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Editing Through Loss -- Part II

LeBlanc describes how she and her producer distilled 40 hours of tape into 12 minutes memorializing her father in a grueling editorial process

- November 15, 2006

Journalist Adrian Nicole LeBlanc with her father Adrian Leon LeBlanc, prior to his death from lung cancer in 2003.
Photo by Arthur Joseph Giangrande
For Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, what should have been a professional high -- the publication of her first book Random Family -- coincided with personal tragedy. Her father, who had been paralyzed during an operation, was diagnosed with lung cancer. LeBlanc first grappled with the emotions of being both a journalist and a loving daughter.

She and radio producer Sarah Kramer then collaborated for two years to distill 40 hours of audio footage and 70 pages of text into "The Ground We Lived On," a 12-minute tribute to LeBlanc's profound connection with her father.

Did you find yourself trying to insert any distance into how you were experiencing your time with your dad, to cope?
It felt like some weird violation at the time, to tape-record it. For the last section of the audio, when he's actually leaving, I thought that that conversation was a conversation that I had created in my head, to soothe me. I literally thought I had made up this story that somehow, was a profound comfort to me. And when Sarah played that section of the tape, I literally felt like I could have fallen out of the chair. I'd had no recollection a) that I was taping that or b) that he had actually said that. His literal language, when he says, "You are gentle"-- all those things I thought were phrases that were writing phrases, that were coming out for a project I would write. That it was true stunned me. I had no recollection of having the tape on those last days. It amazes me, still, that I could have, but that's what I'm saying about how I am a journalist -- who am I kidding? Somebody put the tape on.

Working on this project over a long period of time -- did it feel like it was extending the grieving process in a way that made it more difficult, than if you weren't working on this?
I think if I wasn't working on this, yes. In some ways, it's allowed me to mine the grieving process as opposed to just experiencing it, which is always my preference -- to both have the experience and nose around in it, and try to understand it. It's an intellectual interest, but it's probably also a survival strategy, for when things feel overwhelming to me, painful to me, or enraging to me.

But it absolutely extends it -- think of if somebody sat you down , and every three days had you listen to [a loved one] in their last hour, because you had to figure out how many minutes of tape you could use. It was like structured triggers, scheduled triggers. I was getting really screwed up, saying, "I'm back to where I was after he died." I felt like everything I felt then had just gotten re-stirred up again.

Sarah Kramer [LeBlanc's StoryCorps editor] is someone I have to recognize in this. This was a piece that totally stresses the necessity of good editors. ['Ground'] would not exist without her and it really put her through hell, as well. Because, as much as I had to live with it, Sarah was listening to these tapes for two years. Plus, she had to push me and pull me, and respect me and protect me, and still get me to do what she needed. She cared about every word when I couldn't care, or carry it anymore.

"If someone asked, 'Was this cathartic for you?' I'd say, 'I probably won't know that for a decade.'"

She got to know my father. When I was saying to her, "I have to end this, Sarah, I have to get out of this," she was saying, "I do,too, Adrian. I've been living with your family in my head for two years." Which of course, is like when I was doing [Random Family]. And, she had her professional responsibilities -- to her boss, to her co-workers who were picking up the slack for her at work while she was dealing with me, and it was so protracted. It absolutely extended it. It made it happen again, except from a distance and yet, because of the distance, it was also part of the grieving process. If someone said, "Was this cathartic for you?" I'd say, I probably won't know that for a decade. Part of this was, I had to make something of this experience.

How many hours of tape were there?
40, probably a little bit more than that.

And you edited it down to...
12 minutes. With Sarah, it was absolutely a collaboration -- she did all these cuts, and I was just writing. She'd say, "Write about what you remember. " At one point, we had at least 70 pages of text -- she was refining down chunks of text, and then we had certain scenes we could work with. The structuring of a radio piece is very interesting. It was really hard because literally, we took pages and pages and we had one sentence like, 'Language is the ground we walked on, and we were speaking even as he was leaving me.' There were all these haphazard thoughts, and it took forever to get down to that sentence.

It's like poetry.
I think it has a process akin to that, because for me, I had never been refined to that point-- down to a few sentences, that's all that radio can take. It can't have any extraneous reference so, for example, there's a sentence: "The house my father built with his own hands." I first had the sentence as: "The house my father and my uncles built with their own hands," but [Sarah] was like, "You can't really bring them in." We'd have these conversations because I felt I needed to include my uncles, but then the narrative gets distracting, because you're listening and you're asking, "Who are the uncles?" My siblings are invisible in this, and that was a huge ongoing issue because, if you mention their names, then you have to characterize them, and then you're waiting for them to come back in.

How do they feel about this project?
I worry about it. It's their dad, too, but then again it's like how I say: I have to reckon with the fact that I am a journalist, because I am telling the story of my story. If they want to tell their stories, they can. It's a hard thing, though, when your story is also -- it is their father. And he is dying on tape, and that's a pretty heavy thing to ask somebody to have out there in the world, if they don't want to have it out there.

How long could the program have been?
They can only be six, 12 or 22 minutes.

Why didn't you go with 22? ['Ground' is a 12-minute segment]
I would've loved to have, but I think it was too heart-wrenching, I think there wasn't enough levity, over time, to hold it. We had earlier tape, as he was becomng bed-ridden, but we had sound quality problems so we couldn't carry it past a point, and there was this big leap, so it was a mix of those things.

So you had to make these editorial decisions to shape the piece.
Yes, they were very editorial, in terms of what [material] you have, what you don't have, what you missed, and who will talk to you. We couldn't go back to do anything. With a lot of radio, you can go back and re-record it, but with this it was either there or it wasn't.

Would you embark on a project like this again?
Definitely. I would really like to write about the elderly. I really enjoyed the time that I spent in the hospital with other older people. My dad I never thought of as elderly, but I would love to do more writing about elderly people. It's interesting narratively, and interesting because it's always considered a little bit of a surprise -- [covering the elderly] is usually cast as "elderly people doing water aerobics," or "elderly people dating and having sex." How about just writing about elderly people like you write about teenagers?

You were recently awarded a Macarthur "genius" grant -- congratulations. How does that affect your work? Does it grease the wheels for other projects you want to embark on, does it change things financially? How does it affect your life?
I think there are people, in general, who would persist in doing whatever they're doing, but who are doing it against many obstacles -- that's a pretty similar trait with [the Macarthur recipients]. They're going to do their music the way they do it, whatever. So in that way, I don't feel that it's changed the course of my work, but it has made me determined to protect the freedom of this time, which is what I was saying with the calendar [LeBlanc had showed us a datebook filled with current engagements that gave way to blank pages -- upcoming time off from professional obligations.] All these anonymous people said, "What you're doing matters to us." For whatever reason, the external acknowledgement makes me say, "Respect what they're respecting in you."

I don't have to worry about finding the best outlet for minidiscs anymore. It's just the little things, like taking a taxi versus the subway. The other night, I was out all day reporting. It was raining, I was feeling sick, I'm coming back from a comedy club, it's 11 at night. I got on the train and took the train. Then I thought, "Oh, I could take a cab tonight." It was just the feeling like, "Wow, I could've."

What's your advice or recommendation to journalists interested in taking on subjects like this -- personal, family-related, or ones to do with death and loss?
I hate to give this answer, but it really depends on the person and the story. For example, my friend Ann Patchett who's a novelist, wrote a book about this friend of ours who died, Lucy Grealy, in the white heat of her grief. I think it was immediately, or very quickly after -- it just had to come out of her. For me, ['Ground'] could never have happened without two years, at least, of separating. I can never process it quickly. It takes me a long time.

In terms of the subject matter, I think it's just a matter of very practical things. If you have an inkling that you want to [write about someone who's dying] and you can't right then, timewise, you need to just get information: from your uncle's address to the name of the nurse. And ask if you can have phone numbers, because people move around a lot. Also, copies of medical records, and descriptions of rooms, the pajamas people wear -- things like that can sort of be soothing. There are all the practical things you need.

In a case like this, because perspective is everything in the piece, I really think the editor is crucial -- especially the closer you get to your own experience. I think any really good reporting brings you very close to your own experience in one way or another, and a good editor is able to keep combing through that, and help you not compromise your authority, get yourself out of the way, be more vulnerable than you want to be.

How did you and Sarah work together?
I think she got assigned to the piece because Dave sensed that we would be a good team, and I bet he had very clear reasons for that. So, we got assigned and I think she, sadly, has a long email history of these attempts, where she'd say "Are you ready to do this," and I'd say 'Yes, yes," but then I was constantly postponing -- really thinking I was ready to do it and now, in retrospect, I see I was nowhere near it. She was in a very sticky situation.

We moved along, she dealt with my resistance, and was incredibly graceful about the frustrations it had to have been causing her, that I can only see now. Because, I was so self-absorbed and narcissistic: This was my father, my family. Then we had this moment, where I was at the precipice of having to really accept what I was doing, and I wasn't ready to and there was some kind of rupture, for a mix of reasons. From that moment on, it made the whole process completely toxic for me. Very destructive, very negative, very painful, and I realized that the bridge of that trust with her was everything, because I'm not telling the story to some anonymous public. I was telling Sarah the story and I was entrusting her to help me tell it.

That's when I realized as a journalist, it actually really does matter when you're covering these kinds of subjects, you really have to be involved in a way that's decent, because you are the link to someone being able to do this. You literally are. When they have anxiety, and when they have fear and anger, that communication has to be open because if you retreat into some purely professional distance, it doesn't always work in these circumstances. Sarah was really remarkable in her willingness to stay in there with me. I think you have to see it through.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: This interview contains excerpts, and has been edited for clarity.]

Rebecca L. Fox is mediabistro.com's features editor.

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