Not sure what to make of that title, are you? A bit shocked? Perhaps worried about it being a bit, er, defeatist?
Well, read on, MacDuff.
A few weeks back, I wrote about how I get better at writing. As sometimes happens, I received feedback on it, all good. That made me happy. As I noted, among the things I do to get better is to section parts of my day to learn from others. Most of the time I don’t focus on topics directly related to writing, because, well … paradoxically, that’s not usually what I need to get better at writing.
Still, sometimes I come across something that entertaining that also makes me think a little differently about what I’m doing. In this case, it’s a 17 minute video in which This American Life’s Ira Glass talks about storytelling for the radio. I consume a lot of his stories, and I find them to be fascinating. The show is well-packaged and filled with great storytelling. Yes, his commentary is specifically about putting the radio show together, but really he’s talking about the framework he uses to think about relating information to people through a story. So maybe it’s more of a take on how to think about stories than it is about how to actually build them. This means you can take his thoughts and apply them to any piece, be it fiction or non-fiction. For me, coming at it from a direction that is not specifically pointed at fiction makes the ideas fresher. They make me think
The Anecdote & The Moment of Reflection
When Glass talks about The Anecdote, he’s telling me something important. Be interesting, he’s saying, raise expectation through action—and then he shows me how it works with a little piece of improvised fiction that, yes, should be boring but isn’t. When he talks about shaping stories by raising questions and answering them, he’s telling me everything I need to know about basic story structure and why it works. When he presents his thoughts on Moments of Reflection he’s saying I have to give people what they’re really interested in—what it’s trying to say: the reason that story needs to exist in the first place. In that sense, a story is a series of Actions that raise and answer questions and Reflections that frame those answers in ways that please a reader in any one of several ways.
I mean, yeah, if you know me at all you’ll know I love me some 7-point story plotting, but in a pinch I propose you can fix a lot of your problems by taking a simple Action and Reflection-o-meter to your manuscript and seeing what kind of reading you’re getting. You could go a lot wronger, anyway, am I right?
Be a Killer: Be Ruthless
If you’re a writer, though (or any other creator), the last two thirds of the conversation is even more interesting. In reality, I suggest this segment is more about how you approach the profession of being a storyteller than anything really crafty. “Not enough is said about abandoning crap,” he says at one point, and then goes on to expand on what he means for maybe five minutes. Do a lot of work, he says, but remember that “all video production (creativity) is trying to be crap.”
There’s a lot more in just a few minutes here, and I’ll not waste time decompressing it all. Watch the video. I love how he uses his own bad work as an 8-year veteran to reveal his point, though. It’s quite brave, really. And I love his view about trusting your taste, about being ruthless, and about being okay with failing (fail to success is a phrase a lot of folks in the Oregon Writers Network are taught, and this applies deeply—I often say I throw away a lot of words, which is kind of the same thing). Do lots of work, but don’t be afraid to abandon it if it sucks (or set it aside for later). Just move on to the next project. You learn to create by creating, and you don’t want to be making mediocre stuff by the end of the day. Your skills will grow to meet your taste
Much of interest here.
Hope you enjoy.