Life Is Not A Story: Lessons From Making A Personal Documentary

Intro from Jay Allison: Making a personal documentary is not for the faint of heart. It typically requires revisiting something difficult and staring it in the face. It can be the equivalent of doing therapy in public. John Fecile recently produced, "Blink Once For Yes," which looks at his family's decision to end the life of his terminally ill brother. You can listen to the story on Love + Radio but you can read all about the process of making it and the lessons John learned along the way here.

Cheaper Than Therapy

When I first started making a documentary about my brother’s death, I joked that doing so was cheaper than going to therapy. Still, it was a step up from how I had been dealing with it — vomiting out the painful details to friends, coworkers, and first dates, sometimes drunk and with little to no prompting. I had the desire to pretend his death never happened while simultaneously wanting to shout from a mountaintop.

Most people have experienced some kind of trauma — and we need to talk about it, as awkward as that can be, because that’s part of how you process what you’ve experienced. If you’re an artist, this might naturally manifest itself in art. Many great audio pieces tell deeply personal stories — like Elna Baker’s segment on This American Life’s “Tell Me I’m Fat” episode and Samantha Broun’s “A Life Sentence” on Transom. After all, if your first instinct when you hear a captivating story is to pick up a microphone, why would you respond differently if that story took place in your own life?

My own private turmoil eventually culminated in “Blink Once for Yes,” an hour-long audio doc that aired on Love + Radio in December 2016. The piece centers on a decision my family made to end the life of my terminally ill younger brother in 2015. It’s so raw and difficult to listen to that many people have asked why I would put myself and my family through its creation.

Fact is, when I began recording interviews for what would become “Blink Once for Yes,” my family and I were all in the same boat. We needed to talk about our trauma so bad that it was all we could do not to scream. No matter how painful, my parents, siblings and I wanted to understand what we’d gone through. It wasn’t hard to get permission to record.

The real challenge for me as an audio producer was to spin our reflections into a functional story with a beginning, middle, and end, while also being true to my own feelings as a subject of the story myself. But how do you do that?

No Self-Censorship

If I wanted to honestly and objectively tell the story of my brother’s death, I knew I had to be an emotionally engaged subject, in addition to being a journalist. I wasn’t afraid of being reactive or losing my cool and looking really bad, which I do in a couple of scenes.

Take this one, for instance, in which I’m grilling my surviving brother. The intent of the scene was to show how unsettled I’d become by the circumstances of our brother’s death, and how I was using the microphone to inflict that pain on him.

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Listen to “Patrick Scene”

Even if I hadn’t conducted this interview, I still would have found a way to take my angst out on him. I’m not alone — I’ve observed other people get weirdly antagonistic after someone dies. I kept moments like that in because I wanted to present a complex, realistic portrait of what it’s like to deal with the aftermath of someone’s death.

Early on I developed some habits to help navigate this new terrain.

Being Prepared

This might be an “eat your vegetables” kind of tip, but being fastidious isn’t your first instinct when you’re making something for free at your parents’ house. I drafted questions before interviews to give myself a baseline I could return to if we went wildly off-course. I was also very meticulous about the technical elements of recording — using two mics, getting room tone, just generally minding my Ps & Qs. Focusing on the mundane elements actually helped keep me grounded during more emotionally difficult interviews.

A Marathon Mindset

I knew I wanted to explore my brother’s death, but I didn’t know what the story would really be. I assumed I’d be recording for a long time, until whenever that story became apparent. I recorded about 80 hours of audio over 20 months, but I initially thought the process could take up to 10 years.

This freed me up in two ways. First, I could afford to really stray wildly and not cover everything I needed to in my interviews, especially with my family. There would always be opportunities to follow up.

I also realized that the vast majority of what I recorded would not end up in the piece. This actually encouraged me to record more — especially trivial, everyday scenes like casual chats on car rides and small, quiet moments. I didn’t know what I’d need, so my thinking was: “Yeah, why the heck not. Record your mother walking the dogs at three in the morning. Who knows.”

Audio Diaries

Throughout the process I also attempted to keep audio diaries, wherein I spilled my guts into my H4N. I never worried about the content of these, only that I was saying exactly what was going through my head.

These diaries gave me a map of my emotions throughout the doc-making process, but I really didn’t like making them. Most of the entries are embarrassing and/or complete garbage.

Like this one:

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Listen to “Embarrassing Audio Diary”

Keeping diaries in which I was willing to sound stupid and vulnerable was an important ethical choice. If I was going to ask the people close to me to be emotionally naked on mic, I had to be willing to be the same.

Ultimately, only one of these audio diaries made it in. It’s a vital moment near the top of the piece that reveals my standing as a character, not just the producer. I never would have captured that moment, recorded late one lonesome night, had I not been engaged in the noxious practice of keeping audio diaries.

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Listen to “Audio Diary We Used”

See Yourself As A Character

A picture of my siblings and me on Christmas 2015, when I was recording the material that would become Blink Once For Yes.
A picture of my siblings and me on Christmas 2015, when I was recording the material that would become Blink Once For Yes.

Once I started editing, I had to learn about the character John, and the story he was a part of. It’s really weird to think of yourself as a character, and it’s even weirder to take a huge tangled mass of your life and strain it through a reductive three-act structure. But for me, the solution to these quandaries was pretty simple: work with other people.

Collaboration

I probably would have been too depressed, honestly, to do this alone. I needed help with the workload, and constant reassurances that I wasn’t crazy. I enlisted my good friends Lizzie and Pat early on to assist with recording and pitching, cut “Blink Once” with Love + Radio producer Steven Jackson over a three-month period, and finished out with a great deal of mixing and editing help from L+R mastermind Nick van der Kolk.

My collaborators were creative equals, contributing ideas and taking on tasks that I dreaded, like logging my audio diary tape or doing the first passes on scenes I found particularly upsetting. They challenged me when I was being precious or protective, and talked me down when I found myself emotionally overwhelmed, which happened a few times.

Most importantly, working with other people made the process a lot of fun. When Steven and I went on a retreat in Wisconsin to do our first rough cut, we took a lot of breaks to play ping-pong, listen to rap and just goof off. Those breaks would help me see the piece with a fresh pair of eyes.

Group Feedback

I pulled together a few focus groups to listen to rough cuts at various stages of the editing process. These were much like group edits in a newsroom. Our listeners consisted of people who worked in media, and people who didn’t. Some were friends, some total strangers. Most did not know anything about the story beforehand. The group listens were followed by a questionnaire, then a mediated discussion.

The sessions told us what scenes were working, and how the audience was feeling about the characters. This was especially important when it came to me, the character John. Here’s a link to a questionnaire from one of our sessions.

In this session, I wasn’t really featured in the piece all that much. The scene where I grilled my brother and my audio diary weren’t there. We added those afterwards in response to the feedback we got that people wanted to hear more from me and understand my role as subject/producer.

As we continued to revise and hold these feedback sessions, audiences responded more favorably. We didn’t take every piece of feedback, but our early listeners did point the way forward. I could focus on what was working, and cut away material that, while it might mean a lot to me, detracted from the audience’s experience of the piece.

Life Is Not A Story

There’s a tendency to over-contextualize in personal documentary. You want to explain everything, so that the audience appreciates the characters and events in your life just as you do. But sometimes, stuff that is actually important in your life, just isn’t important to the story you’re trying to tell.

There are scenes that we cut out of “Blink Once for Yes” that I still feel bad about losing. We recorded my brother’s funeral, a huge event in my life. Gone. My surviving brother being committed to an institution due to stress and grief? Also gone. It doesn’t feel fair, yet I stand by those cuts.

Documentary essentially turns the truth into fiction, by pulling from and reshaping moments of real life to fit the component parts of a story. You can’t capture the fullness of a lived experience in a documentary — you just can’t. In fact, that’s not even the point. What we’re aiming to do anytime we tell a story about personal trauma is to distill a greater, underlying meaning from chaos.

It’s hard for me to articulate exactly what that meaning was for me. I can only say that finishing “Blink Once for Yes” has brought me some level of peace. I’ve been able to connect to others who have been in similar situations. One listener sent me an email to say that hearing my story made her feel less alone, which is exactly how her email made me feel.

My family has been very positive about “Blink Once for Yes.” They feel the piece really captured something. You can hear the discussion between my parents and I after they heard the doc for the first time a few weeks before it aired.

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Listen to “Bonus Scene”

The rewards have been real. But making my personal doc was, at times, brutally difficult. If you have the impulse to tell a personal story, don’t shy away from it, but keep your eyes open. Know that you’re going to have to tell a story, and that you’re going to have to work hard to find that story. Make sure that telling it is the right thing for you and the people in your life.

John Fecile

About
John Fecile

John Fecile started out in “the movies,” working as an editor and sound guy on documentaries. At some point he realized he could just combine those two jobs and edit stories together out of audio, so he started freelancing as a radio producer at WBEZ. You can see his work at johnfecile.com or follow him on Twitter. If you listened to "Blink Once for Yes" and were moved by it, contribute to help others with brain injuries by visiting this fundraiser page for the Brain Injury Association of America.

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