Like I usually print out four pages of notes for every interview I do. And if someone has written a book, I will read it. I will read it twice. And I will write out all these notes, make like, minute points of everything I may want to touch on, read it over and over and over and over again, up until I get to the person's door. And then I fold it up and I put it away.
Dessa: How does an initial spark of an idea grow to become a podcast? How do you know if it’s even a good idea to start with? I’m Dessa, the host of Werk It, the podcast — a compilation of some of the best moments from the live event. Avery Trufelman, producer of 99% Invisible and host of Articles of Interest and Nice Try! talks about honing her ideas -- and how meticulous preparation prepares her for the moment when inspiration strikes.
Avery Trufelman: So I just have to say thank you so much for having me and for coming to listen to this session. It's not important and it doesn't matter, but you all look amazing. Like the fashion at this conference is incredible. I can't believe it. So yeah, my name is Avery, I'm a staff producer at 99% Invisible. I host our spinoff series about fashion called Articles of Interest. And I also host this series with Vox Media called Nice Try! which is about utopias. And I call, so in this conference we've talked a lot about podcasts and how they pertain to business and how, what it means to like, market yourself and sell your voice and sell your product and you know, get your words out there to more people in the world. But you know, with this exciting profusion of new business opportunities and new listeners and new markets, there is always like, we want to keep podcasts from just being a product or just being content. And I think the way to keep the audio work you make limber and interesting and fun is to abandon your plans, which isn't to say like flake, don't flake, don't make plans and then forget about them. But this is really about, not just staying in a studio, like going out into the field and taking risks. And I'm just gonna use a pretty extreme example of a time that went really off the rails for me and how it actually benefited the final product.
So, I just wanted to start by sharing the recorder that I use. Like, I still use this recorder. Recently, our engineer on 99% Invisible was like, “listen, you have to get a better microphone.”
But for years I was just using a Zoom H2n and sometimes I would even use the internal microphone, which is like, “no, no, no!” But I just wanted to share this because I feel like at a lot of other podcasts conferences, there are a lot of gearheads out there who are like, “Oh, you need X thousands of dollars worth of equipment or you need X, Y, Z editing system.” And I think for the longest time, especially when I was just getting started, I was using like an H2n and GarageBand. Because I think the most important thing is to just have a good idea. And so the question naturally arises and the question we get all the time and I get all the time is where do you get your ideas from? And I wish there was like an Idea Depot where you could just go and like get ideas. But this question of where ideas come from was actually the subject of a story I did about two years ago called The Pool in the Stream. And I'll just play the beginning for you.
[Audio Clip]: This is 99% Invisible. I'm Roman Mars. When people ask us where we get our stories from, the answer is usually hard to pin down. It could be something one of us noticed walking around or something a friend mentioned or some forwarded link on Twitter. It's nearly impossible to say where inspiration comes from in any art form. It's a long way from the seed of an idea to its execution.” [End audio clip].
And so that's the start of the story. And I'm just going to start at the beginning for how this story began and walk through how it came together. So I'll tell you like, the loose plot of the, of the story because this is not about the story itself. It's about the making of the story. Okay. So once upon a time, we used to work in an architecture firm, 99% Invisible was in like the corner of an architecture office.
And, an architect came up to me once upon a time and was like, “Hey Avery, why are swimming pools shaped like kidney beans?” And I was like, “Huh. I dunno. It's probably like a useful shape. It's probably a pleasing shape, whatever.” And then that was like the early seed of the idea.
But then it really started to germinate when a friend of mine, Andrew Norton, who is also radio producer, sent me this email. Basically it just says, you know, “thought this might be interesting for like a blog post. Not sure it's a whole story.” Andrew is a radio producer himself and so when he, when he sent me and my colleague this article, you can see that my colleague was like, “no, I'm not interested in it. Go for it.” It didn't seem like there was a lot there. But it was basically about how the first bean-shaped swimming pool was in Finland, designed by some famous architect named Alvar Aalto, which was important for the history of skateboarding. And I don't know, I'm not a skateboarder. I wish I was, I don't know anything about skateboarding and I don't know what it was about this article, but I found it weirdly intriguing and it just kind of stuck with me for some reason. And yeah, as you can see in this email exchange, it just sparked some interest and I didn't really know why. I didn't really know what to do with it. So I just kind of sat on it and mulled it over for a while, but not on my own.
Cause here's the key thing I find. I find I really need to talk about my ideas and what I'm working on and what I'm thinking about. I absolutely have empathy for those writers and thinkers and artists who don't want to share their works in progress because, I think it's a Mary McCarthy quote that's like “to advertise one's aspirations is to broadcast one's failures.” Like, I get that. But, you just never know who's going to know something. And so anyone who knows me knows at a party, I'm always grabbing a friend and being like, “can I tell you about what I'm working on?” I'm really bad at small talk. I'm like, “All right, here's what I've got going on. I'm thinking about kidney shaped swimming pools. Do you know anything?” And it's really, really helpful. So one afternoon I was having coffee with a friend of mine and I mentioned this article about like kidney shaped swimming pools and why they were important to skateboarding. And he told me about this documentary called Dogtown and Z-Boys, which is very famous, but I had never seen it before. So I bought it and I watched it a bunch of times. It's all about the history of skateboarding and the way that skateboarding evolved from surfing when a bunch of bored kids in Venice Beach were looking for something to do when the waves were bad. And it was during this huge drought in Southern California, everyone was forced to empty all their swimming pools. And so there were all these empty, curvy swimming pools and these skate rats would like, break into people's backyards and they would skate in these empty pools. And it totally changed the way skateboarding worked as a sport. Because before this time, skateboarding was just kind of something you did on a flat surface. The tricks were like standing on your head or like lifting one leg. They weren't low to the ground, they weren't imitating surfing in this way. So these kids kind of like furthered surfing as an art form. And they were able to do this because there were so many empty kidney shaped pools all over Los Angeles. And that really struck my interest because like, how did this pool get from Finland to Los Angeles? Why was everyone copying this one pool in Finland that the article talked about by this one architect named Alvar Aalto?
And then, luck struck. This is what luck looks like. A bolt of luck! So my friend Louisa Beck, who's an amazing producer who's based in Berlin. We had stayed in touch with postcards and letters. She'd lived in Berkeley before and I'm based in the Bay Area. And then one day she emailed me to say that German National Radio was organizing a conference and she asked if I would come give a presentation with her about the state of American podcasting and radio. I mean, it was kind of an excuse to like hang out in Germany together. And it felt like a sign to me. I was like, “well, as long as I'm in Europe, I'll just pop on over to Finland,” because I'm an idiot and I'm an American and I don't understand that Finland and Germany are actually like, very far apart. So, and again I’m like. very lucky that I have a job that lets me do that. This is like an amazing thing to be in. But I was like, “Hey, I'm already getting my airfare paid for Germany, like, can I just pop on over, pop on over to Finland?” And my boss said yes, which was very lucky.
So once I knew that I was going to Finland, I really started digging into the research about this pool because I knew I wanted to visit it. And I saw it was in this town, again in the middle of nowhere. Not in the way to anything. It was in this town called Noormarkku in the middle of Western Finland. And it's a part of this estate designed by this architect Alvar Aalto called The Villa Mairea. And the building itself is kind of a museum. It's not, it's full of all these very important architectural advances. It's not just the pool. So I emailed the Villa Mairea about coming to visit and let them know that like, “I'm this American podcaster for this really big deal show and I'm really excited to come record and talk to their docents.” And I get the worst response in the world, which is that the pool is closed for six months and can I come back later? And I emailed them again. Like, please, please, please, please, please, please, please. Can we just like stand next to the pool and like, pretend that we're in it? Like please, please and Fins do not give a shit about American podcasts. And so the answer is just flat no.
And so part of me is like, “well maybe I'll just do it like those punks did in Venice Beach and I'll break into the pool.” And so I actually contacted some Finnish skateboarders in Helsinki and I was like, “Do you guys want to drive four hours to the middle of Western Finland and break into this pool with me?” And I was actually Googling like prison conditions for trespassing in Finland. I was like, “how bad could it be? Maybe you can get like a secondary degree or something.” And at this point, again, I hardly know if there's a story there yet. And again, the estate is four hours away from Helsinki. I don't know if the pool is empty or full of water or full of debris or completely roped off or if there's any way to break in at all. So I decided like, it's a terrible idea. I abandoned that idea. That was a dumb idea.
So ultimately I just have this ticket to Finland. Like I reasoned that I would take what I would get and more or less just kind of wing it. Turns out it's very hard to just wing it. I wrangled one interview with a historian at the Aalto Foundation who could talk to me about Alvar Aalto, the designer of the pool and, you know, some of his history and why he designed the pool. But that was kind of it. I had that one interview and then I had all these days that I was gonna fill with like travel and interviews and I had nothing lined up and I fell into a very deep depression. Especially, you know, when I'm like, “Oh, this story isn't working out. I'm an idiot. Like, I'm costing my company money right now. I'm not giving anything back.” I walked around alone, I went to a sauna alone, I went to museums alone. And it's really hard also because like Finnish is just completely unlike any other language in the world. Like it just doesn't exist anywhere in the language tree. You can’t even, like, pretend you can vaguely start to understand it. And it also doesn't help that Fins are very reserved and keep to themselves. Like it was the kind of place where I was on a bus and I'd see a baby and I would like try to smile at the baby and the baby will be like, like they are very, they are very solitary people, but you don't have to take my word for it. Their benches are actually designed like this. That is true.
So listen, I don't mean to hate on Helsinki. It's a beautiful place, but for the love of God, if you go there, like go with a friend, do not, do not go alone. And so it's also a terrible place, honestly, I pride myself on being like, pretty friendly and I can go to a bar and like I love again talking about what I'm working on in social situations, but this country was just not having it. So I shamelessly went on social media and asked if anyone I knew, knew anyone at all in Helsinki just so I'd have someone to hang out with and save me from my stupid useless failure of a trip to Finland. And thank heavens a friend of mine connected me with this expat American couple and we met up and we had this like four-hour long dinner cause we were all like, “Ah, conversation, wow!” And it turned out one person in this couple was a professor for the local university, which is Aalto University named after Alvar Aalto, the architect who designed the pool. And so this professor introduced me to some experts at the university who could talk more about Alvar Aalto and the pool. And he introduced me to someone I would have never found on my own. Like I would've never even have known to Google him. This guy. He's a Finnish skate park designer named Yana Sario. He's the only one in Finland. He designs curvy pools, especially for skating. He'd been trained in architecture at Aalto University and it was perfect. And that was luck striking again. And I was like, “okay, I have this, the story is back on.”
And this brings me to my own kind of personal mantra when reporting, which is: make a plan and then be prepared to abandon it or at least stray from it. Like craft and attack, think of all the voices you might want, all the angles you might want to touch on, prepare an outline, like research all you can. I had read a lot about the pool and about Alvar Aalto. Know the points and then just be prepared for everything to change. Because this can be in the macro sense, like in terms of who you want to speak to because you know, I didn't know I was gonna talk to this guy, but because I was so prepared I could just kind of delve into it right away just cause I knew the kind of points I wanted from the story. And this also is in the micro sense in terms of every single interview. Like here, like this is an example. Like I usually print out four pages of notes for every interview I do. And if someone has written a book, I will read it. I will read it twice. And I will write out all these notes, make like, minute points of everything I may want to touch on, read it over and over and over and over again, up until I get to the person's door. And then I fold it up and I put it away. And oftentimes they don't even know that I've prepared this much for an interview. Because again, like I think the more you prepare, the more you can let chance strike and just let the interview just kind of unfold in a very natural, organic way and roll with it. And also I think, you know, you can tell when someone's done their research, like you can tell when someone knows what they're talking about. And to me this seems like the greatest gift you can give someone who's giving you their voice. Like, if you are a podcast producer, you are Ursula the Sea Witch, like you are using other people's voices and the least you can do is kind of like show them the courtesy and the respect by preparing in a really in-depth way.
So yeah, also it leaves, by not looking at notes and not like -- this is why I also love to go to people's houses or like interview them in person and not just in studio. So you can really look them in the eye and let the conversation kind of flow and it leaves a little bit of room for you to be surprised. And that's the best thing when you can learn something new in the course of an interview and you can get your reaction in there. So after I got back from Finland, I was like, “Okay, I have to figure out the rest of the story.” I knew I had to talk to the director of Dogtown and Z-Boys because I wanted to talk about skateboarding and how it related to this pool in some way. And after lots of emailing and cajoling, I was finally able to talk to the director of this documentary. But as you know, the documentary, Dogtown and Z-Boys is a fairly popular movie. And I didn't just want the director more or less summarizing what the movie was about. And so I needed to find a way to make the scene come to life.
Which brings me to the next key thing in reporting, which is to bring in the action. And action doesn't necessarily mean something thrilling and wild. Again, it's another reason I like to go to people's houses, or meet them face to face. Just on the off chance, they're like, “Actually, can I show you what I mean?” Or like, “Hey, I have this scrapbook all about it.” It just, like ask them to show you something or to go somewhere or look at something together. Because, it really just makes the tape come alive. So in this case, when I wanted to talk about the history of skateboarding and what it had to do with this curvy pool, I knew that Thrasher Magazine, the insanely popular skateboard magazine was based in San Francisco. And I heard that their Editor in Chief, this guy Jake Phelps, was a real character. He actually died like earlier this year. So rest in peace, Jake Phelps.
After much back and forth, I booked an interview with him, to talk about the importance of skating in pools. And the interview went terribly.
[Audio Clip]: Do you know the story about like where the bean shaped pool comes from?
Jake Phelps: The bean shape? What’s the bean shape? Like, the right-handed kidney?
Avery: Is that what it's called?
Jake: Well yeah, you don’t call it bean shaped.
Avery: I don't know. [End audio clip].
Avery: He was really rude. He like, touched my face, whatever. And after 30 minutes he was like, “I have something else to do.” So he packed up and left and I was feeling really disappointed and really stupid. So a friend of mine worked at a coffee shop near the Thrasher headquarters. So I just went there and I sulked for a little bit. And then when I hopped on the bus home, lo and behold, Jake Phelps was on the bus with a skateboarder friend of his and they had their skateboards. And then this is kind of the like, shameless part. I ran up to them and I was like, “Hey, where are you going? Can I come with you?” And it turned out they were going to skate just in an abandoned lot nearby. And I just trailed them.
[Audio Clip]: Can't skate here? Nope. Oh man, it looks so good! Just one broken leg, please.
Avery: So this is another way that like, these were not my plans. It's just kind of like inviting, it was very lucky. But I do think that there is a way to invite luck by preparing and also by being shameless. And, you know, Jake was not the nicest to me, but it was a very entertaining interview, so it wasn't like a bad interview. You know, like a dull, lifeless interview as a bad interview. And I think that's how you can really bring in the action. I mean, okay. I also never do pre-interviews like ever, because I do think there's a way to make everyone a good talker, especially if you go to them in person and you like, point things out to them and really engage with them. I do think it's hard in a studio if someone's kind of like a dull talker and you can't be there in the room with them. But I think, you know, asking if how something in their home or office pertains to the story at hand or getting them to demonstrate or show you something, getting them outside, out into the field, it just makes it very like, lively and fun.
And so after I interviewed the, oh yeah, that's luck. And so, after I interviewed the skateboarders at Thrasher and talked with the director of Dogtown and Z-Boys. I still needed to figure out how those two worlds connected. Like, how did this pool in Finland get to Southern California? And in that initial article that my friend Andrew sent me, that I somehow got fixated on, it mentioned this, it made this passing mention to this landscape architect named Thomas Church and that he was the bridge between these worlds.
So I started with Google of course, and I found out that this landscape architect Thomas Church made what is thought to be the first kidney shaped pool in the United States. And it's actually in Northern California. It's in Sonoma County, just north of San Francisco and not too far from me. And I knew I wanted to visit, again to just like, be there and just see it and get the sounds of whatever the sounds of the, of the concrete, the sounds of birds chirping around the pool. Just to check it out. And the thing is this pool is not like a museum. It's just someone's pool. It's just someone's private house. It's not like there are listings or hours or contact information or anything. And actually this ended up being the hardest section to make. I ended up calling a lot of landscape architects and architecture guides, just begging them to let me interview an expert who could speak about this property, asking if anyone knew anyone who could put me in touch with a family who lives there. Again, going to parties and being like, “Hey, does anyone know anything about like the Donnell Garden?” Like just trying to get in touch with the family who lived there. And again, this was another moment where preparation worked really well. Like, because I had done research about Alvar Aalto, about skateboarding, about this pool. You know, if an expert called me back or if someone wanted to talk out of the blue, I could really, like people could tell I knew what I was talking about.
So blah, blah, blah. Long story short, I finally received an invitation to go see the pool myself. And again, I knew I wanted to bring in the action. So I wore my bathing suit beneath all my clothes and when we got to the pool, I asked if I could jump in. That's the pool. It's totally gorgeous.
[Audio Clip]: It is bright, pristine, electric blue. And in the center of the pool is an abstract sculpture by Adeline Kent, which has two holes through it, one above water and one below. And you can swim through the holes and the sculpture like a dolphin. And it's insanely fun. I know because I tried it.
The pool overlooks acres of dusty ranching property. [End audio clip].
Avery: And that was just recorded with a Zoom H2n like no producer, just like me and a bathing suit and like my internal microphone. Oh and the other thing that I, whenever I'm in an environment, because you know, this is something unique about making a show about architecture and design, but I do think it applies to many shows. Like when you go to a place, I like to just use my recorder not only for interviews but also for notes. Like I'll look around at the landscape and see what I see and what I smell and how it feels to be there just to like, use for writing later.
So, yeah, remark on the moment, is another little trick as a way of illustrating the piece. And so then, the way that that pool spread to Southern California was because that pool was like a hallmark of fancy modernist design because it wasn't a garden, right? It was like concrete and a pool. It wasn't rows and rows of flowers. And so Sunset Magazine really picked up on this new concept for like a garden that was just lawn and concrete and pool and put it all over Sunset Magazine. And it was really attractive to a lot of Americans who were moving to California and didn't really know the climate, didn't really know how to build a traditional garden in their backyards. And so they kind of just copied the Donnell Garden. And so long story short, that is why there are so many kidney shaped swimming pools in Southern California. And the connection to Finland is that Thomas Church went to Finland and met Alvar Aalto, saw his pool, there's like a whole crazy thread of connection that brought this pool from Finland to Southern California.
But then I was like, “Ugh, how to put this together? Like, where do I begin? Do I start with the skateboarders? Do I start in Finland? Do I start with the middle? Like do I start talking about this pool in Sonoma?” So before I do anything, before I lay out the beats of the story or know the way I want it to go, after every single interview, I do something that is very impractical and very stupid, but I can't help myself. And it's that I transcribe the entire interview in its entirety, which you don't have to do anymore. Like there are robots that do a pretty good job at that now. And it's not like I'm good at it. Like it takes forever. It's agonizing. I hate it so much. It's really slow. It feels like hell when I'm in it. It's my least favorite part. But here's why I struggle through it.
You're gonna find a way to dick off anyway. Like you're gonna find a way to procrastinate. And this is a way to get really, really, really familiar with the tape. And it also like, I feel like, I really know it backwards and forwards and all the while while I'm transcribing, I'm going to parties and I'm pulling people aside and asking for their thoughts. I'm really like marinating in it and thinking about it for as long as it takes like, weeks. Like it takes forever to transcribe stuff. And the other thing is, especially for people who are really starting out in podcasting, I mean this is how I learned. Like I had to listen to myself do interviews and like cringe at the stupid mistakes I made and it felt like I was performing for the future me. Like now when I do an interview, I know I'm performing for the future me that has to transcribe that shit and I know I have to do a good job. I really can't recommend it enough. It's awful and it sucks. But listen, the rest of our jobs are so, so, so fun and cool, so we can just do this one awful thing.
But that's the other thing. Like, once I take the time to transcribe everything by hand, the writing comes really quickly. Like I've spent so long thinking about it and thinking about the way it's gonna go. I can actually write a first draft fairly quickly. And so it's way less daunting than looking at a plain white page, you know? By like just transcribing everything and practicing writing about the topic at hand. And then of course, you know, the first draft is terrible. Like it's not a good first draft, but I do it quickly, which gets you right into the editing.
And so when I think about editing, I think about this video made by Charles and Ray Eames called Powers of 10. Unfortunately, this GIF is really fast, but you get the idea. But it basically starts out with this couple, uh, sitting in a park in Chicago having a picnic. And then it zooms all the way out, out, out, out, out, out, out into the far reaches of the Milky Way. And then it zooms in in in into the man's hand, like down into his skin cells. And I think about Powers of 10 when it comes to editing because so much of it is about scope, especially when you're talking about something that appears to be mundane, like, “How far out do you want to zoom? How far in do you want to zoom?”
You know, for example, like, with this story, how much information do we want to talk about? Like we could have zoomed out really, really far and talked about like where surfing came from, how did surfing come to the United States? And then like tell this whole story and then go on to talk about how skateboarding affected like skate shoes and the shoes we all wear. And it affected the tracking shot in cinema because all these skate rats started to get cameras and film each other. Like, you could, so we had to like confine it and be like, all right, which, what scope are we covering? And we also could have zoomed like way, way in and talked about the concrete development that made these kinds of curvy pools popular, which is shotcrete. Like, there are just so many things that we could have talked about and it was about whittling them down and finding the right balance. Because everything, everything is interesting if you zoom all the way out or all the way in, like everything has an amazing history. Everything, well, a lot of things have an amazing history and a lot of things have an amazing long tail to them.
So yeah, like, you know, for example, if you're interviewing, say like an asylum seeker from China, like how much do you want to make it about their life and how much do you want to make it about like, the situation they're coming from. Like you have to figure out how far to zoom in and how far does he out. And also, you know, in editing, you're zooming in and out again when you're trying to think of what scenes to dwell in, like, how long should we focus on skateboarding versus how long should we focus on Finland versus how long should we focus on landscape architecture in the West Coast?
Yeah, and I find, you know, in audio, it's pretty hard to jump around with a lot of flashbacks and flash forwards because it is a linear medium. I think it was Julie Schneider from This American Life who said there are two ways to tell a story, which is chronological and then a hint and then chronological, like preview scene then chronological. So I find like in radio we tend, we tend to play with the way that time is parceled not constructed, but who knows, maybe that'll change.
So yeah, basically my amazing editor, Delaney Hall on staff determined that the skateboarders were more interesting than the property in Sonoma. So we started with the skateboarders. We zoomed in on them a little more. That's definitely the biggest part. We shortened the part about the property in Sonoma more or less described it, jumped in the pool, moved on. Oh and the nice thing is no one knows, no one realizes in the course of this story that I didn't actually make it to the pool in Finland because the splash in the pool in Sonoma is so loud. So that's my dirty little secret.
And so, yeah, and the other thing about this story that, you know, it combines these three different things. This like this pool and where it came from in Finland, these skateboarders and this landscape architect and it's really woven together by a lot of writing. This is like a very writing-heavy story. And I just wanted to share this really interesting thing about radio writing that Adam Davidson said on the Longform Podcast when he was comparing, writing for the New Yorker versus writing for radio. He was like writing for, when you write for print, it's your job to be as like, beautiful and flowery and poetic and be the star voice, and then you bring in expert voices to corroborate and be like, “Yes, that's correct. What he said.” And then in radio it's kind of inverted, like you want your experts and the people you interview to have like, beautiful, flowery, insightful, poetic language and then you come in and you say, “That's correct, what they said.” So it's very interesting like who you choose to foreground. And that's one of my favorite things about working in radio is that you're Ursula the Sea Witch, you can just steal people's amazing voices and weave them into your own story.
But yeah, so this ended up just being a 30-minute story, which I never would have thought possible from all the tape I collected. And it's one of my favorite stories because the story itself of like why we have skateboarding in its modern form and why we have these kidney pools, it's just like so unlikely. And it's a story about where ideas come from and where they end up. And the other thing about it, like the new, most recent thing about it is ever since we aired this story, two years ago, this guy in Columbus, Indiana, which is this amazing modernist hub, in the Midwest, it's just like small city full of incredible buildings by some of the most famous mid-century modern architects heard this story and decided that his town needed a new, the town of Columbus, Indiana needed a new skate park. And he hired Yanna, the Finnish skate park architect because he heard the story. And so the chain of inspiration from like the original pool in the middle of Western Finland out to Sonoma County, to Southern California, and now to this like skate park in Columbus, Indiana. Like the chain of inspiration just keeps on going. And I feel so lucky to be a part of it. And I feel so lucky to have woven myself into this story just by telling it. And it was done with a lot of luck and a lot of coincidence, but I really do believe that those elements can be summoned to a degree with a lot of preparation and research and an open mind and a willingness to abandon your plans. So thank you. Any questions? I think there are microphones. Hey!
[Audience member]: Hi. I loved your story.
Avery: Oh, thank you.
[Audience member]: I'm curious from start to finish, how long did it take?
Avery: So this was an unusual case because that's a great question. So this took many, many months and it wasn't like the only story I was working on. I don't have this like luxurious life where I'm just like on the case, like thinking. I was like working on other stories in the meantime, but this was just kind of, I always like to work on a bunch of different stories at once. Just kind of like thinking about them and percolating and asking around at parties and annoying my friends. But I think all told this like six months? Yeah, thanks!
[Audience member]: Okay, okay. Thank you.
[Audience member]: Hello. I was curious about, if you can quantify the amount of hours and like the six months that you spent researching for this podcast and it was like 30 minutes?
Avery: Hmm. I mean it's hard to quantify, again cause I do think so much of my work involves, like talking to people in like in social situations. And the truth of the matter is when most people ask me where ideas come from, the answer I usually give is parties. Like it's usually just talking to people and like learning things second hand and...or hearing about what people are thinking about and talking about. So it is kind of hard to quantify because this is like the burden and the pleasure of doing what you love for a living is like, it bleeds into your whole life. So like a lot of like reading and watching movies and talking to people. So I don't know. I'm so sorry. I don't really have a good answer for that, but that's such a great question.
[Audience member]: Hi. I was just wondering, because you started with an idea, but you had to rely on luck and giving up plans. How, from the original idea to what you ended up with, how, how drastic was that jump? And also when you're pitching ideas, like if you know that the pitch is going to change -- like if you know it’s going to change in the making of it, how do you finesse that with the people you're pitching to? And I don't know, how do you pitch the magic that ends up happening along the way?
Avery: No, that's a really good question and I'm so sorry to give this answer, but like, I'm terrible at pitching. Like I've tried to pitch to other shows and I just can't do it. Because it's really, again, this is like an extremely like, lucky, lucky, lucky, lucky, lucky, like privileged position to be in that the show I work for is really trusting. I mean I did pitch this though, they weren't like, “Oh go off!” But there is wiggle room for that luck to come in and the story to change. And the truth of the matter was, I had like a nebulous idea. Like I presented that article to them and I was like, “Guys, this pool is from Finland and it's important for skateboarding. I think there's something there. I'm going to check it out.” And I think a lot of it is like, because my airfare to Germany was mostly covered. They were like, “Just do it.”
But no, I mean honestly for the most part my stories change all the time from like, pitch to final thing. Because I feel like if you like, if you already know the whole story then like why do you need to report it, you know? Like there should be a degree of surprise and I guess it just depends on the organization that you're pitching to. How much of that there, how much room for wiggle room and change they're willing to accommodate. And I feel like, you know, we get that sometimes that freelancers will call us and be like, “Hey, this story is evolving. It's changing in this different way.” And usually we're down to consider it and talk about it and flesh it out because usually it's more interesting. People very rarely are like, “Hey, sorry, this story is actually like way more boring than I thought.” So, yeah. Thank you.
[Audience member]: How do you process the emotions around spending six months with a story and then getting the 30 minutes out of it? Do you ever feel like, “Oh man, but all the rest of it, maybe we could do something else? Maybe we could do like a post, or a blog, or a this or that? You know, like what, how do you process that?
Avery: Oh man. I mean, it's almost just like kinda twice distilled whiskey. It feels like at the end of the day it's like [inaudible] It's like all it is. And like I know that all the work and all the reading and all the talking to people at parties like I know it's going to end up as something small, and honestly 30 minutes was like way longer than what I thought it was at the time, most 99% Invisible stories were like 15 minutes? So I was like hot diggity this is a long story.
Yeah. But I think that's also why I work on a lot of different stories all at once, to not get too emotionally invested and be like this is the greatest story I have ever made. Cause this was a lark and it could have fallen apart at any moment. I'd say the only like, real emotional hardship was being in Finland and thinking that the whole thing was a waste of time and the whole thing was a failure. Like that is the only thing that makes me sad if it seems like it's for naught. So I guess it just makes me, I'm just glad that it turned into something at all, you know? Thank you.
[Audience member]: Hey, I know it might depend like in between like topics or stories, but like how much research do you usually do before being like, “Oh yeah, this is worth doing something about,” or like, “Oh, this is gonna suck. This is actually not that interesting.” Like how much, you know, how far are you ready to go? Like how much time are you ready to spend researching something before deciding, “Eh, not great,” or “Yeah, let's do this.”
Avery: That's a great question. I usually read a book. I read like a book. And then I usually like, usually the way it works is like, here's something at a party. Get a book, read the book, probably read it twice. See if I like it. And you can tell if like, if you find your -- and that's another reason I like talking to people at parties -- because if you find yourself excited to talk about it, and you can hear yourself like really coming alive and they're interested in it and you're interested in it, like it cooks, like it works. And I feel like because what we do is, you know, we're speaking, we're communicating to people and we're so lucky to be able to try it out in real life with the people around us whose opinions we respect. And I think that's usually the test for me is like, do I love it? Do the people around me love it? And I've certainly had moments, I'm like, why isn't everyone interested in this thing I'm interested in? Which are hard, but like, you know, you find it out in good time. Yeah.
[Kerri Hoffman]: Hi Avery.
Avery: Hi Kerri!
Kerri: How are you?
Avery: All right. How are you doing?
Kerri: Well, you know that I don't produce stories or cut tape, but I just wanted to say that I found everything you said to be kind of prescient and easy to apply in lots of other things around podcasting. And so, I just wanted to give you a nice shout out because like, I was totally engaged the whole time and I'm not about to go to Finland and make a story or, but I thought that there are so many lessons about prepare but don't get too emotionally involved. Think about how you're gonna edit, think about what you're saying. Like it, there's so many aspects of a creative process that you could apply around raising money, around managing, around all kinds of things. And so thank you. I thought it was really great.
Avery: Thank you so much. I really appreciate that. And I do think that there is this kind of like bro-y, there are some podcasts out there who are like, “Don't prepare it all. Just kind of like, dive in!” And I do think that there's a, there's like a gentle balance between like “wing it, like be prepared to wing it. But like, you know, do your homework.” So yeah. Thank you.
[Audience member]: Actually, I do not have any specific question, but I want to say also, thank you because I love the way, how you describe Fins. I'm from Finland. We are just like that. [inaudible]
Avery: Is it true? Are you the happiest country in the world?
[Audience member]: We might be. We, we ourselves, we don't believe in that.
Avery: I know! You love to complain.
[Audience member]: Yeah. And it was so nice to hear the story about the pool because I know Alvar Aalto, but I didn't know the story. So that was so nice. Thank you very much.
Avery: Oh. thanks. Sorry!
[Audience member]: You've given me a very lovely, simple word for thing I realized I've been wrestling with so much, which is simply scope.
Avery: Mmmm. Oh, great!
[Audience member]: Do you have any personal indications for yourself when you're zoomed, when you realize you're too zoomed in or too zoomed out on your latest draft? Like what is that honing like for you? What does it feel like for you?
Avery: That's another thing. Okay. Another reason I feel like the main takeaway is like, go to parties, drink too much, tell your story to everyone. Because I do feel like that's another thing that I practice telling. I do practice telling the story to people and I always like, try starting it in different places or including different things and you can see when you're like going on too long, like you can see when someone's not interested. So, that's one thing. And then the other thing is just like having a really, I'm very lucky to be on a team with amazing editors. So yeah, I'd say that all kind of happens before the writing process and conversations at parties or it happens after with the editor, but usually in the moment I'm like, “This is all gold. I'm a genius. Like none of these can go away. The scope is infinite.” So yeah, I don't know. It's hard to think like, yeah, it's hard to apply if you're working on something entirely by yourself. Like definitely need other inputs. Yeah. Thanks.
[Audience member]: Hi. Thank you for today and for all of your work.
Avery: Oh, thank you.
[Audience member]: My question is about how you navigate a creative and exploratory process when the people that you're talking to are giving you, uh, emotionally deep content from their own perspective. And if you end up going in a different direction or if the project ends up flopping and they've actually trusted you with that information, this may have been one of the only channels that they've ever had to express that to potentially a larger audience. What are the ethical conversations that you have with yourself, either, you know, industry-wide or just personally? How do you handle that?
Avery: Oh, man. I mean, okay. Caveat, like, I don't usually do stories like that. I'm very rarely interviewing someone about their incredible personal story. I usually do stories about buildings and inanimate objects. Which is one of the reasons I love doing stories about buildings and inanimate objects, because the human element comes through. But I'm not looking someone in the eye and like, you know, asking why they left their husband. Like, that's not my, like, that's Anna Sale’s beat. That ain't me. But I do, so mostly the people who I talk to are like academics and docents and historians and designers. But it's true. Like, I really do try to stay in touch and always email everyone who's in the story, which is like, also a very cringe-worthy part is like telling people that the story is out and hoping they like it. I mean, that's the only, that's like the key audience, right? The people you've talked to, and letting them know if it's been, and letting them know if it's been left, if their voice has been left on the cutting room floor, the story has been canceled. I try, it's really hard. Like I don't always succeed because I'm always balancing like a million different voices and a million different stories. But I guess just, you know, yeah, I guess I just try to treat them like my friends, you know? Like my very professional friends, like extremely professional, but yeah. Thanks.
[Audience member]: Hi. You said that your first drafts are usually terrible. I was wondering how you don't get defeated and you're able to take feedback and like, work from that point.
Avery: I think, who was it? Someone tweeted once, like I used to think the most, the most incredible gift was to be published, but now I know the most incredible gift is to be edited. And it's, no, it's like a huge gift to have someone listen to you. And I certainly fight back sometimes, but I really pick my battles. So I guess, you know, it's hard. It always sucks, but I think, you know, I've been doing this for going on seven years now. I'm finally learning how to not be a baby. But, yeah, mostly just grateful. Especially like now podcast editors are so hard to find. It's so hard to get someone to like give you the time of day to listen to their story. So I'm just like full of gratitude. Thank you so much. I think I have to cut this off, right? Yeah, I do. Thank you so much, but come say hi later and thanks for coming out, really appreciate it.
Dessa: That was Avery Trufelman, speaking at the 2019 Werk It festival.
Both the festival and the podcast are produced by WNYC Studios and are made possible by major funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting with additional support from the Annenberg Foundation.
Event sponsors include Luminary, Spotify, Spreaker, Acast, Himalaya, and the Women’s Foundation of California.