My So-Called Narrative Life: How to Turn the Messy, Contradictory, and Often Boring Raw Material of Ordinary Life Into a Story
I used to say that going through raw tape is like mining for diamonds. But it’s really more like a rummage sale. Finding rusty, dusty, forgotten objects that might look different if you clean them up a bit, replace a few parts, put them in a different frame. Rummage sales are about discovering treasures where you’d least expect them.
We had a rummage sale of sorts this past year. It was called Teenage Diaries Revisited. The original Teenage Diaries series began on NPR in 1996. We returned to five of those diarists to do new stories about their grown-up lives.
Going back meant literally rummaging through boxes of cassette tapes; hundreds of hours of raw material from the original Teenage Diaries series. What do the un-edited recordings of a documented life sound like? One example: among the dozens of cassettes Josh Cutler recorded as a teenager for his story, “Growing Up With Tourette’s,” there was one full tape of Josh watching wrestling on TV, two tapes of prank phone calls, and one 45-minute recording of the inside of his backpack.
At Radio Diaries, our mission is to uncover the extraordinary stories of ordinary life. But ordinary life rarely unfolds as a coherent narrative. And most of the time it’s boring. The ratio of what Josh and the other diarists recorded compared to what actually made it into their final stories is about 80-1. It may sound like a lot of tape, but it’s the same shooting ratio as most vérité documentary films. It’s probably the same ratio as a lot of rummage sales.
Like hunting through junk, the trick is to recognize the promising cast-offs; the small moments that can help tell a larger story. Here are two examples from Josh’s original teenage diaries.
Stories are usually told in the past tense. But one of the things radio does better than any other medium is to intimately capture life as it unfolds. When you hear things happen in real-time in front of the microphone, you experience the story for yourself. You can almost feel what it’s like to live someone else’s life.
When I first started doing radio, the thing that amazed me was the connection it was possible to make with someone when you interviewed him or her. And, if I did my job right, the listener could feel that same connection to the subject through the airwaves. It’s radio’s mysterious gift. We can bond in a real way to people we have never met. We feel like we know them. A teen mom becomes Melissa; an undocumented immigrant becomes Juan. Statistics and stereotypes turn into actual real people.
That human connection is more than a nicety. It’s a journalistic necessity. Along with theories and explanations, we need stories that help us touch, smell, and feel; reporting that doesn’t use people as humanizing props, but presents characters in a three-dimensional way with all their contradictions, ambiguities, and flaws.
There is a difference between knowing and understanding. I once heard the late Gil Scott-Heron say that the blues is like the wind chill factor. It doesn’t tell you how things are, but how they feel. Radio can do the same thing. Some stories tell you the temperature. Others make you truly feel the cold.
Narratives Without a Narrator…10 Tips for Producers
There’s nothing wrong with a script. Writing is fun. And very useful. But at Radio Diaries we usually tell stories without scripted narration. Radio is good at creating a direct and intimate connection between talker and audience. That’s why listeners identify so strongly with the reporter or host. If you want them to identify and connect with your character instead, it helps to stay out of the way.
I also enjoy the puzzle-like challenge of making stories out of found objects. This James Agee quote was one of my earliest inspirations. Not just because of the word excrement.
If I could do it, I’d do no writing at all here. It would be photographs; the rest would be fragments of cloth, bits of cotton, lumps of earth, records of speech, pieces of wood and iron, phials or odors, plates of food and of excrement.
–James Agee, “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men”
An unscripted story may sound less produced, but the opposite is often true. It takes a lot of work to make something that doesn’t feel like it was produced. It’s not like being a fly on the wall. If you want to create something with drama, structure, meaning, and emotion, you need to be a producer. A producer doesn’t just get a good story; a producer makes a good story.
Here’s how (with a few examples from Teenage Diaries Revisited):
1. Find A Great Character
You can make almost anything into a good story. What you can’t do is make anyone into a good storyteller. Cast your story. It’s tricky because people are good at different things. Some tell good stories and anecdotes, others are better at explaining, some speak with detail and vivid images, others are revealing and open. At Radio Diaries we refer to Talk-Outers and Talk-Inners. Outers are classic good characters: funny, extroverted, and colorful. A good Inner can be harder to detect until you listen back to the tape. They are the ones that make you lean closer to the speaker. They make you come to them.
A good talker naturally speaks with visuals, dialogue, and anecdotes. They can be thoughtful and philosophical without trying to sound thoughtful and philosophical. Here is an example from Juan.
The great thing about doing character-based stories is that you have the privilege — and the responsibility — to retain the idiosyncrasies of how people really talk; the asides, the pauses and silences, the unspoken meaning hidden between words. It’s often the smallest details that help us see characters as real, three-dimensional, and relatable. When their quirky phrases and speech patterns start entering your dreams, you’re on the right track.
We are all unreliable narrators of our own lives. In first-person stories it can be hard to represent conflicting versions or truths. (And when you’re gathering hours of tape over a long period of time, there will be conflicting versions and truths.) I like it when the character says one thing and we hear something else; when we can read between the lines; when it feels like we understand something the character doesn’t know quite yet.
2. Is Your Story a Story?
A lovely snapshot does not make a story. A good story has these two elements: action and meaning. Something needs to happen to your character. And your character needs to feel or say something about the experience. My favorite stories follow people as they change through time. If you are trying to create a three-dimensional portrait of somebody, time is the secret fourth dimension.
I also like stories where big ideas come from small places. Radio isn’t ideal for going wide and comprehensive. But it’s great at narrow and deep, uncovering universal meaning from the specifics of people’s lives and experiences. Tell stories from the ground up.
For more on what makes a story, Alex Blumberg wrote a great Transom manifesto years ago about the difference between a premise and a story.
3. Get Great Tape
The best radio advice I got early on (hat tip to Jay Allison and Neenah Ellis) was very simple: “Let things happen in the tape.” Radio is good at action, good with verbs. Make sure to capture things happening — live — in front of the microphone. That way the listener can experience it too.
Here is an example from Josh’s ‘grown-up’ diary. Josh had a hard time recording his tics for the story. He can control his Tourette’s enough so he rarely tics in front of people, or for the microphone. But he knew listeners had to hear the sound of his disease to really understand him. So one day, Josh lay down on his bed and recorded this:
“Happening” tape doesn’t need to be big and dramatic, like a tic. It can be subtle, like hearing someone have a genuine original thought. Radio is a great bullshit detector. We can all tell when someone says something rehearsed and canned versus when they are coming up with an idea for the first time. It’s the sound of something happening in front of us, the sound of someone really inhabiting their own words.
One totally basic but important reminder: get the microphone close enough. When you’re too far away it sounds like your character is talking in public, to lots of people. When the microphone is close it sounds like they are in your head, talking only to you. The one-to-one connection is the secret weapon of radio.
4. Think In Scenes
Ordinary life is not experienced in scenes. But if you’re a radio producer, you need to train yourself to see the world in scenes. Be a movie director. Non-narrated stories run the risk of feeling mushy, blurry, like a run-on sentence. Without a script to provide transitions, you have to rely on sound for punctuation. Good scenes are mini-narratives, with their own beginnings and endings. Scenes help you fight the mushy.
Your story should have different tones and flavors. Record people in different environments. For active, visual tape, do the interview in an active place. Record them doing things. For reflective, emotional tape, interview them at home in a quiet place with enough time so you don’t need to worry about the clock.
5. Plan For Luck
Documentary work depends on getting lucky. But luck isn’t ever really just luck. “Fortune favors the prepared mind,” is the adage from Louis Pasteur. Be prepared, imagine what you want, know what you’re going for, don’t leave until you get it, and then (the hardest part) recognize when you’ve actually gotten lucky.
Here’s one example. Frankie’s new diary was about his drug addiction a few years ago. The challenge was making something that already happened in the past come alive on the radio. One day Frankie was driving around his old neighborhood with the recorder on when he happened to spot the guy who first introduced him to crystal meth.
To get lucky you also need to have the curiosity and time to discover something new. What’s the point of doing a story you already know? For it to be surprising and unexpected to the listener, it helps if the story is surprising and unexpected to you too. The best moments are often the ones you weren’t looking for.
6. Organize Your Tape
I love collecting tape. I love the reporting and fieldwork part, the stage when the story is still filled with potential and possibility. What I don’t love is getting back to the computer and realizing I have way too much material and no idea how to begin editing and structuring it into something that makes any sense.
Having lots of tape is overwhelming. You’re not the only person who feels this way. We all do. Be extremely organized. Log your tape. Group your material into scenes and themes. Then fool around with your tape so much that you start to memorize it. Because you never know what will come in handy once you figure out the story structure.
7. Structure Is The Hardest Part
Structure is a leap of faith. You have to begin by putting the scaffolding in place even if it changes later. And it will. Like a puzzle, it’s helpful to work on the edges first. Once you know the beginning and the ending — what the story is really about — the middle is easier to fill in.
When we’re producing diaries, it’s sort of like breaking the material down into atoms and then putting it back together again. A lot of condensing and reordering happens. I usually divide material into ‘narration’ tape and ‘scene’ tape. In the Frankie clip up above, if you listen closely you can hear how we used both ‘scene’ and ‘narration’ tape. Scenes are the structural foundation. Narration (from interviews or diary recordings) is more flexible and gets sprinkled on top as needed. Outline with scenes.
There are really no secret tricks to find your story structure. It’s intuitive. But you can learn a lot from paying attention to how you talk about your story, what details you use, the sequence of action. Tell the story to a friend… and listen.
Our stories go through dozens of drafts and the structure is always changing. It’s a painful process. A lot of potentially good tape gets cut and lost along the way. But once the structure finally clicks into place, everything begins to look different. Odd bits you once discarded can take on new life. Some of the best little moments in our stories were basically in the garbage until being rescued after the structure came into focus. That’s the fun part.
We keep a “tidbits” track for all our stories. It’s a collection of random moments we love but can’t find a home for. Here’s an example of 2 words that my co-producer, Sarah Kramer, stumbled on in the tidbits track late one night as we were finishing up Josh’s story for broadcast. Josh begins his diary in his room with the word: “Action.” These two words gave us the ending: “And… cut.”
What you decide to cut out is as important as what you leave in. Making those choices is one of the most important storytelling muscles to develop. Remember all that tape you were so excited about when you first got it? Well, it no longer fits in your story and you need to say goodbye. It hurts. Maybe you can put it in a Transom Manifesto someday.
This audio clip is from an interview Melissa did with her son, Issaiah. He asks her, for the first time, how his father died. It’s a really intimate moment, and I love it. But, for a number of reasons (including the bad audio quality), it was cut.
One of the most valuable things you can have in life is a good editor. They are rare. At Radio Diaries we work with two of the best. Our contributing editors Ben Shapiro and Deborah George listen to everything from original concept to early drafts to the final mix. You can’t do good work alone. (At least I can’t.) Find a friend or colleague who can help you make your work better.
One of the jobs of an editor is to make sure you tell a clear and logical (and accurate) story. But you also don’t want to paint the picture so clearly that it’s boring. Leave enough room for listeners to discover and figure things out on their own. When the audience makes their own connections it allows them to fuse with the story — like a soldering or binding agent — and feel it for themselves. Magicians rely on the imagination to fill in the gaps. Radio producers can too.
9. Keep Something Just For You
You know how Alfred Hitchcock makes a cameo in all his movies? I try to embed something in each story that’s just for me. Something small that I totally love. Maybe just a phrase or a sound. Something no one else may appreciate in the same way, or even notice. It keeps me in love with the story on the 15th draft. It gets me through.
Endings are really hard. I often make the mistake of putting too much pressure on the ending, wanting it to say too much. But if you’ve done your job right, the listener already gets the point. Better to end your story with a story. Here is the end of Melissa’s diary from Teenage Diaries Revisited.
A Final Thought
My favorite section of the newspaper is the obituary page. If this seems like a dark place to go at the end of a manifesto, bear with me. Obituaries introduce us to people we never got to meet. They turn lives into narratives. I think everyone deserves an obituary.
Of course, most obituaries are about famous people. I’m a fan of the underdog teams, the overlooked stories. The other problem with obituaries is that by the time you read them, it’s too late. Imagine if we could learn about all these people while they’re still around. I sometimes think about the work we do at Radio Diaries as living obituaries.
Ordinary life is a mixed bag: boring and riveting; mundane and cosmic; diapers and death. But if you choose the right moments, and you organize, structure, edit, and mix with sound, you can turn that ordinary life into a pretty good radio story.
A Few Thanks
The tips and audio examples above are the result of collaborations with many of my favorite radio folks over the years. Thanks to Radio Diaries producer, Sarah Kramer, contributing editors Ben Shapiro and Deborah George, contributing producers Sarah Reynolds and Samara Freemark, Chris Turpin from NPR’s All Things Considered, all our teen and no-longer-teen diarists, the Radiotopia gang, and thanks for many years of wisdom and inspiration from Ira Glass, Dave Isay, the Kitchen Sisters, Sue Jaye Johnson, and especially Jay Allison.
About Joe Richman
Joe Richman is a Peabody Award-winning producer and reporter and the founder of Radio Diaries, a non-profit organization. For almost two decades, Radio Diaries has helped to pioneer a model for working with people to document their own lives for public radio. Joe has collaborated with teenagers and octogenarians, prisoners and prison guards, bra saleswomen and lighthouse keepers to create award-winning productions including: Teenage Diaries, Prison Diaries, My So-Called Lungs, New York Works, Thembi’s AIDS Diary, Mandela: An Audio History, Willie McGee and the Traveling Electric Chair, and Teen Contender. Before Radio Diaries, Joe worked on the NPR programs All Things Considered, Weekend Edition-Saturday, Car Talk, and Heat. He also teaches at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. The LA Times called Joe “a kind of Studs Terkel of the airwaves.”