86 days, 14,779 miles, 25 states, 5 provinces. 220 audio interviews.
What is the hardest decision you have ever faced?
Last summer’s interviews—the ones that came together into Two Wheels to Nowhere—were extremely personal, but they did not prepare me for the intensity of this summer. Riding a motorcycle around the continent is a pretty easy thing to do, but knowing how to talk to people about their most intimate experiences is, well, difficult. Assessing the value of such an invasive project is tough, too.
To send my husband to a nursing home.
To admit to needing psychiatric care.
To acquiesce to being raped.
What is and isn’t safe to ask? How do you discover those boundaries? Should you sleuth around with a flashlight when a crucial part of a story is being intentionally left in a dark, cobwebbed room? For interviewees, sharing their hardest decisions is an act of immense trust, an act predicated upon the belief that this radio project will have value, that something can be gained by listening to the choices other people have faced. This isn’t the place to delve into philosophy but, for me, the project would be worth less (though not worthless) if the conversations weren’t generally true. This creates tension. During the interview, it is a tension between pushing for details and knowing when to back off if revealing those details makes the interviewee uncomfortable. The tension continues into post-production, where it manifests as a tug-of-war between telling a good story and respecting the interviewee’s privacy.
Let’s go back for a second. What lead up to the decision?
There were conversations where people began calm and ended up sweating and shaking. There were conversations that ended abruptly, the interviewee rattled by the sudden return of a long-buried memory. There were conversations with long, awkward pauses. And tears. And hugs. Many of the most powerful moments are not on tape—and shouldn’t be. Other moments are on tape, but are inappropriate to share. My flustered incompetence wrecked a few of them, but not all.
What were you weighting? What was in favor of the choice you made? How about the other choice?
Was there a specific moment when you made up your mind? Something that happened?
Now, sitting down to edit, I can only attempt to move forward with tact and judgment—not my strong suits, but a treatment each interview richly deserves. Of the 220 decisions, I will choose about fifteen and cut them into short episodes. There won’t be a narrative framework to the project, just anonymous people from different walks of life facing some brutally hard choices. Their stories are amazing. Fingers crossed, I won’t botch them.
How did the decision change you?
Life is messy and ugly and too fucked up too often. Many people have lived through scenarios that are incomprehensible to the rest of us; perhaps we have heard about them third-hand or seen them caricatured in film, but those depictions are little more than the faint shadows of real events, easily otherized, devoid of emotional force. But when someone tells you, in his own words, about deciding to sever ties with his father after years of emotional abuse, you listen. And when someone else tells you about deciding to place her mentally ill daughter in an asylum after nineteen years of struggling to control her at home, you pause. In radio, these stories are told one-to-one, and you can’t murmur the obligatory “oh, that must have been so hard,” before thoughtlessly returning to your well-oiled life. You can feel the burn of intensity, even when your inability to relate leaves you speechless.
If you had made the decision the other way, where would you be today?
This is a project about empathy, not in the specific sense—you will never empathize with the drug dealer who decides to plead guilty after beating his client to a bloody mess with a steel pipe—but empathy in the abstract. The interviewees may strike you as unsympathetic, their decisions inconceivably foreign, but they are sharing the fulcrum moments of their lives and they are, ultimately, just as human as you. Those could have been your shoes. You might have walked the same direction in them.
Knowing what you know now, would you go back and make the decision the same way?
If their stories make you pause and digest, if they make you wonder about the invisible maelstrom of decisions swirling around you then, maybe, the project will have some value—maybe their trust will have been well placed. We’ll see. There’s still a lot that can go wrong in editing.
Do you have any regrets?