The above quote is from one of the best storytellers working today, Ira Glass. Virtually all of his career has been in radio, which might be ironic since this is a blog devoted to animation and visual storytelling, but then I like to drive home the point that storytelling is storytelling. Ira Glass (and his team) tell some great stories. Those of you who don’t regularly listen to National Public Radio, and aren’t familiar with Glass’s This American Life, have been missing out. Many’s the night I’ve been listening to TAL on my car radio while in transit, only to arrive at my destination and sit in my car until the program was finished. Glass’s stories are usually deceptively simple, moving, intensely personal, funny, and profound. Most of all, once you start listening to one, you’re hooked, and have to know what comes next.
The program is described as “documentary radio for people who hate documentaries,” which doesn’t seem to do it justice.* The stories, which are often told by the subjects themselves, sound like a casual conversations. A typical show juxtaposes several thematically-related stories, usually to good effect. Sometimes they tease out the extraordinary in seemingly mundane events, and other times make extraordinary events palpably real.
On the AM forums my friend Luci Napier recently noted that Glass discusses his story process in a series of YouTube videos, which were originally made for the website Current. Click on the link to go to that site (I haven’t checked out the other videos there, but there’s other interesting looking content on the site), or go directly to the YouTube videos:
The quote I’ve used as a title gives you an idea of the rigorousness that Glass brings to his story-creation process. He’s brutally honest about the need to be ruthless towards your work, and also in assessing oneself. At one point he talks about how long it took him to become a good storyteller, playing an embarrassing clip of one of his NPR reports he made as an eight-year veteran of radio. It is truly awful. Fortunately, Glass didn’t quit, but continued to analyze his own work and push to improve.
I highlight Ira Glass’s realization of his own incompetence after eight years of doing radio because it’s so instructive. The better you become, the more it seems you realize how much further you need to go. In my AM Q&A session a couple of nights ago, the first with my new class, I sensed a frustration some students were having with their level of competency after pursuing character animation for the last year and a half or so. Choosing the path of an artist means having periods of improvement, plateaus, second-guessing, inspiration, depression, despair, and (hopefully) rebirth. It’s part of a never ending cycle, at least for those who really aspire to do something special.
Here are a few of the noteworthy ideas Glass throws out:
There are two basic storytelling building blocks –
1. The anecdote, a sequence of actions: this is what happened, then this happened, then this, then this . . . The key here is to start on action. Each action also raises a question, which you will answer as you raise new questions. This is the bait for the audience to go along the story journey with you.
2. The moment of reflection, when the audience puts the pieces together. This is where we let the audience know why we’ve told the anecdote; it gives the meaning of that series of actions. In a good story, you’ll be flipping back and forth between these two elements.
Finding a decent story is REALLY hard. The time it takes to find a great story can be longer than the time it takes to produce that story. At least half the stories the TAL team record end up being scrapped. “It’s time to kill, and it’s time to enjoy the killing, because by killing, you will let something even better live.” You must be ruthless with your work, and you must be happy about frequently failing. You have to do a lot of crap so you’ll be ready to create those great moments.
Remember that you got into this because you have good taste, because you want to do good work. Which means you will recognize how far you fall short as a beginner. Do not despair. The answer is to keep working — it’s is only by doing a large volume of work that your abilities will catch up with your ambitions. Create weekly deadlines. Keep working. Be fierce. Be a warrior.
There are two key errors beginners make:
1. We want to imitate what we’ve seen from professionals. Instead, try to speak in your own voice. Glass means this, I think, both literally (important for radio) and figuratively (important for us).
2. Be selfless. Be interested in your subject. Again, I think he’s speaking literally, about doing documentary work, and also figuratively. As character animators, it crucial that we bring something of ourselves to each of our characters, but it’s even more crucial that we are true to that character, and to that particular moment in that character’s existence.
That’s my summary. Now go watch the videos.
*And yes, I know there’s a Showtime version of This American Life, but I haven’t seen it yet.