Jun 14

The wrap-up on THREAD

Emily Bazelon at Mory's

THREAD coordinator Mark Oppenheimer interviews Emily Bazelon at Mory’s.

So much was packed into the four days of THREAD at Yale, I feel like I’m still processing it even though it started a week ago tonight. I came home with a head full of ideas and pages and pages of notes—notes I’m actually going to refer back to, unlike most of the notes I’ve taken at conferences. Writing about it is slightly complicated by the pledge we took not to quote anyone, lest someone’s offhand joking remark end up getting flung around the interwebs like … well, like a cringeworthy remark about girls in labs. Or, for dog lovers, Labs in science. Or whatever it was.

I’m pretty sure the presenters would be OK with my quoting their presentations, because those were considered remarks made on purpose to a large audience, but ultimately, these are people I respect a great deal and I don’t want no trouble. The last thing I want to do is piss off somebody at NPR or wherever. So I’ll talk in a paraphrasey way about some of the presentations. Which seems slightly weird but is one way to share nuggets of wisdom without breaking the pledge.

Glynn Washington, “Snap Judgment”

As a guy who kind of fought his way in through a window at NPR with his show, he talked about the standard story structure Ira Glass (a giant, rightfully, who casts a very long shadow) has instituted at “This American Life” and how he has chosen to deviate from it. The typical “TAL” story tends to start with some exposition, then take a step back for a little analysis, then get to the meat of the story, then pause for more analysis, then bring the story to its climax, then wrap up with the story’s resolution and final analysis.

But Washington doesn’t like to see a story broken up with analysis or expert opinion. His approach is less journalistic (we’ve all seen the journo story style where you meet Jane Doe, poster girl for Trend X, sample her life, then hear that “According to figures from the U.S. Census Bureau and Pew Research, from 2010 to 2014 there was a 54% increase in the number of people like Jane Doe participating in Trend X”), more intuitive (the way you tell stories in real life, without access to expert analysis), and possibly more viscerally engaging as a result.

Human beings are meaning machines—we look for meaning in everything. And we like to find ourselves in stories told by other people. As a storyteller, you capture your audience not by being clever and cinematic but by investing yourself in the emotional core of the story. Why bother telling a story that doesn’t have emotional impact for YOU—how can you possibly expect your audience to care if you don’t? If the story isn’t powerful, isn’t working, isn’t going for the gut, the solution is to dig deeper. Be more honest about what you felt, and what truly motivated you. When you confess that stuff, unflattering as it may be, your audience recognizes themselves.

And a way to reward their investment in your story (and yours, amazingly) is to choose your ending wisely. When telling a real-life personal story, obviously, you can’t rewrite history and pick the “best” ending. You have no control now about how things happened. But what you do have control over is where on the story’s timeline you choose to cut the thread. Most stories contain a moment of trauma, physical or emotional, severe and serious or minor and comic. The top tip here is this: DON’T END WITH THE TRAUMA. Choose an ending that shows what you became (how you grew, what you learned, how you moved on) after the trauma; cut the thread somewhere beyond that terrible knot. When you do that, you take control of that story and change the meaning of it, for both your listeners and yourself.

That might be something to remember for ALL your stories, even the ones you only tell your close friends, and even the ones you only tell yourself. Maybe it’s most important for the ones you only tell yourself.

Washington left us with a valuable piece of career advice: Don’t bother trying to get yourself on the radio. Do what he did: podcast. Find a tribe. Go on transom.org, produce it with Garage Band or some other off-the-shelf software, and just focus on drawing your tribe to you with your content. That’s how he started, and listen to what he does now.

Steven Brill, author, teacher, überjournalist

Brill went old-school on us, reminding us to do our homework. As an old newsie, I can tell you it’s true. When you do serious writing about the world, you have to do the work. The research. You have to amass a lot of background information that may never make it into the story to give it texture. If you’re making a movie, you shoot zillions of takes that will never see the light of day, whole scenes that will end up getting cut. Reporting a story works the same way, and there are no shortcuts if you want to maintain quality and not make an ass of yourself or get sued. Bob Woodward apparently tells journalism students that when it comes to the nuts-and-bolts shoeleather reporting, “You gotta do that shit.” And, you know, he would know.

Nebulous attributions like “sources say” or “the mayor’s office announced” are lazy and detract from the story. Don’t quote buildings or ascribe actions to faceless groups. Stories are about people. People. And when you interview people, ON THE RECORD, the best way to do it is in person. Always. Failing that, the next-best way is by phone. Avoid email interviews. The more distanced you are from your sources, the more distanced you are from the story, and that’s bad at best and dangerous at worst. Because you need to be on top of it to feel and convey that the story has a point, and what that point is. If you’re putting that much work into it, it damn well better have a point—one that you can get across to your audience and that they will care about.

Brill’s career advice: Be curious. The best thing you can be is curious. It finds stories, pulls you through the work, and keeps your audience.

Steve Brodner, cartoonist, illustrator, historian

I’m not a visual storyteller, myself, but Brodner was a tremendously engaging speaker, his artwork is brilliant, and he did say some kind of universal things about finding the essence of the story you’re telling and the point you’re making, the “single beautiful line” that takes your audience economically and elegantly to your meaning. Writers shouldn’t clutter their pages any more than artists should.

As an illustration of this point, he cited Norman Rockwell. Now, say what you will about Norman Rockwell, and whatever you think of him, he was a master of not wasting space. Absolutely every element in his illustrations—every teacup, bird, furrowed brow, crumpled paper—serves a purpose and is part of the story. Every word, every bit of dialogue, every description in a written story should be doing a job also. Nothing should be an empty flourish. Your audience’s time is valuable.


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