Story Workshop Spring 2014: Insights

Intro from Jay Allison: We asked the students in the Spring 2014 Transom Story Workshop to share some of the most important things they’ve learned so far. Five weeks into their eight-week course, here is what they had to say.

Alison Byrne, Los Angeles, CA

Here are four things I’ve learned so far that I’m letting guide me as I work on my final project:

1. Be conversational. Somehow the hardest part about voicing my pieces is being myself. It’s so frustrating and strange not to be able to sound natural! But the more you listen to radio pieces with this in mind, the more you notice that the best narration sounds like someone is talking to you, not at you, and that difference is really important. In writing our work and speaking it into the mic, I’m learning to speak less like a news anchor or hokey public speaker and more like a regular ole (super cool) person telling an engaging story.

2. Be less afraid of bothering people than you are of coming back with bad tape. As a class, we’ve had conversations about being afraid to approach people or, once they’re approached, worrying about taking too much of their time, annoying them by asking too many questions, getting too personal, etc. But Nancy Updike from This American Life said she’s more afraid of not getting what she came for/what she needs, and that’s really driving me to go out and get what I’m nervous to go for.

3. Coming from a documentary film background –– and particularly having made a 55-minute non-narrated documentary –– I failed to notice how much an audio story is actually written/narrated. I just forgot how much I actually could narrate myself, and I realized that often that’s the best way to tell the story. So, although I think I’m a good story-crafter in general, I may have the most work to do in writing, as I come to understand that sometimes less tape is more. If you can say it better, by all means say it better!

4. Write short sentences.

Jakob Lewis, Nashville, TN

1. Radio is hard, and that’s ok.

I go from elation to depression in the course of a story. From what I understand that’s typical. So don’t panic, radio onward.

2. If I don’t tell this story, who will?

Nancy Updike drove this home for me. To phrase it in her words: “If not me…then who?” I’m not Ira, Nancy, or Jad…I’m Jakob Lewis and I want you to hear my story.

3. Notice what you notice.

I’m plagued with the false notion that there’s some perfect platonic form of a story floating out in the ether. There’s not.  There’s only the ones I make. I notice what I notice, and follow that. Everything else is just someone else’s story.

Nancy Klingener, Key West, FL

The biggest thing by far I’ve learned (or am trying to learn) is to approach a story thoughtfully and in as wide-open a way as possible. This is a radically new thing for me after way too many years in a high-volume print environment, where I had to know what I was going to get, then go get it and turn it around, stat. It is an exciting and sometimes terrifying approach to simply go out there, ask, and listen … and figure out what the story is as I’m doing so.

A related insight is to take your time as much as possible at each step –– so that you notice what’s going on around you and aren’t just capturing and spitting out information nuggets. This is new to me and sometimes not easy. But I strongly suspect it will help me become a much better storyteller.

Trust your team. And call on them. Granted, we have a ready-made team here as a Transom class but my limited experience with radio in the real world plus those I have met through this workshop tells me that radio people are remarkably collaborative and generous. Even those of us who are heading out to new places or independent careers (or places far from their stations, like me) can probably find radio people where we’re headed. We may even find people who are radio-curious but could use a little encouragement to engage.

And a final thing is the power of writing to tell a story, even if illustrated by a short piece of mediocre tape –– Nancy Updike’s Kung Pao chicken moment in her Iraqi Green Zone story is such a brilliant example. We were there and we got the place, because of her writing … and because of the tape. So maybe it wasn’t so mediocre.

Annie Costakis, Chicago, IL

1. “You already have no. You might get yes.”

Jonathan Groubert mentioned this during his Skype call. He said this in the context of podcasting (“don’t be afraid to ask people to listen to your stuff”), but it’s helped me when searching for stories. I’m amazed at how open strangers have been to being followed around by a random girl with a microphone. Most people truly want to tell you their story…but you have to ask.

2. “Sure-handedness: a compelling, internal logic where one idea flows seamlessly into the next.”

This is an idea from John Biewen. (Here’s more about it on How Sound.) Our teacher, Rob Rosenthal, says you should be able to summarize your story in “quick, dumb sentences;” otherwise, there’s a good chance you don’t really know what your story is.

3. “The follow-up questions are the most important questions.”

This came up in a discussion with Nancy Updike about connecting with your natural curiosity. Make your interview a conversation rather than an interrogation; follow what interests you. Stay away from highly-crafted, convoluted questions. Nancy: “Even if you get less than optimal tape, you can still make your story work as long as something ‘real’ happened.”

Cross The Delaware by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze. The inspiration for the class photo above.
Crossing The Delaware by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze. Inspiration for the class photo above.

Justine Paradis, Nantucket, MA

1. We’ve talked a lot about confidence, and I think that’s the foundation of most of the lessons from this workshop. Give yourself permission to be a journalist. Give yourself permission to say: I am a radio producer.

2. But also, give yourself permission to be stupid. The interview process is about staying in tune with your own natural curiosity, not just sticking to the plan. It’s especially not about seeming smart.

When This American Life’s Nancy Updike visited the workshop, she asked us to revisit one of our interviews and write down the questions that emerged for us as listeners. Most of the questions I wish I’d asked aren’t the long, over-complicated ones I brainstormed earlier. Usually, they’re very simple: why? What do you mean? Huh? I admire Nancy Updike’s straightforward, honest style, both in interviews and in writing.

I’m inspired to get rid of formality. Be a person, and listen. John Cage (and Jay Allison), “notice what you notice.”

3. I always struggle with making editing choices. It’s hard to kill your darlings, or in Transom language, “shoot the puppy.” I tend to want my story to say everything, to tell the whole story with all its nuances and resonant details, but a human being is too vast. Time constraints, and attention spans, don’t allow you to say it all.

A radio story can only suggest an entirety. It’s like a cross-section of a cliff: the pattern and layers suggest the larger history buried unseen in the rock. By choosing a narrative, you’re cutting a cross-section of someone’s life, and the magnitude of the unknown becomes somehow tangible. Maybe.

Kara Janeczko, Brooklyn, NY

1. Developing your spidey sense (Nancy Updike) // The Felt Truth

This is about trusting yourself.  It is subtle and visceral and helps on every level of making your piece.

In story hunting: it is overhearing a conversation at the deli or reading something in the Gazette and feeling your ears perk up — isn’t this something you were just thinking about?  Keep your ears switched on and serendipity will follow.

In listening: Listen to a bunch of different stuff — stuff that is new to you.  You will find a moment where the narrative base drops and you stop walking on the Shining Sea bikeway to say an Amen/Yeah Guurrrrlll and nearly get run over.  Write it down. Transcribe it.  And talk about it.

In interviewing: Your subject says something and you get a weird feeling in your gut that makes you nervous – what did they just say? Did I hear that right? Whoa, hold the phone — let’s get into that right there.

In editing: Read or listen to your peer’s pieces and find the line in their script that levitates, or one that throws an awkward elbow.  Let them know — you don’t have to preface it with “maybe it’s just me” or “I could be way off.”  Start with “I noticed X”. Do the same for your own.

You have to practice honing your instincts in order to become a well-oiled story machine.

2. Killing your darlings/drowning your puppies

Sometimes your spidey sense gets a little bold.  Like when it tells you how smart you are with a funny line.  Or you are sure you’ve nailed what a story is about before you’ve even done your first interview. And then the class unanimously tells you to lose your ending.  All the feedback has you drowning and you lose your mooring — compass broken. Your cheeks are burning and you weirdly feel like you are defending yourself — which you’re not — you’re defending your work.  First drafts are no sweat — 2nd, 3rd, 4th drafts are where you earn some sweat equity.  You have your precious 1stdraft already. Put it in a notebook under your pillow.  It’s not going anywhere.  Try — just for a second — to look at it a different way. If you got rid of your brilliant ending, what else could you do with your piece?  Go back to outlining; make yourself a little structural ladder to climb out of your editing k-hole.  And follow one step after the other. Do right by your piece, not by your ego.  If you can get through the itchy uncomfortableness, if you are brave and make yourself go a different way than you had originally intended the payoff could be MONUMENTAL.  If not — your darling isn’t really dead, just less spoiled with its preciousness.  That puppy needed house-training.

3. Go toward the pain – (Jennifer Hixon of The Moth)

This is true in story hunting, in interviewing, and in editing. Don’t pussyfoot around with cleverness. You can save tape that is off mic by writing — you can’t save tape that is boring (Nancy Updike).  Get deep; be bold. Then come up for air and write.

Alex Kapelman, New York, New York

1. Experiment. The first draft of my Creative Life story was a non-narrated piece. It ended up not working, but I was able to learn the strengths of narration through the process — plus find out firsthand how hard a narrated piece can be. And I feel like I’m a better producer for having tried my hand at something new.

2. Don’t be afraid to write. It’s not a sin to be in your piece. Done well, it can make the story better. You can shape the story, save tape that’s not working, and evoke stronger emotions. And longer narration doesn’t necessarily mean worse narration.

3. Believe everything the interviewee says. Believe nothing the interviewee says. This is adapted from a friend of mine who’s in her residency as a geriatric psychiatrist. I replaced “patient” with “interviewee” so that it works with radio, and I’m coining this phrase right now. So, make sure to be engaged with your subject. Follow them down a rabbit hole if it interests you. Get everything you can. But then, fact check. Because sometimes the person you’re interviewing is just wrong.

Kasia Gladki, Toronto, Ontario

What have I learned? Well, I think the better question is what am I learning. I think learning is a process, a process of embedding lessons into your working routine, which I still feel I’m going through.

I’m learning to just make the call. It can be scary and intimidating to call (or go up to) someone, enter their personal space, and ask questions. But it’s exhilarating once you do. Most people want to tell their story and if they don’t they’ll tell you. That’s it. Nothing horrendous will happen. So I’m learning to make the call (or make the move) before I psych myself out –– to just go for it.

Once I am in the interview I am learning to follow my natural instincts. Nancy Updike made the point that the reason we are doing these stories is because we’re interested in them. Sounds pretty obvious, right? Well then why don’t we just conduct the interview in this way? Unearth your natural curiosity and follow those paths. On the flip side recognize that some potential listeners may not be interested in your pet idea and figure out a way to draw them in. Give them compelling characters, anecdotes, and scenes. Take them somewhere new. I think this last bit was from Mark Kramer.

Finally, once the interviews are done, it’s time to write the story. Here I’m learning to pay huge attention to structure and to just change course if things aren’t working out. It shouldn’t be a struggle to make things work. The story should flow naturally and if it doesn’t there’s probably something wrong. Listen to this and adapt.

Nathan Tobey, Watchung, NJ

1. Why do you want to tell the story? Yes, you. Why you?

This American Life’s Nancy Updike was so helpful in reminding us that — to tell a compelling, real story — you need to actually know and understand your own feelings about it. Why do you want to tell this story? Why do you care? What is your personal connection? How do you feel about it?

If you think that doesn’t matter, you’re wrong, and missing out on potentially critical insights.

You can tell a story without knowing those things, sure, but it will always help you to have thought hard about them. The answers will clarify and inform your story’s focus, direction and style.

None of this means you stop being open-minded in your work, or jump to conclusions — it just means that you’re self aware, and that you’re close to the emotions at the core of any story.

The truth is, we all have our reasons for the stories we want to tell. And we should know what those are.

2. Narrative Rules.

Having a specific story in your piece can add a kind of urgency and power to your work that stands alone, and it can be so fun and satisfying. Narrative speaks to something instinctual in us all.


If you’re going to have a narrative — even hint at one — you have to do it justice or nothing else matters. The first (and second) draft of my first piece at Transom introduced a story/character arc, and then drifted away into moments and ideas I liked.

But if the narrative loses it way nothing else matters. It’s all lost on your audience.

3. Stop rereading your script. Start listening.

Writing is a big big part of radio. You need to see the words and organize them on the page.

But you can’t forget that radio is ultimately a felt and heard medium. In the end, it’s all about how it feels to listen to it, not read it on a screen.

I was too deeply focused on the script for my first piece. Once I really gave myself the chance to take everything in, then I started to see what was possible.


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