I learned so much producing this piece — how to ask a tough question (just ask it, but at the end!), how to record usable tape from a call to Paris from inside a closet (lots of blankets, Audio Hijack/Skype, and a backup when that all goes haywire), and how to convince someone to talk to you when they seem wary (Call. A lot. But be polite about it.). The thing that most helped me progress was learning to work through the discrete stages of “I hate my story” which are fairly universal when producing a piece.
I’d found out about my main subject in Google research I did before getting to the workshop. It had what I was looking for: an interesting world I didn’t know anything about, a compelling-sounding main character, and a fair amount of tension and controversy. What’s more: I pre-interviewed him and he seemed great.
The first stage of “I hate my story” arrived after my first interview. It was a dud. Big-time. I was a little nervous, he was a little cagey. It just wasn’t great tape. All the assumptions I made about this person turned out, shockingly, to be completely wrong. No revelatory thoughts about being underwater. No step-by-step description of the scenes I’d already sound-designed in my head. In short, my ideal version of this story got its clock cleaned by reality.
I was ready to give up, but I had to pitch something to our visiting lecturer. So, I wrote a pitch and then talked about why it was a terrible story. Our lecturer, to his great credit, patiently and lovingly explained why I was a dummy. I had a plot! And tension! And stakes! Basically: what was I complaining about? He told me I was off-loading blame onto the story when really the problem was that I hadn’t gotten the tape I needed. So, I returned, armed with a more detailed sense of the story and the desperation that I needed to get it right, and it went better.
The second stage happened once I played a draft for my class. Boy, it just sounded. . . so boring. It was too long and every quote felt shaggy. There’s nothing more defeating when you’re playing your piece than looking around the room and seeing ten-thousand-yard stares. You can feel the boredom. And that boredom is crushing. But that boredom is actually your best tool. It’s your roadmap for what to cut. And motivation to kill your darlings. With some hand-holding from my class, I started cutting. Everything that didn’t feel totally necessary was gone. Long scenes that I loved were summarily killed. It felt awful; it felt great.
The final stage came when I contended with the last slog. At this point, I basically had a finished story. And I remember feeling kind of empty. Like, Is this it? If the process of hating your story emerges from the idea in your head coming into painful contact with reality, this last stage is its purest crystallization. You’ve got what you’ve got, for better or worse. And maybe I’m sentimental, but there’s something sad about that.
The last step in counteracting that feeling was to add music. At this point, you’ve heard your entire piece about 6,000 times. The English language itself will have become devoid of all meaning. But there was something about adding music that really helped. Suddenly, quotes that I’d heard so many times had a slightly different undertone. A reflection that felt defiant, with the right music, also had a hint of sadness. Scenes moved faster and the transitions felt cleaner. Now, before Rob Rosenthal comes after me with a pitchfork, I will add the caveat that not every piece needs music and that its use can be overdone. I don’t think you should try to manipulate emotions with music (which is an easy trap to fall into!). I don’t think music will fix a piece that lacks the fundamentals of a good story (characters, scenes, tension, stakes). But it helped my story feel like it had more texture, a broader range of emotion, and maybe even a little bit of my personality.
I don’t know that my tips for not hating your piece are all that earth-shattering:
1) Let an editor call you a dummy and go for that second interview
2) Embrace the power of boredom
3) Use music to help you see your piece again.
They made a difference for me. Is my piece perfect? Not by a long shot. I can still hear mistakes, places where the seams are showing, regret the absence of tape that I wish I’d gotten. But I can tell you one thing I don’t remember ever feeling before I got to the Transom Story Workshop: I don’t hate my story.
Alvin’s Sonic ID
I found the folks in my sonic as I camped out on the bike path in Falmouth which is a) a beautiful place and b) a really good place to talk to people. They were walking their dog and holding hands so it felt like a good enough reason to ask impertinent questions about their relationship. Being a producer is great.