Ira Glass: Imagine Quality Without Good Taste

(Fine art illustration | LimKis Maria)

(Fine art illustration | LimKis Maria)

"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

Someone whom I look to when I'm personally struggling with creating the right content and form is Ira Glass of This American Life. Imagination takes courage. You're not only putting yourself out there to be judged by others but worst of all, you're putting yourself out there to be judged by your harshest critic — yourself. For Glass, not only did he feel what he was doing wasn't good enough, but he also didn't have the right platform to voice himself. So he created one. We may 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, nonfiction, docu-narrative, radio/ podcast, which features essays, memoirs, conversations, field recordings, short fiction, and found footage. United by a theme, following traditional story structure, that doesn't rely on interviews but rather quotes to move the story. All done in a casual voice that purposely starts with "um..." and "so..." All no-nos in radio 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 helped define that style.

The stories are about the mundane but Glass makes it interesting. Glass gets people to say interesting things, he gets them to speak in story format without realizing it. The format has a narrator, but it also catches all the pauses, imperfect speech, the ambient sounds, the things you would normally edit out. Glass and his producers narrate in this way as well, so it moves fluidly from their voice to the voices of the people in the story. It doesn't feel heavy-handed or overly produced. It's done mostly in the field rather than a studio and the tone is always intimate — almost whispers in the mic, as if we were eavesdropping.

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, naturally come off charming. This appearance of ease is not easy to do. Glass combined journalism with storytelling — the NPR sound. Glass had to create all of this on his own because it didn't exist yet, and he also had to make it good since it wasn't a style people were familiar with. It didn't have any interest. It took Glass a long time to find his bearings, longer than the rest of his peers.

It's common now to refer to people as creatives and content creators because they're creating their own mediums and are able to work in any medium. No longer are people specialists in a creative field since there are so many mediums — but in 1995, what is now a "thing" wasn't a "thing." Ira Glass explains:

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 that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good, okay? It’s not that great. It’s really not that great. 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 good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you....

A lot of people never get past that phase. A lot of people at that point, they quit. 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 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. And the thing I would say to you is everybody goes through that ... you gotta know it’s totally normal.

And the most important possible thing you can 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 are actually going to catch up and close that gap, and the work you’re making will be as good as your ambitions. It takes a while, it’s gonna take you a while — it’s normal to take a while. And you just have to fight your way through that, okay? You’ll be fierce, you’ll be a warrior, and you will make things that aren’t as good as you know in your heart you want them to be. And you’ll make one after another.

You won't be happy any other way. It may be disheartening at times but imagine quality without taste? It's a matter of course, our interpretations and insecurities are what creates suffering — not our tastes, not our work. Just as a chef wouldn't lose heart from the 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:

This is the other secret that real artists know and wannabe writers don’t. When we sit down each day and do our work, power concentrates around us. The Muse takes note of our dedication. She approves. We have earned favor in her sight. When we sit down and work, we become like a magnetized rod that attracts iron filings. Ideas come. Insights accrete.

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 when he said:

When they stand up there, if they don’t get out on that wire, way out on the center of that wire, and it’s bouncing, and they’re, you know, if they’re just walking across the floor, people won’t listen.

And what is taste? In Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative, Austin Kleon explains:

You don’t get to pick your family, but you can pick your teachers and you can pick your friends and you can pick the music you listen to and you can pick the books you read and you can pick the movies you see. You are, in fact, a mashup of what you choose to let into your life. You are the sum of your influences. The German writer Goethe said, ‘We are shaped and fashioned by what we love.’

The artist is a collector. Not a hoarder, mind you, there’s a difference: Hoarders collect indiscriminately, artists collect selectively. They only collect things that they really love.

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. We must be open to hearing other people's tastes as well.

In The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote this seminal passage:

It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.

Don't give up. Ruminate 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 is often, when we end up somewhere unexpected, is when we find the most happiness. That takes courage.

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