Author Archive: Erika Price
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.
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.
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.
I’ll assume that most of DI’s readers, like me, hate the celebrity phenomenon of the “famous for being famous”. This rising class of psuedo-celebs, the “famesque”, are a newish phenomenon who owe their livelihoods to media over-saturation. In a world of thousands of channels and millions of websites, in an economy where celebrity gossip magazines and gossip sites flourish as newspapers decline, there is a consistent demand for fluffy content. The outrageous and fame-hungry, who are willing (it seems) to do anything to garner attention, bloom and profit in such an environment. If you have no standards and no shame, it is relatively easy to make a celebrity career of puff piece interviews and reality TV appearances. Far easier than launching a career based on hard-work, creative production, and talent, anyway.
But there is a new subclass of the ‘famesque’, one far more insidious than the droves of Paris Hiltons and Snookies and Osbornes and Kardashians we all despise and ignore. They are Celebrity Republicans- wannabe politicos who are pundits just for the sake of being pundits. And they are tearing the Republican party and political discourse apart.
I stopped wearing cosmetics a few months ago, after about half a year of using the stuff only sparingly. I started weaning myself off makeup because I had come to hate the hassle of applying it, and because I hated fretting about my appearance. I was also beginning to think of makeup as old-fashioned, an antiquated ‘modesty’ that inspires shame in one’s true appearance. The longer I go without a cosmetic product on my face, the more I believe that makeup needs to go the way of the girdle. The restrictive, uncomfortable, needless, obsolete girdle.
How many undergarments are you wearing right now? I’m guessing two at most. Likewise, I only wear two small undergarments below my clothes, even on the most formal occasions. Interview? Presentation? Class? Wedding? A bra and underwear are always adequate.
Since I’ve never had to wear more than two undergarments, I find it staggering that women used to wear massive bras, high-waisted underwear, girdles, pantyhose or stockings, garter belts, slips, and camisoles.
I often wear less than that as a full outfit. Anyone who knows me in real life can confirm that I regularly step out in leggings and a t-shirt (plus two small undergarments beneath). I don’t say this to titilate, just to illustrate, because I suspect my bare-bones attire is quickly becoming the norm. I’ve spent a lot of time on college campuses- big and small, public and private, Jesuit and blessedly godless. Everywhere I’ve seen legions of women and girls decked out in equal or greater states of undress than my own. Gone are the girdles.
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I hate to sound like a Tea-Party nutbag, but I really love the United States’ Constitution. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a free-speech fanatic. I love the Constitution’s sharp focus on individual liberties, its emphasis on the rights of the accused, and that grade-school-civics favorite, the checks and balances of power. I despair when these ideals meet real-life sacrifices, especially glaring ones like, oh, the utter lack of Congressional declarations of war since WWII. I also don’t like to sully the document’s purity with excessive amendments, interpretations and adaptations. No Defense of Marriage Amendment, please, but while you’re at it, no marriage at all (it violates the establishment clause, you see).
But don’t call me a Scalia-esque strict constructionist. If I could, I would copy-edit the otherwise brilliant Constitution and correct a centuries-old omission with no qualms: I would give the United States a monarch.
It probably seems unamerican, undemocratic and all-around anti-freedom-y to propose that we foist an unquestioned figure to the crown of government. It probably sounds old-fashioned, all uppity and needlessly symbolic and European. I know it does. It’s exactly my point.
You think you’re open-minded? What if the North American Man-Boy Love Association wanted to distribute a newsletter in your town? What if they wanted to hold a local parade celebrating pederasty?
I am currently studying social psychology in graduate school, and I’m particularly interested in political psychology. One of my present research interests is political tolerance. “Political tolerance” refers to individuals’ willingness to extend equal civil liberties to unpopular groups.
When political scientists and psychologists measure political tolerance, they often probe individuals for their ability to withstand the most offensive, outlandish groups and speech possible. For example, a liberal-minded person may be asked whether they would be willing to allow a rally for the Klu Klux Klan or some extremist, militaristic group. Paradoxically, a truly tolerant person must be willing to allow racially intolerant speech.
Political tolerance plays a cornerstone role in functioning democracies (at least, we think so). If voters can strip away the civil liberties of disliked political groups, those liberties lay on precarious ground indeed. If we cannot tolerate the words of anarchists or members of the Westboro Baptist Church, then we do not really believe in the boundlessness of speech at all.
Academics say as much. In reality, voters are not so tolerant.
I was mulling around the Lincoln Park Zoo today with a friend when a man stepped on me. He was filming a Siberian tiger with a high-end digital video camera, which he held on an expensive mounting. He was fidgeting with all of the camera’s features, backing up to get the perfect shot, and he stepped all over my feet. The foot-stomping didn’t bother me so much as the man’s intent focus on something other than his present surroundings. A beautiful creature stood before him, but his attention was directed at the camera and the filming of the tiger more than it was the tiger itself.
Not much later, something similar occurred in the Tropical Birds House. As I was watching the bleeding-heart pigeons, a man, family in tow, came around the corner with a massive video camera. He also had it placed on an expensive mount. Obliviously, he nudged forward until his lens nearly leaned on the display’s glass. He fiddled and fidgeted. He zoomed on the critters for a moment, and left.
“Do you think he’ll ever watch that footage?” my friend asked.
“No,” I guessed. Without much thought I noted, “It isn’t about the footage. He probably just bought that camera, and is filming because he wants to play with it.”
“So the actual footage is useless,” he observed in return.
I intuited that the man’s camera was a new purchase because I’ve done the exact same thing with a fresh ‘toy’.
Youtube was supposed to be one of Web 2.0’s shining examples of user-generated original content. In a world (in 2005) when everything worthwhile was already online and fully consumed, Youtube was supposed to provide us with a new outlet to both create and consume. I know it is hard to recall Youtube’s original intent as a creative landscape, but keep in mind that the site’s slogan was and is “Broadcast Yourself”.
Most of us don’t broadcast ourselves, or watch broadcasts of other selves. The last time I fired up Youtube, I was looking for a free way to stream James and the Giant Peach. Any cute skits or beautiful shorts I discovered thereafter were barely bonuses; they were just tasty little incidentals to be quickly forgotten. Most people go to Youtube to view unoriginal creations- movie, TV and music clips or mashups thereof.
Youtube’s most viewed videos of all time are music videos like “7 Things” by Miley Cyrus and Rihanna’s “Don’t Stop the Music”. My little sister uses Youtube as a combination DVR-Itunes-Pandora player. Nothing original seeps in unless I send it to her myself- and then it’s usually just a video of a cute animal, not a creative work.
Ah, but Youtube does have some high-caliber producers of original goodies! People who put on elaborate comedy skits with costumes, professional lighting and substantial editing. People who pull in millions of views. People with whom Youtube has formed profitable, advertising-driven partnerships. These people are broadcasting themselves. But they aren’t like “us”. They are all from Hollywood.