I had all kinds of grand plans for my second Transom piece. It was going to have small-town drama, the deliciously petty and engrossing kind. It was going to creep up and surprise you with big emotions and universal truths. It was going to be a mini This American Life piece, and I was totally going to pull it off.
But when I started doing interviews, I found that what I thought I had — well, I didn’t. It was more complicated than I’d thought, and not in an interesting way. The stakes weren’t quite what I’d imagined. I realized, slowly, and in a growing panic, that I had hours of tape, but not much of a story.
Then Ira Glass came to visit. He tried valiantly — bless him — to make something of what I had, suggesting larger meanings and questions I could go back and pose to the people I interviewed to see what might stick. I agonized over whether I could salvage the thing. I started to acknowledge that I probably couldn’t.
But there was this one piece Ira played for us during his visit that lodged itself in my brain. I’d heard it before, on the TAL episode “It’ll Make Sense When You’re Older”. But one of the things that’s magical about the workshop is that it gives you new ears. You begin to listen differently, to dissect the stories you love and figure out exactly why you love them, what makes them so damn good.
In the piece, Chana Joffe-Walt talks to a man with Alzheimer’s. He’s forgotten how to tell time — something he realized when, at a doctor’s appointment, he was asked to draw a picture of a clock showing a particular time, and he couldn’t. A physicist by trade and at heart, he tackles the problem by deconstructing the analog clock, to figure out not just how to draw a clock, but why this assignment, such a seemingly simple one, is so confounding to him.
What’s striking about the story is that it’s so small. It’s one conversation — between Chana, the man and his wife — about one mundane task. It chronicles the tiniest of victories. But it feels so much bigger. The story doesn’t succeed despite its smallness. The smallness — the everydayness of it, the little details and observations — is the key.
To be clear, none of this is to say that what I wound up making is even remotely comparable. It’s not. My point is this: you don’t have to make the world’s biggest, greatest story — especially when it’s only your first or second or even fiftieth crack at making radio. But you have to start somewhere. I jumped ship from my big idea and went with something small, and that was liberating.
To be honest, I still wonder whether I could have tackled something bigger and more complicated. For most of the time I was working on this, my internal monologue consisted of telling myself how terrible it was, how insignificant, and then beating myself up for that fact. When I listen to it now, the voice in my head still isn’t kind. I have to remind myself that small is okay. You keep going, keep making things, keep building on what you’ve learned. Maybe you take a break and listen to that Chana Joffe-Walt piece for the zillionth time. You marvel at how the smallest of stories can make for some of the best radio. And then you get back to work.
About Anna’s Sonic ID
I found my Sonic ID in a piece of tape from my Ways of Life story that didn’t make the final cut. It took revisiting (and a good amount of editing, of course) to realize that while it didn’t end up serving the story in the way I’d planned, it could stand on its own quite charmingly. (At least, it charms me!)