Friday, May 1, 2009

News from Salt Part 4, from Alix Blair, Guest Blogger

Hi Blog: At Salt, for one of our classes, at the mid-point, we write what's called a Taking Stock Paper. In this paper, we address for 6 pages what we've come through since the beginning, in terms of learning documentary work and our personal experiences. I wanted to share my paper. I had joy in writing it. It's a good practice to be forced to reflect on where you started, where you've gone, and what's next. I'm going to break it into parts so it doesn't look (hopefully) overwhelming in the blog space. (*you'll see I end the paper with those two quotes I love, Cather & Ondaatje, that I posted in an early blog entry here)

PART ONE: For me, (re-)reading Telling True Stories has become a part of my night habits—brush teeth, get into bed, open random page in Telling True Stories and feel reassured that I’m not alone in the work I’m doing, that I fit into a line of many, many people that have done this work before me and struggled as I do now. I keep the book on my bedside table (which is actually an old suitcase standing on end). I have sentences throughout the book underlined in a thick blue marker and sometimes, over those underlines, circles around the words: curiosity is the beginning (Gay Talese), warn your subjects of your separateness (Anne Hull), don’t just feel relieved that someone is talking to you (Victor Merina), and especially, to do this work well you must find your own way and make your own mistakes (Adrian Nicole Leblanc).
The beginning of this audio documentary work. It felt like an enormous thing to arrive in a place that you have no ties to and to feel urgency to find a story, though you are a stranger. And you want the story to be really, really good. I think of all the expectations I have carried with me from the very start of what I want(ed) the story to be. How do you go forward when anything and everything is a possible story? I struggled with this a lot in the beginning. Everyone I knew in any way, I asked them for stories. The way other people may ask neighbors to borrow sugar or eggs, I asked for stories. At dinner with new acquaintances, I asked for stories. I collected them. I spent hours on Google and Craigslist and all the Maine newspaper websites and then read those same newspapers in coffee shops, hoping there would be a secret, amazing story that I had missed in the first reading.

PART TWO: I began with three stories in the early weeks. I made interviews and took the time to do careful transcriptions. Each story had its own, very valid reasons for not working out as a radio story. I resisted giving up each story for a long time, probably too long. I had already put so much energy into them, and time, and emotional investment. I got to a point where the thought of starting over completely yet again seemed impossible. And with that, a fear. I was very scared, if I had invested so much (and so many weeks) into these three stories, and they didn’t work out, what guarantee did I have that the next one would.

I’ll say now, how grateful I am that those stories didn’t work out because I have learned so much by those losses. Those three falling through taught me to understand why they wouldn’t be strong stories and the absence of material that would have made for a weak story, had I pursued them anyway. It was very hard for me to give them up, but a very necessary learning.

There I was, about the fifth week into Salt with three stories I had invested in and had to let go of. At that point, I emailed a friend of a friend of a friend, who works with a fishery association. I literally asked her if she knew any stories with interesting characters, perhaps somewhere outside of Portland (I wanted to explore more of Maine), perhaps something to do with the ocean. This is another point to mention, that I have learned, oh the kindness of strangers, to want to help me tell a story for some reason! The friend of a friend of a friend responded about a lady who is a periwinkle harvester. Great! I thought, I don’t even know what that is. So from there, I decided to do a story about a periwinkle harvester, a simple profile story of a person and their work. Oh, little did I know how it would unfold into something so much larger. And little did I know how very far away Lubec is, seemingly the ends of the earth, so very different from Portland, indeed.

PART THREE: The middle of this audio documentary work. Since Lubec is a ten hour round-trip drive, and with the necessity to organize my recording around the people who are part of my story, I’ve gone up to Lubec twice, staying for up to six days at a time. Just as my periwinkle harvester’s work depends on the tides and the weather, my audio recording is now linked to this as well, since, of course, I cannot record her working if she’s not out on the water working. I like thinking that, because of this, my audio recording is, in a small way, linked to the cycles of the moon just as the tides are.

My plan was to tell the story of a periwinkle harvester yet almost immediately from talking with the harvester, I learned that that was only a small part of what was happening. At the moment of writing this paper, I have hours and hours of transcription and only a very rough outline of what the audio story will be. It is a story of a town desperate for jobs, the collapse of the fisheries there, a political battleground that could potentially change Maine’s constitution,and one woman’s fight to protect her bay… and it all started with snails. And it needs to fit into eight minutes.

PART FOUR: What I have learned from this (and again, I’m still just at the beginning of unfolding all the pieces of the story, with still more recording to do, let alone begin a second audio story!) is the immense need for flexibility as one works on their documentary. The story I have now is not the story I thought I would collect.

There are times it is very hard to be doing this—due to the circumstances of distance— without a break. Two days ago, when I returned from the six days in Lubec, I felt raw. I had spent on average ten hours a day, no breaks, recording and talking to people. It’s a great deal of mental work to be constantly anticipating questions and engaging in the most attentive listening. I felt raw and heavy with information and people’s emotions. I went to have dinner with friends in Portland and found I couldn’t engage at all. This has taught me that, at least for myself, when doing documentary work, it is so important to create space to process everything that is gathered and take a break. I also happen to be a “comforter” personality and it is hard for me to maintain a certain, necessary distance when my subject is clearly emotionally upset and feeling hopeless. There’s been a lot of hopelessness and desperation expressed by the people I’ve talked to, and I have often felt overwhelmed by it.

PART FIVE: Some of the many things I have learned so far. I have learned to be more aggressive in guiding interviews. I think it is helpful for the person you're interviewing too, to have a map of where the conversation needs to go. This is one thing I’ve struggled with before in terms of being just so grateful that someone is willing to talk to me, I’ve shied away from asking more directly what I’m seeking to understand. I have greatly appreciated leaving the microphone on even after the official interview is done. I’ve learned to be more discerning with the sounds I collect, in order to anticipate the time I will need on transcription later. There is a fear that you have to collect everything or you might miss something. And of course, there will be things you miss. In a way though, I find this very “Zen”, it’s a good teacher in letting go. I think it’s similar in photography. The moment comes and goes, you might miss it, but you can’t dwell on it, and hopefully you’ll learn to be ready for the next time something comes that you’d like to document.

Coming to Salt, I had worked in producing audio stories before, but I had always gathered stories from people I knew or had connection to. This was my first time, as a total stranger, asking people to tell me their stories. I have learned to be much less afraid of calling strangers. Still, I hate cold calls. I hate them, and though I have more confidence now to do them, I still hate the two minutes you have when you must explain yourself and convince someone to want to talk to you. Several times now, I’ve filled answering machines in explaining myself and have had to call back just to leave my number.

One thing that has been on my mind, in this work, is several times now I’ve been thanked by subjects—thanking me for listening, for showing interest in their lives. And even without this, I feel a certain weight to do justice to their story. To honor their voices and sometimes (all the time), I am terrified I won’t be able to, that it won’t be good enough.

There are two quotes I have copied into my Salt notebook, that I often call upon in this work as inspiration. One, Willa Cather: he had the uneasy manner of a man who is not among his own kind, and who has not seen enough of the world to feel that all people are in some sense his own kind. And the other, Michael Ondaatje: everything is a collage, even genetics. There is a hidden presence of others in us, even those we have known briefly. We contain them for the rest of our lives, at every border that we cross.

And so, while I’m still very much in the middle of my work at Salt, with hours and hours and hours of transcription ahead of me, I already know this: that the people I have talked with, I will carry them with me. I hope I am able to honor their stories in this work, in this time, for now.


Andrea P. said...

Alix, What an interesting process you're going through!

I work with the Nieman Foundation's Narrative Digest ( The Nieman Foundation put out Telling True Stories, and so people tend to pass us references they see to it.

My own experience with the challenge of finding the story is similar to yours. And I recently heard a world-class reporter admit it once took him two years to realize he'd missed a once-in-a-lifetime story that an interview subject had been desperately trying to get him to hear. (He later went back and got the story and wrote a great book on it.)

I've enjoyed checking out your Salt expeience thus far and will continue to check out the rest of the Kitchen Sisters site.

Vanessa D. Alexander said...

I appreciate the heartfelt way you walk readers through the experience of getting there. It's raw and encouraging.