One of the links that has been making the rounds of academic email lists lately is a series of Youtube videos of Ira Glass talking about the art of telling stories. I have a love/hate relationship with Ira Glass and This American Life, but in the “third video in the series”:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-hidvElQ0xE&feature=related he says something that is really profound and something that has really made me think about how I advise my students.
In the video Glass points out that people who are just beginning to write (or do work of any kind, I reckon) experience a gap between what they know is good, and what they are capable of. They can see what quality work is — they have a sense of it and a passion for it that motivates them to create, and yet at the same time they feel that their own capabilities are insufficient to make work that meets their own standards. Glass urges people to develop their skills so that they can close that gap, and he urges them to do it by producing tremendous amounts of material, forcing them to hone their skills through repeated practice. To make people feel better, he emphasizes that he is incredibly successful and has closed the gap, and that it took him years and years to do so, so we should not be freaked out if it takes us a while.
The situation that Glass describes is totally true and I see it in my students — particularly my graduate students — all the time. His tip to work work work is also spot on — Greg Costikyan once told me “you have to throw the first million words away”, which is great advice. And Glass’s willingness to demonstrate that if he can do it then anyone can adds ‘story’ to his argument and makes it more compelling.
I recently began giving Glass’s speech to my students because they find it tremendously reassuring. But then I stopped giving it because I think it is actually a lie. Who in the world actually ever manages to close that gap? In my experience, and the experience of everyone I’ve ever talked to, people’s ability to produce good work develops over time, but so does the scope of their ambitions and the precision of their standards.
A less comforting truth is this: people who do mediocre work have some mixture of low standards, low energy, unambitious goals, and a high opinion of their abilities. People who do good work have high standards, work hard, stay hungry, and are all too aware of what the work demands and what they are capable of. Doing good work, doing it healthily, and over the course of an entire career, is not about closing the gap between taste and achievement, it is about keeping it open, and managing that gap in a healthy and productive way.
I am sure that if we were to actually watch Ira Glass at work we would not see him breezing into the studio, effortlessly tossing out perfectly honed pieces, and then knocking off at eleven for an early lunch, cocktails, and golf. I bet he sweats — a lot. And I bet he loves doing it.
Telling students that it will get better is easy — it makes them feel better, and it makes us feel better to convince others that we are stronger than we really are. But the truth is that the gap between taste and achievement doesn’t go away, the scale on which it operates increases, and the ease with which we manage it lessens. Less comfortable, but the truth — and what students deserve.