“I blame the topic sentence” or, Ira Glass really is all that
March 19, 2009
It’s pretty awesome you get to see a famous person live up to his reputation live, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anyone surpass his reputation. This past Sunday morning, I saw that. I saw Ira Glass address the 14th Conference of the Association of College and Research Libraries. I walked out of the Seattle convention center wanting to do two things. 1) finally buy my own iPod so that I can download every scrap of This American Life I can get my hands on and 2) not wait another minute to get on with the work of making stories.
The talk started with Glass in voiceover, from a darkened stage, reminding us that “for starters, you’ve got to understand, it’s radio,” the medium of the human voice. For a second, I was like, oh man, what a cop out. He pre-recorded it–but I realized that was perhaps the cynical side of me and held off on judgment. Ira Glass’s voice then told us about how, spending six months covering inner city gang kids for NPR earlier in his career, he’d always felt that he was a huge advantage over television journalists. If the first thing you saw was black lipstick and a cold gaze, you’d never listen to the words coming out of a 14 year old girl’s mouth as she described the moment when another girl pulled a gun on her and she understood what death meant and that she had to change her life. The voice then told us that he’d asked the conference organizers if he could do his whole talk in the dark, but they’d told him about a librarian that changed her ticket to a later departure at great expense when she found out he’d be there, so he’d better not. Phew!
When the lights came up, he wasn’t at a podium, he was sitting at a table, surrounded by a microphone, CD players, an audio mixing board, and copious notes. I thought this was mostly for effect, but he actually did the talk like a radio show, manually cuing and playing clips of interviews and music to illustrate his message—that human beings respond to stories above all else. If we can make a story that people want to know the end of, we can open their brains and sometimes their hearts. I believed this when he said it, not only because I am a writer, but because I, one of the most incorrigibly web-distracted people you will ever meet, listened to the whole talk without checking my email even one time, even though I had my laptop on my lap and free, fast wireless. I think his talk was a bit over an hour, but I couldn’t even tell you for sure because I was so absorbed it felt like about five minutes.
Naturally, then, this talk was delivered as a story, a story about how an episode of This American Life gets put together. To tell that story, Glass had to talk about how they got their ideas, how he had learned to write the kind of story he wanted to pay attention to, how a good story takes us so deeply into the real experience of another person that we don’t even realize we are learning something, and why stories are the glue of our collective life.
It’s impossible to concentrate the richness of Ira Glass talking about what he does best into a few bulleted notes, but here goes:
On getting ideas: you need lots of them, and you will need to kill lots of those. He held up two sheets of notes that were single-spaced lists of ideas for stories for one TAL show.
On narrative suspense: you can tell a good story about almost anything, but saying interesting things about interesting people is not a story. A story has stakes (I always forget this when I try to write narrative—bad poet habit). The train has to leave the station and we have to care where it is going. Example: the introductory story from Cringe. Listen to it. When it gets to the part about the guy getting down to walk like a crab, IG paused the tape and said “nobody is turning off the radio at this point,” and I had to agree—there is no way I would have let that story slip out of my life, I had to know what happened next.
On why anecdote is not enough: the train has to leave the station, something has to happen that has real stakes, but that doesn’t make a satisfying story. At some point, you have to link that story to the larger experience of human life. Anecdote has to be followed by reflection.
On surprises: both your anecdotes and your reflections have to get to some kind of surprise, or your story is old. Hopefully, a surprise that delights you by how true yet unexpected it feels.
On the relative uselessness of mainstream news coverage and much of public discourse: how did we as a culture come to think of boring writing as good writing (judging by how much of it we expect our leaders and reporters to do)? “I blame the topic sentence. We as a culture have to stop the topic sentence.”—IG
Topic sentences kill narrative—it works better when you start in the middle of a moment, where the story starts, not where you think it should end. (He made a special appeal to librarians to do their part to defeat the topic sentence, which I intend to do by starting my next library class session with a story about a kid who didn’t use interlibrary loan until a week before his term paper was due.)
On why stories teach us better than news: using the example of the story of Sam, an Iraq vet who joined the Muslim students association to combat his PTSD. We get into it because it’s a story about Tom, and telling that story eventually involves talking about what PTSD is. When traditional news covers PTSD, it packages it up with a topic sentence (“and now a story of one Iraq veteran overcoming PTSD”) and kills it. As IG put it: “I already know how I feel about PTSD. I’m against it.” Good stories get information past our auto-judger. We feel like we don’t already know about it if we don’t already know the story.
I really wish I could just pipe a video of his talk from my head to all of my writer friends. In lieu of that capability, I have tracked down scraps of things on the internets that begin to approximate what I heard:
A bootleg clip of the last 8 minutes of the talk that I saw in which Glass brings it all home by paraphrasing 1001 Arabian Nights—watch it while it’s still up.
A manifesto on radio journalism written for Transom.org– great bits here about finding stories that are interesting v. stories that you think should be interesting:
“But it’s the type of story you might hear on the radio. That’s why she was attracted to it. She didn’t think it was interesting, but she thought one was supposed to find it interesting. It was like the answer to a question on a test: What should your public radio story be about? This one had art, culture and someone from a minority group. It was a triple threat.”
Submission guidelines for This American Life—where they come out and say exactly what they are looking for in a story, and give a reader’s digest version of much of what these other links talk about
A piece on making radio stories on Current.org–This is a quote from the piece that is really funny and makes me really grateful that IG didn’t just talk about working for NPR or something he thought librarians would find interesting, but instead shared his craft:
When I was putting together this speech, I spent an absurd amount of time thinking about what to say to you and pulling tape cuts. And some of my staff members told me, “You’re crazy to spend so much time thinking about this. Anybody who’s coming to see you, all they really want to know is ‘dish’ about their favorite public radio personalities. Don’t bother with the tape and the music and the mixing board. Just get up there and what you should do is say things like, ‘Carl Kasell . . . boozer. Robert Siegel . . . has two wives. Garrison Keillor . . . has his own intern.'”
I, for one, am really glad he’s spent so much time thinking about this.