Story Workshop Fall 2014: Insights

We asked the students in the Fall 2014 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.

Mary Quintas, Pawcatuck, CT

In college, at the end of each day I’d read through notes I’d taken in class. It was a good way to process and reflect on things that resonated with me. I keep making a resolution to start doing that here, but it’s hard to fit it into the busy schedule of interviewing, script writing, editing, living room dance parties, etc.

Now, I’m reflecting on the workshop and reading through notes I’ve taken over the past four weeks.

So here – paraphrased – are some of the many, many things I’ve learned…

From Rob Rosenthal:

  • Just walk into an interview and be a person – you’re just curious.
  • Notice what you notice. Pay attention to your own natural inclinations and internal responses.
  • Figure out: What is the overarching question of your story?
  • Radio is a tribe. Most everyone wants to help each other.
  • Your arm will get tired from holding the mic. Interview someone at a table so you can rest your arm on it.

From other Transom folks and guest teachers/speakers:

  • Jonathan Groubert: People listen to things because they’re inherently interesting, not because the subject matter is “worthy.”
  • Andrew Forsthoefel: When you ask someone to tell their story, you’re offering something in return: to listen.
  • Alix Spiegel: The Golden Rule applies to radio. Don’t go on the radio and say anything about someone that you haven’t said to them in person.
  • Jay Allison: Always interview someone wearing a strange hat.

Mary Decker, St. John’s, Newfoundland

This workshop has made me think a lot about finding your voice. To me, that means two things:

1. You have to know what you’re trying to say. That might not sound very difficult, but in radio the sentences are quick and simple –– no flowery stuff. Instead of arriving at the point in a roundabout way, you cut ideas down to their core. So, you access a truth that may have been diluted by a bunch of words, a truth you may have not even known was there.

2. You need to know what you love. Scott Carrier told us that. Knowing what you love can define you as person. It grounds you as you challenge yourself and approach new things. It reminds you where you came from. When you know what you love, you can speak in your own voice.

Phoebe and Ellie. Selfie outtake.
Phoebe and Ellie. Selfie outtake.

Ellen Payne Smith, Toronto, Canada

1. “Don’t be afraid to push back. Tell people what you think. Give them a chance to respond.” (paraphrased loosly from the Talk with Alix Spiegel)

2. It’s not unusual to cry. I don’t know if I really want to get into this, too much. But I was very surprised to find out that it’s not just me. After listening to Alix Spiegel’s talk, I’ve learned crying can be a healthy part of making radio.

3. This is a life’s work. I have the feeling that by signing up for this workshop, I’ve unwittingly signed up for LIFE. For me, I think that Radio means that I’ll never, not be challenged. I’ll always need to know more. If Alix Spiegel and Scott Carrier still get nervous about talking to strangers, and asking them questions. So will I. And that’s ok.

Anna Rose MacArthur, Columbia, TN

1. It doesn’t matter if you’re scared. It doesn’t matter if you have to dial the number five times before pressing call. It doesn’t matter if you’re sweating metallic stress hormones as you knock on someone’s door. It doesn’t matter if you cry during an interview. Or when writing the pitch. It doesn’t matter if you don’t believe in your work. What matters is that you raise the mic and ask the question. What matters is that you tell the story— accurately and ethically. The most boring, over-told tale is “I was scared so I didn’t do something.” That story doesn’t make radio. And you came here to make radio.

2. Know yourself. Know what you like. Know what you don’t like. Know what you know. Even harder, know what you don’t know—or at least gain awareness of it. Know your prejudices, your mental tendencies, your emotional habits. Know your stream of consciousness. Know what you think is beautiful, what you think is boring, what makes you listen, and what makes you tune out. Who you are determines what you hear, the stories you tell, the questions you ask, and the copy you write.

3. Batteries die. Expect casualties. Carry replacements.

4. Walk your gear. Literally. Take your recording gear on walks. You get used to wearing the electronics and handling the buttons and wires. You learn how to assemble and disassemble the pieces quickly and fluidly. You learn how the world sounds through headphones. You learn what your mic hears and how it hears it. You learn how you process the world differently while wearing the gear. Suddenly, everything becomes a story, and you’re ready to capture it.

5. Carry a camera and take pictures of fliers, signs, and new articles. Use them for future stories. Read fliers, signs, and news articles.

6. Don’t press pause. You will miss something. And that small red light is a coy devil.

7. You’re a human. The person you’re interviewing is a human. Meet on that ground.

Travis Lux, Austin, Texas

1. Don’t fear the gear.

It might take a bit to get used to walking around in public with a microphone, giant headphones, and a shawl of wires. It might seem like a handicap at first, like it’s stealing your confidence, but give it a few weeks and it’ll actually become quite the opposite. Soon it’ll be the thing that gives you the confidence to approach strangers and ask them what they’re up to.

2. Bring your gear everywhere!

We’re told this from day one, and I totally get why. Nothing stings worse than regret at having an amazing conversation that could’ve been on tape if only you hadn’t been too chicken to bust out the mic. If you’re interviewing someone, you might as well get it on tape.

3. Slow down a little. Take your time.

My natural tendency is to speak too generally and rush too quickly to the ends of stories. But it’s okay to take your time. It’s okay to build a little drama. Don’t drag it out, and of course, tell the truth. But remind yourself that good stories have memorable details, so look for ways to slow the story down, dig into details, and create anticipation. You’re allowed!

4. Always have a backup story. Or a few.

And then treat your backups like they’re not backups. Make calls, ask questions, and do research on multiple stories at once. Because sometimes stories hit roadblocks and you’ve got to be flexible enough to take them in other directions or to quickly switch gears to another story.

5. Kill your darlings.

Love your tape. Spend a lot of time with your tape. Write cozy narration around your tape. And always put your tape in the best position to succeed. But don’t get too attached, because it’ll only make the breakup worse. Sometimes a great piece of tape stops working in the greater context of the story, and you have to make the tough decision to take it out. If you love something, you’ll give it away. (Or turn it into a Sonic ID).

Annabel Lang, based in Chicago, Illinois

Being a radio producer is like being a girl scout.

Or, in other words, people kind of like us! I had some initial angst about asking people to talk to me for stories. I braced myself and did it, but I felt like I needed to apologize for existing every time I sent an email or held a mic up to a potential subject. Then Mary Q. and I went to the Fall Festival in Cotuit to get some tape and everyone kept thanking us for being there. I thought I was imposing by stomping around this town’s celebration with all my gear, but the people running the show appreciated that we’d come. It was like, by showing up, we’d said their fall festival was worth recording.  (And it totally was by the way. The Fall Festival in Cotuit is a great time. Everyone should go).

When I was a brownie, which is a pre-girl scout (I never actually made it up to the real thing), I had similar misgivings about going door-to-door and selling cookies. I made myself do it because we had a cookie quota and dammit I was not going to be the one who didn’t meet it, but I felt really weird about asking people to buy from me. I was always surprised by people’s positive reactions. I thought I was being bothersome.

In retrospect it makes sense. I was adorable and I was selling cookies. Of course everyone was delighted to see me. I’m no longer seven-year-old cute, and a microphone is probably less appealing then a box of Thin Mints, but I think the same principle applies to asking for interviews: just because I’m the one making a request, doesn’t mean the other person isn’t getting anything out of the exchange. So far at least, people seem like they want to talk.

Story Workshop, Fall 2014. Celebrating Canadian Thanksgiving
Story Workshop, Fall 2014. Celebrating Canadian Thanksgiving. Photo by Mary Decker

Phoebe Flanigan, Portland, OR

It’s difficult to summarize what I’ve learned at Transom, since I’m still in the process of absorbing so much. If I had to distill my experience down to a few points, I suppose they would be these:

1. Get all up in there.

A lot of the things we do here are new, or scary, or new and scary. But I think that if you’re feeling nervous, if you’re feeling challenged or out of your comfort zone, it means that you’re on the right track. Good stories, like personal growth, often live on the very edge of the familiar. Those edges are inherently uncomfortable. But if you accept that discomfort and take the plunge, you might like what you find.

2. Don’t fret.

While I was studying abroad in college, I had the chance to meet with the Peace Corps director for West Africa. Someone asked what kind of advice he gives to new recruits, and he responded with this: “Open mind, no expectations, trust the process.” I’ve since taken that quote and run with it. It’s the mantra I employ when I’m feeling uncertain or overwhelmed. The pursuit of any passion is filled with tiny successes and tiny failures. And I think that when you let go of your own judgments and expectations, you invite the opportunity for a richer experience.

3. Follow your nose.

This has been said a million times before, but it’s important: If it’s interesting to you, it’s probably interesting to someone else. So as Rob and others have said, “notice what you notice,” and dig in to your curiosity!

Anna Stitt, Fayetteville, Arkansas

I’m in the process of learning many things right now, most of which I’m not ready to articulate. But here are two things I’ve been thinking about and moving towards internalizing:

1. Scott Carrier said you need to know what you like. You don’t need to know why you like it, but you need to know what it is. When he said that, I realized that for most of my life, I’ve focused on what I should find compelling. Now, I’m working on embracing what keeps me interested — letting myself really notice and enjoy the “ear candy” around me. Hopefully soon, I will have (re)trained my internal storyteller and can look at heavy issues in a way that will keep a wide range of people engaged. But for now, I’m focusing on letting myself be playful and noticing what I like.

2. I’m learning the importance of intuition. I keep looking for a “right” way to produce every piece – a rubric or equation of some kind. It can be so scary to decide based on how things feel, with almost infinite options for directions that interviews can go, script wording, quote choices, sound, timing. But “right” doesn’t exist – what exists is the dance between everyone involved in the creation of the piece.

Joseph Jordan, Bend, OR

1. When writing for the page, I have a tendency to write complex, flowing, clause-laden sentences. That doesn’t work on the radio. In the first place, they’re just hard to say (trust me, I just wrote one and tried).  But beyond that, a sentence as long as your arm is damned near impossible to follow using only one’s auditory faculties. I mean to say, you’re going to have forgotten the beginning by the time you’re hearing the end.

2. That said, the adage “write like you talk” is . . . I have trouble with it. I never thought very hard about it before I came here, but the fact of the matter is that “like you talk”, in radio parlance, is not in fact how anybody talks. Anybody who has ever transcribed tape will realize this: if one were to ink in every “um”, every nonsensical fragment, every impossible-to-follow-aside, one would have an impenetrable jumble of twaddle. What “write like you talk” means is this: use direct sentences; briefer is better; adjectives are the enemy (and adverbs even moreso — hear, hear); and don’t make people use a dictionary just to listen to the radio. And it’s good advice.

2B. Ahem. You’re never going to get me to put a period where there should be a comma just because it pleases your eye. This leads to another point — believe in yourself. Nobody here will ever, ever bully you, but if you don’t have a sense of what’s good in your tape and your writing, you will get so much input that you’ll find yourself wandering dizzily down Water Street mumbling, “Can you say more about that? Can you say more about that? Can you say more about that?”

3. This leads me to another thing: interviewing for the radio is super different to any other interview you have ever conducted. Let people ramble. Stay silent sometimes; even when you have another question all queued up. Ask questions that are both specific, and open-ended: “Can you talk some more about the day you shipped out on The Good Ship Lollipop?” That’ll get tape. “Were you scared the day you shipped out on The Good Ship Lollipop?” That’ll get nothing. And remember that most people go through their daily lives feeling frustrated and un-listened-to: sticking a microphone in their face might make them nervous for a minute, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t thrilled to be asked their opinion on something.

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