An Adult Man Takes A Swim Lesson

photo of abstract water
Listen to “An Adult Man Takes A Swim Lesson”

I didn’t think I’d come to Transom to make a story about myself OR to take a swimming lesson. But life is full of surprises!

Story Comes First

From the start, I knew I really wanted it to be a sonically adventurous romp. But underlying it is a solid story structure that the class extensively workshopped. Shout-out to Rob, Schuyler, and Afternoon Group, for helping me wrangle the sprawling shenanigans. Look for the 28-minute version on the 10-CD Transom Director’s Cuts box set.

I learned that even a psychedelically sound-designed comedic romp needs scenes (with ideas and action), fleshed-out characters, tension and release, and a plot that contains forward motion! It took hours upon hours, and draft upon draft, to make it a coherent story and not just a collection of well-produced wacky moments.

The Meaning of the Story

Ira told us about getting the Big Ideas of the story into the tape. He told us that it would save us having to narrate them in later, and sound better too. Following his advice left me with multiple Big Ideas to choose from come edit time. Sick move, Ira.

He also cut out a bunch of extraneous ideas that I had crammed into my story in order to make it “interesting.” He told me that saying my feelings into a mic would be interesting enough. But I learned that saying your actual feelings into a mic is easier said than done. I recorded hours of narration that all got thrown out, because I realized that I was fictionalizing my own feelings in the pursuit of reflection that sounded “deep.”

In the end, there was a disconnect between the funny tape I’d gotten and the weightier tone of the narration. I let the tape guide me down the comedic road and suddenly the piece became shorter, snappier, and more fun to make.

Producing in the Moment

Another profound Ira moment came when we analyzed “Dead Animal Man” in class. He says: “We’re running across the highway,” and something big clicked — I realized that you have to describe what you see in front of you in order for the listener to truly visualize it.

This was particularly relevant during the swimming lesson. So when Trish said, “You’re going to take this . . .” I asked “Is that a mirror?” When she said I was going to have to swim from “Here to there,” I asked her how far it was. After a while, it became a reflex and gave me a lot of options during the edit.

Fancy Footwork

Sruthi brought up the idea of “fancy footwork,” or what in music we refer to as “showing off your chops.” As a creator, footwork can be essential to the process of inspiration, but you have to be willing to let go of it when it distracts from the story.

Specifically, a few lines from a Reply All script (written by PJ) stuck with me. The part that made it into the story traced a hypothetical series of events. Crossed out were a string of hilariously dark inevitabilities of life, ending with: “You get married, have kids, and die.” They were totally irrelevant to the story, but he needed to write them on the way to his final destination. That phrase became part of the shorthand vocabulary of the class.

Some of the footwork I left in serves a purpose, like accenting a joke, or the intro that gets the listener accustomed to the rhythm of the story. But I took out a bunch of footwork that called attention to itself in a way that took the listener out of the story.

Production Tricks

  • I brought a long XLR when I field-recorded narration. I pointed the Zoom’s X/Y mic at the water and then got as far away as possible, to give myself mix flexibility.
  • After listening to the Nick Van Der Kolk episode of HowSound I promptly ripped off a bunch of his production moves. The two big ones I liked were swelling the music up before abruptly muting it, and leaving deliberate silence between cuts (especially to show the passage of time). I’m sure Rob rues the day he let me hear the word “auteurship.”
  • As Trish began describing what I could do to prepare for the lesson, I immediately knew how I was going to weave it together with me following her instructions. That’s one of my personal favorite parts.
  • At first I resisted the obvious ending song because it felt very cheesy, but once I embraced the cheese it felt SO GOOD.

About Martín’s Sonic ID

Listen to “An Adult Man Takes A Swim Lesson”

This is from our vox pop project in the first week of class. Though I’m extraordinarily extroverted, I was terrified. It’s one thing to interview a stranger who’s expecting you. But the thought of jamming a mic into a stranger’s personal space as they’re walking by was absolutely horrifying. But once I dove in, it became totally fine. And when I walked up to Guitar Jimmy and he spoke, I felt an unusual sensation for the first time: I knew that I was getting Good Tape.

For the rest of the afternoon, I was less nervous because I knew I had at least one piece of Good Tape. And wouldn’t you know it, that confidence attracted more Good Tape, until I had enough for a nice little vox pop!

Listen to more pieces from this Story Workshop class here.

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