Intro from Jay Allison: This piece was produced as part of the Transom Story Workshop Fall 2015 session. Listen to more pieces from this Story Workshop class here.
No Flush, No Fuss
Here’s what I learned making my final story:
1. Don’t put all your big professional-ambition-eggs into one little radio-story-basket. Or: No story can be all things.
I’d come to the workshop knowing I wanted to produce a story that had to do with environmental issues or climate change. Big, unwieldy subjects that are hard to get people interested in. But that’s what I want to do: make interesting, even fun, radio about things that are usually thought tedious and complicated.
As I poked around, several leads pointed me in one direction: Falmouth’s sewage problem. I’m a geek about waste management and water issues, so this was catnip to me. With some nudging from Rob, I managed to pick a single, specific strand. But as I reported, I got sucked into town-planning, local politicking, the pros and cons of a multi-million dollar sewer system, and ideological battles over how to deal with waste. It was fascinating. It was great material. It made me want to do a series on local waste management. It also made writing a single, coherent, seven-minute radio script excruciatingly hard.
I was trying to cram too much information and context and ‘big picture’ stuff into my story. And though I had a ton of great suggestions on structure, scenes, narrative arcs, and details that would hold interest, I ended up with a script that was tedious and complicated — exactly what I didn’t want.
My big mistake was not following the good tape.
2. Follow the good tape. Like a besotted stalker. Like you followed Teju Cole on Twitter. With utter devotion.
When Nancy Updike suggested we start with the piece of tape we’re most excited to play for people, I realized I didn’t feel that way about most of the tape in my script.
The tape I really liked came from a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants interview I’d done just to get supplementary material for what I thought would be the main story. That one, I did in 30 minutes, standing in an echo-y bathroom, not playing environmental journalist, just having a chat about a weird toilet.
As I started piecing the good tape together, the tone of my narration totally changed. And my script started to become a lot of things I had wanted it to be: chatty, casual, rich in ambient sound, plainspoken, playful and upbeat.
3. Mix while you write.
In the course of making this story, it became clear to me that the best way to script is to mix while you write.
This keeps you close to the good tape and in touch with the rhythm and flow of your piece as you build it. Playing with tape opens up possibilities that don’t appear on the page; listening makes it instantly clear when something isn’t working. It’s best to build a script from the tape up, rather than trying to shoehorn ‘quotes’ into a predetermined structure (a print instinct I’m trying to shed).
4. Get help when you need it.
Collaborative editing made this story happen. I don’t think well in isolation, so it was a blessing to have a group of sharp, compassionate listeners and editors who were so game to help with questions, structure, line-edits, clarifications, enthusiasm, tough love, patient listening as I endlessly puzzled through things, and ass-kicking when I got in my own way.
Devika’s Sonic ID
I stumbled on this tape during my first ever tape gathering exercise — the practice vox pop we did on the second or third day of class. I pushed through my nerves to ask a man walking barefoot on Water Street how he would describe Woods Hole to someone who’d never been there, and he said this.