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.


Crazy Times

Wow. It's a rough week here at Salt. Radio-wise, I am up to my ears in scripts, revisions, transcriptions, tape, and extra pro-tools assignments. No Joke. At least my work is going well in terms of story development. I've been working with a group of contemplative nuns up in Waterville and that has been a stunningly incredible experience. In a few weeks, I'll jump in an 18-wheeler with my second story subject....a female truck driver. We'll be on the road between 3 and 5 days and at this point, I'm just concerned about keeping my equipment charged. Although showering in a truck stop should create some fantastic cocktail party convo...

Back to the grind....


All coiled up and hissin'

Today I watched an older gentleman rearrange the manikins in the front window of the men’s clothing store across from the radio room. For ten minutes. I watched him circle the three figures, tuck in, tuck out, unbutton, rebutton, armless sleeve in pocket just like so. He dropped to his knees to cuff the pants and pulled himself up. His back hurt. I could tell. He was still adjusting when I decided to walk away. On my walk home I saw a woman lip syncing to REO Speedwagon with her windows down, two elderly women with the same jacket and shade of lipstick, a boy galloping (literally, galloping) down Munjoy hill, and three firemen with tired eyes slumped in chairs facing the large window that looks out at Congress at the fire station.

Earlier today John asked us if we are pleased with our SALT stories and what our fantasy stories are. I remembered the story ideas I had prior to arriving in Portland, of the stories I hope to tell when I leave Portland, and how greatly disparate they are from the story I have found myself dedicated to. I returned to the question that has been haunting me since I became enamored with Sally Rollins. Why am I telling this story? Why am I enamored with this woman? In fact, what is the story? There is this woman, who is lonely, who fills her days with little tasks, cat detective novels, and stuffed animals, or, “stuffies”… She knows repetition and routine and she has lived with over two hundred cats in the last twenty years. And-- how can I responsibly portray her loneliness, expose her loneliness, while also relishing the somewhat sensational moments of being really grossed out by her living situation?

(Maybe I am intrigued because I haven’t known routine or repetition, ever really, or a crippling loneliness. I have been transient for a while now, and it’s exciting, but I can’t imagine a time when I will not be in limbo. This is daunting.)

Can I relate the excitement to accompany her as she bleaches 19 litter boxes, or watch her fill twenty-some odd dishes with Purina? At seven o’clock in the morning? Yes, the anticipation of observing a woman clean cat shit has kept me up at night. Am I pleased with this story? With menial tasks instead of speed or suspense, politics or action?

I am tired, dueling mono and insomnia and an eagerness to stay engaged despite them. But the sleepy delirium is leaving me a bit more contemplative. And it is making me stare at things for prolonged periods of time. Like the guy in the window. And wonder about the ladies that enjoy the same lip rouge. And what that girl is remembering when she mouths “When I said that I loved you, I meant that I loved you forever” (I remembered Tommy Wystup, this friend from high school that had an affinity for crapper Mercedes and cheesy power ballads.) I’m finding that although my energy levels are sub par, I am still able to do what I came here to do—indulge in curiosities about the small things, the way we fill our days, the things, like loneliness, we all recognize that make us human and are, simply, interesting.


The Storm Before the Lul

One thing I never expected at Salt was to have time. But it seems as quickly as it began, the stories that have filled my proverbial sails have begun to luff. I find myself with enough time to shuffle out of bed, shower at a reasonable pace, make coffee at home, consider applying for an internship, and even sit and think thoughts.

This is how the wind leaves ones sails:

Your subject goes in to rehab and you are told politely but firmly that you cannot follow or have any contact for two weeks by the powers that be at said rehab center.

Your subject continues to do very little and then you are told by the subject's significant other that one of two story angles should not be pursued because it would be both unpleasant and because your subject's personality is perhaps a large part of the problem of why there is a conflict. And you suspected this but it is now confirmed.

Your subject lives far away! Its hard to drive three hours one direction and not devote at least 12 hours documenting the goings on of that life. Oh, and your car is all screwed up.

I'm sure or at least hoping that the next time a I write I'll be up to my neck in goings-on, and that this post will seem a silly and premature concern about things not turning out. However when you are here it is easy to, at times, worry quickly, panic completely, and feel like you could take on the world. But when you start out throwing yourself into something full force only to find that even then there are situations and events you can't control, there are people that will stop you, and so many unforeseen circumstances, the deceleration of the momentum you expected becomes a lesson in itself. And that's one I never considered.


No Praise. No Blame. Just so.

I've been spending quite a lot of time up in
Waterville at the Convent of the Blessed Sacrament,
interviewing sisters one at a time. Last week, I
spent a good afternoon with Sister Elizabeth Madden.
We sat for a few hours recounting her past with me
inquiring about her decision to join a religious
order. She invited me to lunch and I enjoyed my time
at the long wooden table, getting to know the other
sisters. One older woman, Sister Mary Emmanuel (who
must be around 90), sat hunched at the end of the
table. I had to scream in order for her to understand
our conversation (reminded me of my dear Oma). She
remembered to me that she once had a "lovely Jewish
friend" and asked whether I was religious. I
mentioned to the sisters that my mother used to
encourage me to sample different religious services if
I was curious. I used to go to Spanish mass with my
good friend Andrea and her mother (one of my other
mothers, I like to say) Ligia. My only instructions
were: "Don't kneel. Don't take communion." Sweet
Andrea used to sit in the pew with me when the rest of
the Church was kneeling. I'll never forget those
moments and I thank my mother for encouraging such
exploration. If anything, it helped me to better
understand my own traditions and my own Jewish religious
identity. The sisters were amazed by my mother's
openness and noted that "she is quite a woman." Of
course, I agreed. :)

We enjoyed chatting and at the end of our lunch, I was
not sure how to say goodbye, A handshake? A hug? A
kiss on the cheek? I decided an affectionate grab of
the shoulder would be most appropriate. As I lay my
hand on the bony Sister Mary Emmanuel, she grabbed it
and lay it across her cheek, kissing it before finally

Very moved, I knelt down to speak face to face:
"Sister Mary Emmanuel, I'll see you next week."

"You never know dear. You never know."

Her smile was radiant and I couldn't help but nod.

Sister Elizabeth and I spent our last hour together
discussing "the tragedy" of 1996. She was in the
other North American convent in Pueblo, Colorado at
the time of the murders. She remembers being
interviewed by an ABC affiliate reporter who asked:

"Don't you hate this man? This man who killed your
sisters...Don't you hate him?"

She responded: "How can I hate him? I don't even know

She looked at me after recounting this story,
obviously concerned about the young reporter: "He must
have been very young, dear."

My last question for Sister Elizabeth rounded out our
late afternoon conversation about forgiveness. I
wondered if she had a verse or a saying or a mantra
that she visited when experiencing trouble forgiving.

Within three minutes of my asking, she responded: "I
actually love this Buddhist quote...and I cannot
remember the writer. It is very simple. She sat up
straight and cleared her throat before saying....

No praise. No blame. Just so.

No praise. No blame. Just so."

She repeated it three times and I think I must have
been holding my breath. After she finished, I let out
a huge sigh and pushed stop. An incredible interview
to say the very least.

Instead of attaching a radio piece this week, I want
you to explore one of my favorite new websites. is a phenomenal site that blends
photography and audio to tell stories. With pieces
ranging from issues in Africa to drugs in NYC, this is
a website you should visit often.

I have signed up for a "soundslides" workshop here at
Salt which will teach me the software to create such
pieces as these; a new and very exciting webtool that
I hope to be able to use in my work.

Check it out at:

Roller Coaster

Man, this place fucks with you. Every day is a new high or low. Yesterday I felt at my highest, most proud. I was taking room tone, rolling from the time I walked up to my subjects to the time i left, I even used that lumberous, fluffy dog mic to block the wind while we took the Peak's Island Ferry. I was getting great ambience, quotes and action. I was enjoying my subjects and they were enjoying me. I wore my headphones the whole time (after another recent blunder) and felt really "on".

Only to have the rug pulled out from under me a few hours later when i realized my stupid bravado had gotten the best of me and i lost some valuable tape due to a stupid technical mistake (called not hitting record.)

I'm so dissapointed in myself. I lost sleep over it.

Salt really puts you face to face with your talents and your weaknesses on a day to day basis. It is painful and exhilerating. Painful and completely exhilerating.


"such is life"

Well, I'll keep this one simple. The past three weeks I did not contribute any images to the walls of the third floor critique room. That did not feel good. I could only imagine what might be there, which was an exercise in destroying a certain amount of self confidence ( a whole lot of it). Things do not fall in ones lap, as some may say, they take time and effort to work.

But now, it seems as if things have come together in such a way where I can look forward again into what feels like a great opportunity. I am relieved, and excited (to see what I can do with these stories) AND to see what everyone else does!

Now the question is, is it ok to gchat with your subject? Haha.


Radio, Radio...

We are now in week six...Almost halfway there, and I've preserved some more precious tape and have decided that what I'm doing is almost certainly challenging and rewarding. I have yet to really sit down and have the more personal, dynamic interview with the subjects I am following, ( is that not the word I should be using? ) but I've established, to a degree, a level of understanding and trust, and they are all extremely passionate, inspired, and intelligent people. My arm hurts from holding a microphone "like a lollipop" in front of someone I'm trying to get to know.....but it feels so, so right..

Today I drove to Hiram, Maine, which put me on a beautiful scenic route. ( Hiram was this biblical dude who totally ruled the kingdom of Tyre, which is now the fourth largest city in Lebanon ).......Every state has a set of chain stores or gas stations that reminds you where you are. It's Kum & Go in Iowa, Pump & Pak in South Dakota, Sinclair- you can find these out west, particularly on the border of Colorado and Nebraska, and they are famous (?) for their giant green dinosaurs. In Oxford County, Maine, there are Valero gas stations. I had to stop there and get some Valero deli sandwiches and some gas.

Sitting down with a subject that I'd met only briefly after almost three weeks of e-mails and phone calls helps me actualize my story and what it's about. It's almost as if it takes me until that moment where the mic is turned on and my subject is speaking that I realize what this story could be. Questions are less anxiety-prone and more emphatic.

The more I do this, the more my confidence grows, and the more my interviewees respond with color and nuance. Scenes start falling together. I can log tape and start imagining where quotes will be positioned and what sounds fit as descriptive ambiance. I'm really into film, so I think it's fun to listen to what you've recorded and imagine writing a screenplay to a story that someone might find neat. And I say neat because even if that someone feigns exuberance after listening to my feature, I'll be happy in knowing that they got something out of it.

Side note: Portland drivers are some of the worst I've ever seen. No one uses their blinkers, and they drive out into the middle of an intersection, waiting, knowing that you are going to brake, even at high speeds, while they try to blend aimlessly into the oncoming traffic. Also, for prospective students: Move out to Maine a month before your program starts. Drive around and look for people and stories, read Studs Terkel, and figure out a way to tentatively imagine how something you're interested in could be turned into a story. Write, read, and research Maine everyday. Get up every morning early and go to bed late, and enjoy the wonderful coffee that the downtown Portland area has to offer, the morning or in the evening. Just don't stop working. That too, feels so, so right.....Lastly, when you're driving to meet your subjects, drive at high speeds and listen to Exodus. You will completely forget what you're doing and feel like an outlaw, and that's "the way life should be"..


Learning the Equipment or, How to Bake a Cake

A big part of the radio program here is learning to work with Pro Tools, a professional audio editing system. Prior to coming to Salt, I was using a free program called Audacity, which didn't have a lot of bells and whistles and was overall kind of clunky, but got the job done in a pinch. The best way to describe this editing upgrade is to say that I was fairly comfortable driving a Yugo and now I’m learning to drive a Ferrari. The first Pro Tools class wigged me out a little bit, but now I’m getting used to it, and there have been a few moments in the last week or so when I began to realize that Pro Tools is actually growing on me. Like, I might even want to ask it out and take it to the prom.

That’s not to say that Pro Tools is not without its quirks. During our first class the tutor told us, “once you save a file, don’t move it - you need to keep it safely within the file where it’s stored.” That is what he said.

What I heard was, “don’t do anything crazy, but once you save it you can keep copies of it wherever you like and nothing bad will happen.”

So this is what I did: I finished my project and saved it to the main file drive, where it had been since it was created. THEN I thought, but what if something happens to this file? I should open up the file again, click ’save as’ and save a second copy to my desktop. I am nothing if not cautious.

Now, a single finished Pro Tools file has lots of bits within it - it has not only saved your finished piece, but it has saved every change, every cut, every deletion, and (this is the beauty of Pro Tools) it will allow you to go get that information back if you ever decide that you really want that bit of audio after all. All of those ‘bits’ are saved within a larger file, of which your finished piece is just a single tiny bit. In order to allow your finished piece to stand on its own you pretty much need to export it out of Pro Tools as an .mp3 file or a .wav file or whatever, and then you can save it wherever you like. (I could be wrong on that, but I’m just a fifth week radio student, so you’ll have to forgive me on this one.)

When I took just my finished piece and saved it to my desktop, I did something bad. Here is the best way to explain it:

Go into your kitchen. Bake a cake from scratch. Mix together all of the ingredients and stick it in the oven. When it’s done, take it directly out to your guests in the living room and endeavor to serve it. Now imagine that when you put this cake down you discover that you no longer have a beautiful finished cake….now you have a cup of sugar in the living room, two cups of flour in the bedroom, a dollop of frosting on your nose, and three eggs somewhere else. Maybe in the bathroom or at the end of the driveway, it's hard to say for sure. OH NO.

When I clicked on the saved file on my desktop Pro Tools said something like, “wow, all your files are now completely scattered, you really screwed yourself on this one, would you like me to fix this by baking your cake back up again, and do you promise never to do this again?”

I said yes, Pro Tools re-linked all my files, and I got my cake back. It was all just a wee bit stressful, however, and while I’m not going to let this interfere with my growing crush on Pro Tools, it does mean I might wait another few dates before endeavoring to get to third base.


week 4 was mine

On the walk home the other night, I had written this elaborate post in my head about how this past Thursday was the 4 week anniversary of the day my best friend and I crammed so much of my stuff into suitcases and boxes, had one last "family dinner" with my baby roommate Kevy (he's 20), and drove to the San Francisco airport to take the red-eye to Portland on my way to begin this new adventure at the Salt Institute ("is that place real" was the common reaction when telling friends and family where I was headed).

Instead of uploading said post, I spent the better part of Thursday afternoon at Brighton FirstCare finding out I have mono. Yes mono, the most fun of illnesses, one with no cure, just some vague instructions from my doctor about drinking fluids and no clear answer as to exactly how contagious I really am. "Well, if you feel like going to school, you can, just be careful about sneezing on people..."

So now I'm the second kid at Salt to get mono. What a small world we inhabit. At least I found out I was contagious after Erin spent the afternoon at the clinic with me (sorry about that - I'll totally make it up to you!)

It's not so bad. Worst thing was I had to reschedule meetings so I'm a week behind. And week 4 was going to be my week. Kind of lame. But now week 5 better watch out, I'm coming for you.