"But there is this gap. For the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn't so good, okay? But your taste—your taste is still killer."
By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here
Imagination takes courage. You're not only putting yourself out there to be judged by others but worse than that, you're putting yourself out there to be judged by your harshest critic: yourself. Personally, when I struggle with creating the right content, I look to Ira Glass for wisdom.
Before podcasts and This American Life, Glass not only felt like the work he was doing was bad, but it was also bad in the wrong way. He knew he was a creative, but he couldn't find the right platform for his voice. So he created one.
We take for granted his accomplishments since the NPR voice has become ubiquitous, but think for a moment what he created: a serialized, long-form, journalistic, non-fiction, docu-narrative, radio/ podcast, which features essays, memoirs, conversations, field recordings, short fiction, and found footage. United by a theme of invisible everyday stories, following traditional story structure that doesn't rely on interviews but rather quotes from ordinary people to advance the narrative. All done in a casual voice that purposely starts with "um..." and "so..." Rather than facts, you get emotions. Rather than straight journalism, you get commentary. Rather than asking you to decide how you should feel about this, you are told, hey, here is a different way to think about this. All no-nos in radio, all no-nos in media, but by following his own path, Glass changed media as we know it (for better or worse). But imagine a podcast if it sounded like the news program 60 Minutes. Then what's a podcast? A podcast isn't just a format, it's also a style. Ira Glass defined that style.
The This American Life podcast and its spinoffs take mundane stories and spin them in new and interesting ways. Glass and his team of producers have learned how to get people to say things they normally wouldn't say, to share the compelling parts of their lives, and to tell it as a narrative. All without the interviewee realizing it. Mastering and rejuvenating the ancient practice of conversation and storytelling. Get them to tell it in their own way, don't rush them to the point, and allow them to tell the long version.
The Glass format has a narrator, but it allows for pauses, imperfect speeches, ambient sounds, and many of the other things you would normally edit out. This way, the listener can move fluidly from the voices of the narrators to the voices of the people in the story. Rather than in a studio, the Glass podcasts are done mostly in the field, it captures the intimacy. It's as if everyone was whispering, you feel as if you were eavesdropping. You have no choice but to lean into the radio as if you were there. Like a nosy neighbor, you're invested. The Glass producers aren't reporting, they are actively involved in the story. Yet it doesn't feel heavy-handed or overly produced. Glass makes it sound easy because we can't see the seams. It's as if he walks up to people and they just open up to him with incredible stories and natural charm. We want to escape, or perhaps, we want to be reminded, that most people are capable of that.
This appearance of ease is not easy to do. Glass combined journalism with storytelling—this is the NPR sound. Glass had to create this sound because it did not exist, but he also had to make it so good people couldn't resist this new and unfamiliar format. This sound and format were not an instant hit. It took Glass a long time to find his bearings, longer than the rest of his peers. But it slowly drew interest, it found momentum, until his unfamiliar format became the dominant format.
And in this new space, once unfamiliar terms like creative and content creator are now common. Because like Glass, there is a new artist, one who isn't limited by a canvas or an instrument, but rather one who creates her own medium and is able to work in any medium. A creative, who can be creative in any medium. A content creator, who can create content for any medium. One who can create the right platform to match her content, and not just the other way around. No longer industrial specialists but Renaissance generalists in the creative field. But in 1995, what is now a "thing" wasn't a "thing." Ira Glass explains:
You won't be happy any other way. It may be disheartening at times but imagine quality without taste? One cannot exist without the other. We mistake taste for the cause of our suffering in the pursuit of quality, but it is not taste—taste is our frame of reference. What causes suffering in the creative are the ego-based defensive mechanisms that ride the coattails of taste, like insecurity. It is not our work that causes suffering, but it is the identity we tie to our work. It is not objective feedback and criticism that bothers us, it is what we think they say about our value as a person. But our value as a person is independent of our work. Our work is judged by its own merit. Our value is based on our kindness and work ethic (not to mention humility). These ego-smashing learning blocks are parts of the process. Do not make them more than what they are. You can only be hurt if you keep insisting on maintaining your ego, let alone growing it. However, you cannot suffer if you surrender your ego.
Just as a chef wouldn't lose heart from chewing, we mustn't lose heart from the toil of effort.
In The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks & Win Your Inner Creative Battles, Steven Pressfield writes:
In Out on the Wire: The Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio, Jessica Abel interviewed people like Ira Glass. But perhaps Jay Allison of The Moth Radio Hour said it best:
And what is taste? In Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative, Austin Kleon explains:
Remove morality and increase objectivity. Sometimes even our good tastes can be wrong. Be open to input and feedback (as long as it's not an attack on your character). As a creator, you must also be open to the taste of your audience.
Don't give up. Contemplate and change your thinking. Have courage, look for people who encourage you. Encourage yourself, encourage others. Wanting to do better isn't a bad thing, just like having good taste isn't a bad thing. But don't look for a destination, someplace where you think you ought to end up. It's often when we end up somewhere unexpected, is when we find the most happiness.
Useful Companions (Improve Your Education and This Site by Buying a Book):
- Out on the Wire: The Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio - Jessica Abel
- The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles - Steven Pressfield
- Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative - Austin Kleon
- The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings - J.R.R. Tolkien
- The New Kings of Nonfiction - Ira Glass (Editor)