Ditch The Narrator

It’s time to get a little bit personal. This week I’m going to write about one of my own stories. I had more fun producing this story than any other story I’ve produced.

It’s called People Find the Drum who Need to Find the Drum, and it hails from waaaaay back in the Stanford Storytelling Project’s archives — Hannah Krakauer and I made it in 2008. It’s about a visiting artist at Stanford, John-Carlos Perea, who leads a 10 week course on pow wow music. He teaches his students the history of pow wow music and dance, then how to play the drum and sing pow wow music. We followed the course for several weeks, and witnessed the transformation that the students underwent during this time.

In the process of scripting this story, Hannah and I scratched our heads and labored intensely over how to tell the story of Perea and the students we’d interviewed. We sorted and resorted our piles of transcripts, and went through several writes and rewrites of the story’s narration. And then, one evening at my house, over our tenth cup of tea, it dawned on us: this story was best without a narrator. The characters could tell their story themselves.

Our narrator was just getting in the way. She felt like a woman in a white coat, observing the the facts, but not affected. The third-person perspective was subtracting from the story’s emotional immediacy.

The decision came when we realized that all of Perea’s students were telling different versions of the same story, and that Perea’s interview and music could be used to weave the students’ perspectives together. It was one of those moments where we both leaned in and raised our eyebrows. Deciding to switch to a non-narrated story, we poured an eleventh cup of tea and stayed up until three in the morning to finish the piece.

Storytelling guides will tell you to decide early in your production process whether to use a narrator or not. When we gathered the audio material, we hadn’t been planning on making a narrator-less story, but by a couple strokes of luck, it worked out.

Here’s why:

  1. We asked our interviewees to introduce themselves (Around 9 min, one character appears who does not introduce himself. This is Ben Burdick. Sorry Ben!). Then we asked them to share a little bit about themselves. That way a narrator didn’t have to relay this basic information for us.

  2. We asked all of our interviewees the same list of questions, and were surprised at how similar their answers were. This made it relatively easy for us to weave a variety of perspectives together along a single narrative arc.

  3. We weren’t afraid of having too much material to work with. We had hours and hours of raw tape for this piece, which made it possible for us to comb through and find the logical connections we needed in order to create a seamless, coherent storyline.

But you don’t have to rely on luck. You can plan all of these things in advance. Because we didn’t plan a narrator-less story in advance, we missed the opportunity to exercise a few more tricks. For example, we didn’t tell the people we interviewed about our plans to not have a narrator. Then we could have asked them to please keep that in mind while they spoke — i.e. to respond to our questions in full sentences. And we didn’t ask our characters to describe where they were, what was happening, and what things looked like. Such sensory details would have developed our scene and grounded our story.

Deciding not to have a narrator presents a puzzle-like challenge that for some producers can be fun. And it can be liberating for your characters, who will speak for themselves.


People Find the Drum who Need to Find the Drum
Produced for the Stanford Storytelling Project by Hannah Krakauer and Bonnie Swift
23 min

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Fresh Air Extraordinaire

A while back, I wrote a post about the expert kindness of Ira Glass, where I said that Glass’ gentle touch was the secret to his success in a risky interview situation. But I’d like to revise my argument here, to take into account the tactics of another interviewer par excellence, NPR’s celebrated Terry Gross.

Terry Gross is kind, don’t get me wrong, but she’s not gentle in the same way as Ira Glass. She has a way of probing her interviewee about their apparent contradictions, or their less than noble deeds, and once identifying a difficult point, she does not stop after a single question, but tends to push the point, and then push it again. Somehow, her persistent jabs do not come across as attacks.

How is this possible? Is it the neutral tone of her voice? Is it her genuine curiosity? Is it that her critical questions are preceded by and interspersed with praiseful ones?

In this interview with Robert Hass (Stanford ‘65 and ‘71), which centers on a recent reprinting of Walt Whitman’s poem ‘Song of Myself,’ Gross address a conflict between Whitman’s ‘huge ego’ on the one hand and his ‘great mystical exuberance’ on the other. That Hass is then obliged to defend poor old Whitman against the arrowlike questions of Gross, and does so with such casual eloquence, is what makes this interview as affecting as it is.

After introducing her subject, Gross begins the interview with an easy question: ‘Why is ‘Song of Myself’ so important in American history?’ This gives Hass the opportunity to get comfortable in the interview, and to relate some basic information about the poem, its style, Walt Whitman’s education, and some historical context around its (first) 1855 publication. Her next question is also an easy one.

But her third question is a little more challenging. She opens the door to the more contentious territory carefully, by asking for Hass’s opinion of a third party’s critique of her subject. Ralph Waldo Emerson, she says, who was an early champion of Whitman, eventually got tired of his constant list making. ‘How do you feel about that?’ she asks Hass, ‘That constant list making?’ Hass laughs, and says, ‘I think everybody gets tired of that.’

But the next question is more personal, and downright difficult: ‘I always find that when I read Whitman I never know which part is a huge ego and which part is this great mystical exuberance. What do you think? Do you feel that way too?’

The difficult questions about Whitman’s character continue from here, and each one gives Hass the opportunity to more fully elaborate his understanding of the poet and the poem. If Whitman’s appears to be a personal narcissism, says Hass, it’s only that he means to write about himself for everybody’s sake. What a paradox! Hass is suggesting that Whitman’s ego is some kind of exuberant selflessness. This is the jewel that Gross has been working towards with her hard questions.

The progression in this interview is one that Gross uses often: she starts by surveying the territory, then asks for an opinion about a third party’s critique, then comes in with with the more personal, rigorous probes. By establishing a neutral tone from the start, and prefacing her tougher questions with more welcoming ones, her interviews achieve a sense of vulnerability and intimacy, without being contentious.

Imagine that Gross didn’t push the point about the big ego. Then all we would get from this interview would be, Isn’t Walt Whitman lovely? Isn’t he great? But instead we get, Wow, what a brilliant and complicated person. Which I think is way more interesting.

I stand by my claim to the importance of kindness. But we should all take a lesson from Gross in identifying the difficult questions and creating a comfortable atmosphere in which they can be approached in a nonthreatening way. This technique will take your interviews somewhere more profound.

Terry Gross interviews Robert Hass about Walt Whitman’s poem, ‘Song of Myself.’
‘Fresh Air’ July 15, 2011. [24:30]

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Listening is way more than just paying attention, and this week’s show explores how. To find out just what listening can do to us, we eavesdrop with a cochlear implant, learn what crying babies teach us about music, find out how silence can be full, how God enters our thoughts, and ask what a single moment of being listened to can achieve. We’re finding out what happens when we listen to sounds we never expected to, when we take our listening where it’s never been.

Host/Producer: Charlie Mintz

Featuring: Professor Tanya Luhrmann, Professor Jonathan Berger, Musikilu Mojeed , Rachel Kolb, Eoin Callery, D’or Seifer, Daniel Steinbock

Release Date: 20 February 2013

Image via wikimedia



Intro Story: The Bus is an F

A lot of people in relationships will say their partner hears the world differently. This is a story where that’s literally true.

Featuring: Eoin Callery and D’or Seifer

Producers: Charlie Mintz, Natacha Ruck, Christy Hartman

Image via wikimedia



Story 1: A Sense of Unhappy Confusion

What is so piercing about a baby’s cry? Why can’t we ignore it? We were curious what makes us listen, and we ended up learning why we like music.

Featuring: Jonathan Berger

Producers: Charlie Mintz, Krystal Le, Natacha Ruck

Music: Broken Gadget, Gurdonark, Stefsax, Basematic, jlbrock44

Image via flickr



Story 2: Eavesdropping on the World of Sounds

Rachel Kolb could never just overhear. She was born deaf, but it wasn’t one-on-one communication that was hardest — it was with groups. Then one day, she managed to listen to something she never expected to hear.

Featuring: Rachel Kolb

Producers: Charlie Mintz, Victoria Hurst, Rachel Hamburg

Music: Kevin Macleod – Light Thought Var. 1
– Jarvic 8
– Slow Heat
– Gypsy Shoegazer
– Wet Riffs
– Avec Soin
Jessica_Pavone – Dedicated to Elizabeth Cotten, with Matt Bauder
Emphemtry – Old Dreams
Oskar Schuster – Sneuwland

Image via flickr



Story 3: Daniel and the Quakers

Sometimes the space between words, and what happens during that space, is much more powerful than anything anyone could say.

Featuring: Daniel Steinbock

Producers: Charlie Mintz, Zainab Taymuree

Music: Cara Roxanne
– Intimate
Dan Warren – Instrumental Restoration
Ergo Phizmiz – Margita Zalite – Rolands Vegners
Kevin Macleod – Frost Waltz
Jared C. Balogh – A Tough Decision
Pitx – See you Later

Image via flickr



Story 4: Listening to God

Most of what we listen for, other people can hear it. But sometimes what we listen for doesn’t even have a sound.

Featuring: Professor Tanya Luhrmann

Producers: Jonah Willihnganz, Nina Foushee, Rachel Hamburg

Music: Steffen Basho-Junghans and Rob Voigt

Image via flickr



Story 5: Sometimes, They Don’t Listen

Nigerian investigative journalist and Stanford Knight Fellow Musikilu Mojeed has a very specific definition of what it means for people to listen: government taking action. His long quest to bring down one of Nigeria’s most corrupt politicians shows hard it can be for that version of listening to happen — and also, the power of being listened to.

Featuring: Musikilu Mojeed

Producers: Charlie Mintz, Joshua Hoyt

Music: Blue Suede Through
Christos Koulaxizis – The Place
Brendan Bonsack – Clockwork Waltz
Grapes – I dunno
Anitek – Dormouse
Anitek – Calling
ArnoDee – Compulsion
Kevin Macleod – “Cool Vibes”, Wisps of Whorls
Stefsax – Awel

Image via wikimedia



Bonus: The Rest is Silence

On our show we told the story of Rachel Kolb’s first experience eavesdropping, with the help of her cochlear implant. But the decision to get that implant is a story of its own.

Featuring: Rachel Kolb

Producer: Ariana Peck

Image via wikimedia