Story Workshop Fall 2013: Insights

Editor’s Note: We asked the students in the Story Workshop to take a group photo of themselves for this feature. They sent us the shot at the top of this feature and then they sent us all the outtakes, below. You guys! (By the way, the scene is set at our communal dinner table in Woods Hole.)

We asked the students in the Fall 2013 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.

Annie McEwen, St. John’s, Newfoundland

Summing up what I’ve learned so far is hard. So here are a few disjointed thoughts:

At Transom: It’s so nice to see people, real live people, who make radio and are not starving to death. There is a perennial youthful energy here and I think it’s because these people haven’t given up; they’ve been brave, they’ve pushed through. They’re in love with making radio and they’ve fought hard to keep it in their lives. This energy is contagious.

Something I’ve found really helpful: If you’re having trouble finding someone with a great story, think about what it is that you find incredibly interesting, right now. Anything. And then think about where you can go to start talking to people about it. One day I was thinking about death a lot, so I biked to Falmouth and visited an old folks home. Just to see.

Also: Your headphones and microphone give you super powers. First of all you can hear everything so well it’s crazy. Second of all, they make everything precious. They transform the ordinary into the remarkable. You hear the humanness of the person you’re interviewing — their sighs, their throat-clearings, their deep breaths, their vulnerability — and you feel it too. I’ve learned that even though it can sometimes feel like you’re bothering someone — you’re in their home, you’ve unplugged their fridge, you’re sitting real close with your knees almost touching and you’re hovering a mic near their chin — despite all of this, an interview can be a gift to someone. Tell me about you. I promise to listen. Your mic and headphones pull you in to the emotional flow of the world. They allow you to really see someone.

And finally: I know it’s said all the time, but be brave. It’s something I have to tell myself a lot here. (“Take a deep breath and just go talk to that man sitting on the bench over there,” I say to myself.) But I think that’s good. Move toward what scares you — I think if you feel this, you’re doing something right.

Tobin Low, Cupertino, CA

For our first stories, the participants of the workshop worked like a nine person editorial team, pouring over each other’s scripts and offering a kind of Greek chorus of what needed to be done. And in reading everyone’s second, or third, or millionth rewrite, I had the same reaction: I’d get to a sentence or an idea that hadn’t been there before and I would think, ‘That’s it. THAT is what this story is about.”

I’m working on a theory that if you stick with a story long enough — and I mean really slogging your way through a couple drafts, whittling it all down to the bare minimum of what needs to be said in order to tell a story gracefully and economically — you eventually find your way to a sentence or two that NAILS what your story is about. And once you get to that nugget, everything else kind of falls into place.

Jennifer Jerrett, Yellowstone National Park, WY (Yup, I really live there)

Step 1:  Lean In

In my application to Transom I wrote some bullshit about liking radio production because it allowed me to stay behind the scenes. Let’s just say I was off the mark on that. On all counts. You have to lean in to this work. You have to lean in to your writing. Lean in to your interviews. Lean in to your own process.  And look, all of this can be pretty uncomfortable. It has been for me these last few weeks. But how can you ask a listener to trust you to take them someplace they’ve never gone before, if you’re not willing to go someplace you’ve never gone yourself? And so some things I’ve learned haven’t necessarily occurred in the classroom, though they certainly have been framed by it. These things I’m talking about happened because I had enough sense to be a bit fearless and lean into them. And I came away from those moments a more jazzed, charmed or quietly moved radio producer. I met a musician who is also doing ambient sound recording here who changed the way I listen — I mean really listen — to a place. I ran into a fisherman on the hunt for False Albacore who changed how I think about language. And I impulsively chatted up an ecologist, inspired by Vivaldi, whose big ideas pushed me to rethink the ways I can frame a story. So the takeaway is don’t hold back. Get in there. 1…2…3…LEAP!

Kathy Tu, Diamond Bar, CA

I’ve learned so many things, it’s really tough to pick just three. But, I did it just for you, dear reader. Here are the three golden nuggets I’ve learned so far at Transom:

1. The interview is the most important part (for me). Focus on the interview and getting good tape. Everything else follows from it. I’ve also discovered that there are different styles of interviewing (chronological, starting straight from the topic at hand, etc.). Pick the one that seems to fit the story the most and go from there. Sometimes you’re going to have to push it and it might get awkward. Just go with it. Get awkward.

2. Don’t wear sunglasses when interviewing someone; they won’t talk to you (Sean Corcoran). After an interview, take some time to write down your impressions before you start logging (Andrea Seabrook). Use what you want as the outcome to inform the structure of your story (Jonathan Harris). Transom students are brilliant (Ira Glass). Okay that last one may not have happened (yet).

3. Trust the process. I literally just said this to a Transom-mate. There’s a huge support network here to help us make our pieces and I’m loving it. From Rob’s ability to pull narratives out of nowhere to Sarah’s super useful feedback and constant encouragement to my eight other partners-in-radio-crime, we’re in such good hands. Trust the process. And have fun doing it.

Jenny Gustafsson, Sweden / Beirut, Lebanon

It happens often, right? You come to a place prepared to learn something, then leave having learned a whole lot of other things as well. This workshop. Exactly that. Well, we haven’t left yet – we’re only halfway through – but already a lot of new discoveries. Like, how difficult it is to find your voice. You know, that voice of your radio-you. The one that speaks with ease yet says things that are smart, elaborate, easy-going and interesting. It’s fascinating how you discover things about yourself only through exploring ways of working with your voice. I think it’s a bit like yoga, where the physical movements take you to new places inside your mind. Getting to know your voice seems to be doing that same thing.

For me as well, coming from across the Atlantic, it’s been great to explore storytelling the way it’s done over here. I work mostly in the Middle East and write a lot for Scandinavia, where the pace and energy of reporting and relating stories is quite different. Slower, more solemn and contemplative. Often not as explicit and plain-spoken. So these weeks have definitely been a journey in terms of learning new ways of getting people’s voices out there. I’ve been amazed by the beautiful and personal stories some of the other participants in the workshop have been sharing.

I think as well that the way we work, staying very involved in each other’s projects and sharing our feedback and ideas, is what makes the workshop so worthwhile. Imagine having ten editors (that’s Rob and Sarah, the teachers, plus the eight people in the group) look at and listen to your work. Very different from life as a freelancer, which can be a lonesome place.

Eric Jones, Iowa City, Iowa

A microphone is a kind of conversational superpower. It gives you, the newly irradiated radio reporter, strange abilities that are at first hard to control. When you pull out your microphone, put on your legally required headphones, and approach someone for an interview, he usually stands up straight, brushes the hair out of his conversational eyes, and smiles. Of course he knows you’re taking a close-up picture of him in sound, the quality of which will depend a good deal on what he says and how he says it. And, of course, he wants that picture to sound good. Wouldn’t you?

Some say the goal is to set your interviewee at ease, make her forget the microphone. To forget that you’re faster than a speeding bullet when it comes to asking intimate questions, to ignore the fact that you’ve just asked her to unplug the fridge, to repeat what she just said but more slowly, and to tell the story the way she would to a 7th grader, all in a single bound. But your interviewee will almost certainly not forget. Or if she does, it’ll be similar to the way you can kind of forget that you’re still at work when you’re at the office holiday party — not entirely, and certainly not altogether comfortably.

It’s a heady power to suddenly have — this strange ability to go anywhere and start asking questions. It’s a bit like being a celebrity, or maybe a celebrity’s handler. You are bigger than yourself, a vehicle to a vast darkened audience of future listeners. People’s reactions to you are outsized, too — some curse at you and others hand you their whole hearts as if you’re a saint.

Last week I stood on the ferry dock and asked the man waving the cars onto the boat if I could talk to the captain. The man looked at me, looked at the microphone, and then, as if bewitched, went to go get the captain. Who am I, I thought, that captains should climb down from their glass towers to talk to me? But it was the microphone, of course. And me, I just wanted to ask the captain if he sometimes goes to sleep and dreams of piloting ferryboats deftly into their docks.

Brigitta Greene, Westfield, NJ

I’m learning how deep listening can be. When I’m interviewing someone, it can be hard to listen, really listen, without stepping back to think of the next question — or breaking my focus to make sure the recorder is still working. But even when I think my mind is clear of these logistical concerns, it’s a challenge to pick up on all the nuances that I want to catch.

For example, there’s making sure that I understand what the person I’m interviewing said at face value: “I have a dog that’s 14 years and 22 days old.” – OK, I get it.

And then there’s making sure I understand why they said it the way they did: like, proudly — Is that really old for a dog?

And then there’s understanding why they even brought those details up to begin with: Why would someone keep track of their dog’s age by the day?

It seems the real soul of a story often reveals itself through questions you didn’t think you would ask. I’m learning how important hearty listening is to get to that point. Hopefully, it comes easier with practice!

Vanessa Barchfield, Tucson, Arizona / Vienna, Austria

One of the most wonderful discoveries for me at Transom has been that a microphone is basically a free pass to walk up to anyone and start a conversation. People that I would otherwise pass in the street without looking at or be too shy to talk to (and I’m not even a shy person). My equipment gives me the excuse to ask a biker about his latest trip, a high school theater student about her dream role, or why someone’s poodle is dressed in a clown costume.

And that’s just the beginning. Usually the conversation moves from that initial topic to something far more interesting. But in order for that to happen (here’s another great Transom insight) it’s important to welcome silence — even (or especially) if it feels uncomfortable. Silence means the other person is thinking and often when they start talking again they’ll say something even more powerful or interesting or colorful than they did initially.

Also, while interviewing, I try to just forget about the mic and be normal. Ask the same questions I would under any other circumstances (though maybe with a few more “why is that[s]” and “tell me more[s]”).  It’s important to smile and nod and be friendly and empathetic and — most crucially — to listen.

Ethan Chiel, Croton-On-Hudson, NY

After almost a month making radio on the Cape there’s one thing I know for certain: I love the way Cape Codders pronounce scallops.

Seriously, it rules. After a lifetime of hearing and saying “skall-ups”, I’m in a world of “skollops.” Plus, there’s incredible variation within that world. Sometimes it’s SKOL-ops, sometimes skol-OPS. I’ve even heard skULL-ups.*

If you’re thinking, “Is this an overwrought analogy to sneak an observation about bivalve pronunciation onto Transom?” then you’re not far from the truth.

But this little analogy does have something to do with radio! As storytellers, we have tons of control over the shape of the narratives we’re working with. But sometimes others have flat-out better ideas on how to tell those stories. They often don’t know they have these ideas, but they do. Talk to your editors, your teachers, your friends, your family, and your pets. Talk to strangers. Talk to them about your stories early and often. Their ideas can transform a mediocre story into a good one, and a good story into a great one. And if their ideas happen to be bad, just don’t take the advice. Duh.

Most importantly, talk to your tape, and listen to what it says back. Because you’ll make a story that goes “Ethan did this because skall-ups. BUT now everything has changed because skULL-ups.” Then your tape will whisper back in a tiny voice, “Claaaaaaaams.”

And that’s the story you’ve gotta tell.

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  • James G.



    My favorite line comes from Brigitta Greene: “It seems the real soul of a story often reveals itself through questions you didn’t think you would ask.” That is awesome.

  • The View From Here (@CapRadioView)



    It’s good to know that a few more peeps from Cali are learning to make radio from the very best folks in the business. When you get back home, look me up at Capital Public Radio where we make documentaries. The View From Here is a regular, station-based doc production group! And we’re looking to connect with freelance media makers. Learn lots and then come see me! Catherine Stifter

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