I’m glad the NYT is covering this story about more colleges taking lack of financial need into account during the admissions processes this year. Students whose parents can foot the whole bill have a leg up at many places. Of course, at many places they already did, this year just a little more so. I can’t honestly say I know which is more cruel–rejecting students because there is not enough financial aid available for them to realistically attend, or accepting students when you can guess that your tuition is out of reach or a tremendous sacrifice. I’ve been down that latter road, and at the time it was pretty much heartbreaking. Fortunately for me, my parents were firm about the second mortgage they couldn’t take out, and I took a second look at my second choice, which had offered me generous funding. I got a great education and made wonderful friends.

While there are lots of good options for good students that don’t involve private school tuition, and the fact is the most college admissions stories can have a happy ending if you let them, I think it’s important to keep it in public view that students of the lower middle class or middle-middle class and students of the upper middle and upper classes have fundamentally different challenges when it comes to going to college. There are students who only have to get in, and there are students who have to get in and then get scholarships. This reality often manifests itself immediately after graduation as well. There are students who can go directly to graduate school with few worries about what will happen when their stipend just doesn’t stretch far enough for dental hygiene and students who don’t have that safety net. One group is encouraged to think about what’s possible and the other group is encouraged to think about what’s realistic. Now that educational loans are getting harder to get, the disparities are going to become even greater. We’re entering another period where it’s not even a question of whether or not you want to bet on yourself with the loans to go to the most prestigious school you get into, it’s simply going to be a question of how much cash you parents have on hand. Whole swaths of options are going to disappear for kids whose parents are not well off.

I know, I know–that’s life. Obviously, things can work out well or poorly for both kinds of student, and I haven’t even touched on the profoundly disabling effects for most students of a childhood in real poverty, but it’s important that the struggles of the real middle class not disappear, even when it looks like we are getting the same degrees and the same jobs. The barriers we face are real and long-lasting.

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It’s pretty awesome you get to see a famous person live up to his reputation live, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anyone surpass his reputation. This past Sunday morning, I saw that. I saw Ira Glass address the 14th Conference of the Association of College and Research Libraries. I walked out of the Seattle convention center wanting to do two things. 1) finally buy my own iPod so that I can download every scrap of This American Life I can get my hands on and 2) not wait another minute to get on with the work of making stories.

The talk started with Glass in voiceover, from a darkened stage, reminding us that “for starters, you’ve got to understand, it’s radio,” the medium of the human voice. For a second, I was like, oh man, what a cop out. He pre-recorded it–but I realized that was perhaps the cynical side of me and held off on judgment. Ira Glass’s voice then told us about how, spending six months covering inner city gang kids for NPR earlier in his career, he’d always felt that he was a huge advantage over television journalists. If the first thing you saw was black lipstick and a cold gaze, you’d never listen to the words coming out of a 14 year old girl’s mouth as she described the moment when another girl pulled a gun on her and she understood what death meant and that she had to change her life. The voice then told us that he’d asked the conference organizers if he could do his whole talk in the dark, but they’d told him about a librarian that changed her ticket to a later departure at great expense when she found out he’d be there, so he’d better not. Phew!

When the lights came up, he wasn’t at a podium, he was sitting at a table, surrounded by a microphone, CD players, an audio mixing board, and copious notes. I thought this was mostly for effect, but he actually did the talk like a radio show, manually cuing and playing clips of interviews and music to illustrate his message—that human beings respond to stories above all else. If we can make a story that people want to know the end of, we can open their brains and sometimes their hearts. I believed this when he said it, not only because I am a writer, but because I, one of the most incorrigibly web-distracted people you will ever meet, listened to the whole talk without checking my email even one time, even though I had my laptop on my lap and free, fast wireless. I think his talk was a bit over an hour, but I couldn’t even tell you for sure because I was so absorbed it felt like about five minutes.

Naturally, then, this talk was delivered as a story, a story about how an episode of This American Life gets put together. To tell that story, Glass had to talk about how they got their ideas, how he had learned to write the kind of story he wanted to pay attention to, how a good story takes us so deeply into the real experience of another person that we don’t even realize we are learning something, and why stories are the glue of our collective life.

It’s impossible to concentrate the richness of Ira Glass talking about what he does best into a few bulleted notes, but here goes:

On getting ideas: you need lots of them, and you will need to kill lots of those. He held up two sheets of notes that were single-spaced lists of ideas for stories for one TAL show.

On narrative suspense: you can tell a good story about almost anything, but saying interesting things about interesting people is not a story. A story has stakes (I always forget this when I try to write narrative—bad poet habit). The train has to leave the station and we have to care where it is going. Example: the introductory story from Cringe. Listen to it. When it gets to the part about the guy getting down to walk like a crab, IG paused the tape and said “nobody is turning off the radio at this point,” and I had to agree—there is no way I would have let that story slip out of my life, I had to know what happened next.

On why anecdote is not enough: the train has to leave the station, something has to happen that has real stakes, but that doesn’t make a satisfying story. At some point, you have to link that story to the larger experience of human life. Anecdote has to be followed by reflection.

On surprises: both your anecdotes and your reflections have to get to some kind of surprise, or your story is old. Hopefully, a surprise that delights you by how true yet unexpected it feels.

On the relative uselessness of mainstream news coverage and much of public discourse: how did we as a culture come to think of boring writing as good writing (judging by how much of it we expect our leaders and reporters to do)? “I blame the topic sentence. We as a culture have to stop the topic sentence.”—IG
Topic sentences kill narrative—it works better when you start in the middle of a moment, where the story starts, not where you think it should end. (He made a special appeal to librarians to do their part to defeat the topic sentence, which I intend to do by starting my next library class session with a story about a kid who didn’t use interlibrary loan until a week before his term paper was due.)

On why stories teach us better than news: using the example of the story of Sam, an Iraq vet who joined the Muslim students association to combat his PTSD. We get into it because it’s a story about Tom, and telling that story eventually involves talking about what PTSD is. When traditional news covers PTSD, it packages it up with a topic sentence (“and now a story of one Iraq veteran overcoming PTSD”) and kills it. As IG put it: “I already know how I feel about PTSD. I’m against it.” Good stories get information past our auto-judger. We feel like we don’t already know about it if we don’t already know the story.

I really wish I could just pipe a video of his talk from my head to all of my writer friends. In lieu of that capability, I have tracked down scraps of things on the internets that begin to approximate what I heard:

A bootleg clip of the last 8 minutes of the talk that I saw in which Glass brings it all home by paraphrasing 1001 Arabian Nights—watch it while it’s still up.

A manifesto on radio journalism written for Transom.org– great bits here about finding stories that are interesting v. stories that you think should be interesting:

“But it’s the type of story you might hear on the radio. That’s why she was attracted to it. She didn’t think it was interesting, but she thought one was supposed to find it interesting. It was like the answer to a question on a test: What should your public radio story be about? This one had art, culture and someone from a minority group. It was a triple threat.”

Submission guidelines for This American Life—where they come out and say exactly what they are looking for in a story, and give a reader’s digest version of much of what these other links talk about

A piece on making radio stories on Current.org–This is a quote from the piece that is really funny and makes me really grateful that IG didn’t just talk about working for NPR or something he thought librarians would find interesting, but instead shared his craft:

When I was putting together this speech, I spent an absurd amount of time thinking about what to say to you and pulling tape cuts. And some of my staff members told me, “You’re crazy to spend so much time thinking about this. Anybody who’s coming to see you, all they really want to know is ‘dish’ about their favorite public radio personalities. Don’t bother with the tape and the music and the mixing board. Just get up there and what you should do is say things like, ‘Carl Kasell . . . boozer. Robert Siegel . . . has two wives. Garrison Keillor . . . has his own intern.'”

I, for one, am really glad he’s spent so much time thinking about this.

Yup, I feel lucky

March 10, 2009

For any of you keeping score, my PhD waiting game came to a close yesterday with this final tally: 6 no’s, 1 yes. And as I’ve said before, that works for me, that works just fine. I only needed one. Even better, that was an enthusiastic yes—they’ve guaranteed (for whatever it’s worth these days) six years of funding, three of which will be fellowship years without teaching duties.

That certainly takes any sting out of the other six skinny letters, but I’m hanging on to them. I’ve got them in my PhD application drawer, in between my statement of purpose drafts and subject GRE flashcards, in a folder I’ve mentally labeled “don’t get cocky.” I was one letter away from having to deal complete failure to gain admission. I’ve heard from a couple of my friends that their programs are accepting about a third of the number of applicants they’d normally accept, and that this is turning out to be a very difficult year to land a spot anywhere (it was never easy, and I am well aware that even in a more normal year I might not have ended up admitted to any of the places I applied to). I know myself well enough to know that this would not have been of any immediate consolation to me. I would have been depressed for quite a while. I eventually would have gotten over it, embraced my job as a librarian, and been glad that I at least tried, but I would not have been very mature about it right away. And I want to remember how close that was now that I am thinking about the next six years of my life and realizing that I am going to need to work harder than I ever thought possible and that the opportunity to do so is a kind of gift. When I’m getting skinny letters (or no letters at all) in six years from all one hundred jobs I’ve applied to in a market that will almost certainly be even worse than the one new PhDs are facing this year, I need to remember how badly I wanted just this opportunity, whatever comes of it. More than anything, I need to remember how far I have to go to become the scholar that I want to be.

And now to get started.

In awe

March 9, 2009

This morning’s news makes me endlessly happy. Look at ’em! Congratulations, Team HA!!!!!!!!!!