Octopus Fever

photo of an octopus
Listen to “Octopus Fever”

Coming to Transom, I didn’t set out to make a funny story. In fact, the majority of my pitches covered pretty serious issues. But when I learned that a scientist based in Woods Hole had recently been involved in a study where octopuses were given MDMA — I was immediately drawn to it. And I knew that it would inevitably be, perhaps not “ha-ha” funny, but at the very least playful.

Your story can’t be all the things.

Deciding to do a playful story lead to my first big challenge. I heard stories being made around me, many of which explored serious topics, and I started to feel insecure about my octopus story. But, the more I spoke to classmates about it, the more I realized that everyone found something in someone else’s story they wanted in their own. One person’s story required a lot of silence, and they envied those of us who got to play with sound design. One person wanted to find more playfulness in their very somber story. I wanted more emotional depth. I realized that the cliché — you always want what you can’t have — totally applies here. Your story can’t be all the things you might want it to be.

The other big challenge from the outset was that this octopus experiment had been written up in the media — a lot. What could I say that hadn’t already been said? Originally, I thought that because the media coverage was so surface level, I could do a deep dive on why this study really matters. But the more I dug into the science, the more I realized how preliminary the results were, and how highly technical the study was (which made it difficult to talk about either). I realized I needed to broaden the story and find a big idea or question that would take me beyond the study. While this process was painful, it allowed me to take my story to weird and wacky places I might otherwise never have gone.

Scientists . . . some can be challenging interviewees.

The next big challenge came in my first interview. The scientist I spoke to was very reserved. He was reluctant to speak about the results of the study and most of my questions received stilted, short responses. I tried to ease into it. I tried the Jay Allison method of neutralizing the gear; resting the microphone on my face, like it had no power at all. But nothing seemed to work. So, I came back from my first interview with a mere half hour of what I thought was mostly unusable tape from a person I expected to be a key character in my story. But I wasn’t ready to give up. Luckily, most of the people I interviewed next were great; talkative, charismatic and prepared to explore weird ideas. And, upon listening back to my first interview, I found some gold nuggets of tape. So maybe the lesson here is: don’t give up too quickly and be ready for your tape to surprise you.

Dot Your i’s And Cross Your t’s.

The octopus/MDMA experiment I explored in this story was complicated to explain. I worried that I had oversimplified the study to the point of inaccuracy. So, rather than just aimlessly fret, I emailed the scientist. I sent her a few sentences I had written and asked for her thoughts. She corrected a section of narration — and my piece is so much better for it. The lesson here? If you’re not sure about something, email your subject to confirm. Don’t be afraid to reach out — because your subjects will almost always appreciate that you’re trying to get the facts straight.

My Kingdom For A Different Structure?

I realized quite late in the game that my story didn’t seem to follow the structure we’d learnt in class. I couldn’t formulate a focus sentence for my story with a ‘because’ and a ‘but’. And I freaked out. Did I even have a story? I posed this question in one of our last classes, and the resounding response was: yes, you do have a story. So, I guess this is to say that stories come in many shapes and sizes. And while I’ve learned the immense importance of focus sentences, don’t let yourself be overly constrained by them. Not every story will fit in a neat box.

About Ruby’s Sonic ID

Listen to “Ruby’s Sonic ID”

I used to take pole dancing classes in Melbourne, and as soon as I got to Woods Hole, I looked up local classes. Turns out, there’s a pole dancing studio in Falmouth. I was nervous to ask the instructor if I could come back one day with my recording gear. But when I did, she was willing and excited to be interviewed. So, remember that asking can never hurt. Oh, and think about your weird hobbies — it might help you find a fun sonic.

NOTE: Image courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, Gulf of Mexico 2018.

Listen to more pieces from this Story Workshop class here.

Ruby Schwartz

Ruby Schwartz

Ruby Schwartz is an audio producer and researcher from Melbourne, Australia. She spent the last couple of years working as a research assistant and podcast producer at the University of Melbourne. Her work has aired on FBI Radio, JOY 94.9 and 3CR. Feel free to reach out to her at rubyeschwartz@gmail.com. You can find her work on PRX.org.

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