Ira Glass and the taste-ability gap.

June 13, 2011 | By | 3 Replies More

Creation is daunting. Partly because the drive to create is always rooted in admiration for others’ creations. What writer hasn’t struggled against inadvertently ghost-writing their favorite author? What aspiring auteur, poet, or painter doesn’t begin with work that is heartrendingly derivative of others’ better attempts? Or worse– what creative person hasn’t struggled to make something ‘great’, something ‘great’ as the art they adore, only to find they can’t quite compete? And who doesn’t infer from these failings that maybe they weren’t cut out to be a creative type after all?

Ira Glass, creator and longtime host of This American Life, says there’s a very simple reason for the head-bashing frustrations of early creative production. Simply put: if you are interested in creating something, it’s probably because you have immaculate taste. Taste that outpaces your own ability. At least, at first. Glass says:

“What nobody tells people who are beginners — and I really wish someone had told this to me . . . is that all of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, and it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not.

But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase. They quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story.

Image by diego.cervo at Dreamstime (with permission)

It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

I found this snippet in a video interview with Glass (below) a year or two ago, and I find it incredibly inspiring. Glass’ view of creativity suggests that even if you lack innate, immediate creative ability, you are not a lost cause– and that, in fact, a little creative self-loathing may be a sign of good aesthetic instincts. It also suggests there is a solution to the problem of making unsatisfying dreck: just keep making more. And more. And more.

This wisdom is especially powerful in context. As a radio producer, Glass was a very late bloomer. He worked in public radio for twenty years before conceiving of This American Life; he readily admits (in another portion of his interview, and on his program) that the first seven years of his radio work was deeply underwhelming and often poorly-paced.  He’ll readily admit that his early stories were bad, and that even he knew they were bad, and that this tormented him. Only through tireless efforts and the cultivation of exceptional taste was he able to develop and bloom. And he bloomed big:  This American Life is one of the most widely-heard public radio programs ever, with 1.7 million weekly listeners, and has topped the Itunes podcast chart continuously for years. If Ira had given up after a few years of shoddy radio stories, we’d all have missed out on TAL’s  hundreds of hours of thoughtful, poignant, high-quality public radio.

I found this interview snippet a little over a year ago, and Glass’ words of experience have galvanized me ever since. Whenever I write something that strikes me as uninspiring or derivative dreck, I reassure myself it’s a matter of taste, and time. And more time.


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Category: American Culture, Art, Communication, Culture, Entertainment, Films and Videos, Inspirational, Internet, Media, Recommended Reading/Films/Sites, Uncategorized, Writing

About the Author ()

Erika is a PhD student in Social Psychology living in Chicago. Here on DI she most often writes about current events, psychology, skepticism, media and internet culture.

Comments (3)

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    Erika: Thanks for sharing the Ira Glass video. It comes at a good time for me (there would actually never be a bad time to hear and heed this advice). The "keep plugging" advice reminds me that many people are afflicted with the anti-taste, known as Dunning-Kruger… They might well stop trying because . . . well . . . how could a person possibly improve on perfection? Big mistake.

  2. Nik says:

    Erika, I liked this post a lot, especially because I like anything that has Ira in it. I have to take issue with the first paragraph, and the first paragraph only (the rest is good). Specifically, I do not think that creative impulse (CI) is always rooted (guessing you might regret this word choice?) in admiration for others’ creations, in fact I don't think this is a creative impulse at all, but almost a recreative impulse, so to speak.

    I have nothing except my own rare creative impulses to go on here, so my apologies. Still, it seems that a truly creative act is driven by an idea or perception that is striking and affecting enough, but unique enough to the perceiver that it contributes something new, original, meaningful, and the experience of this impulse could be described as a sensation that it is worthwhile and indeed almost important that others also have some window into what I've just dreamt up, perceived, or experienced. The influence of other writers/artists comes, I think, in the way that an idea or perception is communicated. In a sense, I see a difference between the reason for sharing the perception, and the way you go about sharing it.

  3. capability says:

    Love this – it is very helpful during my own working through the gap process. Love Ira Glass anything as well – thanks for sharing this!

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