5 With: Nancy Rosenbaum

October 8, 2014

5 With is back! My ambitious January goal was to share 26 of these mini interviews over the course of the year. Though I doubt I'll quite hit that mark, I'll be posting a new interview through the end of 2014. I love these posts because they allow me to share the work of many of the makers and doers that inspire me; I love them because they show evidence that there's no one way to go about creating the work you want to see more of in the world.

I met Nancy Rosenbaum at a Small Art a couple winters ago, when she was on the verge of a career shift. I've since watched her find her best work: telling the small and big stories of all sorts of humans. Nancy has a knack for asking the perfect question, and for illuminating the extraordinary elements of ordinary people. I love how she details her journey of connecting to her curiosity and letting that lead her towards a new career path. Good stuff, especially for the many transitioning makers I know.

Nancy Rosenbaum interviews a stranger in the Sonoran Desert in Tucson, Arizona (photo by Nicki Adler)
Describe your current creative work:
My creative work involves connecting with people conversationally and then creating a narrative from what they tell me. Lately I’ve been producing a lot of audio stories, but I also work in print and enjoy taking photo portraits and pairing those with a quote or written vignette. This past year, I experimented with live narrative events where I would interview someone in front of an audience. I’m interested in stories about how people change (or don’t) and how they find and create meaning in big and small ways. Life is messy and complex and I want the stories I produce to reflect that messiness.

Earlier in my career, I worked as an educational counselor at a community college in Brooklyn, New York. This was good training for engaging with all kinds of people conversationally. I’ve always been curious and motivated to connect with people by talking to them. I learned to tell stories sonically and on the page through pursuing various training programs (the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies; The Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University). In my mid-30s I moved from the East Coast to Minneapolis for an internship at American Public Media. That internship was followed by a five-year stint as a public radio producer, which furthered my training as a storyteller both technically and editorially.

Right now I'm focusing on steadily creating a body of work. I don’t just want to make these stories for my own fancy; my hope and aspiration is that the narratives I put out in the world resonate with people on an emotional or personal level.

What are your biggest creative challenges?
I took a photo workshop with Wing Young Huie this summer, and he spoke about the complicated business of inserting yourself into someone’s life as a documentarian. I’ve had some experiences lately that resonate with that observation. Asking people to entrust you with their story is no small thing. However, your work can’t be driven by a desire to please or protect the people in the story – or to tell the version of the story you think they want you to tell.

How do you balance work that pays the bills with work that's creatively exciting to you?  
I have not cracked this code-- it’s a work in progress. I have a part-time job that gives me an income floor. It’s not enough to make my life work completely, but it’s a base I can build from. I’m grateful that our local community radio station (KFAI) has Legacy funding to support independently-produced radio features. Those stories are my primary creative outlet at the moment. Every story idea I’ve pitched, they’ve accepted. I’m so appreciative that I get paid to make those pieces.

What resources have been helpful to you? 
A few years ago, I was really confused about my next steps professionally and creatively so I did what comes naturally to me – I started talking to people. I did a ton of informational interviewing and in some cases those conversations led to shadowing people while they did their jobs. Those experiences gave me a flavor for what it’s like to exist in someone else’s world. There’s a book that helped me called How to Find Fulfilling Work by Roman Krznaric. He talks about trying things out first and then reflecting on those experiences later, as opposed to spinning your wheels perfecting a beautiful master plan.

Last year, on the heels of a layoff, I traveled to South America for three months. That experience of being a traveler reacquainted me with my curiosity. I didn’t set out to do a project while I was away, but I gravitated toward photographing people using my iPhone and sharing little vignettes about those encounters. As the trip unfolded, I could see that when I stripped away my job title and my home-based identity, I was habitually drawn to connect with people conversationally and then share something about those experiences with other people. So when I returned home, I kept following that thread in different directions.

What's inspiring you right now? 
I’m inspired by Hillary Frank who produces the podcast The Longest Shortest Time about people’s experiences of early parenting. The podcast started as a personal project and she turned it into something extraordinary that’s now her job (WNYC picked it up as part of their podcast portfolio this past spring). I’m inspired not only by the storytelling – which is raw and poignant – but also by how Hillary created a community of listeners around the content. The podcast has evolved into something that’s bigger than her. 

You can find Nancy and her work over here, and read more of the 5 With series here.

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