Unspoken

photo of Matt and his grandmother
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There was a sense of fear when I was told I would be pitching my second story to Ira Glass because I realized that I had no solid idea. I did know that I wanted to write about the type of hardworking Spanish-speaking people I grew up around, but there was one problem — I don’t speak Spanish. This was kind of a big deal if I wanted to conduct a proper interview, and it led to me being flustered about being caught in a language barrier — again.

The truth is, I’ve dealt with this my entire life, and it’s kept me from communicating with some of my family members. That’s pretty common in my hometown of El Paso, Texas, where some grandkids only speak English, grandparents speak their native language, and the generation in between is bilingual.

Knowing I wasn’t alone in not being able to communicate with certain family members, I wrote out a pitch about people experiencing the same sort of issue. Maybe I could find someone who is learning English as a second language or someone who doesn’t know any other language but English, and like me, is missing out on knowing aspects of their history, or on speaking directly to certain relatives.

I felt good about my idea, and I wrote about my own experience in the pitch to Ira to explain why this would make an interesting story, and why I was on the hunt for people dealing with some sort of “lost in translation” status in their life. Ira’s note was that I needed to make the story more about me, and what I went through having my parents translate messages for me as a child — and even into adulthood.

Now, I didn’t expect to write and produce a story about me. The idea of a personal piece was foreign, and I didn’t feel experienced enough to pull it off. I went to journalism school. I was trained to tell stories about people in the community. But me? Never.

One of the many lessons I learned in the workshop was to trust your editor, or in my case editors, because the people in the class really helped me see how this story could work. They agreed that I should make the story about me. So, I went with it. The process was hard. I struggled with writing about my past and felt a sense of guilt I’d ignored most of my life. I went out of my way to call my mom and interview her. Needless to say, that was an emotional conversation.

At several points in writing and reporting, I felt like my story didn’t make sense, or that the structure was off. However, this is where my teachers and classmates came to the rescue. And this is where listening to your editor(s) comes in handy.

We worked together as a team, and I tried my best to take every suggestion into consideration and to make those suggestions fit in the piece. Making a story personal when it was originally planned as a reporting piece is hard. It takes patience, several moments of reflection about who you are as a person, and an understanding of how much you want the world to know about your private life.

There were moments in class where I was asked deep personal questions that I didn’t think should be included in the piece. But the more I wrote, the more I realized just how important it was to answer those questions. So, you have to trust your editor(s). I’m not saying they will always know what’s best, but they can spot something you may have missed, and put you on a path to answering the question buzzing around your listener’s head.

About Matt’s Sonic ID

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Listen to “Unspoken”

I was out taking pictures with a friend when we saw a cathedral from the highway driving into New Bedford that was so big we had to check it out. The architecture was breathtaking. Then, a man named Thomas waved at me and my friend from the organ balcony. We waved back, walked up three flights of stairs, and introduced ourselves. Thomas pointed towards the altar as he showed us the remarkable view. I talked to him for 45 minutes and was able to capture good tape from a totally unplanned experience. Beautiful stories and sounds are all around us. All you need is a mic and a willingness to explore to capture them.

Listen to more pieces from this Story Workshop class here.

Matthew Alvarez

About
Matthew Alvarez

Matthew is an audio storyteller and a standup comedian in Austin, Texas. He grew up in El Paso, but moved to earn his journalism degree from Texas State University. His first big break was being hired as a volunteer producer for his college radio station: KTSW. Matthew’s internship at KUT – Austin’s NPR station – made him even more passionate about public radio. Matthew’s goal is to produce insightful content on a public radio platform, and then to make you laugh at some comedy venue at night.

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