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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Two Unraveling Characters, Interwoven by Music

There’s some magical quality in radio, perhaps the softness of the voice or the raw emotion in every vibration that can evoke a visceral reaction. That magical quality comes out really strongly in “Unraveling Bolero”, by Jad Abumrad for Radiolab. It explores the intersection of creativity and neurology, and the eerie similarities between two artists. The music used to connect the two stories is what creates that magical quality.

Unraveling Bolero is the story of two lives, woven together in a haunting echo of one another across time and space. The first is Anne Adams, an incredible cell biologist, who after a series of events became a full-time artist. Soon afterwards, her obsession with Maurice Ravel’s Bolero began as she meticulously deconstructed the composition into a striking visual representation. The second is Maurice Ravel himself who, in the 1920’s in France, became consumed by the very same repetitive melody, during the process of writing the piece.

Everytime I listen, I become the artist, obsessed with the music even though I know it’s driving me mad. The frustration captured is so real that I can feel it… These feelings of madness are a result of the music and narration working together as emotional punctuation. For instance, the first time we are told of Anne Adam’s slow downward spiral, somber music creates the tone. The melody lingers after the narration has finished, capturing the torrent of emotions she undoubtedly went through. Through these subtle suggestions, the music offers this glimpse into her internal struggle

The music is the piece. The story talks about a song. The song seems to have the power to alter lives. It is the generous and intentional insertions of sound that drive the story forward. In particular, the various segments of the famous song, Bolero by Maurice Ravel, serve as the central lynchpin of the plot.

More importantly, the music creates the characters’ personality. For example, after the introduction of Debussy, there is a whimsical musical flourish. It sounds exactly like Debussy’s music. The building tension of the piece is achieved largely through strategic use of Ravel’s Bolero. In the beginning, we hear a few bars of the famous melody. But then Bolero is repeated and then repeated again to a final crashing crescendo as the truth behind Anne Adams and Maurice Ravel’s obsession is revealed.

Complete satisfaction. By the end of the piece, I was utterly invested in the madness of their respective lives. The audio experience could not be possible without the rich infusion of sound in the piece. The music captured the raw emotion, the confusion, and the exhilaration of creating all the way to the story’s climax.

What is the true source of the artists’ madness? Is it the music? Listen on for the full story.

Unraveling Bolero
by Jab Abumrad for Radiolab in 2012
20 min

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On Repetition in Storytelling

From the SSP blogging staff: In preparation for our event this Friday with Coleman Barks and Martin Shaw, SSP blogger Bonnie Swift held an informal interview with Martin Shaw, asking him about repetition in the oral tradition, in the light of Shaw’s telling of the Handless Maiden myth.

What follows is the full text of Shaw’s response.

The raw ground of many of these stories I tell are to be found in oral culture. A time when human speech was clearly a note in a far wider music – the roots of these tales carrying the croaking-burrs and twigged silver musings of the magpie tucked tight in their thinking. The teller was placed within, rather on top, of the web of sound the living world creates. This base-line consciousness creates a very vivid negotiation with the wider psyche of sea foam and black bear. Everything is intelligent, animate, communicating.

A great thinker on orality, Walter J. Ong, reminds us that the Hebrew term dabar means both ‘word’ and ‘event’. In oral culture, a word is an event. It has both weight and mighty influence. Ong goes on to give us the illustration of a buffalo hunter being able to smell, taste or touch a buffalo, even if it is quite dead, but if he hears a buffalo, then he better get out of the way quick! The sound is direct, active, informing.

When we realise that when these stories first started to appear the sum total of our knowledge is what we could recall – no internet, no shelves of books – then we start to understand why a word would be considered an event. Recall is not endless, so a certain sense of selection would be necessary. To allow a word into the granary of your storied thinking would be something considered, not a scribbled note in a journal to be picked over another day. This association of action with a word helps us relate the relationship between language and spell casting. To assemble words into your memory is to increase verbal breadth into this wider web of sound, it is a form of power. And because it is power, the impulse is to remember things of true significance; the mind becomes a polished arrow rather than fluffy with whatever the chat show or news is telling us.

As a storyteller I have long suspected that the constant motifs we find in tales – three daughters or sons, an animal ally, a wedding – are a remnant of this oral learning, this need for repetitive scenes to lock the story down in the memory. It is a wonderful discipline for an apprentice storyteller to learn stories by ear only, as an activation of this sophisticated application of memory. Repetition also laces a kind of ritual patterning of language through the wider narrative, it gives it a kind of returning point, and if you improvise in the moment as much as I do, then that’s useful. The ‘matter’ of the story is the progression it follows, but the ‘sense’ of it is how I tell it that day and hour, with particular inflections and emphasis. Matter and Sense are old medieval ideas about how to tell stories. Too much ‘matter’ and it lacks imagination, too much ‘sense’ and it becomes weightless, lacking the pathos of its history through many mouths and cultures. So the mythteller is a hinge between tradition and innovation.

This is not to equate imaginative flatness with this form of retention – certain descriptions will go alongside the characters. As Ong describes it, they would prefer brave soldier to soldier, sturdy oak to oak, and so on. Whilst the image is fleshed out in nothing like as much detail as a modern novel, these brief inflections create just enough rooting for the story to reach its tendrils into the oral listener’s imagination. For them to actually invest in the retaining of the story.

The value of repetition within speech is also a throwback to when groups may have struggled acoustically to hear the speaker, or the imperative was to ground the words in the oral memory of the listener. In a culture that is oral, knowledge not repeated soon evaporates, and so this grounding was crucial.

This evaporation is useful for forgetting specific tribal traumas (although they often linger for some generations) as there are no written texts reminding the group of a great abuse or loss, thereby weakening their wider mythos. If the group moves location and the geographic anchor to genealogy and story changes, then before too long the storyteller stops repeating them and it drifts into a great forgetting. Of course, there are variants of this – far distant memories of homelands have been sustained in certain cultures – for example, the Gypsies – for many hundreds of years. But as a loose rule, there has to be collective decision to ‘keep remembering’ for the old patterned genealogies to stay clear in the group mind.

Oral storytellers, although insisting they don’t deviate from the narrative, almost never give a verbatim recital. Being placed into groups frequently – even faced with those you have known all your life – alerts the teller to the collective moods they are confronted with and how they themselves are feeling. Hence, the intonation and emphasis will vary. There is also the thought of how the story itself wishes to be told that night. As an independent agency, both linked to memory retention and supernatural agency, the story has its own peccadillos. It’s a contrary beast.

If, gathered under threadbare canvas or by the hearth fire of a Cumbrian farmhouse, the old stories are told, then there is an undeniable sense of communitas, a reaffirming, a brushing up against mighty images that remind the group of their history, place and values. The characters who elegantly waltz into the room are ancient companions. All laugh at the three gossiping ravens, or hold their breath as the young woman wanders forest paths at midnight, despite knowing the outcome. The characters in these stories have to be remarkable or they simply would not be remembered within an oral climate.

Video of Martin Shaw telling “The Handless Maiden”
with Daniel Deardoff at Kulak’s Woodshed in North Hollywood in 2010
39 minutes

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