My initial ideas for my second story were about solar panels on Martha’s Vineyard, a composting company in Falmouth, or a men’s choir in South Yarmouth. Basically, anything but a personal story. I’ve wanted to do audio stories about my family for a few years now but have never really known where to start or how to frame them. It’s not enough to have characters and anecdotes — what’s the actual story about? Sophie, the TA, who’d heard me talking about my family throughout class and knew I had recordings of them on hand, was the first person to urge me to try it. It was a late Friday night when the idea of framing a story around fear and anxiety hit me. That same night I came across The Bart Weisman Band in a Google search — the one Klezmer band on the Cape. After that, the story felt like it was on rails — telling itself.
This is not to say that doing a personal story was easy. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that to dive into subjects close to one’s family and/or one’s self is to do something somewhat unnatural. It’s one thing to schedule a two-hour interview with a stranger for a story you’re chasing. Show up at their house, office or natural habitat and capture them there for a predetermined amount of time. It’s an entirely other thing to invite your own mother to the Cape to stay with you for a few days to be part of a project. When do you record and for how long? Do you just record everything? (Note: I do not recommend that!) How do you capture the candid moments experienced while you weren’t recording? Where do you even record? The answers to these will always vary, but I ended up sitting in my car with my mom for two to three hour stretches to record our interviews and I definitely ended up with way too much tape. In fact, I cut entire scenes from the script because they started to weigh the piece down.
Which is perhaps my other big lesson. At some point, these aren’t “personal” anymore. They’re living, breathing stories that need to make sense to a wider audience outside of your own emotional attachment. And when that happens, you have to do what Madeleine L’Engle refers to as “serving the work.” I’m a firm believer that the work knows what it needs and it’s important to listen to that. At one point, I started the piece in a completely different way that I absolutely loved and wanted to work. The problem was that it didn’t work and there was nothing I could do but change it. I woke up one Saturday morning completely baffled and starting from scratch. It’s moments like that when I strongly suggest taking a good long walk or putting some space between yourself and the work to better see what it’s trying to say. I think it’s the closest I’ve ever come to the miraculous.
Jessica’s Sonic ID
I had all these grand plans to go out and collect sonics on public streets every day — just talk with people and see what happens. I didn’t really take into account weather, feasibility or the general aloofness of people when they’re approached by a stranger. Ruth Johnston happened to be around during my reporting on a different story and started sharing her thoughts on life, death and everything in between. Don’t get me wrong — I’m still a believer in going out and “cold calling,” so to speak, with sound gear. It’s a great wild card that feels like a magic trick when it works. But sometimes it’s just as worthwhile (perhaps more so) to simply show up to a situation where people are expecting you and let the tape roll.