A commentary is usually one to two minutes long, which translates to no more than one full single-spaced page. Starting with a commentary is a way for you to get your own thoughts and opinions down, to explore why the topic interested you in the first place, and to shape something of a narrative arc that may or may not turn out to frame a fuller story with multiple voices and scenes. Often the commentary stands alone as a strong piece for publication or broadcast.
Commentators share experiences that are personally meaningful, perhaps counter-intuitive, and resonant with larger social themes. Commentaries don’t have to be “objective,” but they are reality-based and should take into account opposing points of view (the contested issue of “objectivity” can be a provocative subject of discussion for teachers and students doing commentaries for the first time). The best commentaries aren’t political rants or personal diatribes, nor do they stick to generic observations. Through commentaries, young people articulate perspectives grounded in compelling evidence, which might come in the form of lived experiences, references to research, or bits of dialogue with people they’ve encountered in their everyday worlds.
1. Write about issues that inspire passion in you. Draw on your own experience to bring new insight to an issue people are struggling to understand, or think they already do. Youth Radio’s Emily Schmooker wrote a commentary about body image by describing how a comment meant as praise actually hurt her feelings…and made her mad…and changed her life:
“I just wanted to thank you for going up there and doing what you’re doing…and showing that us fat people can dance.” That comment was supposed to be a compliment from the middle aged audience member who approached me after a performance when I was 15. But to me, he was just an older man watching my body, telling me who I was, and molding me into something that I didn’t want to be. Of course all teenagers have insecurities, but up until that moment I never considered myself a spokesperson for fat people… just someone who loved to dance and act. As a matter of fact, I had never even considered myself a fat girl. Now, I had the weight of all fat people on my shoulders.
2. Use concrete examples, images, and stories in your writing. If you are talking about getting along with your parents, describe specific incidents or arguments when your communication worked or broke down. One young soldier returned from the Iraq war with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and he talked about going to all the welcome home barbeques “numbed out…like you’re watching a black and white TV, you’re just not there.” In a commentary about her struggles with depression, Belia Mayeno filled her narrative with detailed images that draw listeners inside a deeply personal and sometimes chaotic “war inside her brain”:
I remember the first time I really started to feel out of control. I had a strong urge to translate the opening passage of a Raymond Chandler novel into Theban script and transcribe it all onto my closet door in multi-colored soap. I still remember the satisfaction I felt when I saw the rainbow of nonsensical characters zig-zagging all over my walls. But just like all the other times to come, like when I bought 5 identical dresses…or spent hours in a train station staring at the ground because it looked like the floor was breathing…when I tried to silence my mind by obeying its wild demands- I didn’t feel better for long. And even worse, all of my beautifully dreamed plans didn’t even make sense to me a few days or weeks later. Amazingly, I didn’t even know I had a problem. It never occurred to me that other people don’t live like that. But I recognized the dark mood that always came after my sprees wasn’t right. When I was 15, I had terrible insomnia for months. I couldn’t sleep, eat or concentrate. I filled my bed with kitchen knives to scare away the sadness- but it wasn’t quite as comforting as I thought it would be. So I started mixing gin and pain-killers squirreled away from my parents’ cabinets. It was the only way to rest and get a break from myself. I wasn’t suicidal. I just wanted to go into a “mild” coma so that maybe one day I could just wake up and the tumult inside of me would be over.
3. Express yourself conversationally. Write like you speak, and read your scripts aloud as you write. Don’t just mouth the words. Say it out loud. On your first try, you might sit with someone who can listen to you tell your story and type it out for you to be sure it’s conversational. Think about the rhythm and pacing. Vary sentence length. If you write poetry or make music, give your commentaries a lyrical sensibility. At the same time, think about your audience, and if you want your story to reach a wide audience outside your immediate community, consider how to introduce colloquial expressions in ways that enrich your narrative. Youth Radio’s Anyi Howell has a special knack for finding that balance:
As far back as I can remember, my grandmother, a retired Oakland High cafeteria manager, has gone all out during the holidays to decorate her home in East Oakland…Santa’s sleigh and his reindeer were on the roof, along with carolers. Inside, a miniature Christmas town, complete with an ice skating rink, sat in the front window for neighborhood to see. Together, my grandparents put days into the details, placement, and positioning of the Christmas statues, lights, and decorations. When they plugged everything in, thousands of lights would illuminate the scene – leaving me in awe… People would say, “That’s YOUR grandmother? Yeah, I know that house – I always bring my kids by there.” Nothing could make me more proud.
But this year, for the first time in my life, there will be no decorations. My Grandmother decided to quit because spineless chumps from the neighborhood steal her displays right off the front lawn and damage her crafts. Because of its reputation for violence and homicide, some proudly call my grandmother’s neighborhood the Murder Dubs. The vandalism has taken a toll on her spirit.
As a young black man, I know life is hard out here. Some of us are hungry and poor, and we face aggressive racism on a regular basis. I understand the anger in the hearts of my people, but why take it out on my grandmother?… What these youngstas don’t realize is that the folks they’re hurting, are the same ones who understand them and what they’re going through best. When the police go upside the heads of one of these young brothas, it’s these seniors and long-time homeowners…who organize and attend rallies to support these fellas. There was a time when a common sense of respect and consideration existed among all of us, even hustlers and street criminals. Today it’s gone – either because it is no longer given, or it is no longer demanded. When this mutual honor and respect is restored, the Christmas spirit will return to the Dubs. And Santa Will Dance again in my grandmother’s yard.
4. Don’t be afraid to use humor and show attitude. That’s Youth Radio’s Quincy Mosby’s trademark—but the best is when humor mixes with substance, as in Quincy’s commentary about rappers breaking into the movie business. In just over two minutes, he moves from light pop culture observation to a deeper cultural critique. A select few MCs make great films, Quincy says, but they’re definitely the exceptions. And the damage isn’t limited to the box office:
Most of these films have the same clichéd and regurgitated scenes of toilet humor and pointless sex that don’t advance the plot in any way. And they create an image of African Americans as overly promiscuous marijuana addicts and criminals. The dialogue in these bombs is stereotypical and just plain offensive. “Yo dogg, wassup!” It’s like the screenwriters think those are the only words hip hop artists know. Do they think if a rapper utters words with more than one syllable, his brain will implode? I can’t promise that won’t happen, but I’m pretty sure it’s not going to. What’s really demoralizing about these films is they’re often either “hood movies” with a rapper co-starring as the jive-talking friend, or, like Eminem’s 8 Mile, loose biographies about a struggling hip-hop artist trying to make it big, but being pulled down by the streets. Honestly, how hard is it to pretend to be yourself? Believe me, I do love hip-hop and my black brothers and sisters. And everyone has a right to express themselves artistically. But where’s the personal pride?
5. Fact check! Just because commentaries are first-person and can be opinion-based, you still need to verify sources and the information you report. When commentator Dru Harshaw said that “the N word” originated in U.S. slavery, Youth Radio got verification in writing from a university professor. When one student wrote a commentary stating that cutbacks in municipal transportation funding doubled her commute time to school, an unhappy representative from the transit office called the next day to ask specifically what bus line the student rode, gathering evidence in hopes of refuting her claim. Incidentally, working with young people to notice and analyze which facts, claims, and sources of authority editors do and do not trust can itself serve as a provocative exercise in critical media literacy.
The commentary is a great place to start the narrative process, because it doesn’t require a whole lot of advanced work. Come up with an idea, and start writing.