I recently came across a great set of videos of Ira Glass talking about creativity, being a creative and about storytelling. It’s well worth the 20 or so minutes it takes to watch all 4 videos. (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4)
Enjoy the killing
One thing stood out for me immediately though; in part 2 Ira talks about the difficulty they face and the time they spend looking for good stories. And not just good stories, but good stories told well. Ira points out, “Between a half and a third of everything that we try, we’ll go out, we’ll get the tape and then we kill it.” That’s a pretty high number. But, I suspect, if you polled most successful creatives they would say that a third to a half is actually too low. He goes on to say,
And you should think of it the same way. You know, you thought it was going to be good. You went out, you did the interview, the person wasn’t such a great talker, they weren’t so funny, they weren’t so emotional, somehow when they told it to you in person with the camera it wasn’t the way they told you when [you] talked to them on the phone beforehand, they just got a little intimidated with the camera. Just something in the chemistry was wrong, you can’t even name what it is and why you’d even bother to try. But then when you look at the footage you know that there is a feeling that you had about it, which isn’t in the footage, right? But then, it’s time, at that point, to be the ambitious, super-achieving person who you’re going to be and kill it. It’s time to kill, and it’s time to enjoy the killing because by killing you will make something else even better live. And I think that not enough get’s said about the importance of abandoning crap.
And this is why I feel certain that if you polled creatives they’d say that a third to a half just isn’t high enough. Creating something beautiful, or something emotionally touching, or something even plain pleasant to look at is hard work. It’s damn hard work. And the simple act of creation is such a process of trial and error that it almost guarantees you are going to produce lots of garbage before getting it right.
Dealing with the grief
In part 3 Glass goes on to talk about how most creatives produce utter crap for years at the beginning of their careers. The way he puts it, your “taste is killer” but your execution just can’t keep up. Then he play an absolutely terrible, and very funny, tape of himself years before and makes the point that this tape was made after he’d been working in broadcast for eight years! Eight fucking years!
All of this helps to highlight a fact about personal/professional growth that I think is glossed over too often in these hyper-speed days of cloud architecture and ubiquitous connectivity. It takes time, and a lot of it, to get good at anything. You have to first progress through the stage where you are just mimicking those around/ahead of you. Then you start to produce on your own and you recognize that what you’re creating is garbage or close to it. But you continue to work, as Ira Glass agrees, hopefully on a deadline, and produce work that slowly (ever so slowly) gets better and starts to exhibit your take on the subject matter and on the medium itself. But through all these steps, vicious editing is an important concept. Without culling the crap you’ll slow the process down and eventually delude yourself into thinking that what you are creating is good, even if it’s not even a fraction as good as it could be.
Glass talks briefly in the last part of the video about what makes a compelling story. And since we’re all out to create compelling and purposeful work I think it’s important to try and learn as much as possible about what those terms really mean. His suggestions highlighted, what I think is, an important paradigm shift in the way we humans communicate. The shift away from broadcast or one-way dissemination of information from the few to the many towards an open conversation model. We’re finished taking in whatever information is sent our way by the central broadcasters and the internet has empowered just about everyone to create, broadcast and to be selective in the information that they choose to give their attention to. For creatives this means that whatever it is that we create, whether it’s photos, or radio, or painting or web-design, all of our creations will be more compelling if they are concerned with the conversation surrounding the message more than with the message sent off into the world by itself.