Behind the Story: Voices Lost and Found

by Stephanie Yin

Someone once told me that a good reporter does too much research, then tells way less than she knows. The telling has always tempted me.

When I received my assignment to do a piece on the Student Language Exchange (SLE) and its founder, Amelia Friedman ’14, I e-mailed Friedman right away to set up a time to talk. I figured she might take a few days, maybe up to a week, to respond, and in the meantime I’d do preliminary research on my own.  Five minutes after I pressed “send”, an enthusiastic response from Friedman popped up in my inbox. “Yeah, sure thing,” she said, and then offered to meet the next day.

In person, Friedman is just as ebullient. She talks fast, gestures big and has much to say about the organization she built from the ground up.

During the nearly two hours that we talked, I noticed that she would always stop just short of telling me how SLE impacted others. Multiple times throughout our conversation, Friedman directed me to speak to other people. “I don’t want to speak for anyone else,” she said.

“Have people created for-credit classes after their SLE experience?”  I asked.

“Some participants of the Tagolog section created a Group Independent Study Project exploring Filipino and Filipino-American identity,” she said, “but I wouldn’t want to say that was a result of SLE. You should really talk to Rexy Josh Dorado.”

So instead we talked about her experiences and perceptions of SLE: her motivations for starting it, the lessons she’s learned, SLE’s biggest challenges and her visions for the future.

After my conversation with Friedman, I reached out to the participants she had named, as well as a few others. My idea was to create a series of comic strips, each strip illustrating the experience of a different SLE participant. I hoped that, together, the strips could capture the wide range of experiences people had with the program.

It turned out everyone had a lot to say. The people I spoke with were passionate, and I wanted to do justice to that. So I scrapped the comic strip idea, and wrote up six long narratives.

When I presented my piece at our next Storytellers for Good meeting, it became clear that there was something missing. Superficially they all had SLE in common, but the stories were not cohesive. They were six separate narratives that just happened to be placed side by side.

I played around with the stories. I shortened, then lengthened, then shortened them. I shifted perspectives, from third-person reporting to first-person narrative. I shuffled around the order of the narratives. I wrote different versions of an introduction. Each time I’d bring the piece back to our Storytellers meetings, it still wasn’t quite there. In the meantime, hoping inspiration would strike, I created illustrations to accompany each story.

At the same time, I was working for Randy Olson, a scientist-turned-filmmaker. Olson earned his PhD from Harvard and worked for years as a marine biologist, eventually achieving tenure at the University of New Hampshire. Then, suddenly, he decided to leave all of it behind to go to film school in Los Angeles. Since then, he’s made several documentaries and short films, which often spotlight major science topics such as evolution and climate change.

In recent years, Olson has focused his attention on providing “narrative training” to people who are trying to communicate a large amount of information—one target group being scientists. Through his experience in Hollywood, he has learned the importance in having narrative structure. In order to captivate an audience, a storyteller must present a narrative that has elements of drama: tension, conflict, revelations and resolutions.

He’s put together two “templates” to help communicators organize the story they want to tell. The first is the “and, but, therefore” (ABT) template. A good rule of thumb in storytelling is to make sure a story can be distilled into a sentence that follows the structure, “____________, AND ____________, BUT____________, THEREFORE ___________.”

For example, “I wanted to write a story about the Student Language Exchange, AND I had gathered a bunch of information, BUT the piece was not coming together, THEREFORE I needed to think about my narrative structure.”

The second was trickier. Following a logline format that scriptwriters commonly use when pitching plots to movie producers, Olson and a team created a Storymaker app that draws from the narrative structure of Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s journey.” The story starts out with a flawed protagonist who encounters a conflict, commits to action, and then goes through a series of other stages before achieving her goal.

In early January, I was at the Annual Meeting of the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology in Austin, Texas, where Olson was delivering the keynote and leading a storytelling workshop for scientists. A new draft of my “Student Language Exchange” piece was due in days, and even after sitting on it over the holidays, I was still feeling stuck.

I had just helped Olson facilitate the storytelling workshop, during which we introduced the ABT and logline templates to tell stories about the participants’ research topics. Olson was feeling frustrated about the logline maker. Though people intuitively grasp the “and, but, therefore” template, the logline always took a bit more getting used to.

I knew what he meant. I had been helping Olson promote the Storymaker app for months, but hadn’t really tried to use it in earnest, because it struck me as complex.

“People think they already know the story they want to tell,” he said, “and when it doesn’t fit easily into the logline, they just get discouraged and stop trying.”

I nodded sympathetically, somewhat distracted by the thought that I still needed to come up with a new spin for the SLE piece.

Later that night, as I stared at a blinking cursor on my computer screen, Olson’s words came back to me. “People they think they already know the story they want to tell…”

I pulled out my phone and, for the first time, really studied the logline. With all of the material I had for the SLE story already, I created a backbone that hit each peg of the hero’s journey. This meant sacrificing parts of each individual story to pull along the narrative thread of the overall story.

Once I had the skeleton in place, I started writing—and didn’t stop. That night I sat in my hotel room alone and wrote for hours, two beds for myself, room service for dinner and a Tina Fey movie on mute in the background. By 3 am, I had a new piece. In one sitting, I reformed the piece I had been trying to write for two months.

To follow the logline, I cut out a large amount of each individual story.  I had suspected I needed to do this for a while, but felt that abbreviating each story meant sacrificing the depth and complexity of each person’s experience. When I read through the new version, though, I realized the piece wasn’t missing much from cutting out so much content. In fact, the versatility of the SLE experience only became clearer.

By focusing on Amelia’s journey of building a vision and then learning how to let go of it, the story built up to revelation that the beauty of SLE lies in its ability to be crafted by those who are participating in it. The final story, I hoped, was still nuanced and complex, but ultimately more powerful in its coherence. By identifying my narrative structure, and cutting out the extra content, I finally found the voice I had lost.