Story Workshop Fall 2012: Insights

We asked the students at the Transom Story Workshop to share some of the most important things they’ve learned so far. Four weeks into their eight-week course, here is what they had to say.

Robbie Feinberg, Londonderry, New Hampshire

Before this workshop, I’d written for a couple newspapers and a few pretty prominent websites. I thought I was a pretty good writer. But after getting here, I realized just how wrong I was.

See, this is the Transom Story Workshop, so when I started writing my script for my first piece, I needed to write like I was telling a story, not writing  a newspaper article. For me, that was really tough. I was stuck in 
“newspaper land” – writing with big words that nobody would understand.

But after a lot of careful work and hours and hours of rewriting, I think I’ve figured it out. When you write for radio, you’ve got to be concise, with some action-packed verbs. But you can also play around with your language a bit. Emphasize a few words. Repeat a phrase a few times. It’s storytelling at the most basic level. And though it took a lot of tries, I think I’ve finally figured it out.

Mallory Falk, New Orleans, Louisiana

Find a few radio fans and listen (deeply!) to stories together. Up until now, I’ve mostly listened to radio on my own (through soft, tinny laptop speakers). Radio is a comforting, informative companion while I’m cleaning my apartment or cooking a meal; I rarely focus all my attention on a story or reflect on it with another listener.

Here at the Transom Story Workshop, we start every class with group listening. There’s something magical about sitting in a room full of radio fans, listening to some of the most creative, compelling, gut-punching stories out there and dissecting them together – breaking down what we loved (or didn’t), what we learned, what we hope to emulate in our own pieces. Each of us brings a different set of ears and a different set of insights to the story. By hearing a piece through others’ ears, I’m picking up on powerful themes and brilliant production tricks I might’ve missed otherwise. I’m becoming a much more careful listener.*

If you’ve ever had to dissect and discuss a story in English class, you’ve got the tools you need. Grab some fellow radio enthusiasts and give it a try!

*Of course, hearing the backstory to each piece from Rob – learning about the trials, tribulations, intense planning or plain luck behind every story – is a major bonus!

Emily Hsiao, Torrance, California

Don’t forget to record room tone. Make it a habit to do it at the beginning of an interview so it doesn’t slip your mind at the end. There’s nothing weird about smiling at someone for a minute in silence, unless you make it so.

When an interview has drawn to a close, set your microphone aside but don’t turn off the recorder. People will sometimes drop afterthoughts of gold–it’s much easier to quickly reposition the mic than it is to fumble with equipment and smash buttons in desperation. Of course you could ask people to repeat themselves, but the delivery isn’t the same (read: is usually worse). Similarly, if you ever find yourself thinking, “should I be recording this,” the answer is YES.

Marnie Crawford Samuelson, Boston and Cape Cod, Massachusetts

What I’ve learned so far?

  1. How to work from a script (the number of rewrites is painful).
  2. How to write and think (and record) in scenes. You need to think about this right away and go out with a plan for your recording. Getting what you need to start and finish scenes is really important – all the transition sound elements. It’s been helpful to think about a scene as a cup or vessel – holding ideas, as well as events.
  3. How to persist until you find a good character. You need someone who is compelling, willing to open up, acting and making choices, changing. Did I say, available when you need them?

Ruth Samuelson, Bethesda, Maryland

On the radio, people speak succinctly. They boil down difficult concepts. And they avoid jargon. At Transom, we’ve talked about how to force people to sound that way. There are tricks. Now, I repeat people’s statements back to them — knowing I’ve got them wrong. It’s better to show I’m not quite catching on. Then, my subject will naturally start describing things more simply. I’ll also tell people “explain that to me like I’m in fourth grade…” That’s another way to wipe out big words. And I interrupt people and remind them to speak in full sentences. “Yeah, sure” doesn’t work on the radio. Where’s the revelation in that? These little tactics are invaluable.

Veronica Simmonds, Halifax, Nova Scotia

Thirteen learning’s:

  1. Don’t be distracted by your deliberately built imaginary structures
  2. Show don’t tell
  3. Things don’t sound how they look
  4. People don’t listen until they’re interested
  5. The president never gets edited
  6. Tongues have brains
  7. Presence has meaning
  8. The tape rules
  9. We have time to get to the emotional truth, the felt truth
  10. Let it be complicated
  11. Beware of nebulous pronouns
  12. Forget the itinerary – go crazy
  13. There is no story best left untold

Four questions:

  1. What are you pursuing?
  2. What feeling do you want to communicate?
  3. What does the audience know, what don’t they know?
  4. At what point do we learn what the story is about?

Two definitions:

  1. Story dump – The moment midway through an interview when you ask your subject to tell the whole story from beginning to end.
  2. Chicken bomb – A chicken bomb is a moldy science experiment that when opened fills a room with putrescence. Similarly if you have a perfectly riveting story and then throw in a distracting detail, the stench of that detail may linger.

A haiku:

october seaside
nine listeners preserve voice
truth, sound, and story

Emma de Campo, Melbourne, Australia

My skull has become physically contorted this past month. These unusual bumps and lumps have appeared, filled with new interviewing, storytelling and digital editing brain matter. But let’s put matters of the head aside for now, because the most critical lesson I’ve learnt has been purely practical. And that’s to always ALWAYS, wear a bra. Because as a radio producer, you just never know when you’ll need to run.

Case in point – last week I found myself amongst the motley crew that make up the Hyannis Running Club. I was there to interview the coach about his ultra marathon-loving ways. An amateur error indeed! Because before I could so much as reach for my neatly scribed interview questions, I found myself sprinting up and down the car park, to the alarming pulse of the coach’s whistle. As I battled to avoid tripping over my mic cable, keep up, somehow interview the other runners and keep half an eye on the recording levels I just knew I would never make the same mistake again. It’s bras on from here on in.

Eric Drachman, Los Angeles, California

Here’s a smattering of important things I’ve learned. There are too many to list.

Simplifying is always a good thing…but not always so easy. Here are some tips I’ve learned so far to simplify:

Rob Rosenthal says, in working on your story structure, you should be able to tell it in “quick dumb sentences.” If you can do that and it flows, your piece will probably flow. If you get stuck, that’s where you have a problem. I guess you can dress it up all you want, but if it doesn’t work in quick dumb sentences, it ain’t gonna work. This is one of those lessons that seem obvious, but try it – it’s like x-rays for the flaws.

While I’m talking about simplifying — write in simple sentences. It ends up sounding so much smarter than using all of those big words. Plus, fewer syllables saves you time and gets you in under 4 1/2 minutes.

So often, I’ll want to ADD something to clarify, when CUTTING makes it so much clearer. Jay Allison says, “I don’t need to know everything. Just the good stuff.” Ah, but if you’re Jay, you can identify the good stuff so fast it looks easy…

Kristina Loring, San Francisco, California

For my second radio story, I wanted to do something related to sonic mapping and ways to discover life beyond our computer screens. For a little research, I started reading John Stilgoe’s Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places. The title alone could be the name of the Transom Story Workshop. The workshop has transformed us into little story archaeologists and sonic anthropologists:

Go with your gut and GEEK OUT: chase the stories that fascinate you and you’re genuinely curious about. The same goes for the sound bites and quotes you pick for your radio pieces. If that quote made you pause and say “Ah.” Find a way to keep that golden nugget!

KEEP THE HUMANITY in radio: Jay Allison reminded us: keep people’s breath or long pauses, or giggles in when you edit. Slow the radio down. Sincerely react when someone is telling you something amazing or heartbreaking. Yep, respond like a real live human. That can help you transcend from being a robot with a mic as an arm to a true listener and conduit of emotion.

This can lead to the coveted: Emotional truth! The intrinsic moment of reflection that encapsulates your interviewee’s felt experience. Beneath all the facts lies a universal feeling that will resonate more deeply with others and have a farther reach.

Experiment! TSW is like a cross between an alternative grad school and a lab. Go forth and break the mold! No need to put on your Ira or Jad hat, put on your own damn hat. Just make sure you can find the larger narrative in your sound arty pieces. Still working on that one (thanks for the advice, Rob and Sarah!)


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  • barbara allison



    They sound like a very interesting, and interested, group! M.

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