Ira Glass on Story Telling

“What nobody tells people who are beginners — and I really wish someone had told this to me . . . is that all of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, and it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase. They quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

— Ira Glass, host of the beloved radio show This American Life.

I remember Ira telling us this briefly at USC last year during his visiting speech at Bovard Auditorium. Before he gave us his inspirational spiel, he started off by playing one of his very old tapes when he was just beginning (he was around 19 years old or something like that). It was terrible. Haha, okay, it wasn’t that terrible but it wasn’t that interesting. I remember his 26-year-old voice as forceful, trying to make a false mood of the situation by using heavily connotative words, instead of formatting his words in a logical way that would naturally create the mood for him. I’ll never forget what he taught me that night. It was great. It was touching. And, his words saved me. I was going through a tough time back then–my personal life was in shambles, and that correlated with my creative life, which was suffering–and all I could think was: everything I write is sh*t. And in truth, everything I wrote (at the time) was sh*t. I didn’t realize that good writing does not come out of a vacuum, good writing cannot come out of thin air, good writing could not come from the hole I was entrapped in. It took a long time for me to get out of that hole I was in. Like James Baldwin when he fled New York, I was just in a period in my life where I needed an escape. Los Angeles, home, the city that I loved and love, was killing me slowly, and even if it is a metaphor, it was killing my artistic spirit. My self as a writer would have died in LA had I stayed. I say this because I was so lost back then; I was lost in every corner of my life. The year of 2010 was a year of a lot of choices and a lot of mistakes, and one when I learned about too many mistakes that were hidden from me, crushing my worldview as an idealist. I just didn’t know what to do until I heard Ira’s speech. It was like finding something that was once lost but you weren’t looking for it at the time. It was the same feeling, that same sad and happy joy. And that’s the power of words, the power of storytelling. It can bring back life in someone. It can save someone, like Ira’s words. His voice saved me back then, and I’m sure it will save many others.

Now, I know I have a lot of work to do and that I’m still in a phase where my work isn’t of good taste. But I keep on fighting. I know with hard work, time, and relentless discipline, I’ll get there. That’s why I’m blessed someone, even if they were two floors away from me, said this to me. I know what my taste is. I know how it directly reflects my voice. And I cannot thank Ira enough for this. Thank you, Ira, sincerely.

For fun, here’s a few pictures of Ira that I took from the second floor balcony at Bovard.


And, here’s a cool textual graphic someone made of Ira’s speech. Very, very cool.


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