Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Ira Glass, on the creative process

I was introduced to National Public Radio in graduate school. When you've got 4 people working for long hours in the same room, agreeing on music to listen to is nearly impossible. So, the default radio choice in virtually every lab was NPR. And if you listen to NPR, eventually you will encounter This American Life.

"From WBEZ in Chicago, it's This American Life, I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program we choose a theme and we bring you several stories on that theme..."

The themes they choose range broadly, from the invention of money and abuses of the patent system to first days (on the job, at school; with the incomparable "Squirrel Cop") and 24 hours at a diner in Chicago. Recently the show followed a cancer researcher and his high school music teacher on a quest to cure cancer with sound waves. This episode demonstrated the mindset of a scientist as effectively as I've ever heard, and also how unnatural that mindset can seem to a non-scientist.

As successful and riveting and marvelous as this radio show is, as clear and compelling a writer as Ira Glass is, it didn't come naturally. It involved a lot of practice, and a lot of getting things wrong (or at least not quite right). Glass describes this process in the clip below.

Or, if you want the highlights (with some significant paraphrasing):
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.

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