Paul Maliszewski’s Grossly Unprepared: An Open Letter That Moved To Radio

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Benjamin Adair 03.12.01

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.

From Print to Air

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 to 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 to find out when and where near you. Also, it’s on the web as an mp3 – link to my website at (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. [Ben Adair’s current site is:]

Paul Maliszewski 03.13.01

I’m Paul Maliszewski, the writer 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.

Changing the Organism

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.

Reading the Organism

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.

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.

Reflections on the Cloning

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.

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,

Benjamin Adair 03.14.01

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.

Music and Rhythm

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 had 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.

(Cheryl Wagner) 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 loopy 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.

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