Ira Glass on closing “the gap” between what you want to do and what you can do
Ira Glass, the host of the much-loved radio show “This American Life,” discussed the art of storytelling in a four-part lo-fi video series created a few years ago. Here are links to Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4, he wrote inelegantly.
Although he’s talking about creating stories for radio and TV—taped package reports of the kind one hears on “This American Life,” a lot of what he says can be translated to other creative endeavors, including sportswriting. I’d recommend spending the 20 or so enjoyable minutes it takes to watch and listen to the whole thing.
One thing Glass covers that caught my ear is what he refers to as the “gap.” It’s a problem we’ve all had when we’ve tried to do something new that we cared about. And it can be a devastating problem:
All of us who do creative work, we get into it, and we get into it because we have good taste. Do you know what I mean? Like, you want to make TV because you love TV, because there’s stuff that you just, like, love. So you’ve got really good taste. And you get into this thing that I don’t even know how to describe but it’s like there’s a gap, that for the first couple of years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good … But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, your taste is still killer. And your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you.
This, Glass says, is where a lot of people quit. They never make it past that phase. I’m sure this has happened to you. You’ve tried to play the trumpet or paint or build a model airplane or juggle or something, and you know what it’s supposed to look or sound like, and you stunk at it and you just said, “Ah, the hell with it.”
The next thing Glass says might seem obvious but it’s not. In fact, he prefaces this whole thing by saying, “Nobody tells this to people who are beginners. I really wish someone had told this to me.” What he says is: Fight through that feeling. Keep after it.
And the thing I would just like say to you with all my heart is that most everybody I know who does interesting, creative work, they went through a phase of years where they had really good taste, they could tell what they were making wasn’t as good as they wanted it to be. They knew it fell short … And the thing I would say to you is: Everybody goes through that. And for you to go through it, if you’re going through it right now, if you’re just getting out of that phase, or if you’re just starting off and you’re entering into that phase, you gotta know, it’s totally normal. And 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 actually going to catch up and close that gap, and the work you’re making will be as good as your ambitions.
Glass recommends putting yourself on a deadline, forcing yourself to complete something every week or however often. It’s even better, he says, if there’s someone out there who’s expecting you to turn work into them.
By way of illustration, Glass, who is lauded as one of the great storytellers in the history of radio, plays a clip from a news feature he did for NPR years ago. He calls it “horrible” and “moronic” and laughs at how he can’t even understand what his younger self is trying to get across. But his point is that he was no rookie. He’d been at the prestigious network for years at that point.
“So this is like Year 8,” he says. “I’m 27 years old when this is happening. Like, I’m not a beginner. I’m deep, deep into it, and I guess I’m saying: It takes a while. It’s going to take you a while. It’s normal to take a while, and you just have to fight your way through that. You will be fierce, you will be a warrior, and you will make things that aren’t as good as you know in your heart that you want them to be.”
I would only add that all of this is true even if your taste isn’t so great, or if, like most of us, you might have great taste when it comes to others but you’re not so great at seeing “the gap” when it comes to your own work. That happened to me.
When I was in my early 20s I had a job writing a humor column for a small newspaper, and I got a lot of praise for it. I got fan mail. I was pretty pleased with myself, even after a friend read my first, gushing fan letter and asked me if I’d ever seen the movie “Misery.”
Imagine my surprise just a year or two after I’d moved on from that job when I went back and read some old columns and found them amateurish and obvious. Now I sometimes think that when I read things I wrote in my 30s, though I’ll admit to believing I had my moments.
The point is, it really can take a long time to get to the point where your output begins to match your ambitions. The trick isn’t to trim your ambitions. It’s to keep fighting to make that output better.