Establishing the Story You Want to Tell
Establishing the story you want to tell. This is important because there are so many different stories within a story, and I'm gonna highlight a story that I fell in love with several years ago and find that I'm still very much in love with. To give a little bit of background, we started a radio magazine called The Unobserved, and we wanted to highlight the best stories, the best radio from around the world, 'cause radio and audio is such an ephemeral medium. At the time, this was before podcasts, really, and so a piece goes out, it plays, it touches people, and then it ends up on the hard drive, or the archive of a journalist, or a sound artist, or a podcast producer. So, we wanted to breathe new life into it, into these pieces. And I was, you know, you've heard these stories, you're in the car, you're on a run, you're somewhere, and you're listening to something and you're just sort of stopped in your tracks. And the story for me that stopped me in my tracks was, there have been many...
, Prisoner of the Heart is a story by Douglass McGray, and you'll, I'd like to tell you a little bit about it before I play it. It's a story about a mom that gets arrested and goes to jail, and her daughter wants to be with her so badly that she manages to get herself arrested too so that they can be cellmates, and it does actually happen. So, there's several components to this story, there are several ways that Douglass McGray, the producer, and this was for This American Life, could've approached it. He could've done something on the penal system, women in jail, you know, a whole wide range of options. What he decided to do was just focus on mom and the daughter and their deep love for each other. And they're the only characters in the story. You don't hear from the guards or anything, and you do hear Doug in this piece, so what I want you to hear for is just the way he's asking questions, his approach. I'm gonna play three parts of this story, which is a 12 minute story, and this first part is when the daughter comes to visit her mom in jail for the first time.
I had one visit and my ex-husband had come, and he'd brought my daughter. And she stood with her fingers in the chicken wire, looking out over the yard, and she, I could she she was just taking inventory. She was just taking inventory from side to side, what she could see, and she said to me, and I'll never forget it, "This wouldn't be too bad "for the two of us, mom." She says, "We could be here together." (gentle music)
She said, "Don't even think about it." She already knew what I was thinking when I got there.
'Cause I could see it working in her head, you know, you can tell when kids are doing something. Don't even think about it, you know?
And what did she say?
She was just solemn, she was very serious about what she was saying.
She's like trying to get me to look at her and I was just looking around.
What were you looking around for? Were you looking to see, like, could I do this?
Yeah, yeah, and I was like, this ain't so bad.
Was life outside pretty bad then?
Life outside? It was probably a lot worse than in there at the time. It isn't the drug life, you know? The drugs was on the street, and so I would do what I had to do, and all kinds of stuff. It's hard.
So, we're gonna hear more from that story. So, what was fantastic about what Doug did, first of all, we know that he's asked each one, tell us about that first moment when you came to the jail to see your mom. Tell us from the mom's perspective and the daughter's perspective, and we're gonna get into that, the importance of asking those descriptive, you know, that sort of sense of what it was like. She had her finger on the chicken wire, you know, she gave that. So, he's painting a picture there already. You know, there's a, radio and audio is like cinema for sound, so he's, you can see the chicken wire, you can almost feel the air, you can almost see the light in there. And the other bit that I really love about what he did was when she said that she could see herself being in there, he had the insight to say and to know, if she thinks that jail might be better than outside, her life must be pretty tough. And so, she opened that, she opened that door for him to walk into and say, so is it hard out there? And she said, yeah, actually, it's really freaking hard. (laughing) It's really hard, it's so hard that I wanna be where my mom is. I was first attracted to this story because, I mean, it's a love story. There are all kinds of love stories. There's love stories about falling madly in love with someone, about the love story you have when you first discover radio. Seriously, or audio. There's all kinds of love stories, but I fell in love with this one because it was a unique love story. And I also thought the structuring was really fantastic. I could feel the strength of the interviews in it. I'm gonna play you the second bit, and this is where the daughter first arrives. And what I want you to hear for is the descriptive terminology, the descriptions that Doug inspired, and yeah, just the feeling of this moment.
I rounded the corner, and there was my child standing there in a mumu, and I just, my legs just buckled.
Acted like she was gonna fall apart or something. "Oh my god, my baby!" She's acting like she's gonna faint and all kinds of stuff.
It was the greatest moment, but it was the saddest moment, to be able to see her, but to see her in this setting was overwhelming. And I was hanging onto her, we just locked. She had her arms around me and I had my arms around her, and everybody was crying. The cop was crying, everybody around us was crying, and I know that every one of 'em wanted it to be their daughter. Everybody wanted, even the, it was the--
These are other prisoners?
Yeah. Not to have your child in prison, but to have your arms around her. My legs were so weak, you know, I stood back and I just asked, "What the hell are you doing here?" And she just grabbed me again and she was holding onto me, loving me, and she says, "I need my mom." It was wonderful, 'cause I don't let people touch me in here. People don't hug me, people don't squeeze me, but she hugs me and squeezes me.
Yeah. It's powerful, I mean, I still get choked up. I'm doing my best not to get choked up. I've heard it dozens of times. Because it has everything there. It's like, you don't wanna see your daughter in jail, but you wanna be with your daughter. And he just captures it. He, and I can imagine the questions were, what was that feeling right at that moment? And when she talks about being touched, so what are the benefits? What are the wonderful bits of having her here? What are the things that you didn't expect? You know, these are the kinds of questions that incite some really deep answers. What do you love most about her being here? Why your daughter? You know, so, and I also like that Doug had the guts to interrupt. You know, there was a moment where he said, so, let's just clarify this, and it's important to have those guts, because we'll get into guts later and just feeling brave in an interview. But it's important, if something's unclear, to feel okay to step in and allow the person, and this is what we also hear here, discover here is that the person is, there's a duality that we're not just hearing, they're not just in a room talking about the story, but Doug is there and he's hearing her, and that's very, very important. So, I really love his presence throughout. And I think what resonates with others and why, you know, some of the things that you wanna think about in your questions is what are some of the, regardless of who you're interviewing, what are some of our fundamental truths? What are the universal things that we value? You know, love, aspirations, fears, the challenges with failures, what you feel proud of, what you wish you had done differently. I mean, these kinds of questions are the kinds of questions that you can do in any interview with anybody, depending on what it is you're talking about. But you can find a way to sort of structure that question in there so that you create something that's accessible for everybody, regardless of culture, background, age, and that's what I think is strong about this piece, those fundamental, universal truths. We'll get into questions in a bit.
Robin's not doing so well these days. Since her time with her mom more than 10 years ago, she's been in and out of prison. The more time a person spends inside, the harder it is to make a life outside.
I never felt like I'd be right until my mom gets out. I'm not gonna be right. Here I'm 42 years old and just staying where I can. I don't have a job, nothing, nothing. I mean, I've tried to complete my GED and stuff quite a few times. And I went to beauty college and I graduated, but I didn't go to state board, and it's just like, I never think I'm gonna win.
Is there anything that gives you hope?
Just my mom getting out. That's really the only hope I got anymore.
What I think was perfect about that moment is that he asks her at the end, and that was the end of the piece, does anything give you hope? And also, during it, you hear him, you probably have to have headphones on, you hear him say, "Aw," while she's telling something, so it's about having that compassion that the listener can hear that you're really understanding someone. So, the hope issue is that it's lovely, you know, there's so many choices he could've made, but he wants to end on something that gives the listener a sense of, you know, a breath up, you know? A sense of, like, this can be different, this might change, you know? That there's a chance for change. So, I wanted to play that story for you because it's such a beautiful story. It's got all the things that I think work for a great interview. It's got the universal truths, it's got the sense of connection, it's got really some painful stuff, but it also has hope, and love, and joy, and you hear the presence of him as a producer.