by Dennis Daniel
PART ONE: A METHOD TO THE MADNESS
“Where do you get your ideas from?” Ah, yes, the eternal question. Just where does that initial spark ignite from? Where is the method to the madness? Ideas have to come from somewhere, don’t they?
The answer is as individual as each human being and his life experience.
I don’t know who said the following quote, but I know it’s one to live by (more often than not) in the “instant gratification” radio production business: “First thought, best thought.” My first thoughts on how to go about developing a writing style and method were born from my own literary interests.
The literary pioneers of a truly free form style and ideology are known as “The Beats.” Writers and poets like Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti...the heart and soul of what was known as “The Beat Generation” (a category created by Kerouac to describe the mental state of post WW II youth in America), represent in their work the last real significant literary breakthrough from the latter half of the 20th Century, a breakthrough whose basic principle of creation was very simple and down to earth. They wrote what they felt from the top of their head! No long editorial rethinking. No writing to please the masses. No literary boundaries to adhere to. No subject matter too controversial to wax poetic on. Real, honest, no-holds-barred writing. These are the dudes who broke the barriers! For example, Burroughs’ Naked Lunch was brought up on charges of obscenity. Old Bill wrote about drug addiction, homosexuality, murder, mayhem, the seedy underground of life...a life he himself lived. (He created characters called “Mugwumps” who were sexually perverse, wild, disgusting, and...totally fascinating! A monster who secreted a fluid that was addicting!)
Rather than writing in an accepted novel format, he created what he called “sketches,” little chapter stories that interconnect as a whole but do not flow within the boundaries of accepted prose style. Naked Lunch was barred from publication in many countries. It was thought to be obscene and degrading. It has since gone on to win all litigation and become an absolute literary classic, a masterpiece. It broke the mold and paved the way for everything from Stephen King to Brent Easton Ellis. And he wrote most of it from the top of his head...based on his current life experience. True, he was also under the influence of God knows what, but he was able to translate his drug experiences and living conditions into something riveting and original.
I too wish to remain “riveting and original.” I learned a lot from Burroughs, his writing and his life. I applied what I learned to my own writing...especially radio commercials and promos.
In the case of Jack Kerouac, an even more stunning style emerged from what he called “Spontaneous Bop Prose.” Jack treated the assemblage of words like a piece of jazz music. He wanted his words to have the style and rhythm of artists like Thelonius Monk, Charlie “Bird” Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Miles Davis. He used to write in 3 and 4 day shifts, using a large scroll rather than individual sheets of paper. He would sit at the typewriter and go nonstop, no periods, no commas, no indentations, just an amazing free flow of words and ideas garnered from his life experience. His novel On The Road is a classic of spontaneous prose. Jack took his life experience (his many years hitchhiking and driving back and forth across America), changed the names, and got it all down! Imagine...writing a novel in 4 days!!
Reading the work of these gentlemen as well as the biographies of their lives was the starting point for my own particular tribute to their style, something I call “Stream of Consciousness Production.”
The free flow of concepts and ideas from the brain stem to the paper/computer/whatever is what it’s all about. I’ve even developed a way to give those ideas a “kick-start.” That “kick-start” is a list of concepts, a list of my own individual creating, a list that stimulates my creative flow based on my loves and life experience. Although this method has an individual feel, the way one goes about collecting influences is universal. We all can do it!
Here’s How It Works
First, always have some kind of pad and pen on hand to write down thoughts. If not that, then one of those small recorders will do nicely. Next, keep your eyes and ears open to all that surrounds you. I’m talking about every aspect of life, every image, word, thought that passes through human experience is creative fodder that can be planted, grown, and cultivated! If you’re in a supermarket and you hear two old ladies having a conversation about the freshness of the fruit, there’s an idea! Write down, “Two old ladies discuss fruit.” As long as you have the concept, you can insert whatever copy is necessary to surround it! Maybe you just saw a movie? Say it was Copland. Just write down “Copland.” It will light the spark, believe me! Pretty soon, you’ll have a large list of words, concepts, triggers for your imagination. And word listings are just the beginning. There are many other ways to get the creative juices flowing!
Having the right attitude is, of course, a major influence on the creative process. Inspiration can be a hard thing to come by on a daily basis. Unlike other forms of creativity that are not fiscally tied (like painting or sculpting or writing for the fun of it), we HAVE TO be creative in order to earn our pay. Whenever I’m asked to come up with something creative, I always get a small knot in my stomach. To me, every new spot, promo, or drop I come up with is like a child to me. My attitude is, I’m about to give birth to something new, with all the labor pains that go with it. Even though birth can be painful, I still look at it with joy and promise and enthusiasm! If “new” and “creative” is what the client wants, that’s just what they’re going to get! Time to let out the demon! Time to open the creative floodgates! Time to hold no prisoners! Time to walk into the studio, sit down at the board, and start putting down on tape my own unique audio world. Any kind of nutty sentence, voice, or concept will do. First, grab that list. Look it over. If nothing comes to mind that you think will work from your list, fear not! Here’s where you’ll find other sources of inspiration:
1. SOUND EFFECTS - Have you ever just sat down and listened to your FX library? Sure, you look in the index when you know exactly what you need, but how about when you don’t have a clue? Sound effects can be a powerful source of inspiration. Just grab an FX CD (or even an old FX vinyl album, if you have any). Don’t even look at the index or cut listings. Play it. Sit back and listen. Let’s say the first sound you hear is a “jackhammer.” Right away, an image comes to mind. Gotta write a spot for a car stereo dealer, right? How about this:
ANNCR: (Typical gruff construction worker) This is all I hear all day long! Hammer! Hammer! Hammer! At least when I get into my car, I’d like to change the audio stimuli! (Insert copy about store and sale.) I tell ya one thing, I won’t be listening to any M.C. Hammer anytime soon!
Maybe I’d add the sounds of a constriction sight under the read to enhance the image.
See? One effect. Instant idea! Not only that, it has an element of humor, a cute little piece like that sounds pretty cool wedged between other spots. It gets the job done. Sometimes radio takes itself way too seriously! Radio should be fun to listen to.
You’ll be amazed at how many bizarre little vignettes and smatterings of conversation come up in your head when you listen to sound effects. (A maze of pictures careen through my mind!) “Stream of Consciousness” production allows you to be carefree and silly. It opens the creative floodgates with very little effort. Sound effects and voice bring to life such wonderful little audio pictures.
2. MUSIC LIBRARY - Even with a lousy, crappy music library, you can create lots of fun little drops and sweeps. One thing I like to do is listen to a particular library cut, create my own lyrics, and sing a silly song. Soundtracks can also give you tons of inspiration. (I particularly love Horror Film Soundtracks!) Once again, you have a situation where you can see things in your mind’s eye through the music. Plus, it gives you a terrific opportunity to do character voices. Try to involve the air staff as well! Get those jocks in the production room! Pull someone from the office staff in and goof around! Have some fun, dammit! It sure beats workin'!
3. YOUR INTERNS - Some of the wackiest stuff I’ve come up with has been with the help of interns. Have them sit in with you when you start playing around. An intern is like having a built in listener. They can give you opinions! Make suggestions! Come up with ideas! The best part is, they’re interns! They can learn something! Plus, if you don’t like what they’re suggesting, you can always ask them to leave! After all, what do they know? (Just kidding gang.)
The “Stream of Consciousness” method of production is pure, raw creativity. Whether the idea is drawn from your list of preconceived notions and ideas, or whether you use other methods like sound, music, or individual conversation, you’re bound to emerge with a potpourri of inventiveness. The system works for just about any production chore. It’s perfect for quick, fun little sweeps and ID’s. It really kicks butt with commercials, especially the ones where you have a lot of creative freedom. People will think you’re a genius! Trust me!
Wildest and best of all, it allows you to put down on tape whatever comes into your mind at any given moment and place it on the air where thousands of people will be exposed to it.
Each production is unique because the image was derived from your own perspective and experience. It is uniquely yours. They have an individual quality about them. What I would think of on the spur of the moment may not be what you would think of. If your looking for a chance to create production that is distinctly yours alone, this is the method to follow.
The other night, I was at home doing the evening dishes. I always have the radio blasting while I clean. In between two songs I heard one of my sweeps. I nearly dropped the dish in my hand. It sounded so cool, so different, so unlike anything else I’d ever heard! I had done so many of them in one day I forgot half of what I’d cut! It took me by surprise! It almost didn’t even sound like me. Man was that strange. It was wonderful too!
PART TWO: THE METHOD IN PRACTICE
(An NAB Seminar Workshop Based On Article)
The piece you just read become the basis for a seminar I taught at the NAB Radio Show in New Orleans this past September. Along with giving the history of the method, I created three different lists. Audience members chose an item from each list, and I created a commercial from the choices, on the spot, using the “Stream Of Consciousness” method. They were written while attendees watched on an overhead projector.
The “A” list was comprised of concepts and words that keyed into my creative inspiration. As I explained, they are individual to me and my own life. Each production person will eventually have their own list that works for them. However, all of these ideas have yet to be used by me. Therefore, I listed them for the seminar attendees to choose from. I asked people in the audience to choose a word. That word was the starting point of creativity.
The “B” list was comprised of different types of clients. This list was designed to show that as long as you have the idea from the “A” list, you can insert it into any kind of product. Someone from the audience chose a client from this list, and the spot was written for them using the “A” list idea.
The “C” list was filled with advertising jargon and sales ideas that are pretty much universal. An idea picked from this list combined with the “A” and “ B” list gave us the crust of what we’re trying to sell and how. Combined, they provided all that’s needed to create a commercial right before the attendees eyes in a matter of minutes. I then performed the commercial.
“A” List - THE CONCEPT: 1) Shakespeare, 2) Pulp Fiction, 3) Aguirre, The Wrath Of God, 4) Robin Leach, 5) Rev. Jim, 6) James Cagney, 7) Housefrau, 8) Fargo, 9) Mr. Hard Sell Guy, 10) Old Men Feeding Pigeons.
“B” List - THE PRODUCT: 1) Car Stereo Store, 2) Shoe Store, 3) Nightclub, 4) Clothing Store, 5) Ski Shop, 6) Insurance Company, 7) Hardware Store, 8) Car Dealer, 9) Gas Station, 10) Furniture Store.
“C” List - THE SALE: 1) Midnight Madness, 2) Two For One, 3) Liquidation, 4) Grand Opening, 5) Founders Sale, 6) One Day Sale, 7) 50% off, 8) We Pay The Tax, 9) Product specific, 10) Summer Sale.
On next months RAP Cassette, I’ll let you hear the spots written at the seminar fully produced.