Intro from Jay Allison: This piece was produced as part of the Transom Story Workshop Fall 2015 session. Listen to more pieces from this Story Workshop class here.
About Secession’s The Answer
I almost ditched this story after my first interview. I’d had a great conversation with John Alley about his life and Martha’s Vineyard, but I didn’t have much good tape about the secession movement. John said that it had been fun, but that he was happy with the compromise they’d come to. I’d originally wanted to make a funny piece. After that interview, I wrote an outline for a sad story about growing old and letting go of your dreams. I wasn’t super pumped about it, and started looking for other story ideas.
A few days later, we had a class session with Planet Money’s Robert Smith. He read my lugubrious outline about aging and saw the story that I’d originally been excited about. He said that I should push back if my interviewees downplayed the secession movement, reminding them that they could have been governor. He envisioned tape of people at a bar singing the Martha’s Vineyard state anthem, or daydreaming about where the capital would have been located. I set out again, and I had so much more fun. Here are a few of the things I learned:
- You’re on tape, too. While reporting my first story, I focused on getting my interview subject to say great things, and didn’t pay much attention to how I sounded. For this story, I decided that I might want to use my own questions and reactions. So I joked, pushed back and asked follow-up questions, even if people weren’t done speaking. Listening to myself on tape, I still sound pretty polite — which is a good lesson, because I was afraid that these tactics might come across as rude. Interacting with interviewees made this historical story much more dynamic.
- Try weird stuff. On my way to gather tape at the karaoke bar, I wondered if I was crazy to think that this might work. At first it was awkward to record people on their night out. By the end of the night, though, I’d started to enjoy the rush that comes from talking to strangers and going out on a limb.
- You can’t do this alone. I tried and failed to figure out the melody of the Martha’s Vineyard state anthem on an app called “Tiny Piano.” Then I asked a musical genius friend of mine, Nate Barnett, to record it on his iPhone. I sent Nate the music and he sent back an amazing recording in no time. My fellow students also helped me form the structure and tone of this story — Transom creates an amazing editing community. Now that I’m not at the workshop anymore, I’m trying to remember to reach out to people that I want to collaborate with, send my work to trusted friends, and pay it forward by helping other people with their projects. It’s easy to hear amazing stuff on the radio and imagine that it was made by super talented producers working on their own and never getting distracted or having any self-doubt. But after my experience at the workshop, I’m pretty sure that collaboration is the key for everybody, no matter how talented they are.
Sally’s Sonic ID
I went to visit some friends on Martha’s Vineyard one evening. When six-year-old Odin started playing Jenga, I got out my recorder. There was going to be a great crashing sound at some point and I didn’t want to miss it. What really made the sonic work, though, was Odin’s scream of frustration when the blocks fell down. That, and his absurdly cute voice.