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.


ira glass recently gave a talk on how to tell a story are his pointers

  • Builds momentum, slowly but surely. Listeners will hang tight when you build suspense, sequencing one event or step after another. We're all hungering for surprise (the media too).
  • Features multiple characters. Use different voices (with all their intonations, accents, and other specs) to highlight interplay among characters; otherwise you're doing a monologue -- much less interesting than multiple points of view.
  • Casts the right storyteller. Whose perspective will shape the most compelling tale?
  • Is specific. The details -- like the minutia that make up your life -- make it real. Like it or not, that's what 90% of our daily life is made of.
  • Connects pieces and voices in an overall theme. Make sure to step away here and there to frame events in a context that ties them together. That's your theme.
  • Uses music to build suspense. For greatest impact, stop the music for a few seconds of silence before your revelation. But make sure the music doesn't overwhelm the teller's voice or distract from the story.


Writing Exercise

So I'm in school. For writing.

And I'm noticing that anytime the instructor mentions a writing exercise, my jaw tenses, my breath quickens, my mind goes blank. I think of excuses to get out of writing. I think of the reasons this assignment will be too difficult. I procrastinate and over-analyze and sabotage.
I think about switching mid-week to the photography track.

Then I start writing. Maybe a bit hesitantly at first, but then I start breathing, relax my jaw, and let my mind converse with the keyboard.

I write.

And I wonder why I got myself worked up into a state. I mean, I've been writing on my own for years. I've written articles that have been published in actual magazines. And I signed up for this intensive writing course. Of course there is writing involved! And I like writing! And I am very capable of writing whatever comes my way. What's gotten into me?


The introduction of an institution into my everyday habit of scribbling suddenly has the power to turn enjoyment into a source of anxiety. Suddenly the fear of writing poorly on a simple journalism exercise analyzed by classmates seems to weigh more than an editor's critique of a polished article.

Then I remind myself: I like writing. I am here to learn, not impress. I am here to occasionally fail to eventually succeed. I will come out of this institution with an arsenal of kick-ass skills.

It has taken some time to get used to being in classes again. Only this time round I'm 30 and thankful that I'm catching myself in old, limiting habits this first week instead of during finals.

From my perspective, that's the difference between school at 18 and school at 30:
I now know that I don't know everything and not to pretend like I do. I'm ready to peel down the layers, get raw, get uncomfortably close, harness that passion and curiosity within myself I wasn't quite sure what to do with a decade earlier.
I'm ready to listen, absorb, be, live salty.

modified from post on


Chebeague Island

Marc and I took the 6:30am ferry out to Great Chebeague Island last weekend to observe a "weatherization workshop" that has influenced the angle of our collaborative piece. He recorded and took notes while I shot photos of the folks at the Methodist church making removable storm windows out of simple pieces of pine and plastic. They are surprisingly effective in keeping out cold.

This gave us the idea to pursue the story of what Mainers are doing to prepare for winter. We imagine there are many people getting creative (some out of necessity) with how they are going to deal with high heating oil costs on top of everything else that seems to be going up in cost this season. We're curious to what we'll find, but Chebeague was a great start.

I saw Ahab, and he was wearing cargo shorts

His wooden leg was obscured by countless useful pockets.

So today, in the interest of reminding myself that I was no longer in Kansas or Cleveland or Menlo Park, I went on a boat ride and it was grand. I popped some Dramamine (bad experience traveling to the Channel Islands), dressed in layers, grabbed my knit hat, and dropped 15 bucks on the Mailboat run. With some of my fellow Salters on the bow (see previous post for a much more factual and informative account of the trip), I merrily recounted the story of being so drugged up on a trip to Prince Edward Island, I slept through many meals and a whale sighting. Then, of course, one hour into the unbelievably smooth ride this morning, the Dramamine hit me and I started to nod off. Damn! Foiled again!

The trip was lovely, although it’s hard to take those islands seriously. They’re too picturesque. All of their chairs are made of wood and painted white. There are hammocks and swings tied to branches that hang over the ocean. You imagine everyone who lives in these houses spends time reading Thoreau and gathering moss. They apparently really enjoy soda though, as a large proportion of the freight getting dropped off on the islands was two liter bottles of Pepsi. I got a bit sun-kissed, and felt very touristy (I didn’t do a good job of dissembling: walking up the ramp to the boat I blurted, “Look at me! I’m in Maine!” Seriously.) Highlights included watching a puppy on board the boat chase its tail, taking off my hat at the behest of a man who wanted his wife to make him one just like it, and nearly talking myself into buying a $3 bar of lemon verbena soap in the “Island Treasures” gift shop. I resisted.

Although this is definitely the pinnacle of my Maine-specific activity, I have not been short on adventures since I moved to Portland. After following a couple dead-end leads for stories, last week I found myself in Alfred, Maine. You may have heard of it: in 1837, an elephant named Old Bet was shot to death there. I did not know this going down. In order to find it out, I had to embed myself in the culture. I asked myself: What would Lord Peter Wimsey do (WWLPWD)? Having forgot my monocle in London, I settled on chatting up a local hairdresser… while getting my hair cut. Good idea? No. Kim, who has a hair salon in the back of her home, had terrible allergies and was struggling with them a great deal while chopping at my formerly beautiful locks. Do I sound bitter? It’s not that big a deal. She did make a phone call for me which got me sitting in the kitchen with this amazing couple, who gave me the run down on old Alfred, including elephant story. However, I ended the day empty handed and bare headed.

Even if I didn’t end up with a story after all that, it did increase my confidence to be able to find one somewhere. After another week filled with anxiety, I may have finally landed on something...


The Mail Boat

Four Salt Students Board the Mail Boat
Exhibit A: Evidence of Human Struggle
“Early settlers,” the mail boat Captain explained, “Thought there was an island in Casco Bay for every day of the year.”

In our narrated tour, the Captain refers to Long Island as a town, seceded from Portland in 1993. Islanders are paying high property taxes that reflect real estate values paid by out of state residents – making it difficult for long-time residents to keep their homes. Long Island didn’t feel Portland was offering proportionate resources in return for the big tax payout, so they launched a revolution. For more information visit their historical society, who preserved every inch of national media coverage.

A couple people got off at each island, but most had no mail. Little Diamond Island got a package from Ethan Allen. Diamond Cove got a box of fish. Chebeague Island got hefty shipments of Pepsi products, and I wonder what establishment placed the order. I encountered no watering hole – just a craft gift shop, a few varieties of apple trees, a machine graveyard for the old and rusty in someone’s yard.

Might as well ride the mail boat and see the bay while it’s still warm enough to breathe. Barely a sense of each unique island’s character from the mail boat; just a glimpse of lobster trap buoyed waters, playful seals, clues that life still exists beyond the urban.

Just Love the Work

I am chagrined to admit i have yet to read EAT PRAY LOVE. That said, I do feel secure in saying that Elizabeth Gilbert's talk yesterday was devastatingly perfect. I've never heard such a flawless and candid raconteur. Her talk was conversational, hilarious, pleasingly discursive, poignant, and (above all) off-the-cuff. It was one of those rare moments in life when the speaker and audience are totally locked in with each other.

One of the themes of the talk was Creativity. I found her discussing the subject in a previous interview, and i thought it might be useful to post here.

best, ari.

Elizabeth Gilbert says...

I can't get behind the ambition to be "discovered" as much as I can get behind the ambition to write beautifully and honorably and steadfastly. Here's what I believe about creativity. I believe that creativity is a living force that thrums wildly through this world and expresses itself through us. I believe that talent (the force by which ephemeral creativity gets manifested into the physical world through our hands) is a mighty and holy gift. I believe that, if you have a talent (or even if you think you do, or maybe even if you just hope you do), that you should treat that talent with the highest reverence and love.

Don't flip out, in other words, and murder your gift through narcissism, insecurity, addiction, competitiveness, ambition or mediocrity. Frankly -- don't be a jerk. Just get busy, get serious, get down to it and write something, for heaven's sake. Try to get out of your own way. Creativity itself doesn't care at all about results -- the only thing it craves is the PROCESS. Learn to love the process and let whatever happens next happen, without fussing too much about it. Work like a monk, or a mule, or some other representative metaphor for diligence. Love the work. Destiny will do what it wants with you, regardless. Just love the work.


Moose in the fieldwork

I'm up here in moose country. I've been recording for 16 hours. I'm beat. Just beat. This moose hunt story consumes my every waking thought. Considering I only slept four and a half hours last night, that's a lot of hours. The story is evolving into something much more complex and even more interesting and compelling than I expected.
The food options up here are letting me down. I need to remember to drink more water. I've been covered in woolen clothing, top to bottom, and there's more time to put in yet. It was 34 degrees this morning. It only got up to 56 at noon time.
Did I say how in love I am with all this? I cried from joy twice today. The beauty of old men and their deeply held friendships. All the wide open land, potato fields and their farmers. The huntress. She's on a worthy journey. Somehow I'm lucky enough to be here. So damn lucky.


Beat Report: Politics & Lawmaking

Hey everyone!

Just wanted to quickly make an update of recent news concerning my beat (Maine politics and lawmaking.) We've been assigned beats in Colin's writing class as a way to update each other in case anyone is still looking for story ideas.

Maine Republican favors legalizing marijuana

Senate fund building of Destroyer in Bath

Political overtones a part of union conflict

Senator Chris Dodd will speak at this year's annual Jackson-Jefferson dinner, the largest Maine Democrats' gathering in the state

Maine's former governor king endorses Obama last friday

Obama campaign announces "Maine Republicans for Obama"

Our First Man-On-The-Street Interview

For our man-on-the-street interview excersize, my partners and I set out with the question, "Are you doing anything different to prepare for winter this year?" We were armed with facts and trivia about the high cost of heating oil, in addition to higher costs of food and gasoline, added to the fact that the Farmer's Almanac (a semi-reliable source, I admit) predicts a colder than usual winter this year. We got some interesting answers. One woman just smiled and said heat was included with her rent. Another guy refused to be interviewed saying he wasn't doing anything and didn't want to talk about it. I found a woman who had just moved here from Colorado and was facing her first Maine winter with oil heat. She gave me some very thoughtful answers in our 3-minute interview, and for a moment I was wishing I were in the radio track instead of photography (I've since come to my senses). But it was incredibly fun. The Sony recorders are beautiful pieces of equipment, and I've decided to impose myself on any radio student I can find who will show me something about ProTools. It can only be an asset to know this software in a multimedia world.

In this photo: Natasha Haverty, radio student 2008, interviewing a guy named Aaron, and Jenny Goff, writing track, 2008. Photo by me, Claire Houston.



i just watched a video/autobiography from Weezer' lead singer, rivers cuomo, and i thought it showed how elastic the boundaries of documentary can be. personally, i feel this video is documentary, and i especially love how primitive it is. the video might seem a bit playful/given what we know about the band's sensibilities, but the story he is telling is real and true.

...i dont think it's any great work of art, but i do think it tells a story.

watch the video here

The County

I'm road tripping it up to Allagash, solo, this weekend. I think there's a story up there. I'm going to the Allagash Town Hall meeting. I'm a bit nervous, but I seem to always find a way to connect with people when actually presented with unusually circumstances.
I'm ready for the road. The way the road lets your mind rest and wander.


tension, release

I've been walking around for days with a throbbing headache, and an anxiety-riddled heart. It's early in the semester, and producing a story seems thrilling, but unattainable. Emotional involvement in my schoolwork aside, something's "going around" -- herbal teas and throat lozenges are ubiquitous--and it's possible I'm tracing my discomfort to the wrong source.

Regardless, listening to radio pieces at the start of each class offers a respite--a time to get out of my own head, when I'm guaranteed to think clearly (maybe even aptly!) about story construction, scene-setting. Eyes closed, it's a pleasure to listen and not to speak.

Today we discussed one of Joe Richman's "Radio Diaries" featuring a teenager with Tourette's alternately reflecting on (and succumbing to) his disorder. Rob identified this juxtaposition as "tension and release." I hold my pounding head at the temples, take note.

doing documentary

...i just read the following:

"All [documentarians] share a common goal: to engage an audience in the wonder of actuality, creatively interpreted."


First Days at Salt

Landed in Portland the night before class started. 3/4 of the way finished unpacking my things, the semester is off to a quick start.

Day two of class, Eloise and I walked along the Eastern Promenade asking people what they thought about the sky. For a simple exercise to test our new recorders, we gathered some elaborate responses. One man talked about the joy it brings him to swim in these waters year-round for every reason from building his immune system to conversing with the sky about falling. Not the typical response to our question, but I think there's something to it. When getting to know a place, I'm apt to dive-in. Based on the strange looks I've been getting from dog-walkers on the beach, not a common activity in these parts to swim in cold weather.

Trying to be outside because the weather is already shifting to fall. Found a quiet spot on Peaks Island to build a rock castle. I saw Andy Goldworthy's "River's and Tides" this summer and I think he makes a good point about needing to understand the rocks of a place before you get to building walls.

Back to finding a story.