Last week, I put out my very first attempt at “narrative audio journalism” (if you can call it that) called “Ready or Not”. If you missed it in last week’s post, you can still listen to it on Soundcloud! Actually, please do, because it’s so close to 100 plays!! Haha.
To be very frank, I wasn’t too happy with how it turned out. It was only after publishing it that I realized I had accidentally cut out a part of Hanna’s interview. The music probably wasn’t at the right volume and honestly, I don’t think it even appeared at appropriate times. I don’t even think each audio clip was at the same volume. I was recording my narrations at 1 a.m.—because I didn’t have a studio, I needed to wait for the traffic outside to slow down before I could record. This meant having to use my croaky voice. I felt like I didn’t give it all the attention it deserved. I started working on this in early February but kind of stalled working on it during the school year because I was busy and then later rushed it after commencement because I didn’t want to “miss the moment” or whatever and I’m kind of annoyed at myself for that.
Still, I was so encouraged by and thankful for the support from everyone who listened. I recall that I have mentioned this project on here a couple of times and said I would explain more when I have the time, so I’m going to take you through what I did and why I decided to even do this in the first place. Fair warning, this a pretty lengthy one.
Some of you might know that most of my junior and senior years in college have been fraught with the search for a job. I did the whole consulting thing for a while and that… didn’t turn out so well. I failed to get a consulting internship the summer after junior year and failed again to get a full time job in my senior year. I really wanted it and for a while, I really thought that was the track I was going to take. Both times, I came so close and I didn’t get it. It sucked. But I got over it. Still, that meant I had to find something to do.
If you remember, last summer I would mention quite often in my posts that I had discovered this and that podcast (my two first favs were Millennial and Start Up!!) and I would rave about it endlessly both in my posts and to my friends. I was so enamoured by the medium and it was one of those things that was like… “this is amazing and I actually think I could do this.” But I never thought of myself as brave, risk-taking or creative so the idea of going out and running my own podcast was just an interesting thought to be kept for future reference… for when I somehow become gutsier and smarter (and have saved more money from working very hard at some other cutthroat job first).
But when the consulting job route didn’t pan out, there was nothing else I wanted to or thought I could do. Nothing. Everything I considered would’ve been a job just for the sake of having a job and that made me so repulsed? depressed? I don’t know. I remember talking to my parents once and they were like, “just search for jobs in whatever, like HR or sales or something” and in my mind, I was like “SALES???????” It’s not like anything was wrong with a job in sales per se, I think it just made me feel like college and my years of prep didn’t matter. Because I spent four hard years getting a liberal arts education, and the idea that really stuck with me in my time here is that we should work with a firm purpose, do something that means something and be of service to society (and no, the irony was not lost on me that I wanted a consulting job, but to be fair, that was to “gain skills” and “save money” so that I could do what I really wanted—such a typical Penn student trope!). But the picture I had of a sales job (admittedly a misguided one) was someone standing in a mall handing out flyers and you might see why I didn’t want that.
Yeah, it is a very millennial story line. I knew objectively that many people don’t start out at the best job they can get, but instead, patiently and diligently work their way through. Regardless, I fell prey to the “I worked so hard for… this?” line of thought. At this point I think I had already decided I would apply for internships in the radio and podcasting industry. I didn’t think I would get anything though, given my utter lack of experience. In other words, that was more of a “I will give it my best shot and put this first but think about other things also” plan. Still, eager to get my hands dirty and to overcome the inertia of inexperience, I decided I had to make something.
At this point, I was sad and anxious and maybe even a little angry. I had these burning questions: What was it all even for? And what do I do now that it’s almost over? I knew my friends and I had been having a lot of conversations about these things. In particular, I remember Shahirah and I talking in her room one night and she told me that even though she already had a job from the outset because of her scholarship situation, didn’t have to pick a major and didn’t feel pressured to get good internships over the summer—things that often made me feel anxious—she still felt lost because college is such a good time to figure out what you love doing and when she’s done serving her bond to her employer, she won’t have that same college environment to help her figure out what she wants to do. Around the same time, I spoke to Professor Pollack (while sipping a chai latte in futile efforts to stop myself from tearing up) about not knowing what to do next and feeling like all my hard work was pointless because I felt like I wouldn’t ever do anything meaningful with my life. Then, we talked about how you never know where one thing is going to lead you, how there is often only one spot at the top job but that doesn’t mean everyone else is doomed and there is always something to be learned wherever you end up.
I loved having conversations like these and on those days I remember wishing I could write about them on my blog or share them with more people or just mobilize them in some way. So, that got me thinking about talking to other people and recording it into a podcast type thing. For a long time, I told people that it would be about “graduation anxieties” and how we navigate them.
I had a strong gut feeling that it was a good idea but I had no clue what I was doing. Last summer, I spent some nights taking an online class on using audio for storytelling by Alex Blumberg (the founder of the podcast production company Gimlet Media and former host of Start Up and Planet Money—who, you might recall, I was ecstatic to meet last January!!!!). I watched YouTube videos and read lots of articles on Transom about equipment and writing an outline and doing interviews but you know, reading about how to drive isn’t going to help you actually learn to drive, right? So then I kind of took the plunge, I guess.
First, deciding who to interview was partly easy because I knew I wanted Shahirah and Ken, two of my really good friends who had these different life trajectories. I knew I wanted a couple of people who didn’t know what they were doing yet and luckily Clare and Rashad were both willing to be my subjects. I knew I wanted someone who had been through it all, and that was my friend Hanna. I had known that I would interview Professor Pollack since that day in his office, but I needed something more. It didn’t feel complete. This was like mid-late February. Around that time, Penn Perspectives (a lecture series for seniors that I was participating in) invited the University Chaplain, Chaz Howard to come speak to us.
At that lecture, Chaz talked about how it’s funny how when you’re in college you have all these titles like President of this and that organisation and you have all these underclassmen who know your name and you wear your club sweatshirt or varsity jacket and it means something on this campus. But if you come back to Penn after you graduate, you know almost no one, and all those titles you used to have now mean nothing, and then who are you? Who are you, stripped from your job and your identity as a student? He also talked about finding comfort in mystery, trusting the “interruptions” in our lives that are divine interventions leading us to where we really need to go, and how the fruits of our success should help other things grow. By the end of it, so many of us in the crowd were bawling. We were so moved. The next morning, I emailed him asking if I could interview him and it was such a great decision. I think he really added a lot of heart to the story.
I absolutely loved interviewing Chaz because on top of being wise, he is such a natural at speaking in front of a mic! I loved our entire conversation, which made picking sound bites from his interview so difficult. I didn’t end up including this but in that interview, we also discussed the parallels between moving from high school to college and moving from college to work. In both cases, you make new friends and readjust to new environments. You tweak/rebuild your identity. He had this great metaphor about seeing college freshmen slowly stop wearing their high school athlete clothes and how we will learn to do that again when we go into the workplace. It made me realise that even though I dreaded the anxiety of leaving college, I’ve kind of… done it before. We all have. I couldn’t fit that part into the piece but it’s one of my favourite bits of tape I ended up excluding.
[Slight digression: after I interviewed Chaz, he told his friend Jennifer Lynn, a radio host on Philadelphia’s local radio station, about me. She later gave me a phone call and offered me advice on making audio pieces. We later sat down together, Jennifer, Chaz and me, and chatted about my project. I completely forgot about this, but that conversation was recorded and was featured on WHYY a few weeks ago along with a blog post featuring an excerpt from my interview with Chaz. It was pretty cool. Listen to it here!]
Anyway, the problem with using what Chaz and Professor Pollack said as an ending though, was that it was very… “I was confused but then I learned this cliche thing and everything became ok” and that just didn’t sit well with me. It begged the question: so why do we do this? Why do we feel this way? The week after Chaz spoke at Penn Perspectives, we had a lecture by Adam Grant. It was early March. He mentioned how he anticipates that by September, like most Septembers, his inbox will get filled with emails from fresh grads in Finance careers asking if he thinks it’s reasonable for them to hang on in these jobs until January just so they can say 2017-2018 on their resumes. He talked about how even though we know what will and won’t make us happy or fulfilled, we tend to ignore what we know and do something else. I thought it fit perfectly into the tentative narrative I had cooking in the back of my mind.
That same night, he also gave us some advice about making the most out of the last few months in college. He said to email the professors you want to connect with and to do it before you graduate because professors feel more obliged to help a current student and that privilege quickly wanes once you graduate. So I emailed him. I told him I liked his talk and I wanted to include what he said in my project and he replied asking me to schedule a time for a phone call! Adam Grant is one of my favourite authors, so that moment was probably one of the highlights of my senior year. Of course, because he was busy, that conversation couldn’t happen until 3 weeks later. When we spoke, he asked me for my notes from the talk, he told me my project sounds great, that I shouldn’t worry about misquoting him and he even offered to help me make connections with people in radio. Yeah, it was definitely one of the highlights of my senior year.
Anyway, back to interviews. Scheduling was difficult but I managed to get seven interviews done within a couple of weeks. I think interviewing people was kind of easy because I knew the people I had selected were naturally introspective and I knew what perspective they would add to the story. It was just a matter of asking them in the right way for the conversation to sound organic and not rigid. I was kinda worried about interviewing people and then realising I couldn’t use something because I didn’t ask the right follow up question or whatever but honestly, I had so much tape that whenever something absolutely didn’t work, I just tossed it. In the end, the hardest part about interviewing people was to not interject them when they speak and chime in with an “I know, right!” or something like that, haha.
As for equipment, I knew the Penn library had these simple audio recorders I could borrow for 3 days at a time and I knew that the Kelly Writers House had a recording studio I could book to use for interviews. I ended up using a mix of both just because scheduling was tricky. The thing about the recorders from the library was that they come in these bright bulky yellow boxes and I’d sometimes take two out just in case I couldn’t figure out how to use one of the two and I would carry them around with me through campus. Sometimes I’d also be lugging a tripod and ugh, my shoulders were not happy with me all of those days. Even so, the project made me really grateful to be at a place like Penn where resources were never a problem.
The next step was to transcribe my interviews. I knew that was the “industry standard” or whatever and I also felt it was the most intuitive thing to do because then I could treat writing the outline and my eventual narration as writing a paper and treat the transcriptions as “sources”. Transcribing took so long though. I had about 200 minutes of recordings. Two hundred! And if you’ve ever tried typing out something word for word as you listened, you’ll know it’s not that easy. Every minute of audio ended up taking like 5-7 minutes to transcribe so you know, do the math. Plus, this was during the school year! I finished getting all my interviews early March and ended up only finishing transcriptions in early April. It amounted to about 23,000 words!
At this point, I told several people whose insight and/or writing I trusted about what I was working on. One of those people was my friend Kimberly Siew. Kim and I took a Creative Writing class together last Fall and became fast friends—our classmates found it difficult to believe that we didn’t know each other before that class. She’s an excellent writer and better yet, she’s great at workshopping pieces and giving feedback. So one night, after I baked some (delicious) pecan cupcakes, we sat on my couch and I kind of bounced ideas off of her. I never really understood that phrase, too bounce ideas off of? What does that even mean? But this felt truly collaborative. I would tell her my issues with the tape that I had and how I wasn’t sure how to fill the gaps, we’d throw out some options and exchange comments and I really think our conversation that night became the backbone of the existing structure of my piece.
Another person I spoke to was Jamie-Lee Josselyn, who actually taught the class Kim and I took together. She helped me think about how to go about deciding what to include and omit so as to hone in on what I want to get across. Basically, I needed to trust my instincts and be very aware of when I get bored listening. I also spoke to Caroline Connolly, whose Intro to Psychology class I TA-ed for this past year. I brought it up before class once because I had also taken a Developmental Psychology seminar with her called Modern Young Adulthood, which was all about the psychological processes related to the transition into adulthood so I felt it was relevant. We ended up getting coffee after her lecture one of the days and just spent like 3 hours talking.
It was in that conversation with Connolly that she mentioned the cliff metaphor which you hear in the piece: a lot of people treat graduation like it’s final, like you’re jumping off a cliff. I told her that day that I know it’s silly and that even though I feel that way too, I know I shouldn’t. But she told me that it’s normal because in a way it is final for so many of us. It’s the last time of our lives we’ll dedicate solely to pursuing knowledge formally. What that subtly implies is that we should be prepared because we’re “done learning”. Obviously that’s not exactly true, but it helped me see why we are so prone to thinking that way. A lot of my conversations with both Jamie-Lee and Professor Connolly did end up informing the way I thought about writing my outlines.
Even with all that inspiration, it took some time to write my outline. I didn’t know what the overarching narrative would be. Kim and I had kind of come up with several takeaways for the ending, and I already knew what the starting point was (me crying like a dramatic millennial about how nothing matters lol) but I had no idea how to use the hours of recordings I had gathered to get from point A to point B. I was very intimidated by the amount tape I had (200 minutes!!! 23,000 words!!!). I felt like so much of it was insightful and I wasn’t sure how to get it down to 40 minutes. And not just any 40 minutes but an impactful and coherent 40 minutes.
I sat down with printed versions of the transcripts, highlighted my favourite parts and labelled them to find common threads. The problem was, it was very difficult to write for audio and I found that I couldn’t quite treat it the same way I approached writing papers for classes because with a written thing you could more easily just pluck out short quotes and use these bracket things […] lol. Plus, for classes, the topic is usually more critical and well-defined (at least, in my experience) so arguments tend to be more logical. This was kind of an audio diary. I felt like it could more easily fall down the slippery slope of being rambly and whiny or overly emotional. So, I “zoomed out” and really looked at things at the base level to try to focus on the most barebone outline.
Then I wrote it. I think by mid-April, I had a rough draft. I sat down with my friend Clare first to discuss the outline because she’s a great writer and spent 3 years at Penn as a writing tutor and because I had been talking to her about it all semester. I knew she understood the core idea of it. We made some adjustments and I spent another couple of days tweaking it. Then, I gave it to Shahirah, Ken and Hui Jie for comments. It was helpful for me that they pointed out where I wasn’t clear enough and things like that.
At this point, Hui Jie mentioned something that I had already kind of been thinking about but tried to ignore… and it was that I introduced one person and then the next and then the next whereas a lot of podcasts splice the interviews to clump the issues together. She pointed out that it made the piece seem a little repetitive because of there are kind of repeated problem-resolution sequences instead of a more concerted structure: all the different problems lumped in the beginning and then an overarching resolution in the end. I agreed with her and wanted to take some more time to think about it but I never ended up making the time because by that point we were getting close to finals and the typical end of semester/year craze.
So yeah, then it kind of got pushed to the side until all the cacophony of commencement died down. By then, I decided I just needed to do it. So, I literally dragged a chair into my closet, hung my bathrobe behind me and placed my phone amongst my clothes to minimise echo as much as possible. (Side note: this is a Ted Talk about audio storytelling that features journalists recording in all sorts of funny arrangements) Safe to say, I was sweating by the end of it. Then, I spent the next day or so editing it on Hindenburg, which I chose to use solely because during World Radio Day last February, this $95 software was on sale for $1.90!
After editing it, I gave it a listen and I just knew it still needed a touch of music. Just a little bit, nothing too dramatic. I tried tinkering with GarageBand but for the life of me, I just could not figure it out. Luckily, over a year ago when I hung out with my friend Osama, we got to talking about his experience making music with GarageBand and Logic Pro. So I just sent him a text asking for help and thank god he was still on campus. He was so kind to let me (poorly) hum to him what I wanted and he improvised and made it a lot cooler. Honestly, it amazes me what my friends can do. We ended up spending a couple of hours catching up too, which was really nice. I was seriously so glad he was around to help me with that final touch.
And after layering the music tracks over the audio, I finally put it out there! My project! I was carrying it with me for months. I remember transcribing while eating sweet potato fries at Hip City Veg, while waiting for my flight at LAX and at my table at night after I finished my homework. I remember sheepishly asking my friends if I could interview them and carrying all that equipment around. I know I said I wasn’t absolutely happy with the end result but I’m glad I did it because it felt like a culmination of my Penn career; something to show for that I actually made. Something I hope to continue to do for a long time.
So I guess now’s probably the best time to say what I’ve been actively withholding from saying on here for months. That is, I’m going to be interning at NPR in Washington, DC this coming Fall inshaAllah. After so long, it felt like everything made sense and I’m so, so, so grateful because it feels like a dream. It might not have been the path I initially thought of taking but I feel really good about it.
Anyway. This has been my longest post ever (I really didn’t think I’d write such a long one so soon after the commencement one!) and I’m sorry if I went into greater detail than anyone needed or wanted haha but thanks for reading anyway and if you listened to my audio piece, thank you so much!!!
Lastly, I wrote this because I know someday I’m going to forget all the hard work it took me to learn even the most basic things even though they had once seemed like insurmountable challenges. This will remind future me that if you take it step by step, you’ll find a way. And if you’re reading this and there’s something you’ve always wanted to work on but don’t know how, I hope this shows you that sometimes people don’t start out with all the talent. Sometimes people succeed at doing the things they initially didn’t know how to. You persist by taking things one step at a time and slowly, things start to come together. And even if it doesn’t turn out perfectly, the feeling of proving your own self wrong and reaching beyond what you thought was your limit is so, so sweet.