4 lessons from Ira Glass in telling stories the way they're meant to be told.
Ira Glass has spent almost two decades trying to tell the most compelling stories he can find.
As the host of “This American Life”, a weekly radio program broadcast by National Public Radio, Glass and cohorts have taken a totally new approach to journalism: by making storytelling—and the fine art of it—come first.
"This American Life" has been on the air for 18 years, but the one thing that has driven the show all this time is that it strives to redefine what's "ordinary".
Through the power of storytelling, Ira Glass has made one thing clear: any story can be remarkable.
Because so much of his life revolves around it, in public he's often discussed both the process of storytelling, as well as the purpose of it—how it can transform the world.
Recently, a short film made by Vimeo user Frohlocke (known elsewhere only as Daniel) captured a portion of one such discussion with Glass. The audio was bitten from a four-part series of videos made by Public Radio International for the now-defunct Current TV, in which Glass did what he does so well: talk about the art of storytelling.
The audio is only one small portion of an endlessly relevant, touching, and warm bit of insight into Ira Glass's expertise, so chances are you'll want to check out the rest of his conversation, which can be found on YouTube here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.
With so much material available, we've been inspired by "The Gap" to take stock of the many, many things we've learned from Glass about storytelling.
We may identify as filmmakers, but at heart we are storytellers who have chosen film as the one medium in which we can best share our stories with the world. We believe that you're here because you feel the same way.
In that sense, the following four lessons we've taken from Ira Glass will help you tell the stories you love. If they're told the way they're meant to be told, we have no doubt they will be beautiful.
1. Your taste is your compass.
Glass talks about taste in very simple ways. But unlike many people, Glass directs taste inward.
For him, taste is a measure of what you love. When it comes to storytelling, taste is the reason you are choosing—or indulging the deep urge to—tell a story in the way you're telling it. Which is where that titular "gap" comes in.
We get into it because we have good taste, but there’s like a gap.
…the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good... It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not quite that good.
But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, your taste is still killer. And your taste is so good that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you, you know what I mean?
We do, Ira. Taste isn't about comparing your art with that of better, established artists.
Taste gives you direction. A path to follow.
For a filmmaker, taste is the passion that drove you to first pick up a camera, as well as the motivation to keep picking it up until you've captured the kind of story that allows you to share that passion, in all of its glory, with another.
2. Your disappointment is inevitable.
Disappointment is also universal. Disappointment, Glass claims, is "totally normal".
And the thing that I just would like to say to you, with all my heart, is that almost everybody I know who does interesting, creative work, they went through a phase of years where they had really good taste, and they could tell what they were making wasn’t as good as they wanted it to be. They knew it fell short. It didn’t have the special thing that we wanted it to have.
It's funny that good taste helps us understand how bad we are, how ineffectively we are telling our story or engaging with our audience. But disappointment may serve as the starting point for any number of positive things—motivation, self-awareness, courage—yet there is only one truth to disappointment that every filmmaker must completely and utterly accept:
You will let yourself down. But you're not alone in that.
3. Your work will be hard.
Disappointment is only the beginning. Yet, the way to become less and less disappointed with your creative endeavors is to do them. A lot.
…the most important possible thing you could do, is do a lot of work. Do a huge volume of work. …Because it’s only by actually going through a volume of work that you’re going to catch up, that you’re going to close that gap.
Each story is unique, which means it takes years and years of practice to know how to tell each story the way each story deserves.
So, yes, work hard. But the work itself isn't what will pair your ambitions with the quality of what you make.
Working hard means diligence, knowing that if you do something enough, if you wade through enough failure, you will eventually come upon something extraordinary.
Glass compares it to what his "This American Life" team typically spends the majority of their time doing: finding one good story amongst a bunch of stories that just refuse to come together.
People don’t talk about this that much: that you have to kind of go into it, knowing you’re going to record and cut a lot of crap before you get something special.
4. Your purpose is to find your story's purpose.
When Ira Glass lays down the two most important parts of any story, one is what he calls the “moment of reflection”, your story’s “why”. It’s the reason why anyone should be following the story at all.
In another performance from 2009, Glass talks about what he believes is the strength behind any story.
Narrative itself is like a back door into a very deep place inside of us. ...When a story gets inside of us, it makes us less crazy.
A story with purpose will reveal something honest and true to both the audience and the storyteller.
Just as, for a filmmaker, footage that has a purpose—a story to tell—will enrich everyone involved, telling us all something we wouldn’t have been able to discover in the same way otherwise.
Let your passion guide you, your missteps motivate you, your work ethic define you, and your stories breathe with purpose: you will find that people will pay attention.
This is what Ira Glass has taught us, but we're interested to hear about your particular storytelling role model. Who has inspired you to be a better filmmaker? Share in the comments below; we're always looking for new masters of the craft to help us build our taste.