Walking Across America: Advice for a Young Man
This hour is culled down from 85 hours, an epic task in itself. Andrew has written extensive notes on his process that might be helpful for anyone undertaking a sprawling project. Transom is also collaborating with our friends at Cowbird as Andrew maps his journey, steadily adding new entries in the coming weeks. We hope you’ll listen, and ask questions –Jay A
People in the Piece (in order of appearance)
“Like it or not, it is about breaking this hold that death has on us.” Therese Jornlin, Andrew’s mom, Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania.
“You’ll know who you are. Because that’s what you’re looking for anyway.” Woody Curry, Baltimore, Maryland.
“You’ve got a lot to learn. You’ve got an education and a degree, but you’ve still got a lot to learn.” Nettie Harlow, Arrington, Virginia.
“I wouldn’t be the nice little southern girl. I’d be a bitch.” Hacky Pitts (not shown), High Point, North Carolina.
“Did you know that ice sings? Ice sings. It has a song and a voice.” Marian (and Herb) Furman, Camden, Alabama.
“Alright, y’all wanna do ‘Johnny Peut-Pas Danser?’” Mitch and Jen Reed (not shown), Scott, Louisiana.
“After you done walked this whole way…at the end, it’s going to make you a different person.” Ollie Ware, Franklin, Louisiana.
“I’m looking for a great day, when I see my Jesus face to face.” The late Emma Lou Dailey, Beatrice, Alabama.
“Everyone has something divine to share. And you gotta be listening for it.” Josh Terziu (not shown), Lake Charles, Louisiana.
“Get all the best you can out of your youth, out of your strength, your body, and your mind. While you got the time.” Otho Rogers (not shown), Melrose, New Mexico.
“You might not have enough to drink, your shoes might be worn out, but you yourself inside of you, you’re feeling well and you’re happy. That’s what hózhó is.” Chris and James Paisano, Fort Defiance, Arizona.
About Walking Across America: Advice for a Young Man
I decided to walk across the country for several reasons. Producing an hour-long radio essay about it was not one of them. When I left home, I had no idea what would become of the tape I hoped to record.
At the beginning of the walk, I thought it would be a good idea to have a focus question for the interviews. The question was about transformation: what does it mean to you and when have you experienced it? I was at a transformative time in my own life, so that question seemed right.
The cuts really were making the piece stronger. I found that the constraints inherent in radio can actually release the power of a story. In cutting every unnecessary detail and many of the almost-necessary ones, the most important moments can shine a little brighter.
I quickly abandoned the idea, though. It seemed too contrived or constraining. Instead, I just started talking to people about their lives and, sometimes, what their lives had taught them. I’d ask people about the idea of home, aloneness, family, love, death, all sorts of stuff.
I thought people would be resistant to being interviewed. Not so. The vast majority wanted to be heard, and they didn’t mind the recorder. Nearly every time, they had something they wanted to share. I was wearing a sign that said “Walking to Listen” and there was no shortage of people to listen to.
Trial by Fire
Producing this piece has been a big learning process for me. Before this, I’d had zero experience with projects destined for radio. So the thought of diving into 85 hours of tape, and learning to work in Pro Tools was kind of daunting. I didn’t even know what I wanted to do with all of it.
Jay suggested we go ahead and start by putting together an hour-long radio essay and take it from there. We quickly established that the angle would be “advice for a young man,” because if you cut to the heart of it, that’s what the walk was all about for me. We wanted it to be slow, to reflect the pace of walking.
I’ve learned a good bit about interviewing and producing for radio in all stages of this project. Here are four of the big takeaways:
Accept, nay, embrace murder:
How do you fit a year’s worth of experience into an hour-long radio essay? Well, you don’t. Stories will be lost, little gems thrown away, entire chapters you once thought monumentally important axed. Embracing editing (murdering your darlings) was the first step in creating this piece.
Early on in production I realized the cuts really were making the piece stronger. I found that the constraints inherent in radio can actually release the power of a story. In cutting every unnecessary detail and many of the almost-necessary ones, the most important moments can shine a little brighter.
Don’t think too much just go:
There were a lot of different angles we could have taken with this story, so many it was overwhelming almost to the point of paralysis. Going forward – blindly, it felt at times – with faith proved a useful tactic.
It wasn’t different from walking across the country. Just go.
Find a collaborator, no question:
For a while, there was a part of me that wanted to produce this piece by myself. Luckily, I didn’t have the experience or technical skills to do so. And I was too close to it.
Make yourself vulnerable:
I found that being vulnerable in interviews – that is, sharing some of my story or perspective – created an honesty that built trust and sort of dissolved the whole subject–interviewer dichotomy altogether. It may not suit some forms of storytelling, but for this, it made sense.
I chose to maintain vulnerability in the piece, too. Having asked so much of the people I recorded, putting myself under the microscope seemed only fair, and it makes everything much more real. That was the hope, at least.
Many thanks to you for listening, and a huge thank you to:
Jay Allison, Viki Merrick, Melissa Allison, Samantha Broun, Rob Rosenthal, Sarah Reynolds, and Sydney Lewis for helping to make this piece a reality; Hugh Birmingham at Coffee Obsession for giving me a job that kept me sane throughout the production process; all of the people I met while walking, both in the piece and not, for co-creating this hour with me; and my family: Dad, Caitlin, Luke, and especially Mom. I couldn’t have done this without you.
About Andrew Forsthoefel
Andrew Forsthoefel is a first-time radio producer and aspiring writer based, for now, out of Woods Hole, MA. He hopes to write a book about his walk across the country, and after that it’s on to the next project, about which he is relatively clueless. If you have any suggestions, don’t hesitate to contact him at aforsthoefel [at] gmail [dot] com.
Cowbird: Walking Across America
Andrew’s Cowbird project has web extras – audio, images, and text.
This American Life aired a version of “Walking.”
Andrew’s Walking to Listen blog.
A map of the route Andrew took on his walk.
Andrew’s presentation at his alma mater St. Andrew’s School.
Blog post from Karie Fugett in Foley, Alabama, one of the many people Andrew spoke to on his walk across the country.
Thank you to Matthias Bossi, Carla Kihlstedt, and Jon Evans for the original music they composed for this piece. Thanks also to Mark Orton and Ben Goldberg of Tin Hat. You can find more of their music at: