, yeah, I wonder if most of Paul T.’s hundreds were from wannabes and the real potentials were at Kinko’s quietly photocopying their ‘zine or at home, posting their online diary.

Schrodinger’s Cat
Carol Wasserman 03.17.01

Now listen up! If you intend to do creative work, and be an artist, you have to grow a thick skin. You can’t spend the brief days allotted to us worrying about being “one of the unuseables”. No editor with whom you would care to do business would ever think in such terms. So, your question is, “How do I know if this piece I’ve just written is any good?” You don’t. Let me use the famous example of Schrodinger’s Cat.

Schrodiner was a theoretical physicist who came up with the following thought experiment, in order to illustrate the principle of quantum mechanics which says that stuff exists as both particle and wave (those of you who actually know about quantum physics, bear with me as I mangle the more technical parts of this little parable):

Take a cat. Put it in an air-tight box. Calculate the amount of time the cat can stay alive inside. Wait until that moment. Ask, “Is the cat alive or dead?”

Answer: neither, both. Until you open the box and look inside.

Ok. Your manuscript is the cat. By which I mean that you write something. Then you make a fearless second pass at the thing, correcting all the mistakes you didn’t notice the first time through. You decide it’s finished. So is it dead or alive?

Answer: you can’t know until you send it off, until you get someone to open the box. In art, however, unlike physics, your cat may just look dead to the first eighty-five editors who see it. Your job is to find an editor who senses some life in the thing. And then will work with you to make it purr.

If, however, you don’t open the box, your cat is a goner.

Paul Tough 03.18.01

First of all, apologies for my absence from this board the last few days. While you-all have been discussing Faulkner and Schrodinger, I’ve been listening to country music down here in Austin, Texas. Which is sort of like reading open letters, except you do it standing up, and you can drink more.

Oakland, that’s a perfectly reasonable set of questions, and I wish I were able to answer them as cleanly as you posed them. You’re quite right, the editing process was quite a bit different from letter to letter, depending I think mostly on the style of the author.

I can say this: editing open letters was different than the magazine editing I’d done previously. When I worked at magazines, I tended to be a fairly hands-on editor, quite certain of the voice I wanted, willing to rewrite sentences and move paragraphs around in order to achieve it.

With Open Letters I didn’t do that very often. Usually what I’d do after getting a first draft is ask questions, via email: suggest that the writer think more about Question A or expand a bit on Topic B. That was most of the job, actually — our authors responded well to those questions, and the second drafts were almost always just right.

At the very end of the editing process, on certain letters, I’d wrangle with the writer more about specific words and phrases. (I just looked back through some old email, and discovered that Paul Maliszewski and I exchanged about a half-dozen emails about this sentence: “Later that night, after more fruitless searching, we ended up not quite parked in front of a payphone outside a Ben & Jerry’s,” each containing a slightly different version.) But usually after the second draft it was just copy editing.

The main reason for that relative laissez-faireism was that our writers wrote quite differently from one another, and I wanted to avoid making them sound the same.

So with “unprocessed” submissions, I tended to do less, rather than more, because the risk of changing or losing the author’s distinct voice seemed greater.

About the common denominator on rejected submissions sent over the transom: I’d say two things. The first is that it’s hard to edit someone you don’t know anything about. I’m sure there were many cases where I got over-the-transom submissions that could have been turned into fine open letters, but I didn’t understand the author well enough to know which direction to encourage him or her. That’s why writers and editors often work together for ages; they get to know one another’s quirks.

The second: The letters that I thought worked best on Open Letters combined personal revelation with a respect for the audience: Public writing with a personal feel. Some of the letters that didn’t work out fell short on one side of that equation or the other. Some didn’t feel personal enough: instead they felt like they were hiding something. And others didn’t feel public enough: they were about an event that had great meaning for the writer, but wouldn’t resonate, I thought, with a broad audience.

…when OL was running did you ever consider turning it into a radio show? I’m also dying to know what that non-disclosure agreement you signed was all about, but I guess I’ll never know.

No, the idea of a radio show never really occurred to me. I hope we’ll be able to get some of the letters to make the web–>air transition, but I don’t think they all would make it across that divide successfully.

The non-disclosure agreement that I mentioned in this editor’s letter was with Amazon, and had to do with their Honor System program. They were originally going to have it up and running in November, and it might have been an effective way for us to raise money while still publishing. (You can see our current page here.) But they didn’t get it up in time. And when we finally did pass the hat, we went with PayPal, which was in many ways better than Amazon after all.

The Secret Formula, Please
Cheryl Wagner 03.31.01

paul and jay- is it possible to tell 3 stories at once in 20 minutes if there are large chunks of music involved or only 2? know it’s hard to answer this w/o the material at hand, but in general… intersecting narratives. can they be told in 20 minutes w/o confusing the listener who is driving and talking on cell phone simultaneously while listening to npr? and if so, how many? all i want is a cut and dry formula, dammit, where i know there isn’t one. gimmee.

Formulae: Cut and Dried
Jay Allison 03.13.

all i want is a cut and dry formula, dammit, where i know there isn’t one. gimmee.
Go to your room and come out when the script is finished.

Then, start a topic in the General Discussion area and, with appalling bravery, paste your script into it. All available formulae, sensibility, taste, editorial judgment will be directed toward your script. You pick the advice you like.

Seriously.

Paul Tough 03.31.01
Bring on the Kitchen Sisters!

I’m in a motel behind a McDonald’s in Pennington Gap, Virginia, way down in the pointy west corner of the state. Kentucky is twenty miles to the north; Tennessee is twenty miles to the south: that’s how pointy it is. I’m down here with one of Jay’s tape recorders reporting a story for a magazine and, Insh’allah, coming back with enough tape to create a spin-off piece for the Transom.

Let me say, first of all, that I love the Sony TC-D5M. When I was doing stories more frequently for This American Life, back in the second millennium, I was using one of those Sony DAT walkmen that was like a fragile little hummingbird. Breathe on it wrong, and it’d erase a two-hour tape of Dishwasher Pete wandering around the National Restaurant Convention (just as an example). And when you ran out of tapes, you had to special-order them from a warehouse in Wisconsin. The TC-D5M, though, uses tapes and batteries that are available in every coal-country K-mart, and it’s sturdy enough that you can use it to hit rocks in a parking lot, or as a seat cushion to raise a whiny toddler up to table-height.

I’m having trouble bringing myself to close-mic interviewees, though. Maybe it’s my Canadian reluctance to invade others’ personal space. Next time: a lapel mic.

As I think he said above, or somewhere, Jay’s generously offered to let me continue to be a Transom editorial person on a part-time basis once my month ends (in a few short hours). I think it’ll be considerably less than full-time, to answer your question, A. But I’m glad I’ll be able to stay connected, officially, to the organization.

Ben, I sadly didn’t get to hear the Savvy Traveler today; the radio dial around here is more bluegrass and kickin’ country than public radio. And I don’t have my computer wired to play MP3′s, which is, I believe, the form that Paul M’s story takes on your own site. Now that it’s aired, is it possible for us non-MP3 people to hear it on RealAudio anywhere?

You May Keep Your Badge
Jay Allison 03.31.01

“I’m having trouble bringing myself to close-mic interviewees”
Note to Paul Tough: CLOSE-MIC! This is no time to be shy.

“I love the Sony TC-D5M”
Note to all: There are a few of these on Ebay now. It’s the “Pro” model which is a little less desirable than the consumer “M” model, but certainly not bad if it’s in good shape and you can get for under $200.

“I’m glad I’ll be able to stay connected, officially, to the organization.”
Note to Paul: We’re glad too!

“it’s sturdy enough that you can use it to hit rocks in a parking lot”
Note to Transom Team: check head alignment on Tough’s D5

About Paul Tough

“I grew up in Toronto. When I was a teenager, I was on the radio more than I ever have been subsequently: I was the co-host of a nationally broadcast radio show for kids, called “Anybody Home?” I did the “hard-hitting” interviews. In 1983, the CBC canceled the show, and I turned to a life of petty crime. Not really. I dropped out of college twice, the first time to go biking through the south, the second time to become an intern at Harper’s Magazine.

I stayed in New York for ten years, mostly as an editor at Harper’s. In around 1992 I met Dave Isay, at the bar on my corner, and marvelled at the radio he was making; around the same time I met Ira Glass, and again marvelled. I helped out with This American Life, in various ways, beginning back when it was called “Three from the Combination Platter”; the most involved I got was in 1997 and 1998, when I was the show’s senior editor. Then I went back to Canada to work as the editor of Saturday Night, a magazine, and then quit that and started Open Letters, an online magazine of first-person writing in the form of personal correspondence. And then I quit that, too, in January. I live with my girlfriend, Deirdre, in a house on the beach in Milford, Connecticut.


83 Comments on “Paul Tough”

  • REPOST says:
    Paul Tough’s Topic

    Author : Jay Allison
    Date : 03-07-2001 on 09:02

    Welcome to Paul Tough’s topic.
    I’m very glad Paul agreed to join us as a Special Guest, even though he warned me he might run out of things to say about radio and have to talk about journalism and writing and communicating in general. No problem. One idea behind this site is to get some cross-current, some breeze through the windows. Indeed, some people say that public radio can be stuffy.

    You can read more about Paul in his bio and see an oblique image. Perhaps we can persuade him to send a more revealing one. http://www.transom.org/staff/bios.html#paultough . I’m a big fan of Paul’s site, openletters.net, and of his general effort to sort out personal narrative and journalism. Another thing: my daughter wrote a letter for Open Letters. Lillie showed me Paul’s edits. They were perfectly thoughtful, out-of-your-face and helpful, not just for a twelve-year-old, but for anyone. In considering good editors to be Guests here — people with a track record in radio, writing, the internet, and encouraging new voices — Paul’s name came first to mind.

    He wrote something to start things off, a “nonifesto” he called it, and he’ll be here soon to post it. Welcome, Paul.

  • REPOST says:
    This "Nonifesto" deal

    Author : Paul Tough
    Date : 03-07-2001 on 09:37

    Thanks, Jay.
    About this "nonifesto" thing: please allow me to explain.
    It’s not like I have a big anti-manifesto to post: no more rules, smash the radio-industrial complex, microphones for the masses. Not at all. My reluctance in writing something manifesto-like is merely a symptom of the anxiety I feel following Scott Carrier, who is an actual radio producer, and a great and innovative one. I am not a radio producer, not really, and so in Scott’s footsteps, I’d feel silly trying to give advice or sound wise, or even astute. Instead, out of necessity, I’m going to try to define my job here differently than he did: as a radio listener, rather than as a radio creator.

    As I explained to Jay in those paragraphs he quoted for my bio, I started working in radio at a young age, doing interviews for "Anybody Home?," a weekly kids’ show broadcast on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. I believe I am still the only twelve-year-old ever to interview Chaka Khan. After doing a couple dozen interviews, I became one of the show’s two rotating underage co-hosts, which meant I got to do the top-ten countdown every other week. Back in the early eighties, that meant a lot of intros to Hall and Oates songs. I was very enthusiastic about "Maneater," as I recall.

    The program was cancelled in 1983, and then I didn’t have much to do with radio for about a decade. In the early nineties, though, I met David Isay and Ira Glass, through different circumstances, and they started to change my mind about radio and what it could do.

    I met Ira by phone in 1992, I think, and we got to be friends, and he started sending me tapes of "The Wild Room," a weekly local show that he was doing with Gary Covino in Chicago. I remember one that had a long segment of clips from the Clarence Thomas hearings played over a hip-hop beat. That was pretty cool. Another episode, a piece by Ira about a haircut, was a real masterpiece of personal story-telling, and I listened to it over and over.

    I met Dave Isay through Rose Ortiz, a bartender at the International Bar on First Avenue in New York, which Dave and I were both frequenting back in 1992. He gave me a tape of Ghetto Life 101, which also kind of blew my mind. It was flawlessly produced, another masterpiece of narrative — but it was also defiantly democratic, in that it was created by two kids who were way, way outside the corridors of media power.

    Getting to know Ira and Dave and their work got me interested in radio again, and eventually led to me working for This American Life, in various capacities, and recording a few stories for them. I’m still a contributing editor there.

    A lot of what I’ve liked in public radio over the past decade has seemed to follow from those pieces by Dave and Ira that I listened to on cassette: journalism that emphasizes story-telling, that showcases a broad and surprising array of voices, and that uses imaginative and entertaining production styles.

    The last thing I heard that I loved, that has all of those qualities, was this show, which This American Life ran a couple of months ago. I listened to it on tape last week, driving around Milford doing errands. I rushed through the aisles at the Stop and Shop, eager to get back in the car.

  • REPOST says:
    Randomness

    Author : Paul Tough
    Date : 03-07-2001 on 09:40

    So I like radio because it’s democratic (or at least it can be), and because it’s so well-suited for narrative story-telling. The other thing I like about the radio is that it’s random. When I listen to the radio these days, I usually stay away from public radio, or at least the national kind, and instead I flip around, trying to find something interesting, or at least different. What excites me the most about the flipping approach is the possibility of finding something new and surprising in an unexpected place.
    My favorite piece of writing on that subject is by a zine writer named Iggy Scam. In his zine, Scam, he wrote this beautiful description of his repeated mysterious encounters with an underground radio station in Miami. When I worked at This American Life, we put it on the air as part of a show about the mystery of radio. You can listen to it, along with a great set-up by Ira, here. (Iggy’s piece is about seven minutes in, but I’d suggest that you listen from the very beginning.)

    Since my CBC days, I’ve only done a few radio pieces, all for This American Life. The first one I did was an interview with Catherine Chalmers, a Soho artist who raised little animals, and then took photographs of them eating one another.

    http://www.thislife.org/pages/descriptions/96/12.html

    It’s in this show. I also co-hosted this hour with Ira, about obsession:

    http://www.thislife.org/pages/descriptions/96/30.html

    In it I interviewed an artist named Liza Lou, about beading, and also a former girlfriend, about the number two and its role in her life and our relationship.

  • REPOST says:
    Open Letters

    Author : Paul Tough
    Date : 03-07-2001 on 09:45

    The main reason that Jay asked me to be this month’s guest, though, probably has less to do with my radio work, and more to do with my work as the editor of Open Letters, a currently dormant online magazine that published a daily dose of first-person writing, in the form of personal letters.
    One of the questions I hope we’ll be able to discuss in this topic, and elsewhere on these boards, is whether any of the letters in our archives would benefit from being turned into radio pieces. I think it’s happening to one of them already — a letter by Paul Maliszewski is going to be on "Savvy Traveler" soon, I think. But perhaps some of the other letters archived on our site would work well if they were put through the Transom process. Suggestions welcome.

    The other question that I’d like to bring up is something that was on my mind a lot when Open Letters was publishing regularly. In order to find material to publish, I pursued a lot of writers that I liked, but just as the Transom is doing, I invited submissions from the public, as well. What I found was maybe not too surprising: the batting average for the public submissions was quite low — I got hundreds that I couldn’t use, and often felt like I wasn’t able to respond to them helpfully (or on time).

    One of the things that surprised me the most about reader reaction to Open Letters is that readers liked it best when we published someone they’d never heard of. We’d publish sublime pieces by established writers, and readers took them in stride. But whenever we ran rawer stuff, from teenagers and weirdos and drug addicts, readers responded with great enthusiasm.

    I’m sure that’s one of the things that draws people to the Transom, as well: the chance to hear an authentic voice, before it’s put through the media meat-grinder. My experience as an editor, though, is that it’s very hard to make that work — it’s hard to find unprocessed voices that are coherent and honest and clear. I’m guessing that Jay and the other producers at the Transom are finding that true as well.

    So that’s another thing I’d like to talk about — how to make that process work well, how to help the Transom people find new and different voices, and how to help make those voices effective on the air.

    I’m also here to answer any questions anyone might have, to comment on new pieces as they go up, and to help the contributors and potential contributors as much as possible. Just ask. I’m glad Jay invited me to stop in.

  • REPOST says:
    Re:Paul Tough’s Topic

    Author : A. Knight
    Date : 03-05-2001

    At last we meet again, Mr. Tough.

    I don’t want to risk turning your experience as the Guest King into a "Bring Back Openletters"-fest, but has Transom given you some new ideas that could be applied to OL? I have some nutjob ideas of my own, but I wouldn’t know how to properly articulate them to others. The "Maybe they’ll pay" model
    maybecoulda worked, but you’d have to start over with free issues to rebuild the audience to try it now (IMHO). It would have worked on me, anyhow.

    Oh, well… I’m just proud that I managed to weasel my way into the final issue, even if it’s just a blurb.

    (next time you come through StL we’ll have to hook up… we’ve got a lot more than Bud Light and longhaired horses in this town)

  • REPOST says:
    letter opener

    Author : beedge
    Date : 03-07-2001 on 10:07

    i’ve been wandering this web for 5-6 years now.
    i used to visit lotsa sites, but my interest waned over time
    to where i would regularly visit only a very few urls:
    several trade sites (audio, computer),
    and just a single site i could depend on for
    entertainment and inspiration,
    http://www.openletters.net
    so, first, thanks. so much great reading there.
    my fave might be the women who substitute taught six-graders poetry, Poetic Licence:
    http://www.openletters.net/000724/oneill000725.html
    from: “There was nothing personal in any of the poems. You couldn’t even tell whether a boy or a girl had written it. What a waste of time…"
    to: "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Toilet"
    and: "Laurence, meanwhile, was comparing Salma Hayek’s eyes to faucets leaking grape juice… Alex said his purest desire was to have twelve Japanese women dressed in blue lingerie singing him Britney Spears songs every night. ‘Whoa,’ I said. ‘We’re in school. I could go to jail for letting you write that stuff.’"
    and, of course: "One boy asked for ‘poetic license’ to punch his best friend in the head."

    that story, and many other openletters, was radio to me. i could hear the sounds, the chatter in the classroom, the kids arguing and spouting off.

    i kinda thought some publisher would come along and drop a load of advance cash in your lap, and say "make a book out of openletters" guess it hasn’t happened yet.

    i won’t wonder why you had to drop it.
    i do wonder you could keep it going so long, so well.

  • REPOST says:
    Re:Paul Tough’s Topic

    Author : A Knight
    Date : 03-07-2001 on 10:14

    All angst over the OL demise aside

    I absolutely agree with the "raw voices" statement. Personal favorites were Mike Welch’s Birthday letter, the X series, the Cancer series (Aliza Pollack), the Other Peoples Mail week, the interviews, Lauren Zalaznick (the exec. who received email she wasn’t meant to see), Eilis Dolan Klein (kindergarten), Dishwasher Pete (who writes like a pro but is always quite raw) and the guy who applied to Microsoft.

    I was disappointed by the Sarah Vowell letters (they seemed less personal than her book) and the editors’ week. The letter about not writing anymore was by far my least favorite (Ian Brown.. sorry Paul). Maybe it had more meaning to professional writers, or to those who knew the writer.

    But, yes, a great many of the OLs would translate to radio well. 2 quick questions for Paul: What’s happening as far as online OPM? Was the Starlee in your TAL piece (kindness of strangers) Starlee Kine (probably a really stupid question, but I have no idea how many Starlee’s there may be)?

  • REPOST says:
    Re:Paul Tough’s Topic

    Author : Gibby
    Date : 03-05-2001 on 10:19

    Yo Paul–
    You know, maybe you can comment on this.
    I like what you and the guys you mention do.
    It’s real thoughtful and deep.

    But don’t you ever get angry and want to draw some definite lines. Sometimes Im listening to these stories or reading open letters and its like "jesus, why is everyhting so inspirational with some lesson to learn?" I think that’s why like the raw voices you speak of because you can hear it.

    The decisiveness.

  • REPOST says:
    First, re: Gibby’s post: examples?

    Author : Paul Tough
    Date : 03-07-2001 on 10:56

    Gibby:
    I think I take your point, but I’m a little unclear on what you mean. Can you expand a bit on that idea of "drawing definite lines"?

    Are there any particular stories or books or radio docs or other forms of expression you can think of that accomplish that particularly well?

  • REPOST says:
    Starlee and OPM

    Author : Paul Tough
    Date : 03-07-2001 on 11:09

    The story A Knight is talking about was rebroadcast last weekend, but originally aired three years ago. It was about two neighbors who lived down the block from me: young Starlee, a recent NYU graduate, and less-young Olga, her next-door neighbor who had lived in the building for thirty years. Olga had become convinced that Starlee was a drug dealer, and had begun a campaign of intimidation, via weird notes, to get her out of the building. That’s what the story was about. You can listen to it here.

    http://www.thislife.org/pages/descriptions/97/75.html

    Yes, Starlee is Starlee Kine. She’s now working at This American Life, which is a nice ending to the story, I think. You can see her photo on this page. As you can see, she really does look like a drug kingpin.

    http://www.thislife.org/pages/staff.html

    I haven’t heard anything recently about the OPM web site, but I hope it happens. I’ll email Abby and see if she’ll drop by to answer that herself. (Meanwhile, you can read the OPM/OL letters here.)

    http://www.openletters.net/001211/archive11-17.html

    Beedge, I agree, Heather O’Neill’s first letter was a rare gem. It would be great to get her to turn that into a radio piece. Here’s a question, and it’s one Jay’s asked me in the past about open letters becoming radio pieces: What would it gain by being heard rather than read? Would it need something extra, like sound or music or other tape, or should we just ask Heather to read it into a mike?

    Your opinions, please.

  • REPOST says:
    Letters -> Radio

    Author : Jay Allison
    Date : 03-07-2001 on 11:41

    Some of the best radio is just someone talking.
    My question to Paul was about the fact that many of the open letters were perfect as they were. They were letters. There was no need to make them anything else.

    On the other hand, a lovely read can elevate/transform what’s on the page, can add layers of information. If that could happen, I thought it would be worth trying and putting it here…. and eventually on public radio, where of course it would enjoy a much bigger audience and surprise people in their cars, which may be enough incentive.

    Music and sounds and other voices are options, of course, but mostly I just didn’t want to take something perfect and expend effort making it less perfect.

  • REPOST says:
    Gibby’s examples

    Author : Gibby
    Date : 03-07-2001 on 12:49

    Paul (03-07-2001 10:56):
    Gibby:
    I think I take your point, but I’m a little unclear on what you mean. Can you expand a bit on that idea of "drawing definite lines"?

    Are there any particular stories or books or radio docs or other forms of expression you can think of that accomplish that particularly well?

    Paul,

    Examples: Nightline, CNN, New York Times.
    Look I mean why do public radio/open letter people feel they can only work in the backround, the world of grants and endowments.
    If TAL and OpenLetters are so good, which I feel they are, why not reach a bigger audience?
    Why not challenge the big boys?
    Why be quaint?

  • REPOST says:
    Gibby and Jay

    Author : Paul Tough
    Date : 03-08-2001 on 11:53

    Jay,
    It’s an interesting question — under what circumstances can something in print can be improved by putting it on the radio? That piece by Iggy Scam that I mentioned (and linked to) above: it improved it for me to be able to hear his voice. The connection was stronger for me once I heard him telling the story.

    One Open Letters writer I was wondering about vis-a-vis Transom is Sharon O’Connor, who lives in Cabot, Vermont. She did two letters for us: one, right here, about her daughter; and the other one, here, about a pregnancy. It’s the second one that I’m wondering about, especially. Any thoughts on how that would work on the radio — or what to do to make it work on the radio — from Jay, or anyone else?

    Gibby: I’m not trying to be dense, here, but I’m still not entirely following you. What makes stories in the Times or on CNN more "decisive" than stories on Open Letters or This American Life?

    And in terms of reaching a larger audience — I’ve never worked for any media organization that didn’t want to reach a bigger audience. But I don’t think small necessarily equals quaint. Smaller places are often more imaginative, risky, unorthodox — not to mention angry and decisive.

    Personally, I like getting my news from a mixture of large-audience and small-audience shows and publications. The New York Times (circulation over a million) gives me one vision of the universe; Scam (circulation several hundred) gives me another. I don’t think my mediascape would be complete without both.

  • REPOST says:
    What audio (could) add to print

    Author : cw
    Date : 03-08-2001 on 14:22

    Paul wrote:
    What would it gain by being heard rather than read? Would it need something extra, like sound or music or other tape, or should we just ask Heather to read it into a mike?
    Your opinions, please.

    You would ask Heather the writer to do not the same letter but another piece entirely. You would ask Heather the writer to become Heather the talker.

    If you want to keep the letter form for some reason, you’d tell her to send a tape letter to a friend. I’ve gotten lots of tape letters and they have nice surprises that written letters don’t. Snakes in the can that pop out and gurgle and what not.

    It also depends on if you’re talking about a "real" letter of course or an orchestrated and edited down audio story that sounds like/appears to be a letter.

    I agree w/ whoever it was that said they were hesitant to take something perfect and try to make it better. In the effort to make something different, rehashing often happens. It’s like here’s the letter, the bumpersticker, the book, the song, the movie… the SUCK.

    Somebody who could do one fine letter could do one fine audio piece probably and not have to be confined to the original topic.

    Tape letters are often audio diaries. The ones I’ve gotten anyway. With not even four track (okay sometimes 4 track) mixing/editing capability. One long piece of linear goodness or shlock or a combination of the two.

    It’s kind of like asking someone to draw a picture w/o picking up the pen. That’s what a real tape letter is I think.

    I’m sure there are those who will not beg
    to differ.

  • REPOST says:
    Re:Gibby and Jay

    Author : cw
    Date : 03-08-2001 on 14:30

    someone wrote: Look I mean why do public radio/open letter people feel they can only work in the backround, the world of grants and endowments.

    what does this mean? does it mean why not go get a bigger budget? and what is the operating assumption on this post about a bigger budget? bigger means more distribution and thus blank (fill in the blank someone please)….?

  • REPOST says:
    Re:Paul Tough’s Topic

    Author : A Knight
    Date : 03-09-2001 on 09:45

    Waaaay back in the early weeks of OL.net (about 9 months ago) Paul made sort of a plea, or off-handed request for submissions from people who were going through something big, or going through a big change or whatever. This brought about the great, touching, might be made into an Oprah movie-of-the-week, cancer series. Paul, have you considered writing/recording something about the big thing you’ve gone through… from leaving Saturday Night (or whatever that Canadian mag. is) to starting your own publication to shutting the doors on it less than a year later? I’m sure that between your daily editor’s letters and some undeleted correspondence you could piece something really good together.
    How ’bout you, Jay… have you considered putting something together to follow you through your experiences with Transom? How long do you think it will be before you get fed up (with us) and go back to dealing strictly with pros?

    (Confidential to P.T.: While I was honored to appear in both the daily and the final weekly, if you use my Penthouse quote again I will have to bill you… at least $4)

  • REPOST says:
    Re:Paul Tough’s Topic

    Author : viv
    Date : 03-09-2001 on 13:44

    I’m just trying to find my way around here and it’s exciting (came in via the Well where Paul’s bio on his tough login includes a post from the words conference) to learn more about radio from some fired-up enthusiasts.
    I love the Isay production you mention. My radiolove is still evolving–TAL and some favorite story tellers on NPR whose names I forget to record. I like the apparent stream-of-consciousness type monologues and got hooked on radio when NPR (WHYY) was airing Lost & Found Sounds.

    Listening onward.

  • REPOST says:
    Revealing the self

    Author : Paul Tough
    Date : 03-09-2001 on 17:57

    A Knight (03-09-2001 09:45):
    Paul, have you considered writing/recording something about the big thing you’ve gone through… from leaving Saturday Night (or whatever that Canadian mag. is) to starting your own publication to shutting the doors on it less than a year later?

    When I started Open Letters, I was hoping that the experience of editing all that good first-person writing would help me get better at writing about myself and my own life. But it didn’t work out that way. Instead, I just got intimidated by the ease with which our writers were able to reveal themselves.

    I’m not sure why it is, exactly, but it’s true: Paul Maliszewski writing about sitting by the side of the road, watching people walk into a house = endlessly fascinating, to me. Me writing about quitting a couple of jobs and roaming around the country for a year = boring, boring, boring.

    I recognize that I have some issues.

    And Jay, how about you?

  • REPOST says:
    Re:Paul Tough’s Topic

    Author : A Knight
    Date : 03-10-2001 on 08:47

    Well, you could always write about your new-found intimidation ;)

  • REPOST says:
    Re:Revealing the self

    Author : Jay Allison
    Date : 03-10-2001 on 13:11

    Paul (03-09-2001 17:57):
    And Jay, how about you?

    I’m with you.

    Once in a while I find myself intriguing, and even make a radio story or write an essay about ME AND MY LIFE, but it’s mostly other people who interest me. Plus, there are more of them.

    Writing first-person helps keep in mind what it’s like to reveal yourself (er, I mean MYself)… but if I don’t have something I’m burning to say, it’s more considerate to shut up about it.

  • REPOST says:
    Re:Paul Tough’s Topic

    Author : Dair
    Date : 03-10-2001 on 15:32

    I agree with that, too…even though I’m not a real editor, just a high school student and devoted listener to radio stories.
    It took a long time for me to get to the point of actually wanting to make a story myself (and about myself), and now that I am trying to do so, I’m amazed by all those who have and who seem to do it with such ease–particularly people who are not radio producers by trade, but the amateurs and beginners who make it onto TAL and other radio. How do they do it? I have such a hard time finding my own voice, and not succumbing to the trends that beedge described in the Shake Marilyn Monroe thread, something like the Ira Glassian pauses and mandatory reflections — or the techniques that work for certain individuals (like Ira Glass and Scott Carrier) who have mastered them may not work for the rest of us. (sorry I don’t have the quote–he said it so perfectly.) The fear of coming up with something that amounts to a poor imitation of a TAL story paralyzes me. I used to think it came of listening to too many of these stories, but now I’m not sure.

    Are there other beginners who feel this way?

  • REPOST says:
    Re:Paul Tough’s Topic

    Author : cal
    Date : 03-10-2001 on 15:42

    Can we veer? I’d like to get a better perspective on how you (Mr. Allison and Mr. Tough) envision(ed) the democratizing of both radio and online print stuff actually working. Technically the Open Letter forum seems easier-pretty much everyone can type-but Mr. Tough mentioned that finding good pieces from unknowns was hard. Add the equipment/production issues of radio and, although still accessible, you’ve just added more obstacles to the already tough job of constructing good narrative. Because isn’t that the real trick? In the introduction to her new book, Susan Orlean talks about first convincing her editor to let her do the kinds of pieces she does. Her description of their major concern was something like "When these kinds of pieces fail, they fail in a big way." It seems to me that Open Letters and maybe Transom offer pieces with the same potential problem. With so many of them there’s a sort of wispy quality that is just so delicate and whether it works really depends on the narrator.
    I think your posting of the behind-the-scenes Neal Pollack piece is a really great, honest, perspective-giving thing. It’s harder than it sounds– technical stuff is doable, but not without an investment. That’s workable. But what about the narrative? What about the gut-feeling, going on faith, won’t know if I can pull it off until I’m in there sort of thing…that bit that makes the wispy piece work or not work. The only way I can think to illustrate what I mean is…well, the Neal Pollack piece (not to undermine the amount of work or qualify the quality at all! No, no.) seems to me to have a bit of an edge simply because of the subject. My guess is a fair amount of NPR people have heard of Dave Eggers and thus Neal Pollock. There is at least a bit of a nugget built in there. But what if the story (because I have an idea of my own, of course) doesn’t have that name-recognition nugget? The subject is interesting and there’s some sort of story, but won’t things depend more on finding a story and then effectively telling it? (Again, not to suggest that Jonathan L. didn’t have to do that. But, can you see what I mean?) Can you offer some tips, ideas, guidance?

    Mr. Tough-if those archives do make the transformation to radio, please consider working in the editor’s letters. I loved that bit of context and maybe that could somehow work-I think of weaving the letter with the editor’s letter somehow (like Mr. Allison’s Freaks radio piece) and overlaying the voices. Anyway. Enough from me.

  • REPOST says:
    Re: Cal’s comment

    Author : Paul Tough
    Date : 03-10-2001 on 22:23

    Good question, Cal. I hope that Jay will give his own answer to it here, since the Transom is his brainchild. But I’ll jump the gun on him a bit and give my answer first.
    I think the idea of the Transom is to try to remove that extra technical obstacle you talked about — the "equipment/production issues." To give tools to people with a good story to tell but little idea of how to make it into a radio piece.

    But I don’t think it’s about putting any old story on the air. My sense is that a good narrative is a prerequisite for assistance from the Transom. They/we won’t make up a good story for you, but they might help you tell it. That help will be partly technical, partly editorial — and partly practical, in terms of helping you figure out how to negotiate the public-radio bureaucracy.

    Check out this great project that Sound Portraits is doing right now. It’s called Youth Portraits.

    http://www.youthportraits.org/

    (The two people who are working on it, Stacy Abramson and Susan Burton, were both involved with Open Letters, but I think that’s a happy coincidence more than anything else.)

    The site describes the project thus: "Youth Portraits seeks to give voice to young people who have been in prison — to help give them the tools to tell their own stories, teaching them an important set of skills and empowering them to speak up about their own experiences." As I understand it, Susan and Stacy are working with these kids closely, helping them turn their life stories into good radio.

    I think that’s what the Transom is about, except not just for young people who have been in prison. (Youth Portraits’ focus makes it both harder and easier to pull off than the Transom’s project: harder because young people who have been in prison sometimes have short attention spans, and easier because young people who have been in prison often have pretty compelling stories to tell.)

    So to answer this question:

    but won’t things depend more on finding a story and then effectively telling it?

    I’d say yes, absolutely. The Transom’s editors and producers can help that process along as much as any editors and producers can, which is to say: a little. But any potential Transom participant — like any open-letter writer — has to start with a good story, and a good voice to tell it with, before the Transom can be much help.

    Jay, is that right? Or am I just free-associating at this point?

  • REPOST says:
    voices

    Author : Paul Tough
    Date : 03-10-2001 on 22:50

    One additional comment, on Cal’s question:
    One thing that I think links the Transom and Sound Portraits/Youth Portraits and Open Letters is this idea: True, not everyone has a story to tell, but the best stories often come from surprising people.

    That’s what Dave Isay demonstrated with Ghetto Life 101 — before he made that documentary, no one really thought LeAlan and Lloyd had an important story, or the ability to tell it for themselves. (Note to Gibby: They sure weren’t getting calls from Nightline.) Dave showed that they did, and he helped them tell it, and get it on the radio.

    The ability to tell your story in a compelling way is certainly not universal — in fact, as Jay and I both copped to above, neither of us really thinks we’re all that good at it ourselves. But it’s a talent that shows up in the weirdest places. Like check out this story. It’s by a teenage girl burnout (and proud of it) in suburban Ottawa, Ontario — traditionally not a demographic with access to the media, or even to a patient ear. But man, she can really write — she brings her story to life as vividly as Frank McCourt does.

    http://www.angelfire.com/me3/ramblings/index2.html

    Getting stories like hers exposed to a broader audience — that’s part of what Open Letters tried to do, and sometimes succeeded at. And I think it’s part of what the Transom can do — and should do, for that matter.

  • REPOST says:
    Re:Paul Tough’s Topic

    Author : benjamin
    Date : 03-12-2001 on 13:22

    Hello, I want to chime in a little bit about producing Open Letters for radio. I produced Paul Maliszewski’s letter for my show, The Savvy Traveler. It’s called “Grossly Unprepared,” and it’s about moving and driving a 24-foot truck.
    One of the things that made Open Letters so nice, the letters so good, was the looseness. For the most part, people took their time writing their stories. They unfolded. We got a feel for who they are because of their digressions, the tangents that led us to unexpected places. This is exactly the type of writing that doesn’t really work in radio, where you don’t have the luxury of going back up the page and remembering characters; sentences that run long become confusing and hard to follow: subordinate clauses are really, really hard to pull off. That last sentence would be very confusing if I read it to you aloud.

    The first thing I thought when I read Paul M.’s letter was that it was great. And then I thought, wow, that would make a great addition to our show because it’s a kind of travel that you don’t really think of as “travel.” It’s not a vacation, you know? But it’s about an experience that we all have.

    I also knew that in its current form, it would not work. The sentences were too long, the whole essay was too long: listeners would become confused in the fun sentence structures and diversions. A lot of what made Paul M.’s letter great in print made it not-so-good for radio.

    So we worked together and cut it in half. It started at over 1700 words, the version he read is around 950. On the show we’re saying his essay is “excerpted” from Open Letters.

    After going back and forth a few times, Paul, with reservations, agreed to read the new essay for the show. I think he did a good job matching his read the tone of the letter – he took direction very well. I knew from the beginning that we would need music for the story: it’s still a somewhat meandering piece and the music moves it along, underscoring the mood and keeping the finicky listener engaged.

    At the end of the day, it was A LOT of work. But, worth it to create one of the most beautiful little stories I’ve heard in quite some time. It runs about six and a half minutes and you can hear it on the show this weekend. Go to http://www.savvytraveler.com/ to find out when and where near you. Also, it’s on the web as an mp3 – link to my website at http://www.well.com/~badair/ (there’s a story by Scott Rosenberg there that’s similar in style to Open Letters) and will be available via realaudio on the Savvy site probably in a week.

    Okay, this is too long. More later.

  • REPOST says:
    Re:Paul Tough’s Topic

    Author : griffinjay
    Date : 03-12-2001 on 17:20

    Dair (03-10-2001 15:32):
    I agree with that, too…even though I’m not a real editor, just a high school student and devoted listener to radio stories…
    The fear of coming up with something that amounts to a poor imitation of a TAL story paralyzes me. I used to think it came of listening to too many of these stories, but now I’m not sure.
    Are there other beginners who feel this way?

    Dair, I’m a raw beginner too, and tho I can’t say I feel paralyzed with fear, there’s definite anxiety in trotting out my ideas, my voice — me — around a group of folks with lots of experience in this medium. So I can relate to what you’re saying.

    The folks here at Transom seemed to have created a friendly enough place, tho, that even if we beginners send them garbage, they’ll probably still treat us decently.

  • REPOST says:
    adapting tangent-filled writing to radio

    Author : cw
    Date : 03-13-2001 on 09:09

    the savvy traveller guy wrote:
    I also knew that in its current form, it would not work. The sentences were too long, the whole essay was too long: listeners would become confused in the fun sentence structures and diversions. A lot of what made Paul M.’s letter great in print made it not-so-good for radio.

    I think:

    I agree that there seems to be a terse style one has to adapt for radio. But is this because the listener truly won’t "get it" or because that structure has become standardized and enforced by editors?

    I personally find that the lack of diversions and tangents challenge me (the rambling writer). Even if I loop back to the "main point" to remind the listener what they’re listening to, I wonder if I’m cutting enough and if what is left is any good. This is the number one problem I am currently having in converting my free associative writing style to radio script.

    It makes me feel like I’m writing an essay in the "keyhole" structure like in 6th grade. Jamaica Kincaid is a great writer who works well with short sentences that always seem to be teeming with importance. She can also get a nice flow going even though much of what she writes is simple and declarative. For reference for writers who are trying to go from long winded to short winded, I suggest taking a look at her books: LUCY; AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MY MOTHER; ANNIE JOHN
    and others.

    I don’t know what (if any) radio she has done. If anyone else knows, please post it.

  • REPOST says:
    Re:voices

    Author : Jay Allison
    Date : 03-13-2001 on 11:35

    Paul (03-10-2001 22:50):
    One thing that I think links the Transom and Sound Portraits/Youth Portraits and Open Letters is this idea: True, not everyone has a story to tell, but the best stories often come from surprising people.
    ….

    Getting stories like hers exposed to a broader audience — that’s part of what Open Letters tried to do, and sometimes succeeded at. And I think it’s part of what the Transom can do — and should do, for that matter.

    I hold with all that that Paul said. Transom hopes to do that, and also work in another direction too.

    Yes, we want to encourage voices from “nowhere” to come out and be heard. We want to use the Internet to find and encourage those voices, and then bring them to a much larger audience through public radio. We think this even proves the point of public radio. We are inspired by stories like Carol Wasserman’s (now one of Transom’s editors) who showed up one day, out of “nowhere,” full of stories to tell. (You can hear Carol’s version of that day in her “love letter” on our inspiration page.

    But along with the general citizenry, we also want to offer tools to people already in public radio or in college radio, people who’d like to be “producers”, who might want to tell more stories than their own, but in new ways. People raising questions like CW above. We’d like to build a place where public radio can examine the way it tells stories, the assumptions it makes, the tone it takes.

    Perhaps in some public radio news rooms, they are lucky enough to have these discussions every day. Many are not. Maybe that’s something we can help with, by creating dialog here, based on material that gets posted.

    So not all Transom pieces will be from unknowns. The next one, in fact, will be probably an arts feature produced in a non-traditional way by a more experienced producer. And after that, one from another radio first-timer, but with a journalistic background.

    I’d hope we can keep the focus shifting, accommodate many syles, avoid stereotyping. One goal here is to make it impossible to say, “oh, that’s a transom.org type piece”

  • REPOST says:
    Re:Paul Tough’s Topic

    Author : Maliszewski
    Date : 03-13-2001 on 15:28

    Hi,
    I’m Paul Maliszewski, the writer, mentioned elsewhere–above?–of the thing about driving the moving truck. When Ben, who wrote in already, contacted me about possibly reading my Open Letter for the Savvy Traveler radio program, I asked myself two basic questions: 1) Did I fancy myself a traveler while driving a moving truck from Syracuse, NY to Durham, NC? and 2) Have I ever in my life, for one single day or even one single minute of one single day, done anything, either on purpose or accidentally, that might objectively be considered "savvy"? After a very little thought, I determined that the answer to these questions was "No" and "Again, no, not really, are you kidding?" Which means, of course, that I dropped whatever I happened to be doing at the time and wrote to Ben and told him I’d, of course, be very interested in hearing more about reading my letter for Savvy Traveler.

    Here is exactly how naive I was: I believed I’d be able to read the entire Open Letter, exactly as I wrote it for Paul Tough. I should say I worked pretty hard with Paul to get that letter and the other three right. I should also say that I had done very little autobiographical writing up until that point, in part because I was afraid and wanted to avoid that terrible feeling of reading something I wrote about someone I knew well and failing to see anything resembling the person on the page. It’s one thing to write a piece of fiction and say, at the end, well, okay, that sure didn’t turn out exactly as I imagined it would, and quite another to sit down to write about, say, grandma and have grandma come out looking like nothing so much as a wet cardboard box filled with old issues of Reader’s Digest, a sewing machine, and a pot of boiling cabbage. In the interest of making sure that people I cared about didn’t resemble boxes of characteristics and possessions, each of the Open Letters went through a few drafts. Some went through quite a few. Some went through many more drafts and large-scale rethinks than I would ever care to admit to in this forum. They expanded and then they contracted. They were organisms, things did not always much resemble what happened. But Paul is a superb editor, flawlessly attentive to detail, understanding of voice, and patient about the need for patience in writing. The best evidence of this is that when I look at Open Letters today, I can’t identify a house style. I can’t even see the beginnings of a house style. There’s no sameness of voice, as I feel there is when I read The New Yorker. I can’t hear Paul’s voice, from the editor’s letters, in any of the individual letters, the way, say, I sometimes think I’m sure I detect a couple of Lewis Lapham sentences in the middle of someone else’s article in Harper’s.

    All of which is to say I was happy, exceedingly happy even, with how my Open Letters turned out. So maybe you will understand then why it came as something of a shock when Ben told me that the letter would need to be cut, and then, a little bit deeper into the whole translation process, cut by nearly half. Learning this required, among other things, that I find some overwhelming reason to read the half-length version. The reason I came up with was that I’d read the half-length letter in the hope that maybe several people hearing the show would find out about Open Letters. That would be good, I thought. Of course, as everyone knows, Open Letters stopped running new letters in January, which news made me waver a bit but finally didn’t deter me from still reading my letter on the radio. I think at some level I imagined my reading the letter might change Paul’s mind about Open Letters.
    The thing I finally read on the radio is very different from what I wrote for Open Letters. The facts are the same–a listener will get the same basic plot and incidents, the news of what happened to me, the where, what, when, etc., about driving a truck, as she will

  • REPOST says:
    Re:Paul Tough’s Topic

    Author : Maliszewski
    Date : 03-13-2001 on 15:28
    CONTINUED

    As I’ve written this, I looked through the pages I read from in the studio. Most of Ben’s directions consisted of telling me to emphasize certain words and phrases. Each of the pages is deeply scored with single underlines and double underlines–double the emphasis? I can’t remember why I underlined some things twice. There are instructions in the margins about reading certain things more slowly, or speaking one sentence as if it’s a warning, another sentence, an imagined bit of dialogue from a Ryder attorney, with a patronizing tone. There are commas where I would never put commas, grammatically speaking, that Ben wanted me to imagine there, as pauses.
    At one point, toward the end of the reading and the end of the hour Ben had reserved the studio for, I found myself unable–I’m almost tempted to say existentially unable–to pronounce the phrase "to discover," in the sentence, "As I waited for her to discover the widest, most secure passage with the fewest tight turns, I tried to shake some life back into my hand." Ben can probably tell you how many times I read this sentences and how many times I bravely approached "to discover" only to falter, developing a sudden stammer, or just stumbling, or saying, "do tiscover" or some such. I will guess that I read this sentence–this was the second-to-the-last sentence of the edited version,–about ten times. At least ten times. Ben suggested I substitute "find" for "discover," which was a perfect suggestion, worked beautifully and saved me endless grief and considerable loss of hair. I found I had no trouble saying "to find." I read it right through the first time, clean. We finished up, said our good-byes, and that was that.

    When I got back home, I sat here at my desk, looking at my notes again, and I thought about how much I wanted that word "discover." It seems minor–it is probably incredibly minor–but I wanted the sense of the word discover. I wanted the senses of that word in play there, at the end of the essay. It wasn’t at all like a discovery, what we managed in Frackville with the truck, and the car, and our accumulated possessions, but I wanted the mock-heroic sense that it could feel, to two people, like a discovery, under those circumstances, that this little matter of turning the moving truck around on tight streets could feel like an enormous accomplishment on the order of discovering an inland waterway. "Find" didn’t have any mock-heroic sense. "Find" was fine, but it wasn’t "discover." I tried to read that sentence again, to the room, and I read it without any problem. I sat here and read it five or six times, I think, with the cat wandering in and out of the room, to see who in the world I was talking to, and each time I read it fine.

    Whenever I read something I wrote aloud–and I don’t normally, ever–I read with as little inflection as I can manage. Not in a monotone, but just with minimal inflection. I don’t, as I read aloud, like to apply a lot of English to various words. I tend to think readers who put a lot into their readings are, in a way, cheating, that what’s written should speak best for itself and should be read as it’s written, with not a lot of staginess and dramatic pauses, etc. I sometimes say of writers I’ve heard read, He reads well, but it has nothing to do with what he’s written. I think those kinds of readings can sometimes have an air of something desperate about them: like me, like my writing, like what I’m saying, and please keep listening. I do hope it’s clear I don’t intend this as a criticism of radio, or, lord knows, an argument for why print is supreme and everything else can just carry print’s garbage to the curb. I only mention this because it’s one of the things I dealt with–or tried to deal with–while taking the Open Letter to radio. It is true, I prefer print, and I do look at my Open Letters as the original and best version, closest to what I wanted to say. I see the radio version as an incompletely-formed clone: the resemblances are close, and, believe me, there is some real affection between the original version and its clone, but both are aware of how odd the other one is.
    In the weeks after I read, I sometimes imagined Ben looping together a paragraph from one reading, a paragraph from another. He said it’s all digitally done, so the looping together here is strictly metaphorical. There really are no loops and no tape, as best as I can gather. It seemed like hard work, piecing together parts of six or seven complete readings and countless readings of individual paragraphs and sentences in order to make one good, solid radio reading. It just seemed like hard work to me, and I told him that.

  • REPOST says:
    Re:Paul Tough’s Topic

    Author : Maliszewski
    Date : 03-13-2001 on 15:28
    CONTINUED

    I haven’t yet heard Ben’s handiwork. I’m a little curious about this music that plays behind my reading. I’d be curious to hear how producers pick music to go with readings. I think of the music I seem to always hear when I go for any drive longer than an hour. Bachman Turner Overdrive? That song about being bad to the bone? Talking Heads singing "Take Me to the River," which never sounds better than when you’re in a car and the window’s cracked and you don’t need gasoline and you’re not hungry and can just drive. Once I took a trip and chanced to tune in a radio station in Massachusetts that played one version after another of "Turkey in the Straw." I felt sure that somewhere a DJ had been taken hostage by a "Turkey in the Straw"-loving listener. It was maddening but, I tell you, beautiful. I wanted the music to cease, but I also needed to listen to see if it would continue, with one more, slightly different rendition.

    That’s a whole other story, however, and probably I can be sure of nothing except that none of this would be any good for any radio anywhere. By which I mean, I’ve gone on too long. I’m happy to answer questions, drawing on my vastly limited experience of radio, if anyone has questions.

    Take care,

    Paul

  • REPOST says:
    Re:Paul Tough’s Topic

    Author : Jay Allison
    Date : 03-13-2001 on 18:31

    By common assent, Paul M. gets a t-shirt.

  • REPOST says:
    Paul Maliszewski’s Topic

    Author : Paul Tough
    Date : 03-14-2001 on 00:08

    jay (03-13-2001 18:31):
    By common assent, Paul M. gets a t-shirt.

    And I’m here to say they’re really nice T-shirts. Especially the blue ones.

    Now let’s get Paul to turn his posts into a radio piece.

    Ben, does the piece exist in RealAudio anywhere?

  • REPOST says:
    1-ben 2-scott

    Author : beedge
    Date : 03-14-2001 on 08:05

    1- ben’s stuff: http://www.well.com/~badair/
    2- sorry for the cross post (this info is also in the s.carrier topic)
    but just wanted to interject an opposite thought:
    that of turning great radio into great print-writing.
    scott carrier’s new book: Running After Antelope is a excellent example.

    dave isay and sandy tolan have also had success w/ this.

  • REPOST says:
    Re:Paul Maliszewski’s topic

    Author : benjamin
    Date : 03-14-2001 on 15:09

    Ha ha, it was really funny (in a kind of mean spirited way) when Paul M. couldn’t say "to discover." We were both baffled by it. The thing is, I really wanted him to say "discover." That’s why I had him read it, like 12 or 20 times. I kept hoping he’d get through. But, thankfully, the gods of digital editing allow us to take a piece here, a piece there and now — voila — there’s a new mix where Monique does, in fact, go to discover the best way out.
    I feel all this pressure now. I hope people like the story. Oh, also I should say that it’s been postponed a few weeks, so it won’t be on the show this weekend. I’ll let y’all know when it is.

    Paul M. had asked about musica: There’s this thing I remember Ira Glass writing somewhere, or I read in some interview with him, where he says "Music is like basil, it just makes everything better." The second part of that statement, which is implied, is that you can’t put basil, on, say, curry. If you put basil, in, say, Tom Yum Kai, which I just for lunch, it’s not going to do much.

    I think that, in general, the more layers of sound you have in a story, the better. If it’s someone reading, then you can put music, or natural sound or sound effects appropriate to the story. I also think, personally, that sound effects are kind of cheesy and I don’t like to “fake” natural sound either. So for Paul’s piece, the choice was music. (I did also use some subtle sound effects for a brief period of time.)

    I chose music that I thought echoed the mood: it’s kind of funny in the beginning; the middle music is this off-beat rhythm that corresponds to how I think Paul was feeling. The end is kind of sweet and signals resolution to the story. If anybody’s listened to it, then drop me a line and let me know what you think. badair@marketplace.org

    cw was wondering about writing for radio and whether it’s the way it is because editors enforce it. I think that editors enforce it to some degree, but only because the writing *is* different. I had a very hard time when I first started writing here because I come from print and I’m used to these long and loupy sentences; I love playing with grammar and repetition and going on these long diversions and tangents. You know, referring back to things and then letting them drop for some time. Establishing a rhythm over a piece.

    In what I’ve heard, it’s very difficult to pull this writing off in radio. It becomes confusing because the words fly by you. I don’t think this is a bad thing: in fact, it makes sense to me that some types of stories would be better suited to different media. Some times, people’s work translate easily across media (like Scott Carrier, like David Sedaris), others’ take more effort. But I think it works. It’s not the same – at all – but I don’t think that’s bad.

  • REPOST says:
    Re:Paul Tough’s Topic

    Author : David Clark / Cochran, Ga.
    Date : 03-15-2001 on 01:47

    Several posts ago, someone asked if radio insisted on short sentences, etc…
    This is a good general writing question.

    My two cents:

    One reason long sentences sometimes don’t work is because the sentences don’t work. Why? They’re too long.

    I’m not trying to be a smartass.

    I am sure there have been hundreds of studies done that show short sentences are more easily understood than long sentences.

    But the writer in us says (with soundtrack of foot stamping up and down): "But I want to write long sentences."

    or

    "Faulkner wrote real long sentences."

    Well, what I have learned is what an editor friend told me about ten years ago: there’s no shortage of periods in the world. Use them.

    Those long sentences are wonderful and luxurious, but they are quite often the result of a lazy writer.

    And yes, Faulkner’s sentences were long, and they worked — but they worked in his context. And I suspect if Faulkner could rise up and get on the radio right now, his sentences would work just fine. That’s because his story would be good (assuming, of course, that one liked his story — otherwise he’d just be a slow-talking fellow from Mississippi who wrote like folks around that neck of the woods talked when they were standing on the street corner or out in the woods or at the sawmill).

    I originally learned writing by doing a small monthly newspaper. I wrote to fill whatever holes were left each month. Most of what I wrote was crap, of course, but I learned to knock it out. I learned to use words. And if I had two column inches to fill, I wrote two column inches, because I was writing directly in the layout program and on deadline, at that.

    But then several years later (’98), I began doing a daily live radio show on our little country station in our little country town.

    I began writing an essay each morning to read on the air. After a couple of times of not being able to find the second page after I’d started reading, I began keeping my essays to one page single spaced (about 500 words).

    After awhile, I began sending my stuff to newspapers to see if they’d run these pieces as columns. That’s what I do mostly now, though I still do radio stuff and quite a few live performances where I read stories in between acoustic guitar songs.

    What I’m getting at this: while writing short sentences is generally good form anyway (see Strunk & White’s Elements of Style — great book), I found out on radio that short sentences were plain easier to read. I began eliminating the word "and" and using a period instead. I began eliminating commas and began using periods.

    My rule of thumb became this: If I can’t say a sentence without pausing for a breath (or needing to badly), then the sentence is too long.

    My experience in front of many live audiences has confirmed this rule. Write shorter, and leave some space for the listener to hear what you are trying to say.

    And — if one can manage to write a long sentence that almost but not quite strains one’s breath capacity, there’s nothing like having just one of these in the midst of a short-sentence piece. The contrast and rhythm really sings then.

    Rhythm in writing is accomplished in a lot of different ways and not only by long sentences. Think of jazz and the staccato rhythms underlying the heroin-filled sax man’s sailing solo. Sentences are like this.

  • REPOST says:
    Re:Paul Tough’s Topic

    Author : David Clark / Cochran, Ga.
    Date : 03-15-2001 on 01:49

    I get asked to read writer’s work quite frequently, and the single biggest problem most writers have is long sentences. Many times these sentences are also constructed almost backwards, too. The writer feels as if he has done something wonderful, but reading most long sentences is like trying to nail Jell-O to a wall.

    It’s simple. Short sentences work. People understand them.

    Short sentences are harder to write, but one must remember that it is one’s idea that is sacred. The words are nothing but pieces of a puzzle. The idea will not be harmed by using fewer words.

    Many writers believe their first draft is the magic version. It is not. It is the first draft.

    There is an energy and feeling to the first draft which is very special. I understand this. Save it to your disc and rewrite it. And then rewrite it again.

    The strength of writing lies in rewriting. What separates someone who wants to write from someone who does write is rewriting. Ask any wannabe writer how many times they rewrite, and they’ll always say: "Oh, I don’t ever rewrite. I can’t bear to touch what I’ve come up with."

    For what it’s worth, I usually go through my weekly 500 word pieces about 15 times. But I’ve got the pace down pretty well, so other folks not used to this length might have to rewrite more times than that. Any fewer and I’d say either you’re a genius or you’re not working hard enough.

    One should not confuse the glowing feeling of a first draft with one’s style. While one’s style will exist in the first draft, one’s style will only become more evident as it is rewritten.

    Think of a written piece as a wood carver sees a piece of wood. The duck already exists in the wood. The woodcarver’s work is to remove the wood that covers the duck. The writer’s work is to use as few words as possible to convey the idea. Any more words than that only obscures the idea.

    Think of music — it’s not the notes, it’s the space.

    Think of your lover — what they say is good, but the shared silences are where the meaning is.

    And though it is true that a piece can be rewritten to death, the art of the thing lies in knowing when to quit. Save multiple copies if you aren’t sure of yourself. Don’t let the fear of killing a piece by rewriting cause you to not rewrite. Or — don’t let the difficulty of rewriting cause you to not rewrite.

    I read my stuff out loud as I go — which is quite a sight for folks who come in the Huddle House while I’m working on an essay. I can hear the rhythm while I’m working. And I have learned that if I have a hard time reading it, then a listener or reader will have a hard time hearing it or reading it.

    Don’t think short sentences are reserved for sixth graders. They’re not.

    Another thing about long sentences — they are often passive sentences. This is death to a sentence. Sentence Death is contagious. Dead sentences kill listeners. Dead sentences kill readers. Sentence Death ultimately kills the responsible writer.

    Use the active voice.

    For what it’s worth, Microsoft Word’s Flesch-Kincaid Reading Level on this letter is sixth grade. After several rewrites I’d get it down to somewhere between fourth and fifth grade.

    According to this electronic schoolmarm, I have 9% passive sentences is this letter. My good stuff usually has around 2% passive sentences.

    I have been watching this schoolmarm lately, just out of curiousity. I don’t shoot for a grade level, but I’ve found that my sloppy, jangly writing that I dearly love to do is about eighth or ninth grade level.

    But my good writing is about 4th or 5th.

    I get lots of mail from readers. Nobody writes saying they don’t follow me. And nobody says I need to use longer sentences.

    Sincerely,

    David Clark
    Cochran, Ga.

  • REPOST says:
    Re:Revealing the self

    Author : David Clark / Cochran, Ga.
    Date : 03-15-2001 on 02:31

    I can appreciate the idea of letting other folks tell their story.
    But there is great value in someone who isn’t afraid of a microphone, i.e. a radio person, tell about their own life.

    Somewhere in journalism’s rules it says you can’t talk about yourself. So there is that.

    But let the journalists do their job, and if you’ve got something to say, then say it.

    I wrote numerous essays about the experience of my Mama’s Alzheimer’s and my Daddy’s death, and the feelings resulting from those experiences.

    Now, most of these pieces are newspaper columns. But I have read many of them in front of audiences, and it works.

    Would that stuff make good radio? I think so, assuming the listener is wanting to hear something besides background noise.

    Does one have to bare one’s soul in order to do this sort of stuff? You bet, and it ain’t easy.

    But one thing I found in this particular case — living through the experience and still having to work while it was going on — is that writing these at-the-bone pieces helped me and the readers and the live audiences.

    People are interested in what other folks are doing, so the piece I might do about Joe Blow’s Exciting So and So is an interesting piece.

    But people are absolutely starving for real experiences in this fancy-pants world of whizbang speed-of-light b.s.

    There’s no better way to communicate real experience than to talk about what one knows.

    Now, if all one does is work in a cubicle all day, then I suppose there is something to be said in that, but what I mean is to talk about what one’s life questions are. And I grant that one probably faces many of life’s questions while working in a cubicle — I don’t know, never done it.

    But what this means, I reckon, is that one must be willing to look those questions square in the face.

    I can look at my neighboring farmer’s life and his life questions, and though I’m not sitting on a world of debt and dry cotton field, I can see the lines on his face increase throughout the year and I can see the questions this brings up in me. What I do with that is the art. I might talk about him, or I might talk about me. Or I might talk about the thirsty cotton plants instead. But no matter what, I will get at those questions — if I am willing to look at the questions and see where they connect with me and the farmer and the cotton plant. This sounds sort of high-toned but I think you know what I mean.

    Folks are not only starving for experience, but they are also starving for translations of experience. Most folks can’t put things into words. Most folks can’t get on the radio. Most folks go through their whole day and don’t have real conversations with anyone. Radio can give them this.

    When I read Paul’s post that his writing was boring, I had to laugh. Your posts are not boring, friend. I imagine your "real" writing would not be boring, either. How many people have done what you do, whatever you decide that to be in a piece? What about your experience is universal? Boring? Nah. Just real close, is all.

    Too close, you say? All the more reason to write about it. Because that will take us into your bones and your blood and your guts and show us that we are not the only ones. It will show us what is in our own bones and blood and guts.

    People want to see the obvious shown to them in a way they’ve not seen it before.

    If a writer is not scared of a piece they are writing then they are not digging deep enough. Now, understand this ain’t news writing I’m talking about, but personal experience.

    What I know is that the piece that scares me and makes me cry at the computer also sets me free. And it does the same thing for other people.

    Reveal on.

    Sincerely,

    David Clark
    Cochran, Ga.

  • REPOST says:
    Re:Revealing the self

    Author : carol
    Date : 03-15-2001 on 08:44

    Paul (03-09-2001 17:57):
    When I started Open Letters, I was hoping that the experience of editing all that good first-person writing would help me get better at writing about myself and my own life. But it didn’t work out that way. Instead, I just got intimidated by the ease with which our writers were able to reveal themselves.

    My ambition, as a child, was quite ordinary. To become a ballerina. The working conditions seemed ideal: sublime music at the jobsite, pink tutus, the company of other ballerinas, and – of course – the applause and fixated devotion of well-behaved strangers sitting in the dark, watching all the leaping and bending.

    As you have no doubt guessed, my career ambitions were derailed early on, for the usual reasons. I do not have a dancer’s body. And I lack any kinesthetic sense. With or without music, I don’t have a clue where my arms and legs are supposed to be or what they are supposed to be doing.

    As it turns out, though, a facility with words, and an unreasoning love of stories, can get you a job in radio.

    Which is a pretty good second choice. Plus they let you wear a tutu into the studio if you absolutely must.

    Anyway, there are probably tired ballerinas who listen to public radio on their way home from work, and think, "Oh, Tatiana, if only you had gone out for the school newspaper, or at least paid attention in English class, you could be on the radio, instead of in these stupid toe shoes!"

    Which is to say that none of us are ever completely happy with the particular set of talents, skills, and limitations which are assigned to us by the Great Program Director. Those of us who can write a broadcast script feel feeble and silly when we compare ourselves to those brilliant, gifted people who record and produce tape.

    And we are baffled to hear them express oblique regret about the ‘intimidating ease’ with which other people dance around.

  • REPOST says:
    Re:Paul Tough’s Topic

    Author : A Knight
    Date : 03-15-2001 on 09:34

    1. Of course Faulkner would produce great radio… Any piece read post-mortem by a real live dead guy should be interesting.
    2. Nailing Jell-O to the wall isn’t as hard as you’d think. Getting your mother to appreciate it is much harder.
    3. My first draft is always the most magical. But that has more to do with the old crone’s curse and the pen I use.
    4. Despite David’s posts leaving me feeling very existential, in a Mojo Nixon sort of way, I have to agree wholeheartedly, in a Donnie Osmand sort of way, with his points about short v. long sentences. "Why?", you ask (though I wish you hadn’t). "Because my dyslexia combines with my horrible memory in united hatred of long sentences that loop and twirl about without ever really getting to the point!" would be my teary eyed response shouted into the effervescent soothing power of the Halls cool-mint cough drops of the evening sky.
    E. While "Most folks can’t get on the radio" I’m slightly positive that David isn’t implying that they don’t have a story or point of view that radio could benefit from. As a long-time Midwestern coffeehouse regular and the world’s angriest barfly (I have a T-shirt to prove it) it’s been my experience that everyone has a good story to tell, you just have to wait until the timing and context is right to hear it.
    6. This house is clean (in a Tanya Tucker sort of way).

  • REPOST says:
    Re:Paul Tough’s Topic

    Author : helen
    Date : 03-15-2001 on 09:38

    Are there other beginners who feel this way?
    I’m definitely a beginner, and I always wonder is it necessary to bare one’s own soul to make good radio? it seems that some of the most gripping pieces I’ve heard involve the most personal and often tragic aspects/events that someone could experience; how then could I (were I able) go on air with it. Where does telling a story end and exploitation/cashing in, begin? particularly when making a story about someone else’s life?

  • REPOST says:
    Re:Paul Tough’s Topic

    Author : David Clark / Cochran, Ga.
    Date : 03-15-2001 on 10:37

    1. Of course Faulkner would produce great radio…
    We don’t actually know if Faulkner could -produce- great radio, though it would be interesting to see a dead man read, sure ’nuff.

    Aside from that, what I mean is that he -knew- his characters, i.e. he could have pulled it off in talking just like did in writing, because that is what he was. Just like you can pull up at the store and listen to some old boy ramble about his cows which leads to his daddy which leads to his daddy’s cousin’s first wife’s sister’s husband’s cousin’s old truck. A transcript would be hell but one can follow it because of cadence, blah blah.

    E. While "Most folks can’t get on the radio" I’m slightly positive that David isn’t implying that they don’t have a story or point of view that radio could benefit
    from.

    You are right in that I’m not saying they don’t have a story. They do — that is part of my point. But what I am saying is simply what I said: most folks can’t get on radio. Maybe it’s better to say that most folks -won’t- get on radio, not because they can’t, but because they won’t do it. They will not speak when confronted with a microphone. Or — they are simply not interested. Or, they are simply too busy cleaning Jell-O off walls and working during the day and trying to get by the rest of the time.

    They are the listeners who want to hear you tell your story, Paul. And it’s simple: print out your posts, pretend they are written by someone else, and read them. You’ll think the poster is dang good writer.

    That ballerina-ing thing sure would have been fun.

    For what it’s worth: it is interesting that newspaper editors (and in the course of doing my column I’ve talked to and submitted to about 2,200 of them) think radio is the coolest thing there ever was, even as they sort of look down their nose at it. They are intimidated by anyone who does something on radio.

    I have not heard any of Paul’s stuff, and this pokey machine and connection I’ve got won’t allow it now (until I go to town to a friend’s machine), but I would have to say that Paul has no reason to be intimidated by anyone in the writing department.

    6. This house is clean (in a Tanya Tucker sort of way).

    I’m not sure what you mean by this, but I’d like to.

    Sincerely,

    David Clark
    Cochran, Ga.

  • REPOST says:
    Re:Open Letters

    Author : Oakland
    Date : 03-15-2001 on 16:29

    Paul (03-07-2001 09:45):
    One of the questions I hope we’ll be able to discuss is whether any of the letters in our archives would benefit from being turned into radio pieces. Suggestions welcome.
    The other question that I’d like to bring up is something that was on my mind a lot when Open Letters was publishing regularly. In order to find material to publish, I pursued a lot of writers that I liked, but just as the Transom is doing, I invited submissions from the public, as well. What I found was maybe not too surprising: the batting average for the public submissions was quite low — I got hundreds that I couldn’t use, and often felt like I wasn’t able to respond to them helpfully (or on time).

    My experience as an editor, though, is that it’s very hard to make that work — it’s hard to find unprocessed voices that are coherent and honest and clear. I’m guessing that Jay and the other producers at the Transom are finding that true as well.

    So that’s another thing I’d like to talk about — how to make that process work well, how to help the Transom people find new and different voices, and how to help make those voices effective on the air.

    A suggestion: I think Heather O’Neill’s "The Good Guy" ( http://www.openletters.net/00123/oneill001024.html )would sound make great radio. I know the piece is more of a character sketch than a narrative (which I imagine makes for difficult radio), but the small component stories and events are so lucid they’ve remained in my mind’s eye, unnervingly intact, for nearly six months.

    OK, here’s my question:
    Paul, can you tell us a little bit more about Openletters’ editorial process? We’ve already heard glowing, although cryptic, remarks about your red pen’s grace from Paul M. and Jay. I don’t really want to ask more specifics and risk narrowing the window of what you’d like to share. If the process of how a piece of writing became a finished, polished url-ready openletter varied greatly, as I imagine it did, please tell us about a couple of specific and different examples.

    Also, regarding the above-quote, perhaps you could tell us about a case where you received an "unprocessed" submission and were able to make that work. What did the editing entail?

    Lastly, was there any particular common-denominator to why most of the public-submissions, left you at a loss? How did most of them fail?

    Thanks,
    PJ

  • REPOST says:
    Re:Paul Tough’s Topic

    Author : A Knight
    Date : 03-16-2001 on 14:04

    Paul (Tough), when OL was running did you ever consider turning it into a radio show? While we have been talking about some letters that could be used on existing shows, it strikes me as odd that I haven’t heard anyone suggest that OL could be a show of it’s own. I think that OL would have a great shot at wide distribution, especially thanks to it’s TAL tie-in.
    I’m also dying to know what that non-discloser agreement you signed was all about, but I guess I’ll never know.
    BTW I’ve always thought that the Onion should put together a show, too (and I liked the story on Morning Edition today alot)

  • REPOST says:
    Re:Paul Tough’s Topic

    Author : cw
    Date : 03-16-2001 on 23:07

    guy from georgia: don’t talk down to people and refer them to the elements of style book and basic active vs. passive grammatical construction rules. it’s rude. also why does everyone always have to trot faulkner out? (if people insist on trotting faulkner out, i have to counter with eudora welty. i’m sorry. y’all leave me no choice. see eudora welty reading on tape her short story WITH LONG RAMBLING sentences "why i live at the p.o.")
    i’m not interested in a long sentence vs. short sentence argument or lecture myself, though others may be. my comment was more about (radio) editorial shaping and assumptions and whether they are based on tradition, experience, obstinance, hard knocks, headaches, "THE MAN" or any combination of the above. i realize it’s hard to speak in generalities about most of this. paul m’s post was helpful. when he said his radio piece was another beast entirely from his letter, that made sense.

    on another note:
    doesn’t anyone feel that asking paul t over and over about exactly HOW he edits and what the EXACT components involved are is like asking a chef to give away his best recipe?
    and if he gave you his recipe (assuming there was a standard/quantifiable one), would you still want to eat his cake? flour, butter,
    salt, soda, etc etc demystified boring etc.
    plus then he’d face this charge: ah, formulaic!

  • REPOST says:
    Re:Paul Tough’s Topic

    Author : cal
    Date : 03-17-2001 on 07:05

    I didn’t ask, but I *was* curious about the editing process of Open Letters. Not so much the process, I guess, but in Paul T.’s early post he says the "batting average for the public submissions was quite low" and if you’re someone who’s never been published but who wants to be, well, you can’t help but wonder if there’s some common mistake or illusion being made. He got hundreds of submissions he couldn’t use and I don’t want to waste his (or transom’s) time and I don’t want to be one of the unusables. Are we kidding ourselves, being fooled by the modesty of talented people who produce accessible, deceptively small pieces? Inspiration is great, but should there be a disclaimer, "Results are not typical"? Just how many single moms on public assistance are going to show up on NPR’s doorstep and be Carol Wasserman? Or housecleaners turn out to be David Sedaris? So, yeah, I wonder if most of Paul T.’s hundreds were from wannabes and the real potentials were at Kinko’s quietly photocopying their ‘zine or at home, posting their online diary.

  • REPOST says:
    Re:Paul Tough’s Topic

    Author : carol
    Date : 03-17-2001 on 08:08

    cal (03-17-2001 07:05):
    He got hundreds of submissions he couldn’t use and I don’t want to waste his (or transom’s) time and I don’t want to be one of the unusables.

    Now listen up! If you intend to do creative work, and be an artist, you have to grow a thick skin. You can’t spend the brief days allotted to us worrying about being "one of the unuseables".

    No editor with whom you would care to do business would ever think in such terms.

    So, your question is, "How do I know if this piece I’ve just written is any good?"

    You don’t. Let me use the famous example of Schrodinger’s Cat.

    Schrodiner was a theoretical physicist who came up with the following thought experiment, in order to illustrate the principle of quantum mechanics which says that stuff exists as both particle and wave:

    (Those of you who actually know about quantum physics, bear with me as I mangle the more technical parts of this little parable.)

    Take a cat. Put it in an air-tight box. Calculate the amount of time the cat can stay alive inside.

    Wait until that moment. Ask, "Is the cat alive or dead?"

    Answer: neither, both. Until you open the box and look inside.

    Ok. Your manuscript is the cat.

    By which I mean that you write something. Then you make a fearless second pass at the thing, correcting all the mistakes you didn’t notice the first time through. You decide it’s finished.

    So is it dead or alive?

    Answer: you can’t know until you send it off, until you get someone to open the box.

    In art, however, unlike physics, your cat may just look dead to the first eighty-five editors who see it. Your job is to find an editor who senses some life in the thing. And then will work with you to make it purr.

    If, however, you don’t open the box, your cat is a goner.

  • REPOST says:
    what cat?

    Author : beedge
    Date : 03-17-2001 on 13:35

    Erwin Schroedinger, whose quantum physics equations
    describe the modern scientific view of reality,
    came up with this "cat paradox":
    a cat is penned in a steel chamber w/ a lump of radioactive material.
    there is a precise 50/50 chance that within an hour,
    one atom of the radioactive lump will decay, emitting an electron.
    there is, of course, also a 50/50 chance it won’t decay.
    if it does, however, the electron will trigger a series of events
    (gieger counter, relay, hammer)
    that will break a flask of poison gas, killing the cat.

    so during that hour, w/o looking in the chamber,
    we can confidently state that the cat is either living or dead.
    but we would be wrong.

    quantum theory states that the cat is neither dead nor alive
    until we look in the chamber to see what has happened.
    "Nothing is real unless it is observed"
    –John Gribben, In Search of Schrodinger’s Cat.

    so if you never show your work to anybody,
    from a quantum p.o.v., it doesn’t exist.


    footnotes:

    "Anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory
    has not understood it."–Niels Bohr

    Schroedinger’s paper w/ the cat:
    http://www.emr.hibu.no/lars/eng/cat/Default.htm

    which brings us to questions of research and writing.

  • REPOST says:
    Re:Paul Tough’s Topic

    Author : Oakland
    Date : 03-17-2001 on 14:15

    cw (03-16-2001 23:07):
    doesn’t anyone feel that asking paul t over and over about exactly HOW he edits and what the EXACT components involved are is like asking a chef to give away his best recipe?
    and if he gave you his recipe would you still want to eat his cake?

    I didn’t really exxpect exactitude. Anyhow like fine cooking, I imagine much of his editing is intuition, something I could only duplicate in my kitchen with years of practice.

    And to extend your metaphor even further, the recipe just ain’t the cake. So yes, odds are if Paul keeps cooking, I’ll keep eating.

    Besides he’s here on Transom as an expert–what is he an expert on? Editing.

    If Transom is really trying to remove walls between radio and possible contributors, I figure the best way is to share what the industry’s process really is.

  • REPOST says:
    Re:Paul Tough’s Topic

    Author : A Knight
    Date : 03-17-2001 on 14:18

    Schrodinger is my new hero! This thing with the cat beats the hell out of my "baby seal in a blender" experiment. Of course mine had nothing to do with science…

  • REPOST says:
    Re:Paul Tough’s Topic

    Author : David Clark / Cochran, Ga.
    Date : 03-17-2001 on 18:36

    cw (03-16-2001 23:07):
    guy from ga.: don’t talk down… it’s rude.

    Dear cw,

    As I understand it, Transom’s intention is for sharing ideas and knowledge.

    It’s a rare place where the whole gang — experienced or not — can sit on the porch and talk.

    Everyone has a rocking chair of equal size on Transom’s porch. No lights are burning. It’s a pleasant night. The only sounds are crickets chirping and rockers creaking and voices of friends.

    My intention was to share, with open heart and hands, what knowledge I have.

    I remember burning inside to learn how to make good sentences. Luckily, I met experienced people who matter-of-factly told me bits and pieces. It was up to me to hear them.

    They told me to pass this knowledge on.

    I did not speak from a pedestal. If there are any pedestals on Transom’s porch, they’re used to set drinks on.

    Regarding Faulkner: I don’t know why people trot him out, but almost every beginning writer I’ve met trots him. One could just as easily trot Miss Eudora or anyone else who makes a long sentence sing.

    My answer remains: Miss Eudora (or whoever one might trot) could indeed make a long sentence work. Most beginning writers (and quite a few experienced writers) cannot make long sentences work.

    Encouraging short sentences is not a negative judgement against anyone who wants to write long sentences.

    Regarding "The Elements of Style:" It’s possible there are folks on Transom’s porch who have not heard of this wonderful book.

    My own view of "The Elements of Style" is similar to how I feel about my Daddy’s old black leather-handled Craftsman carpenter’s hammer. Trusty tools become more valuable as the lines on my face increase.

    My recommendation of this great book was intended as a helpful pointer to a tool for those who might need it.

    In the past month, I have read every post on every forum at Transom.

    It strikes me that Transom’s intent is to encourage folks to ask the Chef about the recipe.

    The answer will sometimes wind up being something on the order of "a smidgen of this and a pinch of that."

    Finding out a cake contains flour and butter doesn’t teach one how to make the cake, but this revelation doesn’t make the cake any less fit to eat. And discovering the baker knows some indescribable something doesn’t render the cake any less delicious.

    I imagine that you wonder: "Who does this guy from Georgia think he is?"

    It’s very simple: I am a nobody.

    Even a nobody can post at Transom.

    It has been a long road getting to the point of being a nobody who makes a small but viable living as a writer.

    It might sound silly, but I have found companionship in middle of the night readings of Transom’s posts — listening to the voices of the folks on Transom’s porch. I appreciate Transom’s voices. I appreciate Transom’s porch.

    I appreciate hearing knowledgeable people say they don’t know. I appreciate knowledgeable people explaining the explainable: "Brand So and So is a great microphone."

    On a purely personal level, my Mama died 110 days ago. She had Alzheimer’s. I was her caregiver. And I appreciate the chance to visit on Transom’s porch and the chance to think about something besides missing my Mama’s eyes.

    I offered my two cents in an effort to contribute what dues I can pay to this space. If someone can benefit from my knowledge, that is good. I am willing to risk that what I say is old-hat or irrelevant to someone else.

    If we were sitting on a porch in real life, I would offer you my hand so that we might become friends.

    On this virtual porch, the best I can do is state that intention — to make your acquaintance and be friends even though I do not know your name, and to be thought of as someone willing to share his knowledge.

    My knowledge is all I have. I offer it willingly.

    And I am willing to sign my name to it.

    I extend a virtual handshake to you, friend.

    Sincerely,

    David Clark
    Cochran, Ga.

  • REPOST says:
    Oakland’s question

    Author : Paul Tough
    Date : 03-18-2001 on 12:48

    Oakland (03-15-2001 16:29):
    Paul, can you tell us a little bit more about Openletters’ editorial process? We’ve already heard glowing, although cryptic, remarks about your red pen’s grace from Paul M. and Jay. I don’t really want to ask more specifics and risk narrowing the window of what you’d like to share. If the process of how a piece of writing became a finished, polished url-ready openletter varied greatly, as I imagine it did, please tell us about a couple of specific and different examples.
    Also, regarding the above-quote, perhaps you could tell us about a case where you received an "unprocessed" submission and were able to make that work. What did the editing entail?

    Lastly, was there any particular common-denominator to why most of the public-submissions, left you at a loss? How did most of them fail?

    Thanks,
    PJ

    First of all, apologies for my absence from this board the last few days. While you-all have been discussing Faulkner and Schrodinger, I’ve been listening to country music down here in Austin, Texas. Which is sort of like reading open letters, except you do it standing up, and you can drink more.

    Oakland, that’s a perfectly reasonable set of questions, and I wish I were able to answer them as cleanly as you posed them. You’re quite right, the editing process was quite a bit different from letter to letter, depending I think mostly on the style of the author.

    I can say this: editing open letters was different than the magazine editing I’d done previously. When I worked at magazines, I tended to be a fairly hands-on editor, quite certain of the voice I wanted, willing to rewrite sentences and move paragraphs around in order to achieve it.

    With Open Letters I didn’t do that very often. Usually what I’d do after getting a first draft is ask questions, via email: suggest that the writer think more about Question A or expand a bit on Topic B. That was most of the job, actually — our authors responded well to those questions, and the second drafts were almost always just right.

    At the very end of the editing process, on certain letters, I’d wrangle with the writer more about specific words and phrases. (I just looked back through some old email, and discovered that Paul Maliszewski and I exchanged about a half-dozen emails about this sentence: "Later that night, after more fruitless searching, we ended up not quite parked in front of a payphone outside a Ben & Jerry’s," each containing a slightly different version.) But usually after the second draft it was just copy editing.

    The main reason for that relative laissez-faireism was that our writers wrote quite differently from one another, and I wanted to avoid making them sound the same.

    So with "unprocessed" submissions, I tended to do less, rather than more, because the risk of changing or losing the author’s distinct voice seemed greater.

    About the common denominator on rejected submissions sent over the transom: I’d say two things. The first is that it’s hard to edit someone you don’t know anything about. I’m sure there were many cases where I got over-the-transom submissions that could have been turned into fine open letters, but I didn’t understand the author well enough to know which direction to encourage him or her. That’s why writers and editors often work together for ages; they get to know one another’s quirks.

    The second: The letters that I thought worked best on Open Letters combined personal revelation with a respect for the audience: Public writing with a personal feel. Some of the letters that didn’t work out fell short on one side of that equation or the other. Some didn’t feel personal enough: instead they felt like they were hiding something. And others didn’t feel public enough: they were about an event that had great meaning for the writer, but wouldn’t resonate, I thought, with a broad audience.

    I want to answer A Knight’s questions about an OL radio show and that pesky non-disclosure agreement, but I need to go out. I’ll be back soon.

  • REPOST says:
    disclosure, etc.

    Author : Paul Tough
    Date : 03-18-2001 on 16:07

    A Knight (03-16-2001 14:04):
    Paul (Tough), when OL was running did you ever consider turning it into a radio show? While we have been talking about some letters that could be used on existing shows, it strikes me as odd that I haven’t heard anyone suggest that OL could be a show of it’s own. I think that OL would have a great shot at wide distribution, especially thanks to it’s TAL tie-in.
    I’m also dying to know what that non-discloser agreement you signed was all about, but I guess I’ll never know.

    A,

    No, the idea of a radio show never really occurred to me. I hope we’ll be able to get some of the letters to make the web–>air transition, but I don’t think they all would make it across that divide successfully.

    The non-disclosure agreement that I mentioned in this editor’s letter was with Amazon, and had to do with their Honor System program. They were originally going to have it up and running in November, and it might have been an effective way for us to raise money while still publishing. (You can see our current page here.) But they didn’t get it up in time. And when we finally did pass the hat, we went with PayPal, which was in many ways better than Amazon after all.

  • REPOST says:
    Re:Gibby and Jay

    Author : carol
    Date : 03-21-2001 on 07:35

    Paul (03-08-2001 11:53):
    It’s an interesting question — under what circumstances can something in print can be improved by putting it on the radio?

    You might be interested in hearing a good piece of print morph into a great piece of radio.

    Here is a column David Clark wrote in 1998.
    http://www.outofthesky.com/chair.txt

    He made it into a radio piece, which aired on All Things Considered on August 20, 1999.
    http://search.npr.org/cf/cmn/cmnpd01fm.cfm?PrgDate=8%2F20%2F1999&PrgID=2

  • REPOST says:
    Re:Paul Tough’s Topic

    Author : alex
    Date : 03-21-2001 on 12:14

    David Clark / Cochran, Ga. (03-17-2001 18:40):
    It’s a rare place where the whole gang — experienced or not — can sit on the porch and talk.

    I read the discussion about short sentences last week. I was hunched over the laptop my friend had carried in his backpack to Europe. He and I had been working on what turned out to be a six minute radio piece for a month and a half. Neither one of us had more than minimal radio experience before. Our only outside help came from these messages at Transom.

    I’m back in Portland, OR now, and the six minute piece is still in Prague with my friend. We will be sending it to Transom soon.

    But what I wanted to say is that we read the discussion about short sentences together, and I felt glad to have the guidance. We were trying to write an introduction, and, at the same time, we were trying to decide whether we needed one. In short, we were beating our heads against the wall.

    I have to say that your words didn’t get an introduction written (we still don’t have one), but they did give me a way to think about it, which I appreciated.

    My friend, reading the same posts, though, said, "we need a beginners-only place." I can see his point, too, which might have been cw’s point as well. I liked hearing from an expert. My friend (and maybe cw) felt shut-down from hearing too much from experts and too little from beginners.

    So, maybe beginners need to speak up more. Here I am, speaking up.

    Thanks for the advice, Mr. Clark.

    Alex Galt
    Portland, OR

  • REPOST says:
    Re:Paul Tough’s Topic

    Author : David Clark / Cochran, Ga.
    Date : 03-21-2001 on 15:06

    alex (03-21-2001 12:14):
    …glad of guidance…beating our heads against wall…beginners-only place..felt shut-down…too much experts…too little beginners.

    Hello Alex,

    I wanted to thank you privately but couldn’t find your address, so I’ll do it here. Thank you. And you’re welcome.

    If I helped you think about how to write your introduction, then you made my day.

    If you can think about it, the writing will come. Have faith.

    Sometimes the trick is to simply see and describe the obvious. Notice I said "the trick," because seeing the obvious ain’t always easy. Describing it is sometimes harder.

    You can’t see diddlysquat through fearful eyes. Fear never wrote an introduction in its life.

    Whip out that pen. Let ‘er rip.

    Now, to all self-proclaimed beginners;
    and others like me who sometimes don’t know how to beat our way out of a paper bag:

    1st: Read Carol’s dead cat post.

    2nd: Write "I feel beat up because I’m a beginner (or expert)" on a piece of paper. Take paper to a safe place — I’m not responsible for this, i.e. use your best judgement — and set the sacrificial paperlamb on fire. Watch it burn. Rub the ashes between your fingers until they are dust. Have yourself a ritual and sacrifice your fear to the earth from whence it cometh. Lift thine eyes unto the heavens. Try to imagine what it must feel like to be a young star in the sky above — from our point of view burning its ass off but in its own mind shy and unsure.

    3rd: Write "I have talent" on a piece of paper. Tape it to your bathroom mirror. Make a conscious effort to look at the dang thing every morning. And when one of your friends says something about it, say: "Yeah, I do believe in myself. Sure do. I’ve got a lot to learn but I will learn it."

    4th: Now, your rituals are taken care of. Get to work.

    5th: And pretty soon, you’ll be old like me and some whippersnapper just back from 45 days on the moon will be calling you the expert.

    No one is beating anybody up.

    What -really- feels like a beating is when someone will not respond to your questions. Silence is the beating.

    At Transom you are getting words from folks who have traveled a little further down the road than you. Are they experts? It depends. Maybe. Who cares? I don’t know squat about Prague. You do. Who’s the expert?

    What these "experts" are, at least in this space, are friends who are willing to speak to things. Like I said in my post, someone helped all of us at some point. You will, too.

    Don’t feel beaten up. Just don’t. It’s a waste of time.

    I can see the value of a "beginner’s space," especially since we are taking up Paul’s space with this discussion.

    Problem is, the beginners will have then created a clique. And since Transom ain’t about cliques, I don’t know if Big Boss Man will let you start a beginner’s section. Good idea, though. You just can’t deny entry to someone who just happens to have a little experience.

    The trick to this thing — creating in the real world — is to take your guitar out and get up and play. Being scared is part of the deal. That’s why more people listen than play.

    If you ain’t as flashy as the next man, that’s fine. Keep it simple. But get up, man, and play for all you are worth. One live gig is worth 10 practices.

    You must understand: when an "expert" gets stuck, he goes to the same place you go — the beginning. That’s why I recommend "Elements of Style" — because I read it every 3 months whether I think I need to or not — to get back in the kitchen where the great meal’s glory begins with chopping the collards. A good cook will tell you that if the collards ain’t chopped right there’s no way they’ll cook right.

    Tend to those rituals. Don’t burn the dang house down doing it. And don’t let anyone tell you to take your note off your bathroom mirror.

    Don’t be afraid of failing.

    This discussion group ain’t near as hard as 45 days in Prague.

    Thank you again.

    Sincerely,

    David Clark
    Cochran, Ga.

  • REPOST says:
    Re:Paul Tough’s Topic

    Author : David Clark / Cochran, Ga.
    Date : 03-21-2001 on 16:03

    One more thing for all of us to remember:

    Babe Ruth was baseball’s homerun king for years and years until Hank Aaron finally broke his record.

    Babe Ruth — the Sultan of Swat — also held the record for the most strikeouts.

    I’m not sure about this, but I have a feeling Hank Aaron might have passed the Babe on that record, too.

    One must swing the bat in order to hit the ball.

    Or — as the old boys down here say: "A catfish ain’t gonna jump in the boat with you. You got to put a worm in the water."

    And Alex, this truth is not something that only applies to "beginners."

    Sincerely,

    David Clark
    Cochran, Ga.

  • REPOST says:
    Re:Paul Tough’s Topic

    Author : Jay Allison
    Date : 03-21-2001 on 19:41

    I’m trying to think of a homily, but I’m coming up dry.
    As for beginners, well, bring ‘em on. Beginners ‘r us. Let me suggest that if people don’t want to entirely un-Paul Tough the Paul Tough topic, do this: Go over to the "General Discussion" folder, click on it and then click "New Topic." Make it about short sentences, cats, cat fish, or any other subject of interest to beginners or anyone else. Make youself at home.

    There is plenty of room for the large, essentially unanswerable questions about creative process and HOW TO DO IT… and for the useful, supportive stabs at answering. Beginners and Experts Unite!

    But beyond that, we also have the advantage of the WORK AT HAND. Each piece here has a trail of choices behind it. One good thing about Transom is that we can hear the piece and explore the choices. We can ask the maker of the piece how they got there. This keeps things grounded and real, with proof nearby.

  • Viki Merrick says:
    Tough/ revealing self

    I have been out of the loop since Paul came on and I just sat down and read the whole shabang.

    I feel like I have been at an unusual dinner party.

    In response to all of this: I am not particularly trained in anything but I am a great audience. If there is the smallest scintilla to catch one of my senses then I follow wholeheartedly. It can be elegant stuff or raw and gritty. It is not adhering to any one thing or any rule that makes me respond. In the struggle to express, we like rules – makes us feel safe. If no one understands me when I blurt things out, I try eloooooongating them – if that is too convoluted then I try something in between. Friendly editors will nudge you along. To those of you ‘beginners’" teasing us with what you might be hoarding – I say email it to us at editorial@transom.org. Sometimes we’ll say: just do it. It’s a place to start. meeeooooooooow.

  • Ben A. says:
    Open Letters on the air

    Hi everybody,

    Paul Maliszewski’s Open Letter called "Grossly Unprepared" is going to air on the Savvy Traveler this weekend. You can click over to our webpage http://www.savvytraveler.org/ to see when and where near you. It’s really going to run this time, so I hope you all enjoy it.

    thanks,
    Benjamin

  • Andy Knight says:
    Hello again

    Paul, congrats on your position as a Transom editor. How much of you are we going to see in these parts? Are you going to be here full-time-ish or just in between your other projects?
    i Bring back openletters.
    What other things are you working on? Are you secretly plotting to overthrow our government (with the help of David Rakoff, Alan Thicke and the Space Shuttle’s mechanical arm) for Canada? Are you going to tour as a roadie with that band any time soon? Do pointless floods of questions annoy you, too?

  • cw says:
    i forgot my password this is cw again

    a (film) documentary editor i talked to this morning said the story of his life is having too much good material and trying to figure out how to organize and cram it all into a decipherable way into his allotted number of minutes. he says he always thinks he’s leaving out amazing stuff but the stuff he leaves out often resonates in the final piece anyway (by osmosis).

    he also said when he is hitting his head against the wall and tearing his hair out like the guys who wrote from prague, he goes back to his original intention/outline/idea and tries to bare bones it from that and that often works well b/c research and interviewing often leads one out on wild, ever/even more interesting tangents that draw you away from what you started out to do. so just remind yourself of what you started out to do, ask yrself if that is still what you want/have to do, and make the hard choices of what to leave out.

    as someone famous i don’t know who once said, kill your darlings/kill your babies. that is if you really love a particular sentence you wrote for a piece/or a particular interview quote but it is non-sequitur, strangle it. now!

    paul and jay- is it possible to tell 3 stories at once in 20 minutes if there are large chunks of music involved or only 2?

    i know it’s hard to answer this w/o the material at hand, but in general… intersecting narratives. can they be told in 20 minutes w/o confusing the listener who is driving and talking on cel phone simultaneously while listening to npr? and if so, how many? all i want is a cut and dry formula, damnit, where i know there isn’t one.
    gimmee.

  • Jay Allison says:
    Formulae: cut and dried

    >all i want is a cut and dry formula, damnit, where i know there isn’t one. gimmee.

    Go to your room and come out when the script is finished.

    Then, start a topic in the General Discussion area and, with appalling bravery, paste your script into it. All available formulae, sensibility, taste, editorial judgement will be directed toward your script. You pick the advice you like.

    Seriously.

    p..s. I happen to know that "cw" is NOT our house editor Carol Wasserman, but an entirely different "cw".

  • Alex Galt says:
    tape and writing editing

    cw said:
    he says he always thinks he’s leaving out amazing stuff but the stuff he leaves out often resonates in the final piece anyway (by osmosis).
    cw March 31, 2001 09:09am

    It’s great how that works. It’s like writing. Take your opening paragraph. Take out the melodrama. Subtract the stuff you thought you needed for the sake of exposition. And then, usually, your new paragraph has a stark power to it. Sometimes, actually, you have to take out the whole first paragraph, which is what we decided to do in Prague. We wrote an introduction. We recorded it. Then we listened to our piece without it, and we liked it better.

    I find it easier to edit tape, actually, then my own writing. When it’s my own words, I tend to edit them before they get spoken, which is what David Clark said to stop doing. The great thing about documentary (the one time I did it) is that you have all this raw material, with beauty in it, and all you have to do is polish it, which isn’t easy, but at least you know you didn’t accidentally wash away the beauty before it got to the page.

    Alex Galt

  • paul tough says:
    Bring on the Kitchen Sisters!

    I’m in a motel behind a McDonald’s in Pennington Gap, Virginia, way down in the pointy west corner of the state. Kentucky is twenty miles to the north; Tennessee is twenty miles to the south: that’s how pointy it is. I’m down here with one of Jay’s tape recorders reporting a story for a magazine and, Insh’allah, coming back with enough tape to create a spin-off piece for the Transom.

    Let me say, first of all, that I love the Sony TC-D5M. When I was doing stories more frequently for This American Life, back in the second millennium, I was using one of those Sony DAT walkmen that was like a fragile little hummingbird. Breathe on it wrong, and it’d erase a two-hour tape of Dishwasher Pete wandering around the National Restaurant Convention (just as an example). And when you ran out of tapes, you had to special-order them from a warehouse in Wisconsin. The TC-D5M, though, uses tapes and batteries that are available in every coal-country K-mart, and it’s sturdy enough that you can use it to hit rocks in a parking lot, or as a seat cushion to raise a whiny toddler up to table-height.

    I’m having trouble bringing myself to close-mic interviewees, though. Maybe it’s my Canadian reluctance to invade others’ personal space. Next time: a lapel mic.

    As I think he said above, or somewhere, Jay’s generously offered to let me continue to be a Transom editorial person on a part-time basis once my month ends (in a few short hours). I think it’ll be considerably less than full-time, to answer your question, A. But I’m glad I’ll be able to stay connected, officially, to the organization.

    Ben, I sadly didn’t get to hear the Savvy Traveler today; the radio dial around here is more bluegrass and kickin’ country than public radio. And I don’t have my computer wired to play MP3′s, which is, I believe, the form that Paul M’s story takes on your own site. Now that it’s aired, is it possible for us non-MP3 people to hear it on RealAudio anywhere?

  • Jay Allison says:

    > "I’m having trouble bringing myself to close-mic interviewees"

    Note to Paul Tough: CLOSE-MIC! This is no time to be shy.

    > "I love the Sony TC-D5M"

    Note to all: There are a few of these on Ebay now. It’s the "Pro" model which is a little less desirable than the consumer "M" model, but certainly not bad if it’s in good shape and you can get for under $200.

    >"I’m glad I’ll be able to stay connected, officially, to the organization."

    Note to Paul: We’re glad too!

    > "it’s sturdy enough that you can use it to hit rocks in a parking lot"

    Note to Transom Team: check head alignment on Tough’s D5

  • cw says:
    paul on sticking mikes in people’s faces

    paul

    usually I do this unradiolike thing called setting the levels secretly ahead of time and starting the thing rolling way before I actually stick it in their face. then I talk to them awhile with it on a table or in my lap and as they get comfortable, then I STICK IT IN THEIR FACE. then they get a one minute scare and they forget the mike and I attempt to maintain eye contact while secretly checking my levels.

    also, you do have a distance problem, possibly a Canadian one as well. it helps if you touch the subject/interviewed a lot beforehand, I find. at least a handshake for godsake. also i would like to take this opportunity to kick a man when he’s down and say YOU MOCKED SPY TECH, but look at you now.

    over and out,
    cw
    not carol wasserman

  • Ben A. says:
    open letters in all its tinny glory

    available to you via realaudio’s special "Robbie the Robot" kernal:

    http://www.savvytraveler.com/show/features/2001/20010330/rafiles/20010330_feature3.ram

    I guess cut and paste that link?

    Good luck guys,
    Ben

  • Andy Knight says:
    Paul M’s letter to Radio conversion

    I hate to say it, but IMHO it feels like too much was cut from Paul’s letter. I understand that Sav Trav doesn’t have much airtime to spend on each story, but there is only so much you can cut before a funny, interesting story like Paul’s becomes something else entirely. In the letter, Paul did a great job of relating the building nervousness leading up to driving the truck (from when he first saw the truck (3 of them, actually), to the silly no-brainer, legal-obligation warnings and forms (with cartoons giving extra emphasis). Then, once driving, he was able to conjure up some more worst-case scenarios (backing into children and the like). Much of that was cut from the radio version. Sure, there was an example here and there of Paul’s mindset, but not really enough to make you understand (or even take notice of) why he drove past the first gas station, let alone help you imagine what the rest of the trip was like.

  • Andy Knight says:
    Open Letters hits the airwaves again?

    From http://www.thislife.org on this week’s episode, Missing Parents Bureau:
    >In another, a woman writes letters to the missing father of her adolescent son about how her son is getting on without him.

    Paul, is this
    i X
    (AKA Miriam Toews)? I can’t wait to hear it, regardless.

  • Jay Allison says:
    Paul in the Hills

    I’ll answer for Paul because he wrote to say he’s deeply in West Virginia working on a story and won’t be logging on or doing anything distracting until after May 1. He apologizes for not posting critiques, but will do so when he returns.

    Yes, the letters on This American Life are from "X".

  • Oakland says:
    Is anyone out there?

    Is this discussion board still running?

    I simply would like to know what Paul is working on. So, Paul what are you working on?

    I noticed your backpage in the NYer a couple of issues back, laughed, and couldn’t help but wonder if the humor was tinged at all by post-openletters bitterness. (But I won’t ask; I imagine any answer would require you to oversimplify your feelings both about that well-loved, dormant venture and the collected loss of new economy shirts. Instead, I’ll paraphrase:)

    Do you have any new, revisionary thoughts and feelings about open letters–or are your eyes trained on new horizons only?

  • paul tough says:
    revisionary thoughts

    Hello Oakland. Thanks for asking.

    I just started working as a story editor at the New York Times Magazine, so that’s where most of my eyes are trained these days.

    But I’m also hoping to try something new with Open Letters this summer — to ask four or five Open Letters regulars to write serialized dispatches about whatever they feel compelled to write about, in the spirit of the X letters, Aliza Pollack’s chemo series, and Paul Maliszewski’s chronicle of a move. Five correspondents, five dispatches apiece = 25 letters, spread out over two or three months.

    A low-impact experiment in serialized personal journalism, in other words.

    Any thoughts?

  • Andy Knight says:

    Paul, I haven’t slept at all since you put OL on indefinate ‘pause’. That may be a big fat lie, but how should I know. Anyway, put me down for a big "Yes, Please" for any possible return of OL.

  • Oakland says:
    Thoughts

    Paul,

    My pleasure to ask–and to be answered.

    "I just started… as a story editor at the New York Times Magazine, that’s where most of my eyes are trained…"
    That prompts the unjoke: how many eyes does it take to be an editor?

    My first thought in response to your news, like most of my first thoughts, is contrarian. I thought about everything Open letters would lose in the suggested format: particularly, the gracious accumulation of voices, by increment, letter by letter, day by day. Part of what I liked (and still do like) about the site, as a whole, is how it forms a sort-of chorus. Of course, second-thinking, openletters.net sure ain’t picking up any new basses or contraltos dormant.

    So I’m excited. I like to imagine that the new format might bring more definition to the site and weave the thin thread-running-through into a kernmantle. Was that a concern of yours? Perhaps open letters incorporated so many voices that, save for yours, it lacked one? (I’m sorry for the overdone metaphors–it’s late.)

    Next, at best, the serialized format could give the writers more room to stretch-out. O’s growing up, physically and narratively, from fatherless son to athlete of the year (or, with a slight judgement call: from Fatboy Slim to Johnathan Richman), was awesome to read. I’d like to see more of that sort of thing. I loved it because it wasn’t gimmicky serialization, not "stay-tuned tomorow to see if the Tatoo Guy actually calls Chana." I loved it because it articulated a character more fully w/ each letter.

    I loved Aliza’s serial because each letter took me further into the familiar world of medicine in increasingly unfamiliar ways. I got to look through the window for so long that, before I’d noticed it, someone had torn down the damn wall and rebuilt it–effectively bringing me inside. And, Jessica Willis’ serial b/c the two letters’ expanded on rehab’s different manifestations, expanded on her different sides.

    I loved them most of all because each installment elaborated, however indirectly, on the last. Heather O’ Neil’s last two letters, while quite distinct, paired together made for a piecemeal family portrait.

    More to come…

  • Oakland says:
    Thoughts (cont’d)…

    But I didn’t get the same satisfaction from some of the other repeat correspondents.

    Paul’s letters, while brilliantly written, by no means connected themselves. Each one reads like a professional column, replete with punch line timed for twelve-hundred words. John Hodgman and Sarah Vowell too.

    Hell, they’re all fantastic writers; no problem with giving them another venue. But, I just don’t know if serialization necessarily caters to their specific talents. Their pieces, and a lot of others on the site, were free-standing first-person essays, solo-climbing epics. And didn’t "need" (add italics) to be repeated. In those cases, I really feel another voice could bring as much to open letters as a second installment (pitting great versus really great): the diversity, as much as the extended narratives, kept me coming back.

    To restate: there was something about some of the serializations (the first bunch I mentioned) that was unique to open letters. Something about Miriam’s and Heather’s and Michael Welch’s (if my memory serves me right) sagas was definitive of openletters. There was something about the second bunch I mentioned that was great but not as uncommon. Not as site-specific.

    Yeah, that’s what I’m thinking.

    As a contrarian post-script, I’d like to add that I’d hate for any letter to sound composed especially for OL. I just picture the serialization begetting collumnists akin to NYPress–which I enjoy; it’s just not the Openletters me-to-you, in the room, thing that I love.

    Thanks for asking, listening.
    Oakland

  • Andy Knight says:

    I’m with you, Oakland. I had considered spelling out how, even though I loved some of the serialized letters, that I don’t want to see the others go away at all. Some of the best stuff came from the one shots. But I’m the kind of fanboy who would rather see OL continue in an altered state than not continue at all. Like, its better, IMHO, that Siskel & Ebert continue on w/o Siskel than not continue at all… ditto This Old House and Bob Villa. If I was a Grateful Dead fan (which there’s no way in hell…), I would have wanted it to go on w/o the fat guy rather than just stop. Ice cream flavors be damned.

    I even considered suggesting that Paul add an un-edited, but highly screened open-submissions section of OL. Un-edited b/c it seems that the editing is the time consuming part of the show. Highly screened because you wouldn’t want to read the ravings from some schmucko crackpot like me. It’s existence would be for those of us who check the site daily and to add fresh voices.

    On a side note, FYI: Chana and Steve(Tattoo Guy) are quite married. With some hard work, they’ve bought the tattoo shop that Steve worked at. With some even more hard work, Chana has graduated and is proceeding on to work on her doctorate (IIRC… I can’t confirm details right now, her site is having problems at the moment). Michael Welch has self published his first book and is working on his first non-self-published book now, which has something to do with his recent trip to Costa Rica and New Orleans. While I loved the birthday OL, I don’t seem to like anything else that he writes. But to each his own.

    (on an even more unrelated note: A local Michael Welch is going on trial for killing his dalmatian-mix dog with a sledgehammer and baseball bat. Sad.)

  • Carol Wasserman says:
    Swimming to Serialization

    Over in Sarah Vowell’s topic right now, our Special Guest has been forced into a discussion of fundraising and underwriting. She says, in reference to our public radio mandate to "exploit for meaning", …as Spaulding Gray once told writer Fred Rochlin, "Make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry."

    Spaulding, of course, heard that from Charles Dickens, during one of the great novelist’s live shows I assume. What Dickens actually said was "Make them laugh, make them cry, make them wait."

    Serialization was Dickens’ cash cow. He also knew a thing or two about exploitation.

  • Andy Knight says:
    confirmation

    Chana (her website is back up today) has been accepted into the University of Texas at Arlington for graduate school. She’s working on MS and doctorate. Read more about it here.

  • Oakland says:
    And your thoughts?

    Paul

    So now that a couple of us have said our piece, what’re your thoughts on the serialized format? What’s the attraction over the old format? Do you have writers already picked out and, if I may peek at the Chirstmas gifts on your hard drive, who might they be? Have you already started editing them?

    Is it partially that you think this format may allow a more self-sustaining, momentum-fueled OL?

    Again, let me say no more lest a loose question shorten a potentially longer explanation. Simply, why the serialization?

    Oakland

    ps
    Ok, one last question: When can I expect my coffee-breaks to be blessed with these new, undoubtedly gracious, Open and to-be-continued Letters?

  • Oakland says:
    pps

    Congratulations on the anniversary.

  • Andy Knight says:
    From the pages of OL:

    OLers may remember Chana from her letters about leaving her live-in boyfriend to hook up with a tattoo artist named Steve. HERE is an update… (on Edit: It should be noted that the page layout is odd… look for the tiny red arrows to scroll the text. There are 2 sets: one for the whole page, one for the text box. Ick.)

    (Secret message to Paul: Are you still dropping by from time to time? If so, Hi.)

  • Laura Osborne says:
    Paul Tough: What’s your contact info?