Ira Glass has made storytelling his life for the last 20-odd years — and this weekend, he will speak on the storytelling process at Chautauqua.
Glass will speak at 8:15 p.m. Saturday, July 20 in the Amphitheater. His talk, “Seven Things I’ve Learned,” will share lessons from his life and career — anecdotes on creativity, passion, failure and success. He plans to use audio clips, music and video to walk the audience through his storytelling process.
Glass is the creator, producer and host of “This American Life,” a weekly radio show and podcast with over 2.2 million listeners. Since he created the show in 1995, Glass has hosted nearly 700 episodes. The episodes focus on nonfiction storytelling, as well as essays, short fiction, found footage and whatever else demonstrates the facets of “American Life.”
Stories are everywhere, Glass said, but it takes great determination to tell those stories in an engaging way.
“It’s hard to make something that’s interesting,” Glass told The A.V. Club in 2003. “It’s really, really hard. … It’s like a law of nature, a law of aerodynamics, that anything that’s written or anything that’s created wants to be mediocre. The natural state of all writing is mediocrity. … So what it takes to make anything more than mediocre is such an act of will.”
But even if mediocrity is the natural state of writing, Glass told A.V., the natural state of the world is excellence — a planet of stories waiting to be told.
“We live in a world where joy and empathy and pleasure are all around us, there for the noticing,” Glass wrote in his 2007 anthology, The New Kings of Nonfiction.
At roughly 60 minutes each, episodes of “This American Life” are longer than many of the “binge-worthy” media — 30-minute Netflix shows, 5-minute YouTube videos, and 280-character Tweets. Glass said in an interview with The Buffalo News last week that the division between these two media types is more nuanced than people often realize — we still want a “nice story.”
“The idea that we have these really short attention spans because we’re all on our phones all the time is a really incomplete reading of what’s happening and a primitive reading of what’s happening,” Glass told The Buffalo News. “The greater truth is we’re all pretty flexible, and it’s nice to have something to read when you’re in an elevator or waiting for your food. And it’s also nice to settle into a nice story.”
Glass’ visit to Chautauqua is a long time coming. Deborah Sunya Moore, vice president of performing and visual arts, said Glass was the very first evening entertainer booked for 2019 — over a year ago. She said his passion for storytelling made him uniquely suited to open Week Five: “The Life of the Spoken Word.”
“Very early on, we knew that we were going to have a theme on spoken word, and as soon as we started talking about that, we agreed that perhaps the special entertainment that weekend would not be a band — it would focus on the spoken word. And the main name we thought of, of course, was Ira Glass.”
Glass is a “main name” of storytelling after decades of work. In a 2009 interview on storytelling that has since been featured in the viral video, “The Gap,” as well as several other videos now available on YouTube, he advised young storytellers to keep practicing their craft.
“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,” Glass narrates in the video. “And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s going to take a while. It’s normal to take a while. You’ve just got to fight your way through.”