Feb 25, 2015

On story structure

I was thinking this week about story structure. There is a rhythm to news stories, and when you produce them every day it becomes mechanical. Clunk, clunk, clunk.

So you have to force yourself to think about things like story structure sometimes, especially for an exceptional story.

Here's one. It is a story about an old man, lost in a snowstorm, who abandons hope and prepares himself to die. He is rescued at the last moment by an ex-politician who mistook him for a seal, then carries him to safety.

There are a few different ways that you could structure that story for broadcast. Somehow, you have to bring out that marvellous moment when we realize: that's not a seal, that's a man.

This lesson from This American Life's Ira Glass was in my mind. Glass is a master storyteller, and he makes a case for the power of anecdote. There's a great force behind the question, "what happened next?"

You want to present a piece of bait, Glass says. Constantly be raising questions and answering them. What is that dark shape lying on the ground?

"You can feel through its form, that when you have one thing leading to the next, to the next," Glass says. "You can feel inherently, that you're on a train that has a destination, and that he's going to find something."

I say, we have to begin with Charlie Parker, the former MLA with the seal question. In news we usually start with the most important information, but you can't have a big reveal if you give it all away at the top. It's rather unusual to find that the main character of your story is, himself, the big reveal, but this is why it's good to think about story structure sometimes.

Here are a few more thoughts on story structure:

Anyone who writes (particularly for broadcast) should listen to Ira Glass on storytelling.

Totally worth dissecting the essays of Joan Didion. In Blue Nights she describes writing in a way that sounds more like musical composition - putting down marks on the paper to determine the rhythm of the words. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live," she wrote in The White Album. "We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely... by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the 'ideas' with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria — which is our actual experience.”

From the Nieman Foundation for journalism: "Stories give shape to experience."

Kurt Vonnegut gives an amusing talk on story structure.

Jan 15, 2015

Havana Nights

Last week I was in Havana, where it is warm and breezy and men smoke fat cigars in shirt sleeves while directing garbage trucks.

Ah, Havana. And good timing too, wasn't it, since the trade and travel restrictions loosen up tomorrow?
My most vivid memory of Havana was when we went dancing one night to the Hotel Florida. We had drinks in the tiny, smoky salsa bar, where the tables at the front are reserved by the Cubans and the people in the back can't see the floor because of the crowd of bodies. I danced until I could feel my shirt sticking to me with sweat. 
When we left the bar it was raining hard. We were hurrying to get to Central Park where we'd have a better chance of picking up a taxi. But before we got to the park, the sky started spewing rain so hard we had to stop under a shop awning. There were several Cubans standing underneath the awning as well, and we started talking to two of them. They were an older woman named Maria who was missing a tooth and holding a shawl over her head, and a young man named Marco who was wearing a suit jacket and carrying a briefcase. 
With broken English-Spanish we told them we were from Canada and we learned they were going to a party at a place called the Guantanamera. But we were tired and wanted to go home, so all of us decided to run for Central Park. When we got there, we stopped under an arcade and Maria spotted a man she knew, standing there with an inside-out umbrella in his hand. 
Don't take that other taxi, she said in Spanish. This man has a car, and he'll take you where you're going for six pesos (with a little extra tip in Maria's hand too, of course!). The man's name was Daniel, and his car was a battered blue sedan with a low roof and a bare bit of cloth covering the springs of the backseat, but we jumped in.
You've seen those beautiful pictures of the shiny 1950s boat-cars with the fins and the chrome? Daniel's car was nothing like that. It was 50s, all right, but it was the small car of a large family that made fierce economies. There was no panelling inside at all, just the bare metal body of the door, with some big metal screws where the door latch and the window handle should be. One of the windshield wipers was missing. The one that remained slid over the glass so slowly it did nothing to sweep away the rain. 
What that car did have was a completely modern digital sound system that glowed red from the dashboard and blasted salsa music from two vibrating speakers in the back. 
By my talented dad
So picture us speeding down the Malecon in the middle of the night. The storm waves are rolling in over the seawall and onto the road, the salsa music is blasting, we are completely unable to see anything in front of the car except the lights of on-coming cars. Daniel reaches out the driver's window twice to reattach the lonely windshield wiper. It was quite impossibly perfect. 

Dec 4, 2014

What I'm reading

For the last week I've been "reading" a book on audiotape. It's Wild by Cheryl Strayed. It's about Cheryl's trek along the Pacific Coast Trail from California to Oregon and Washington state. She had no experience as a long distance hiker, and took it on as a project to heal from the death of her mother and a divorce from her husband. I like this passage from a part of the trail when she's walking through the Mojave Desert, among the Joshua trees and the rattlesnakes.

"It was a deal I'd made with myself months before and the only thing that allowed me to hike alone. I knew that if I allowed fear to overtake me, my journey was doomed. Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave. Nothing could vanquish me. Insisting on this story was a form of mind control, but for the most part, it worked. Every time I heard a sound of unknown origin or felt something horrible cohering in my imagination, I pushed it away. I simply did not let myself become afraid. Fear begets fear. Power begets power. I willed myself to beget power. And it wasn't long before I actually wasn't afraid.”

Nov 20, 2014

A few weeks ago I mentioned going with my friend S to visit L, a blacksmith. She invited us to come back to learn about smithing. We went yesterday and had a fantastic afternoon.
The forge is inside a dark shed with a dirt floor. It has to be dark so you can see the colour of the heated metal properly. We put on cotton shirts and leather aprons so we wouldn't get burned. Then we put shovelfuls of green coal into the forge and shovelled coke and burning coals on top. The coal began to give off an opaque yellow, sulphurous smoke. L used an electric fan to get the chimney to draw, and the small pile of coal quickly turned into a blasting fire. It's so hot it hurts the eyes if you look at it for a long time. 
We thrust bars of metal deep into the blast of the furnace and I learned how to tell when the metal is ready to work. Dull red isn't hot enough. Glowing yellow is just right, and when the metal sends off sparks it's about to crumble up and burn. 
I learned about metal grinders and wax polishes, forge welding, clamps, and vices. L showed me how the metal "moves" and lengthens as the hammer blows make it thinner and pointier. She also showed me how to bend a metal bar using the edge of the anvil and a hammer, and how to make fine twists with a pair of tongs. She let me strike every blow that shaped my hook. 
It was warm and dry inside the forge and we sipped at mugs of hot liquorice tea because we were so thirsty. The clang of hammer on metal didn't jar me when I had my earmuffs on. We were drilling a hole in my hook when for some reason I thought of the shiny new consoles and equipment at work. I was trying to bring the drill bit down slowly and gently so it wouldn't get stuck in the metal - which it did several times because I moved too fast. 
I thought about the difference between that drill and our touch screen buttons that type the same letter no matter how hard or softly the fingers press down. The word "analog" came into my mind. I thought about bringing the hammer up high to smite a fine tip of metal, and how it can bounce back into your face if you're not careful. On the other hand, there are the tiny taps of a hammer to put a subtle and elegant bend into the back of a hook. 
S and I were talking about it later, after four hours passed without looking at the clock or realizing that we were mentally drained. We agreed that smithing seems to be like a meditation. All your attention is focussed and concentrated on this one glowing piece of metal. You have only a short span of time to hammer it, shape it, put it back in the fire, and take it out without burning it. It was an intense way of seeing. Here's the finished hook I made. 
No picture could ever show you the sparks I saw coming from inside the red-gold bar of metal S worked on the anvil. They didn't spring off the metal and into the air. They welled up from the molten inside and shimmered on the surface of the bar with each hammer strike in the dark. 

Nov 15, 2014

Good bye, Sackville and Bell Road

CBC Halifax is on the move. We are abandoning our two buildings in the downtown and combining into one space down the road. Many of us are feeling sad and quite sentimental about the two old buildings, and there were some tears shed on Friday. Okay, I will admit to some nostalgia. These two buildings were places where I got started, where I was allowed to step inside and learn. Sometimes when we are working in the field we say to each other, "All done here, let's go home" - and by "home" we mean the station. 

But maybe it doesn't do to get too attached to a building. Everyone knows it takes more than that to make a home. The people are CBC, and we are taking that with us. 


Oct 30, 2014

Elspeth Beard, Globetrotter

Love this...this is Elspeth Beard, the first English woman to travel around the world by motorcycle in the early 80s. Read more about her here. It's pretty amazing stuff. Her adventures include crossing Canada, exploring New Zealand on foot, trekking the Himalayas, forging a permit to get out of India, crossing post-Revolution Iran and Yugoslavia.

She went on to become a successful architect and still runs an award-winning firm. This is her home in a converted water tower.

Oct 23, 2014

What a difficult and emotional few days it has been for the whole country. There was a lot to think about during and after the shootings in Ottawa, but I find my thoughts circling back to a few things. 

The first is an interview with Barbara Winters, who ran BACK to the war memorial after she heard the gunfire and was one of many people who tried to aid Nathan Cirillo. "I told him you are loved. You are brave. You are good," she said. It was one of the most moving pieces I've ever heard on As It Happens. 

I find myself also thinking about Kevin Vickers, the House's sergeant-at-arms who some credit with shooting the shooter, preventing anyone else from getting hurt. And I keep going back and mulling over something Margaret Wente wrote about Vicker in the Globe and Mail

He has made a career of reaching out to Muslims, Sikhs, First Nations, and others who haven’t always been included in this country. When the Idle No More movement marched on Parliament Hill, he formally exchanged tobacco with a First Nations chief and said, “I understand your frustration. I understand the conditions in which you people live and I also understand the importance of tobacco and what it means as not only a gift, but as a sign of respect for your people.” After the Quebec National Assembly banned the kirpan, he made sure the ceremonial dagger would be allowed in the House of Commons. As he told one gathering of Sikhs, he doesn’t like the word “tolerance.” “No,” he said. “As head of security, I am going to accept and embrace your symbol of faith within the Parliamentary Precinct....."I told them that if they made me their sergeant-at-arms, there would be no walls built around Canada’s parliamentary buildings,” he said.