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.


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.

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