(this was written some time ago…finally posting. It’s about editing, kind of, but reading it now I want to write a whole ‘nother piece, this one called: I exist, I exist. Which can’t help but link to this.)
Each year it comes as a surprise, the first morning you wake up and find the world lit bright with ice. Each blade of grass rises silver, each twig, branch, and tender leaf outlined in white. Your breath comes in soft clouds. From somewhere, you can smell wood smoke. Mornings like this will become normal; you’ll get used to scraping ice off the windshield again, accustomed to tree limbs stripped bare by the wind, the ground frozen into clay crystals that crunch underneath your boots. But this morning, like every first frost of every year, it’s a surprise that takes your breath away.
Like a lot of you, I’m an inveterate public radio listener. There’s a regular feature that airs Friday mornings on WCQS and other public radio stations called StoryCorps, which is a project of oral documentary, an archive of conversations. Anyone can participate. Each participant receives a CD of their conversation to share with anyone they like, and each conversation is archived in the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.
Documentarian Dave Isay recently told Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep that he got the idea for StoryCorps when he was a freelance radio producer. He’d worked on a radio documentary and then, later on, a book about the Bowery section of New York City and the homeless who lived there. “I remember bringing the galley of the book up into the flophouse,” Isay said, “and I handed it to one of the guys and he opened it up to his page and he took the book out of my hand and he held it over his head and he ran down the hall and he started shouting, ‘I exist! I exist!’ And that was kind of a clarion call for StoryCorps. That’s what it’s all about.”
I was driving into work that morning, like millions of other Americans on a weekday morning, most of us in our own cars, on our way from homes in which we live lives that often feel overwhelming, and unremarkable. We’re on our way to jobs in which we feel misunderstood, numbed, conflicted. Maybe we feel ourselves come alive in moments like this one, moments of clarity and connection. NPR has even come up with a term for moments like these: “driveway moments”, when you’re listening to something on the radio that’s providing, just for a moment, that feeling of connection. A 3-minute radio story that resonates with your most private self, a story that will not let you turn away.
What I learned during the interview with Isay was that the interviews themselves are not 2-3 minutes long, which is the length of time allotted to the StoryCorps segment that airs on the radio. They’re edited down from 40 minutes to the few minutes we hear. And, hearing this, I felt foolish for thinking otherwise; I mean, of course these pieces are edited down into short segments to be shared as a radio broadcast. Of course, all 40 minutes aren’t included. An editor is the final arbiter of the story, not the individual. Individuals simply provides the raw material from which, ultimately, the story is culled. Most of what’s shared between the people in this conversation is simply archived; it isn’t, like the piece that’s aired on the radio, performed.
In my own life, I’m that editor, for there are countless hours of story I’m living out every waking moment, and countless ways to tell any story. Whatever way I chose to tell it is the way I remember it, the way it’s archived, and the way it’s shared with others. This morning I watched a cardinal flick inside the boxwood; moments later, the morning sun melted patterns onto the frost-hard yard. But my attention wasn’t there, but on an interaction with someone earlier in the week that I’ve relived a thousand times since, words unspoken at the time that have since become almost a mantra-like in their determined defense. My 40-minute window has been edited down to include almost nothing but the noise of my own internal monologue. Suffice to say, it’s not one that’s likely to be selected for national broadcast. Neither are the conversational exchanges that I have with people outside myself, most of which are limited to simple exchanges that are received as they are meant, to do nothing more than allow each of us to pass relatively unnoticed through our days.
Essentially, at its heart, Isay says, StoryCorps is “about giving two people the chance to have this conversation for 40 minutes, and it tells them their lives matter, and they won’t be forgotten.” Over the years, I’ve heard conversations about childhood neglect, about cancer, about carrying and letting go of shame, about being surprised by joy. My guess is that even those in the conversation didn’t know, when they were talking to each other, what moments of their conversation would be important. They may not even have known what the subject was. The story was found by the editor, attentive as this morning’s ice that traces even the veins of the smallest leaf. Who saw lives that matter, and within them found stories that will not be forgotten.