My Writing Process

Greetings from Texas! My name is Joani Livingston. I am a producer/director and a co-founder of Livingston+McKay. My producing partner, Renée McKay and I are huge believers in the power of great stories. Stories touch hearts and make the listener or viewer or reader feel more alive. Best of all, stories awaken the good in people.

I appreciate SJ Murray tagging me in this writing blog tour. I’ve had the privilege of knowing her for over ten years. She is a dear friend, and the talented screenwriter and co-producer on our latest documentary, INEFFABLE. SJ’s main gig is teaching story rhetoric in the Honors College at Baylor University. Can you imagine? A whole semester studying story under her tutelage. Those college kids are pretty darn lucky. She's the founder of StoryRhetoric, and is an avid tweeting machine. Find her on Twitter @SJ_Murray. You’ll be glad you did.

Now to get on with what you’re here for…

What are you working on?

Just moments ago I finished writing a legal document to post outside of the venue we're shooting in this Friday in New York City. I don't think that's all that interesting to talk about, but it is part of what I do as a producer. I'm pretty much writing all the time in various and sundry ways.

Currently, I'm working on short scripts for our award-wining radio series, Business Review, which is distributed to NPR stations nationwide. Since it's for radio, the scripts have to be written in a conversational, yet emotive way that actively engages the listener's imagination. This is important because we're not just wanting to convey information about the latest global business trends, but we’re wanting it to stick with the listener.

Additionally, I'm working on our documentary, INEFFABLE, conceptualizing the story for two trailers that will run in the IMAX theatre in Austin, as well as a blog post for StoryRhetoric on the social impact of documentaries. 

How does your work differ from others of its genre?

As a producer, I am writing all the time. Livingston+McKay produces across the wide spectrum of media, and each requires its own format. Certainly, much of it is similar. The casual phrasing of a television commercial is a close second cousin to the dialogue of a screenplay. Writing a one sheet for a documentary is more elevated and weaves a narrative tale. No matter the format, the one poetic thread, making each one a complete whole, is a beginning, middle and end. Aristotle would be so proud.

Our diversity in media has its challenges for our interns. They come to us eager to learn how to make documentaries, but first they learn how to tell a story for a local non-profit organization in thirty seconds. You may be wondering why we do this. If they can’t tell a great story with a beginning, middle and end in that short amount of time, a longer documentary will lack focus and contain loads of extraneous material.

Only having thirty seconds forces them to work hard by omitting details that are not germane to the organization’s story, and focusing on what's the important information to know that will connect emotionally with the audience. Once they learn to do that well, they graduate to two minutes, and then to a five-minute segment of a program or short doc. If they want to attempt a long form documentary, they are now well-versed in the process of great storytelling within the confines of story structure.

Whether in 30-seconds or 30 minutes, a great story must take the audience on an emotive journey by having a beginning, middle and end.

Why do you write what you do?

I have loved hearing stories and telling them since I was a wee lass. My producing partner Renée and I went to high school together. She will tell you that I used to write these silly short stories about our group of friends. There was even a hero’s journey series called “The Adventures of Super Q.”

After graduation and before we went our separate ways, I pitched all those stories in the trash. Renée rescued them and says they’re still in box either in her parents’ attic in Alabama or her home in Georgia. There's been a whiff of a hint a time or two about blackmail should I ever get out of line. Not that I ever do... *ahem*

Stories about our high school gang morphed into observational, Jane Austenesque letters home while I was in college. I started out as a journalism major, but soon deep dissatisfaction set in dealing with facts only. Truth is I hated it. Facts and figures aren't memorable and don't stir the soul. Stories do both. When I changed majors to radio/TV/film, it was like I could breath again. The joy of writing returned! I found my path as a visual storyteller, and I’ve never looked back.

I write stories because I must.

A story well told can capture people’s hearts and minds, even effect change in the world. Both Renée and I are driven by a passion to communicate well-crafted stories that inspire and connect with a broad worldwide audience. We have an unshakeable belief in the power great stories wield to shine a light on tough subjects, to raise awareness about the world and human condition, and to promote changes for the better.

I’m not going to lie. I love what I do and the creative people I’m privileged to work with, and it’s a whole lot of fun in the midst of hard work and long hours. But for me there’s also a soberness, in that I feel the weight of the responsibility for the stories we tell. I understand the skills I have can make things better or worse on a grand scale, especially when given a national or international platform. Plus, it can take two years or more to produce a documentary, so the stories we choose to tell better be worth taking up so much time of other people's lives. I also feel responsible to craft the very best story possible for the PBS audience giving up an hour of their time to watch it. My hope is viewers will be inspired or challenged in some way to leave this spinning blue ball a little bit better than before they sat down to watch.

How does your writing process work?

The writing process for a documentary begins with curiousity. I may read something or have a conversation with someone or even bump up against a situation in real life. From there the tiniest story seed is planted. It's way too broad at this stage to start anything but research. This is where the lovely and talented SJ Murray comes in on our team. She can research like no one I've ever seen. For our EMMY® nominated documentary PRIMARY CONCERN (airing this Fall on PBS stations nationwide, check your local listings!,) she actually read the entire health care act. No, seriously. She did. She may be the only person in America who has... and she's Irish... Anyway, with the help of her eager interns, she is extraordinary in her thoroughness.

After research is complete, and if we find there is a great story trail to follow, a document is written with the proposed story outline. From that document  we create a wish list of who would be the best person to address this or that aspect of the story. We'll group people regionally which helps us figure out what the production budget will be. And by us, I mean, Renée. Budgets fall squarely in her wheelhouse and she's an ace at it.

With the production budget and financing in place, we start capturing interviews with the people on our list. This is where it often gets interesting in the story process. We have a pretty good idea where the story may be headed, and then WHAM! Someone says something we had no clue about. Whomever on our team is interviewing follows up with a question to get clarification on the new information that just dropped out of the sky. It's during this process that new bread crumb trails emerge that we would never have known to look for.

Research only takes you so far.

As we go into the interview with a list of questions, it is imperative the interviewer be an active listener to what is being said to be able to flow and respond in that moment with a different question. When follow up questions are based on what the interviewee actually says, it is magic. And so in that moment the story begins to shift and morph and twist until we have found something which is a very interesting story indeed.

We never go into the interviewing phase of production with a hard and fast notion of the story. In our nearly forty years of doing this, we've found if we do that we don't uncover the richer, deeper story only those who live it know. There are other techniques we use to elicit amazing emotive content, but I can't give away the whole farm now, can I?

Once the interviewing phase is finished, our mighty interns re-enter stage right. These footsoldiers are learning story from the ground up, and not only assist in the research phase, but also transcribe all of the interviews that were done. We usually have a team of six or so, who transcribe everything that's said every thirty seconds of time code. From their excellent work comes the first "paper edit" of the show. Sound bites are chosen to flow from one idea to the next to tell a cohesive story during post-production.

If it all possible, we prefer to tell the story this way because the most powerful stories are told through the voices of those who live the subject matter every day. We see them live it and breathe it, and they speak from a place of authority because it's their personal experience. If done well, this method builds a strong bond of trust with a viewer that scripted narration cannot do. You can have a good documentary with a lot of script and a narrator, but I tend to prefer letting people talk and if needed, using title cards to help transitions in the story.

And that, my friends, is the story writing process we use for our documentaries you'll see on PBS stations across the USA.

Next up...

Next week you'll get to hear from Elizabeth Oates and Clay Morgan.

I met Elizabeth when she interviewed me for a magazine article about a writers' workshop we did back in January this year. Since that time she's become a dear friend. Elizabeth is a young mother, journalist, frequent speaker and blogger who has a lot of interesting things to say about marriage and the effect of divorce on children. I think you'll enjoy hearing what she has to say.

I’ve only recently heard about Clay and discovered his podcasts and books. He's a teacher, a speaker and a writer. Rumor has it he's also a big World Cup soccer fan... I've found his tweets to be urbane and informative, and I look forward to learning more about his writing process for his new book next Monday as the writing blog tour rolls along across the country.

Thanks again, SJ Murray, for inviting me to be part of the blog tour. 

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