November 14, 2011

Ira Glass and Narrative Drive

Ira Glass of This American Life gave a talk on Saturday at the University of Wyoming. I couldn’t wait, since I first heard of it!

Saturday was one of those bitter cold days on the high plains. The wind had been gale force for days, and the storm blew in that afternoon, so the cold lazered through the many layers of coats, hats, and mittens. The first flakes fell as my friend Naomi and I walked across campus to the A&S Auditorium. They seemed pretty innocent, but by the time we got out there was ice over everything and the wind blew you skating across the pavement. Winter storm warmings, for sure.

We were early, and our tickets were in the balcony. It’s numbered weirdly, with our section only having odd numbers (we were seats 7 and 9), and they were built in a time when people either were the size of school children or did not require much comfort or space. Even my knees hit the seat in front of me, and I’m average-sized. All was solved, though, when we took matters into our own hands and went farther up so no one was cramped in beside us.

Ira Glass. Wow. He is so cool. Nerd cool, brainy cool ~ you know what I mean. Like those old Geek Squad commercials. The guy next to me (before we moved) said, “He looks like Elvis Costello,” and he does. A suit, heavy black-rimmed glasses, long brown leather shoes, very kinetic.

The program started about 20 or 30 minutes late. A woman came out to introduce him, and then the lights went off. Then you heard that voice through the darkness, just like you do through the radio, so cozy and friendly and almost inside your own brain. It’s as if your preternaturally verbal favorite brother, someone you’ve known your whole life, is telling you a really good story. He kept the lights off for a while as he spoke and joked about doing the whole program that way. When he turned on the lights, he said, “I could say anything I wanted for the next couple of minutes because you’re not listening. You’re checking out what I look like and marveling that that voice comes out of this head.”

He orchestrated the whole program from an iPad that he held in the crook of his arm or rested on the music stand next to the tall stool, which he never sat on and never drank from the bottle of water that rested there. He was too busy moving, one side of the stage to the other, moving downstage and back, smiling, talking, waving his arms, setting the iPad down and picking it up. He would sometimes hold the iPad up in front of him and then hold his right arm out behind him before bringing his hand in an arc to touch the iPad and start or stop the music. It was as if he were a concert pianist.

And he has impeccable timing with the music. You don’t usually see someone turning off and on the music, but it was second nature to him, and he explained at the end where the music was from (the internet, movie scores) and tricks to using it (stopping the music makes whatever comes next seem very important and starting it again signals a change in tone or subject). He also explained that the iPad was connected wirelessly to a computer behind the drops, and the software allowed him to do it all from his iPad. It was amazing, with an Oz-behind-the-curtain feel to it.

And he said such smart things (of course). They were smart not only because some of them I’ve long thought.

He emphasized the power of narrative drive. It’s innate in all of us and is more powerful than any of us know. He explained how a normal news story goes ~ it’s a thesis-based essay, with assertion and evidence/quote, then new assertion and evidence/quote, with analysis. But then he explained the structure of stories on his show. It’s this thing leading to this thing leading to this thing, with a moment of reflection, and then repeat. It doesn’t matter how banal the details, if they’re cause and effect they draw us and leave us asking question after question, if only “What happens next?” And the moment of reflection can be something unusual, but it also can be a universal truth that we all know but the story reminds us. He ended everything with the story of Sheherazade, how that narrative drive saved the girl’s life and brought the king back from insanity. It made him empathize with the father of Sheherazade ~ I’ll get back to this.

At one point he stopped the music and said, “Radio is a very visual medium.” I sat there thinking, yes it is, in the very best way. It’s visual in the way the best books are, in that if the story is done right you the listener/reader supply a lot of it. You are an active participant in the creation of this story. And then he said, “It’s not, but it sounded like it’s true,” and everyone laughed.

They did the TV show, as well as radio. TV is a problem to do in the format of This American Life. On the radio, the teller can tell things that happened in the past, but on TV to really take advantage of the medium you have to be there and witness the action with the camera. Which means you have to foretell the future. He said, “It makes you understand why they put a bunch of extroverts in a house together and scatter cameras all around.”

He talked about how we are inundated with narrative nowadays, moreso than at any other time history. But the thing is, most of it doesn’t move us. It doesn’t do what stories have done forever, which is to connect us with others, to make us imagine what it would be like to be them, to empathize. This is something I’ve long said: The reason I am obsessively fanatical about fiction is that it is as close as you will ever get to another person’s insides, to their emotional and intellectual life. Both the writing and reading of fiction is an exercise in empathy. Can fiction save the world? Yes, I think it can.

There was much more, but I’ll stop here. It’s got me thinking a lot about narrative and about reflection and the conjunction of verbal storytelling and written. Ira Glass, you rock!


Walt Giersbach said...

I'm with you a hundred percent that fiction is empathic. Moreover, it's CONTENT in a world of THINGS. Afraid I blew my top when the family gathered around the dinner table and everyone was playing with his/her smart phone.

I screeched, "You hold more computing power in your hand than the entire U.S. government did 50years ago, and you're watching crap on YouTube!" They rolled their eyes. There goes gramps getting cranky.

Tamara said...

I totally understand!

I think I read somewhere recently about the great things having supper with your family does for all involved, but if everyone is on their iPhone, I don't think it's impact is quite as big. :-)

Being cranky is good. Let's the world know we're alive and kicking.

Great to talk with you, Walt!

Emilene said...

Hi Tamara. Thanks for letting those of us who couldn't make it to see Ira Glass in Laramie have a little glimpse into his talk. Nice description of the iPad performance. Much appreciated!


Tamara said...

Emeline! How are you? Thanks so much for stopping by.

Yes, that's one of the many great things about UW - they bring in such great people to speak.

How's your work? Going well, I hope. Flowing like the Wyoming wind?