Monday, April 23, 2012

CYOA Week 5: Responses

This Must Be The Place

With the exception of PRIME, I found an overall theme of isolation in these pieces.  The three men featured in HILL, COFFER and BYUN all lived by themselves in isolated situations, whether they be on the outskirts of a city or within the city itself.  After thinking about this, I found myself missing the "why" of the pieces.  They acted as great snapshots of life, but aside from a brief mention of feeling unfulfilled the filmmakers didn't seek out more information about why these men chose to live the way they did.

I thought the music worked well most of the pieces.  With HILL, I felt like the shots and background noise did enough to establish the feeling of the piece, and the music felt a bit intrusive.  With BYUN, the earliest piece, music seemed to be really integral to the piece.  Perhaps the filmmakers strategy has changed in regards to the role of music in their pieces over the past year.  I think it sometimes served to manipulate the feelings of the listener, especially in PRIME, but it seemed okay in these pieces.  I saw them more as art than hard journalism.

Because the pieces are up on Vimeo, I'm inclined to identify the intended audience as younger people.  The pieces also used current music.  On the other hand, the people featured were middle aged or older, so that could be an audience too.  Whether or not the display platform reaches the intended audience is up in the air.

The Most Dangerous Gamer

I know nothing about video games, but I wanted to read this piece.  Part of what made the profile so fascinating is Jon Blow's take on gaming as a way to approach philosophical ideas.  The plot lines of his games differ from what I think of when I hear the words "video game," and that really drew me into the text.  The article's author, Taylor Clark, did a good job of weaving in descriptions of the game to give the reader a good look into Blow's mind.  I also thought the video feature posted online was a nice touch.

Blow has an intriguing character.  I think Clark did a good job of balancing his more offputting thoughts with his complicated background.  Blow sometimes came off as self-important and isolating--he doesn't seem to have a lot of friends, but clearly his life goal isn't to make them.  Sometimes, though, we caught a glimpse of a lonely past that could have led to his present attitudes.  I do think Clark used a bit of manipulation in presenting Blow's personality, especially as he shows more of Blow's lonely past as he moves through the story.  I pitied him, but I didn't know if I should or if Clark thought I should.

Overall I thought it was a great piece on video games.  It seems like it could appeal to a wide audience, both those who game and those who don't.  It made me really want to play Braid and The Witness.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Reading Response: Lots of Assignments

Telling True Stories

I found this much easier to read than the Franklin book from last week.  The input from various nonfiction authors made the message a much more diverse one.  Isabel Wilkerson's insights on interviewing particularly attracted my attention, because they seem like things I can apply to the upcoming profile piece assignment.  Her idea of "accelerated intimacy" made it clear that interviewing a subject involves more than formal questions and a formal conversation, something that I often have trouble doing when I interview.  

Many of the writers talked about recording important visual elements during an interview.  This seems particularly important when doing a profile piece.  I don't usually note these things because I often write news stories where they aren't essential.  Since I hope to eventually go into radio, this is an important tip all around.  When capturing audio it's often important to supplement with descriptions of where the reporter is at the time.  In general, most of the things I read in this book were things that seemed obvious when I looked at them laid out on a page, but were also things I have often not thought to do in my writing thus far.  The grey boxes scattered throughout the chapters added to this, giving differing opinions on basic concepts (using tape recorders, how to do an in-depth interview, etc.)

The American Man at Age Ten by Susan Orlean

It took me many, many paragraphs to get into this piece.  It started with a laundry list of traits about the boy in question that I couldn't help but skim over.  When Orlean did pull me in though, I was fascinated.  The story was heavy on dialogue, which is what really helped me to understand Colin and his fifth-grade world.  He said things that made me laugh  out loud.  Case in point: "Well, if you're a grown-up you'd have a car, and whenever you felt like it, you could get into your car and drive somewhere and get candy."  This as the biggest advantage to being an adult.  I've observed ten-year-old boys while working at camp, but never have I had this much of a glimpse into their thoughts.  Orlean inserted herself into the narrative, but only occasionally, which I think was a good choice on her part.  Sometimes she expressed surprise at Colin's actions, but for the most part I really felt like I got to read about the kid.

Trina and Trina by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc

I had so many mixed feelings about this piece.  It was definitely well written.  In terms of form, I liked that LeBlanc wove back and forth between present tense retellings, snippets of a year thrown together quickly and excerpts from Trina's journal.  I thought she did well with regards to giving a full picture of Trina in the best way that an outsider could do.  LeBlanc consciously inserted herself into the story, and I felt her emotions alongside her as she watched Trina constantly shape up and relapse in an endless cycle.

We talked about ethics a bit in class today (I'm writing this late, apologies).  That was my biggest hangup with the story.  It seems like LeBlanc hasn't had experience with addiction in the past, given her constant hope that Trina will recover.  It took her a long time to give up hope.  On the one hand, this could be admired.  On the other, this is the cycle of addiction.  Given that Trina had this scarring background and clear intimacy issues, I mostly felt like LeBlanc exploited her.  She reported a great story, but spending ten years with her and putting herself in the position of a friend really threw me into a moral dilemma.  I don't blame LeBlanc for abandoning Trina, but I don't think she should have put herself in a position where her detachment turned out to be synonymous with abandonment.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Profile Pitch

Emporium, an antique furniture shop, is located in downtown Kalamazoo near Bell's Brewery and Water Street Coffee.  I stopped by early in the quarter, hoping to pick up some furniture for the apartment.  While I didn't find what I was looking for, I was intrigued by the shop itself.  There are three buildings packed so tightly with furniture that one can barely walk through the aisles.  Products range in condition from well-kept, expensive dressers to dusty bookshelves.  The store only opens from 7-9pm on weekdays and from 2-6pm on weekends.  I plan to profile the man who runs the place and his business.  Things that particularly interest me:

1. How did he get into the business?
2. How is it economically viable with such short hours?
3. Where does all the furniture come from?
4. What does he do with the rest of his day?

This pitch is less complete than it should be.  I have yet to talk to the owner because I've been working Phonathon shifts during the store's open hours ever since I came up with the topic.  This weekend I intend to journey down there and chat a little bit to see if there's a good story and if the owner would be willing to do it.

Monday, April 16, 2012

CYOA Week 4: Responses

Wonder Town
Thirty years of Sonic Youth.

Sasha Frere-Jones' ability to capture music through words drew me in right away.  I had an unsuccessful go at doing music reviews while working at a radio station in Ecuador, and Frere-Jones captured everything I couldn't.  I found his choice not to mention Sonic Youth in the first paragraph surprising but successful.  He painted a great picture of grotesque rock and roll.  By the time he mentioned Sonic Youth it was a welcome break from the barrage of off-putting images he had listed.

The words Frere-Jones used to describe Sonic Youth's music almost made me hear it.  I'm not really a fan and, consequently, not that familiar with their sound.  Moaning, howling, whines--all of these words gave me a good idea of their sound.  I also appreciated the detail surrounding the band's lyrics, both in terms of the way they sing and the way that they compose their work.

I think the author did a decent job of covering the band's history and focusing on their current release.  The start was background heavy, which seemed important for those of us unfamiliar with the history of the band.  The subheading (I'm sorry, my vocab isn't up to par so I don't know if that's the technical term) implies that the band still produces music, so I knew to expect something current at the end.  I do feel like Frere-Jones focuses a bit too much on the band's past even when he starts addressing the present.  He mentions their new sound but immediately refers back to their 1980s albums, which detracts a little bit from the point.  I also thought the final paragraph could have been tied a little more tightly to the story.  It's important to note that they've become an institution, but maybe that should be mentioned earlier.  I would have liked to see the article end in talking about the album and the band's current work, not their image.

Shooting an Elephant

As a piece of creative nonfiction, I really liked this story.  I found it to have fewer journalistic elements than what we know today as narrative journalism, but that's to be expected from a pioneering piece of the genre.  I thought the metaphor of the elephant was intriguing, although at first I thought it was going to be a symbol for the people rather than a representation of imperialism.  In any case, it was interesting that George Orwell set this up as the overarching theme of his piece.

The convenience of this metaphor makes me question his credibility.  It's possible, I suppose, that the events unfolded as Orwell described them and that they just happened to be the perfect metaphor for his thoughts on imperialism.  However, it seems to me like he would have had to tweak some facts to make the story work in the way it does.  I'm hesitant to question it because I thought it was a really fascinating piece of writing that drew me in quickly and a lot of what did draw me in was the details that may not be real upon examination.

In terms of the success of the metaphor, I think Orwell took a little too long to develop it.  As I said earlier, I thought the elephant was going to be a metaphor for the colonized people.  He described it as tame but fed up with its situation, shackled but with some degree of freedom.  Both of those things for me called to mind the effects of imperialism on an oppressed group of people.  The way in which he finally comes to use the elephant as a representation of the way imperialism affects his own actions is interesting, but a bit confusing when it comes so late in the piece.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Response: Writing for Story

I found Jon Franklin's discussion about conflict and resolution very helpful.  In my own writing, I often struggle to make the story a cohesive narrative; I now realize that I don't always match the conflict to the resolution.  In my personal narrative, for example, I feel as if I focused my conflict on my peers and my resolution on myself.  I was apprehensive, however, about his idea that every story must have a resolution.  Radiolab may not function well as an example here since it's an audio podcast and not a written narrative, but the segments within each episode and the overall episodes almost never have resolutions.  If anything the listener finishes the podcast with a greater sense of conflict than that which they were originally presented, but with satisfying bits of new knowledge.  Rarely do I find myself bored by stories told through this medium despite the prevalence of resolution-less conflict.

I also appreciated Franklin's strategy for outlining.  I have not resisted outlining completely, but I usually use an extensive version of the Roman numeral outline.  Franklin's method makes much more sense to me--I hadn't thought about using a short outline that focuses on the action of each segment instead of on the beginning sentence of a paragraph.  While I think Franklin exaggerates the brilliance of his method--is every writer really going to excel using this specific outline style only?--he presents some useful ideas when it comes to narrowing down a story to its basic and necessary elements.

The stories at the beginning of the book helped to illustrate Franklin's points.  I found it useful to look at the way in which he would outline the two stories that he published so he could keep the reader engaged throughout the final product.  He printed a traditionally organized story and a saga, which helped to illustrate the differences between those two forms.  Unfortunately Franklin's ego got in my way in this section as well.  The action in "Mrs. Kelley's Monster" really drew me in, but I found the ending to be fairly unclear.  Was he trying to flash back and forth between the break room with Dr. Ducker and Mrs. Kelley's room?  I still don't think he makes it clear that she dies, instead implying that she may be on her way out but that Dr. Ducker may go in and do a second surgery if she recovers.  In this respect, I think the story is a bad example for explaining a resolution to a story's main conflict.  "The Ballad of Old Man Peters," however, made the saga outline much clearer, as it showed the ups and downs of each segment and how Franklin tied them together into one coherently focused piece.

1. Are there cases in which an author should stray from following Franklin's conflict--action--resolution model?
2. To what extent is this statement helpful: "To be of literary value a complication must, first of all, be basic."  To what extent might that limit a story?
3. Franklin says that the best stories tell of characters who change profoundly throughout the narrative.  Is this always true?

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

CYOA Week 3: Responses


I remember most Radiolab episodes, but despite the fact that my iTunes insisted I had listened to "Emergence" before, I could not recall any details.  Upon re-listening, I found it to be one of the more scattered episodes that I have heard.  The main question intrigued me: how does order come from chaos?  Jad and Robert's decision to begin with ants made sense to me, and they transitioned well between that and their subsequent discussion of cities.  The contrast between these two subjects--nature and urban landscapes--allowed them to address order and chaos as it appears both in the natural world and in a more man-made setting.

The story about stocks, however, seemed a bit off-topic to me.  The two prior sections discussed the ways in which a leader can emerge from a group and the power that a group holds when trying to solve a problem.  I understand the connection to the group aspect of the story, but I didn't see much of a relation between the stock segment and the overall question of emergence and order.  

I was also up in the air about the two other questions that the piece seemed to want to address: the potential existence of a creator and the elements of consciousness.  One of the things I love about Radiolab is that Jad and Robert apply a central question to many areas of study and, in doing so, generate more questions that are specific to these subcategories.  With this episode, however, I didn't feel like the new questions fit into the story as nicely as they usually do.  They seemed a bit to big to throw into the middle of the piece, only to be ignored for the rest of it.  Overall this did not seem as tight or fluid of a piece as other Radiolab episodes.  That being said, it was one of the earlier episodes of the show, so I think they've picked up a more solid format over the past four or five years.

Jacob's Ladder

I really enjoyed reading this article.  I'm not well-versed in the political power situation in South Africa, but I thought the article did a good job of providing necessary background.  Douglas Foster, the author, wove back and forth between present descriptions of Jacob Zuma and stories about his political past and South Africa's historical issues.  This kept my attention; just as my mind began to wander after reading several paragraphs of description, the article brought it back by explaining the economic background of the country.

I found the teaser paragraph a bit more ominous than the rest of the article.  This is probably a function of its brevity, since everything it points out is addressed in the article.  However, I was expecting Foster to portray Zuma as more of a villain than he did.  While I definitely got the sense that Zuma has a questionable history, the article did a nice job of showing the personable side of his demeanor.  I started the article wanting to support his campaign efforts, but ended it feeling like he has too much of a troubling past to be trusted as a president.

A couple of people talked about the rape issue in their responses.  I thought the way that the article addressed this was very interesting, in that Foster first passes it off as a political rumor formulated by Zuma's opponents.  Three pages later, though, he describes the incident--he reveals that Zuma did in fact sleep with a woman, and that the trial was an issue of consent.  Furthermore, Zuma didn't have a condom on hand at the time, but he went ahead with it anyway.  The way in which Foster approaches this incident fits well with the rest of the article, in that he holds off on revealing all of the troubling details of Zuma's past until later on in his narrative.  

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Writing Myself: Reflections on the Process

I rarely write about myself, even for personal reflection.  In my journals I write layers of text on every page, making my thoughts virtually unreadable after they're out.  This first assignment was a difficult one for me because I not only had to write about me, but I also chose a topic that I have been trying and failing to put into words for years.  I started out trying to write exclusively about my experience as a ten-year-old kid in the weeks following 9/11, but I realized that my real turning point in terms of analyzing this event took place in Quito when I was finally away from North America for the day.  Even after that insight, I had trouble trying to fit in the most important parts of the past-tense narrative.  I feel like the topic is so big that I can't explain it well without boring everyone with too many details, but I tried to narrow it down to important ones.  I also had a difficult time identifying my audience or pinpointing the best way to tell the story to an audience at all.

I'm not sure if I adequately described Dearborn in a way that will help readers understand my neighborhood.  I found it difficult to balance talking about the place with talking about myself and to make sure my focus didn't stray to the effects of post-9/11 America on my friends and neighbors.  My experience was different as a Christian kid of European descent because I wasn't the subject of the nation's apparent anger.  I think I still need to work out what exactly the point of my 2001 section is and to tie it in a little closer to the point of my reflection in Quito.

I also feel like I took on a pretty heavy topic, and I had a difficult time trying to just write and not sound preachy or frustrated.  I'd be interested to hear whether or not my tone is relaxed or reflective enough.  Should I use more specific examples from my fifth-grade years, or is it okay to talk about my general feelings?  I'd like to address these things in my re-write.