A Snapshot of Homelessness: Finding the Richer, Truer Story

Don
Don Schonenbeck (photo by Clay Scott)

If I met Don Schonenbeck on the street, I’d probably step right past him. I’d walk by never understanding why he’s chosen to wander west coast highways — how a series of painful deaths thrust him toward alcohol and into depression. That’s why I appreciate stories like the one producer Clay Scott made about Don. (You should take five minutes right now and listen to it.)

When we workshopped it in our Second Ear program, I pushed Clay to go back to Don and dig up some tape we could use to restructure the piece. What Clay found when he went looking for Don wasn’t what we’d hoped, but it completely changed the nature of the story. It’s a lesson in how powerful revisiting a story can be. If you follow a person or a topic over time, the story will be richer — and truer.

Clay will explain in a moment. But first, a taste of what we talked about.

  • Narrative structure. Hooking the listener, clarifying chronology, and pacing emotional peaks.
  • Asking why, and then asking it again. People respond to death differently. That’s what makes death so interesting. Get to the bottom of what’s really going on.
  • Leading with sound. Start with the ambi, and don’t identify it right away.
  • Give emotion to the acts, use narration for the facts. Hey, it rhymes. But what I mean is that you can summarize a sequence of events, but only your subject’s voice can lend real emotion. So don’t overextend acts to explain boring info. Just keep the gems.
  • Recognizing the weird. When Don said he wanted to put himself in situations he could neither predict nor control, he was subverting a lot of human instinct. That’s something I want to hear more about in a raw, honest way.

Your turn. Take a listen to the “Before” and “After.” What differences do you hear?

BEFORE:

AFTER:

___________________________________________________
Here’s Clay:

Producer Clay Scott
Producer Clay Scott

I’m used to working alone, so it was an incredible treat to have Erika Lantz and Genevieve Sponsler lend their astute ears to “I Ain’t Leavin My Road Dog,” a profile of Don, a homeless Montana man.  

I thought the original story (which aired back in January in my series “Mountain West Voices”) was pretty good. Listeners found it powerful and moving. People told me they appreciated hearing the type of voice they don’t often get a chance to hear.

In particular, my audience seemed to like the symmetry of the story: A man endures unimaginable tragedy, falls into a depression, and wanders the back roads of America for 20 years before deciding to settle down. When we leave him, he is working on a grant to help him open a small business. It’s almost a Hollywood ending, and it was very satisfying. In fact, the other two profiles I’ve done of homeless people in recent months had similar happy endings.  

But when Erika and Genevieve asked me to follow up with Don to add more depth to the story, I found that he had fallen off the wagon, and that he’d been kicked out of the shelter where he was staying. So much for the happy ending! I spent a few days looking for him, before learning that he had been seen walking out of town along the highway.  

After consulting with the Second Ear team, we decided that I still had a story, and agreed that I should add a sort of post script or epilogue to the original piece.

In the end, I think the re-worked piece turned out to be much more powerful than the original. Instead of the happy ending (appealing though it was) we have a story that is much more reflective of the reality of homelessness: a story about how easy it is to lose your moorings, and, having lost them, how incredibly hard it can be to find your way again.

A few additional notes: I didn’t mean to imply that we left the original story intact, and simply tacked on a postscript. Like the top notch radio brains they are, Erika and Genevieve were able improve the flow and pacing of the story significantly with a few deft and subtle changes: switching these two acts, bringing up the ambi a couple beats earlier here, tightening this track, lengthening this fade, etc. All in all, a wonderful experience to work with the Second Ear team.

[You can submit a story to Second Ear during the first five days of every month. Follow #SecondEar on Twitter to hear the latest and share your thoughts.]

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