The Last Kids Of Cuttyhunk Island

photo of kids on Cuttyhunk
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Push for more in your pre-interview.

Before I went out to report this story, I was confident that I knew what it was about. I’d done half a dozen pre-interviews, seeking information but carefully sidestepping the emotional core, which I wanted to save for when the tape was rolling. Before I’d even set foot on the island, I was picking out melancholy songs for the score; I thought it was going to be a sad story.

Not so fast, young radio producer! So many things changed in the field. During pre-interviews, I’d been so careful to avoid emotional stuff that I’d misunderstood my characters’ points of view. Pre-interviews are about striking a balance between gathering enough information and leaving enough on the table. If I’d pushed for more beforehand, I think I would have had a clearer vision of what the story really was before getting out in the field.

Put yourself in the tape.

I wish I could say I pivoted gracefully, thought on my feet, and figured out a new angle on the fly. I did not. I continued with my carefully prepared line of questioning, while silently freaking out. When I listened back later, I could hear that I was not present in the moment.

The very night that I got back from my reporting trip, Ira Glass was our guest at dinner. Ironically, one of the first things he said was, “Put yourself in the tape.” That interesting tape doesn’t just happen wherever you point a mic; you need to make it happen. You are the surrogate for the audience, so if something happens that’s surprising, reflect that.

How I could have used that advice 24 hours before! While freaking out in my head, I’d completely missed the opportunity to say what I was actually thinking. If I’d just been a real emoting human being, I could have captured a real and honest moment. I will never again not speak up when I’m thinking, “Wait?! What?!”

Know the elements of a story — even when you have no narrative arc.

By this point, I was concerned. Not only did I not have engaging reaction tape, my story also lacked the basic tenets of, well, a story: no beginning-middle-end; no real conflict or transformation. How could I make a story without the elements of a story?!

Our fearless teacher, Rob Rosenthal, talked me off a ledge. First, he asked to hear some tape. I could see the twinkle in his eye that happens when he hears good tape. I felt better. My characters were solid. Phew! Next, he reminded me of a list he’d given us of the elements that a story needs if, god forbid, it doesn’t have an obvious narrative hook.

Strong character – check, I had that
Clear visuals – yes
Anecdotes – uh-huh
It brings you into a world, it says “pssst, check this out” – definitely
Artfully done – I’d sure as hell try

This approach — using metaphor, scene and sound instead of real action, transformation and reflection — was something I’d never done. Instead of thinking of it as one overarching story, I approached it like a series of scenes, each with its own little story. I tried to bring the audience on a journey, to all of the places I’d gotten to visit.

Ultimately, through returning to the island for follow-up interviews — as well as brainstorming sessions in class — I was able to insert a bit of tension into the story. It’s light and nuanced, but it gives the piece a touch of the gravitas I was looking for from the start.

Kill your darlings.

You’ll see this advice again and again on the Transom website, and it couldn’t be more true. Nearly up to the day that I voiced this piece, there was a section of tape from my first reporting trip that I loved. For a while, it had even been my north star — I’d put it at the beginning of the story, in the middle, as the close. Finally, I realized that this bit of tape that I’d been holding so dear ultimately didn’t serve the story; it didn’t push it forward, or even really add much.

In my final round of script edits, I went back through hours of tape to find something else that could work. When I slotted in a new bit of tape and started to write around it, the script wrote itself . . . and resulted in some of my favorite lines of narration. A huge mental block had been lifted, all at the eleventh hour. Sometimes, deciding what tape does not make it into the story can be just as productive as choosing the tape that does.

Bayla’s Sonic ID

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Listen to “Bayla’s Sonic ID”

I scouted out a cluttered thrift store in East Falmouth that I thought might make for good Sonics. I’d been interviewing the owner of the shop for a while, when this couple — Brian DeMarsch and Katelynn Smith — approached the register with a porcelain clown figurine. Turns out this was just the latest addition to their growing collection of clown art.

Listen to more pieces from this Story Workshop class here.

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