The entire history of human expression, slightly abridged
I was brainstorming a story for next month’s Ann Arbor Moth Storyslam, and I decided to take one of the ideas that I had and make an audio essay out of it.
First, I just wrote a two-page story, nonfiction, about my time in Japan. I spent a little time editing it by myself. Then I recorded me reading it in my kitchen using my laptop’s internal mic (if I do a third draft, I’ll use a Marantz or a handheld digital recorder). Here’s what I got.
Then I showed it to a friend who works in radio and asked her to give me some feedback. Here’s what I got.
Very nice story. A couple questions…
What’s your focus statement? It seems to be “I went to Japan because…” or “I don’t know why I went to Japan, but I learned…” No matter what your focus statement, the main thrust is that it’s about Japan, so your last graph seems superfluous and not connected. Written, in a short story form or essay, it probably works. But for the ear, it seems tangential and like I missed something. Also, you should always end with your strongest piece of tape, in this case, your strongest moment or epiphany or sentence. I would argue that that moment is when you say “it no longer matters why you started, why you came to japan, why you climbed the thing instead of sitting in the car.” End there.
I think it takes a little while to get to the part about why you’re telling me this story. Again, fine for visual, a little long for radio. What about condensing those first two graphs. Start with “If you know a lot of Americans …. What the hell am I doing?” Then go into a quick litany of what this piece *could* be about – twenty different ways to say do you want something to eat? Massage parlors, hostess bars, and the crime infested Iwate Prefecture, which you called home for three years. Wrap it up with “but that’s not what this story is about,” and go into graph three.
Shorter break between graphs two and three.
Your voice goes up when you say “…I never really saw her outside of our tutoring sessions.” Retrack. Or, I would argue, cut that sentence all together. It doesn’t add to your story and seems a little divergent.
You could have some fun with music underneath as you tell the story about climbing the mountain. Might be fun!
Cut final graph.
At which point, of course, I tore up the pages I had written and went to go make comments on random Youtube videos, which is how I usually vent my anger.
I got my friend to talk a little more about the piece, especially my voicing. Hating what your voice sounds like when it’s recorded is pretty much universal, but I feel particularly ill-suited to the audio essay format, where it’s just me and the mic and the story. It feels vulnerable, like if it’s not interesting, then that reflects directly back onto me. So I asked for some tips.
“Be yourself,” my friend said, ” Tell it the way that you would tell it to someone that you know. Maybe start the reading with, ‘Hey Joe,’ or ‘Hey dad,’ and then go into the story. A lot of reporters do that as a way of tricking your brain and your voice into sounding natural and conversational.”
So I went back to the text, made the appropriate cuts, and then, when I went to read it again, I tried to be looser. I did three takes, changing phrases and words sometimes. However I would say it to someone I was looking at, that was how I tried to say it on tape (except for the whole umeboshi-river stone metaphor, I just liked that too much to cut it, even though it’s a little stiff).
And the story is better. You can hear that it’s better. Not perfect, but better.
Then I went to freemusicarchive.org and got a song, “Sneeuwland” by Oskar Schuster, which was perfect (or perfectly This American Life-y), it was what I wanted, at any rate. I found it in the “Music for Video” section, which is great for background stuff.
I played around with when to introduce music and when to leave it out. I wanted two breaks–who knows why, but, if it helps, I kind of thought of it as a way to break the story into three acts–and the last section was too short to have it fade out and then immediately fade back in, so I went ahead and just kept music in, letting the tempo swing up when I got to the phrase “you start some new big thing” (I tried to get the tempo change to come on the word “new).
Then I played it for my radio friend again, and she said, “You’re so serious.” I suspect that it’s going to take more than a few more takes of this essay to get rid of that problem.
Anyway, here’s the next, and for now, final, draft.