Salt Institute for Documentary Studies

Located in Portland, Maine, the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies offers a 15-week immersion program for advanced undergraduate and graduate students in documentary writing, photography, or radio.
This blog is an update of current Salt students insights and musings.


Radio Heaven

This weekend comes as a much-needed relief for (many, if not all of) the radio kids, who are in the throes of script-writing mania: Third Coast Audio Festival, woo! The majority of us are headed out to Chicago for the next few days to simmer in the company of radio aficionados, and, with any luck, absorb some of the talent and skills of the Greats we so admire...

So simmer we shall.

I'm hoping Third Coast will help me navigate some murky genre waters— namely, the ambiguous line between sound art vs. documentaries. Is it OK to bend some rules if it makes the piece more artistically catchy? Can we create a sound to supplement for something that is "soundless," as we know it (i.e.,dreams, flashbacks, etc)? To what extent can tape be sonically manipulated before the meaning of the original content is lost, making our story "misleading?" This conversation has arisen more than once both inside and outside the classroom, so it'll be interesting to discover the approaches of other producers... Especially since some of us are itching to dive into sound art... One radio undertaking at a time, though.

But lately I've been second-guessing my decision to participate in this conference. After all, it'll be my first foray into the larger radio society, and I'd like to do it with poise and grace. I hope I'll be able to suppress my urge to behave like a 13 year-old girl at a Backstreet Boys, but my fear is that my giddiness will render me a simpering idiot... Will it be too much to ask to meet Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva in person (!!!) and leave with some integrity still intact?

I guess we'll find out.


Yeah, yeah, it's Halloween today. Candy, costumes, soaping windows, hiding rotten eggs in my roommates' bedrooms...same old, same old. But for the radio kids, today is the beginning of a much more exciting holiday: Third Coast Eve. This is a time when we pack up all our best minidiscs, forget about the last two weeks of script rough drafts, and jump on a plane to Chicago for the annual Third Coast International Audio Festival. It's better than a bag full of those rock hard orange and black Mary Jane candies. And it's much cooler than that really humiliating picture you'd get of you in a cat costume with your arm around some guy wearing a refrigerator box that's supposed to serve as some witty double entendre, but really just looks like a dude wearing a refrigerator box. Not that I'm speaking from experience.

Some of us are headed to Third Coast to pitch our stories to the big names. Others have audio doctoring sessions with some of radio's heavy hitters. A few of us are hoping to get a better handle on what this whole industry is like. All of us will be listening to sessions on how to make our documentaries better. I'm just praying I win the free audio equipment from this year's raffle.

This comes for our group at a great time—I think we're all a little burnt out on our stories, and we all need some new scenery and fresh air (no pun intended. Ok, a little bit intended). So I can't wait to see what happens. Maybe it'll inspire me to make my story a whole lot better. Maybe I'll make some cool friends. If nothing else, this conference will keep me from eating way too much Halloween candy and dressing like a character from Lord of the Rings. And that's really all I can ask for.


Ways to Procrastinate

This week is week number nine at Salt, the Big Week for writers. The week we write the first draft of our main documentary project. The week our schedule is wiped clear; in fact, writers have no classes at all this week. This week is all about the writing.

Leading up to number nine, we've been in the field, collecting interviews and observations. In the classroom, we've workshopped several different writing assignments and analyzed our field experiences. The idea is that all that preparation will lead to a productive, focused week of work.

The thing is, writing can be painful. Frustrating. Slow. Solitary. It makes your butt hurt and your eyes cross as you spend hours sitting in front of a computer screen. It also makes you realize all the questions you haven't asked, the important research yet to be done.

I myself am a master procrastinator, and figured I could use this week to get all the other things on my to-do list done. So far, I've browsed a few shoe stores, checked out some new restaurants, cleaned out my email inbox, organized my Internet bookmarks, paid library fines, called long-lost friends and scheduled a haircut appointment. But I have yet to open a Word document and start typing.
This morning I figured what I really needed was a long, meditative walk and, happily, this also satisfied the "exercise" notation on my to-do list. So I went to the Presumpscot River Trail, just a few miles away from Salt. It was a sunny fall day, the river was running fast, and I tramped over trails blanketed in drifts of fallen leaves. I sat on a rock and stared at the water, knowing that at some point today, I would have to sit down and start writing.

I've talked to other writers this week, and we're all worried about the same things. How do we sift through weeks of accumulated information and choose what to include in our story? How do we distill this information into a coherent, compelling narrative arc? How do we pull readers through our stories and keep them with us until the very end? And, how are we going to find time to devote to our second, shorter story that we pitched last week?

The first draft is a large task, and one that we all care a great deal about doing well. We also feel a sense of responsibility to our subjects, to telling their stories with respect but also with an unflinching eye.

In the coming weeks, this first draft will be re-written, critiqued, analyzed, maybe even abandoned. We will all need to be reassured when the frustrations of the writing process get overwhelming that out stories don't, in fact, suck. On the contrary, I can tell you right now that everyone has found stories that are gripping, intriguing and revelatory. Stories that should be told.

So now I've cleared my to-do list (including "contribute to Salt blog") and the only thing left is "write draft". Such innocuous, yet weighty words.

I guess I should go get started.


Oh My Aching Arms

I woke up this morning feeling like I'd just gone twelve rounds with Muhammad Ali. Muscles I never knew existed burned up and down my arms. All day long I've been trying to figure it out. Was I pumping iron in my sleep? Hypnotized by an overzealous gym coach? Nope, just doing radio. Holding a mic up to someone's face is surprisingly aerobic. Move over Tae Bo, lifting mics will give you the firm, lean arms you're looking for. Now if I could just get a pack of minidisks to tone my abs...


What is Documentary: An Audio Post

Here's another edition of the audio blog post. This Vox Pops project comes to us courtesy of students, staff and faculty from the Spring 2007 semester. I found this really comforting and terrifying all at once. Towards the end of the piece, you'll here an interview with Professor John Grady. Enjoy!

"What is documentary?" by the Spring 2007 Radio Program


forest field work...magic can be laborous.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

"Hopelandic" is the thing with feathers

Some of the radio kids have been quietly watching the progress of The Bryant Park Project to see how it will fair in the NPR market. The new morning show, named after the part of NYC where the studio is located, is NPR's latest attempt toward identifying with listeners in their 20s and 30s. Color me curious, and a little skeptical.

The best thing I've seen on the site so far? This disastrous interview with Sigur Ros. The onus for this interview's fate rests mostly on the shoulders of BPP co-host Luke Burbank, who asks some really amateur questions and then hates on himself for the rest of the interview in hopes of winning self-deprecation points with the band. (Hey, it's happened to the best of us. No need to get smug about it.) Rather than burying the ill-fated interview, BPP aired its dirty laundry last week by posting the piece on their blog, taking some pretty nasty hits from their Icelandic fan base—a surprisingly large base, as it turns out.

Well, BPP took it a step further this morning by posting a play-by-play commentary with music journalist Jancee Dunn about how Burbank could have improved his interview. For those of us hoping to break into the biz at some point, this is a pretty helpful breakdown of how NOT to interview your favorite band. I really learned a lot. I especially loved Dunn's suggestion about interviewing the eager drummer in order to get other band members' egos a little piqued. Check out the clip here.

Learning opportunity aside, what the heck is BPP hoping to achieve here, exactly? Do they think that by airing this we'll think they're hip for being so forthcoming? It reminds me a little bit of Kentucky Fried Chicken's move to rename themselves KFC to identify with a younger demographic. Do you guys remember the "cool" cartoon Colonel with the skateboard who thought buying fried chicken was "sweet"? Have you seen him around lately? Yeah. Me neither.


Where's the pony?

Oh boy, am I ever sick. My sinuses are filled to capacity. My skull feels like an enormous bowling ball. This is not the ideal condition for doing fieldwork. Nevertheless, today was the day my subject, a high school physics teacher, had invited my photographer Natalie and I to shadow him at school. I made it through the mid-day class on vectors mostly because the teacher had decided the best way for students to learn about calculating the speeds and arcs of projectiles was to host a mock naval battle in the gymnasium, launching marbles at cardboard boxes representing a variety of battleships, cruisers, and destroyers. While recording the constant ting-ting-ting of flying marbles, quizzing the admirals of each team on their game strategies, and chasing down the teacher in hopes of getting a good quote, I hardly had time to think about the miserable state of my nasal passages.

The following period was another story however. First of all, ninth grade physics class is probably not the first thing that comes to mind when you think of ways to pleasantly pass an afternoon. That said, I doing my half-hearted best to track my subject's teaching when two bubbly girls standing hip to hip suddenly appeared before us in the back of the classroom. Natalie commented on their matching shirts. "We're bored," they said. "Oh, did you finish all your work?" I asked. "Yeah." At this point, another fieldworker might have taken the opportunity to probe their feeling about their teacher, to get the real scoop on how his students relate to him. Instead, under the weight of mucus-laden sinus passages, I said, "Oh uh well maybe you should uh do some extra work." The girls looked at one another, and then, as quickly as they had appeared, my would-be informants were gone. So much for well-executed interviewing.

Despite this illness and my desire to sleep for the next three days straight, I am somehow wide-eyed and awake. In fact, after a fruitless hour in bed, I got up for the sole purpose of writing this blog entry. Besides encouraging you not to go into the field while sick, I thought I'd pass on to you the best information I've come across in the last week. I've been tearing through Jon Franklin's book Writing for Story and find his information more useful than almost anything I've encountered since starting this program. He has a precise, pragmatic approach to writing and an unassailable formula for understanding the structure of a story. His thoughts on finding complications and resolutions in characters' lives have helped me to begin sketching out the bones of my story in a manageable way. And manageability (yes, I just made up a word) is important. You could also call it simplicity. It's all too easy to get frighteningly overwhelmed by the rapidly accumulating mass of information that accompanies a story. I speak from experience. Sometimes I feel like I'm drowning in scribbled details and half-transcribed interviews, yet still a million miles away from the storyline itself.

Have you heard the story about the eternally optimistic kid whose parents fill his room with horse manure for his birthday? They walk in and are surprised to find him thigh-deep in manure holding a shovel. "What do you think you are doing?" they ask. To which he gleefully reponds, "With all this shit, there's got to be a pony in here somewhere!" That's me. Looking for a pony in a shitpile.


You say pot-ay-toh, I say poh-tah-toh

I know you might think that the only time we talk documentaries (or "doc talk" as I like to call it) is while we're in class. But we actually talk about documentaries a lot around here. I live with two other Salt students right now, and I'm not gonna lie; sometimes we come home after a full day of Salt and we talk about...Salt.

We just can't help ourselves. I mean, most of us have spent our lives thinking about how much we want to do this as a profession or as a way of life, and for the first time in our lives we're with other people who feel the same way. People who aren't just interested, but really invested in the idea. And so we go out to the bar, or out to eat, or for a run and the topic of stories just sorta sneaks in and the next thing you know we're debating ethics or discussing angles. Yeah, it sounds dorky. But I've actually learned a lot about what I'm doing here through doc talk outside of class. We teach each other just as much as the professors do.

But too much doc talk and field work can make your brain go completely numb. I mean, here you are running around day after day talking to everyone in hopes that you make a connection, and at the end of the day your mind is reeling. After the high of the interview has worn off, you're left to analyze what you said and what they said and what it meant and what's the "why now?" angle and the "what's at stake?" question, and it really makes your head explode. It's like the worst parts of dating all rolled into one encounter.

So how do you wind down after a long day? Recently, it seems our best therapy has been YouTube. Ariel will be embarrassed that I'm making this public, but she has the most extensive YouTube knowledge of anyone I know. When I'm all burnt out on documentaries, sometimes I just go down to the second floor and she starts showing me the best stuff I've ever seen. I'll just give you an example of today's bill of fare:

Hooray for YouTube. Without it, I think my brain would have already melted.


"Fugitive Caught in Flash"

Here's an interesting article from the Sun Journal courtesy of our radio TA Josh Gleason. It's about a photographer who finds himself directly involved in the situation he's photographing. What would you have done in his position?


James Nachtwey's Wish.

For those of you who loved the documentary War Photographer about James Nachtwey that we watched in Prof. Grady's class, you might find his recent acceptance speech at the 2007 TED Conference super interesting. You get to hear more on Nachtwey's philosophy about his role as a documentarian, and you see a great slide show of his work. In TED speeches many speakers make a wish of some kind, an idea that they hope other innovative thinkers will find a way to put into practice. Nacthwey's wish: " gaining access to a story that needs to be told, and developing a new, digital way to show these photos to the world." As documentarians coming to age during a new kind of technologic saavy, we might be in the best position to fulfill his wish.

Just something to think about.


Blogfire: An Audio Post

Here's my very first audio blog post. I made it just for you. All you have to do is click on the link below to download the file.

"Blogfire" by Andrea Silenzi


post divorce and unrequited love

he's a stranger so when he picks up the phone i tell him i'm the girl from salt and then i say "so, tell me about..." and i trail off and then he says "--my failed marriage?" he tells me about his failed marriage. and he tells me how much he still loves his ex wife. he tells me about quitting drinking on the same day she left him. he tells me it was too late. then he tells me about his ex wife's new boyfriend who, as it turns out, was accused not long ago of sexually assaulting a 16 year old girl. so he tells the boyfriend to stay away from his daughter or he'd (something) (he didn't say) and then the boyfriend gets a restraining order so that if this man ran into the boyfriend (or the ex wife) at the supermarket he would have 90 seconds to flee the premises. a breakdown of his nine year old daughter followed in which she asked, "why can't you come to my field hockey games when mom can?" and then more meetings with lawyers. and then (and this is where i come in) a desperate, yet endearing posting on craig's list titled: post divorce and unrequited love.

i don't know what to tell you. i was story hunting. i was scared and afraid that a piece about an alpaca pageant would be silly and without depth. i wanted yearning in my stories. sadness, pain, struggle, turmoil, then hope, reflection, a peace. i went to craig's list. i went to the missed connections section of craig's list. and there beneath the notes written to the girl who works the hotdog cart, the other girl with the nice ass on brackett street ("was i on brackett street earlier today?" asked ariel) was this letter about unrequited love from a man desperate to get what he once had back. i thought it might be a story about a man trying to transfrom, about second chances, about forgiveness, about what it must be like to love someone, really love someone, you are not even allowed to stand in the same supermarket with.

so i emailed him. i told him about salt and stories on the radio. and he wrote me back within the hour: "Thank you for your interest in my posting on Craig's List." as if i had inquired about renting a venue. on the phone he was more or less back to his missed connections self: heartbroken, alone, in pain. yet sober and a little proud. i asked him if he thought his ex wife might have seen the letter he wrote her. he said no, that i was the only one who replied to the ad. and at this point it became almost overwhelming clear: what, no really--what am i doing on the phone with this person right now?

we did not stay on the phone for very long. at some point i registered that i was not the right person to reply to the missed connections posting. i was not in fact the right person to be hearing this story. i went with him to a dark desperate place and then i hung up and i went all alone to the salt building to pay the rest of my tuition and transcribe tape from the alpaca farm. it felt awkward and all wrong and the only thing i could think to do was send him a thank you email with only more radio, in this case a link to an episode of this american life, in which a nine year old girl writes letters to the mayor of new york city asking for help in getting her parents to stop divorcing and stay together.

I met Andrea de Leon, and all I got was this lousy t-shirt...

...actually, I didn't even get a t-shirt.

BUT, she did give our class her contact information in case we want to pitch her something once we're alums. Oh, yeah, and she listened to our story pitches and — OK, wait, lemme back up a bit.

See, Andrea de Leon is kind of a big deal in the NPR world. She's the Northeast Bureau Chief, which means that any stories pitched to NPR on this side of the U.S. go through her. She literally hears story pitches all day long, and then she picks out the ones she feels will work on the air. There have been a few Salt alums whose pieces have made it to Andrea's desk and then, wonder of wonder miracle of miracles, onto national airwaves. Oh, and did I mention Andrea's on the board at Salt? This means that not only does she understand what we do, but she really appreciates it. Which makes pitching to her that much better.

It was good to hear Andrea's perspective on story structure, and to see how a professional outfit views a piece. After talking with us, she even gave each of us 10 minutes to pitch our best idea to her and the class. I won't lie, it was frickin' intimidating. You know those nightmares where you show up at school in your underwear and you have to give a speech in class and you lose your book bag and you're trying to write the speech but your pencil has turned into a carp? It felt a little like that. But instead of it being like the part in the dream where people laugh and point at me and the carp swims away, my pitch turned out to be pretty good. I told her my idea and she actually liked it and she gave me a little "good game" sort of speech and I felt a whole lot better. No mocking, no running from class crying...and I was fully clothed. Success!

But I don't want this whole post to get too romantic, because there are some other things to consider when you're dreaming about pitching your piece to NPR. This may come as a shock to some, but there are actually a few differences in what NPR looks for and what we are learning to put together here at Salt.

For instance, even if a Salt piece has a universal theme, we tend to make our stories more specialized to the region, specifically Maine. I think that makes our aesthetic a little more in-depth and personal, because we're not necessarily tailoring the piece for a broad national audience. Mostly we're thinking of what we're doing in an artistic and socially responsible way, not in a marketing-to-the-media-outlets way. I know that seems indulgent, but we're here primarily to tell good stories, and national publication isn't always the end goal. Of course that can come later, if you're interested in sending your story out nationally. But national publication can mean subjecting a wonderfully thoughtful piece to some serious hack and slash editing, just so it can fit the tail-end of All Things Considered. And that can be depressing, especially when we're in such a nurturing environment at Salt; an environment that keeps telling us that the untold stories need to be told. If that doesn't fit NPR needs, does that mean we shouldn't tell them? Does it make the story less legitimate if you send it to a smaller market? Does that make what we're doing unimportant or insignificant, even if we're not selling our pieces after this experience?

I don't know, can anyone else here sound off about what they think is the purpose of the stories they're producing or photographing or writing here? Are you all hoping for national publication, or do you have different goals? Do you think you can make a piece here that is both thoughtful AND perfect for national publication, or do you think the two are mutually exclusive?

Geez, everything I do here turns me into a penny philosopher. I'm gonna go work on my story ideas.

(and no, this is not me in the photo. I wish I could say I'd caught a fish that big.)


People, people who need people . . .

Through Salt, I have found that people are much more open than I am.
People will tell you anything! - and it's amazing and very encouraging.
In only a few minutes, they will tear open every storage box that contains bits and pieces of their lives, pick out object after object, and teach you all about themselves one story at a time.
You will come away with more tragedies and comedies than you know what to do with, and then focusing someone's story into one measely box becomes the real problem.
But it will teach you, sure as hell.