How to Edit an Experiment in Heartbreak

Each month, we at Second Ear work with a producer and share her work with the world. Annie McEwen brought us her beautiful piece “Here I Am and Here Be Danger” for our first month.

We asked Annie to share a few thoughts. Here’s what she had to say.

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Producer Annie McEwen
Producer Annie McEwen

Should I have taken the whale out? I still wonder. Participating in PRX’s Second Ear made me realize for the zillionth time that I’ll never be completely happy with anything I make. Except maybe cookies.

“Here Be Danger” was an attempt to create something out of the very ordinary human experience of heartbreak. I went about interviewing a whole bunch of people I knew who were, or had been, brokenhearted. I even interviewed my ex-boyfriend about our own breakup. As you can imagine, these interviews were pretty heavy. If I was going to make this thing I knew that I needed someone to pull this heaviness and melancholy up into the land of metaphor—where heartbreak is easier to look at, somehow.

So with all these sad interviews floating around in my head I attended a storytelling circle here in St. John’s where I met an animated older fellow who told his story with great energy and wit. That night, as I sat at my kitchen table listening to the foghorn sounding in the harbor, I thought about all the brokenhearted people in the city and how they all must hear this foghorn from their own kitchen tables. And then I thought, heck, I’m going to call that guy up and see if he has anything interesting to say about foghorns and heartbreak. And lucky for me, he did.

One of the best things I learned while speaking with the wonderful Erika and Genevieve at PRX is to pull the thesis or core of the story to the front. My instinct is always to build up to the heart of something rather than flash it at the beginning. But as I began to edit the piece again, I remembered something Rob Rosenthal had said during a Transom workshop: “the front of your story has to do a whole lot of the heavy lifting.” Telling people what the story is about is not going to make them not want to listen. It’s going to make them wonder how the thing will play out.

Second Ear also taught me to say no. I took notes during our talk about the piece—I thought about all their advice and suggestions. Sometimes the two of them would disagree and suggest opposite things (whale in, whale out), and at first I thought, oh geez this is impossible. But this pushed me to move forward with what I thought worked. I’ll never be totally satisfied, but it did feel good to follow my gut on a few things.

The whale. I’m still not sure whether or not I should have kept it in. The story I was making didn’t have an ending—a lot of real-life, ordinary stuff doesn’t really end. (In my experience, heartbreak just sort of peters out after awhile—not a very satisfying conclusion.) I felt I needed something tangible to hold on to, some symbol of hope, of vibrancy and change and surprise being there even if you can’t see it through this liminal fog that is your life. The whale became that symbol. I tried to make it feel like the listener was drifting through the piece, encountering little islands of heartbreak along the way, but I still sort of think the whale comes up out of nowhere. But maybe hope can come from nowhere too…

Onwards!

Annie

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