Writer’s Block: ‘There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) That Kandy Kolored (Thphhhhhh!) Tangerine-Flake …
Catchy title is what you need for a Blog … catchy enough?
As I begin my new life as a professional copywriter, writer’s block is something I fear. In fact, it’s something that all copywriters fear, I’m sure. Tom Wolfe was suffering from it whilst he was trying to write a magazine piece for the November 1963 edition of the American Men’s Magazine Esquire.
The piece eventually became the eponymous title of a book, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. Its first incarnation in Esquire, though, was titled, ‘THERE GOES (VAROOM! VAROOM!) THAT KANDY KOLORED (THPHHHHHH!) TANGERINE-FLAKE STREAMLINE BABY (RAHGHHHH!) AROUND THE BEND (BRUMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMM…)’
Stick with me readers … if for no other reason than you might want to know what the title is about.
Wolfe, who died last year, admitted to Esquire that he was suffering from writer's block and struggling to write the article they wanted on the custom car phenomenon sweeping California in the early sixties. They suggested that he write up his notes, and then they would get an experienced writer to finish the job; this was humiliating to Wolfe. So, he wrote his way out of writer’s block by compiling his notes as if he was telling a story in a novel … he borrowed fiction writer's techniques such as hyperbole, onomatopoeia and exclamation marks to create the effect. The more enigmatic and bizarre, in his extended note form, the better. And this is partly why the Esquire essay was first published with the longer and more zany title.
Wolfe's style of reporting and writing, as if the real life protagonists were in a novel, eventually pioneered a 1960s style of New Journalism that attempted to fuse current affairs writing and literary style. Wolfe dazzled deliberately with sentences that could veer from technical babble to everyday language to business speak. He deliberately mixed different modes of writing together to create his unique style. Wolfe wanted to describe situations by being there as a journalist and then taking his reader there too through his writing … he thought of it as a kind of social autopsy.
New Journalism has had its day and was not without vociferous critics even back then. I'm not suggesting that we write in this way for a contemporary audience. The style pioneered by Wolfe draws attention to itself and that's the opposite of what we should try to achieve in our business writing. His love of exclamation marks created a shouty voice that would turn readers off today. But, Wolfe led the way in trying to write in a different way for an emerging counter culture and for that we should remember him.
And, if you do have writer’s block then why not try the Tom Wolfe method and write your way out of it by mixing as many styles together as you can? Of course, you need to pare the notes back again and write for a 21st century, social media savvy, audience. I tried it as an experiment and I turned out pages of prose that I may never use … but, you never know.
What's interesting to me is that the great ad writers will tell you that the important thing about a headline is to grab someone's attention. Then you get them to read the first paragraph, then the second and so on. Reading Tom Wolfe, that's what he does in his journalism through his novelistic approach. And that's why I was interested in The Kandy Kolored Tangerine Flake Streamline Baby.
I found the development of his writing style, the readability of his prose and his way of dealing with writer's block an inspiration for my own writing. I might end up with pages of notes and only use a couple of paragraphs but that's ok if provides me with a creative spark along the way.
So worth a try? Of course, but unlike Tom Wolfe you aren’t going to publish something with (VAROOM! VAROOM!) in the title … or are you?
And that title?
Wolfe was writing about the American craze for building and racing custom cars. Kandy Colored referred to the palette of colours that one of Wolfe's protagonists used on custom cars. Tangerine Flake was one of those colours. But, before the cars were painted, the bodywork was fashioned into curves and aerodynamic shapes that rendered them Streamline Babies. All clear?