I had the pleasure of seeing Ira Glass perform at the Hult Center recently. My experience was one of excitement and inspiration. I’ve listened to “This American Life,” which Glass created, on National Public Radio for many years now.
As a young writer, as with any craft, I suppose, I look to people whose work makes me want to start new projects. I look for creators whose work isn’t necessarily flashy or fantastic, but, genuine, honest, raw — because those kinds of stories are what excite me to write something of my own. Inspiring storytelling doesn’t always come in the form of written word, because as Glass demonstrates regularly on the radio, and recently in his one-man-show tour, great storytelling crosses all mediums.
Glass opened his show, “Seven Things I’ve Learned: An Evening with Ira Glass,” with a brief story about a mother and a daughter. A parenting misstep that made the mother question her skills showcased the great sympathetic skills of her young daughter, and made the audience wince and laugh. It was relatable, it was funny, it was a tiny kick in the gut.
He worked his way through stories of his own childhood, described his love for “Fiddler on the Roof” and seeing it live in New York with his family, what it means to him now as an adult. At one point Glass made the connection that the story of Fiddler is the same kind of structure used in “This American Life.”
The concept is simple — you introduce a couple of characters, you become invested in their personal story, you laugh and celebrate life experiences or events with them, and then, when the story takes an inevitably dark turn, you go along with the characters into those places and mourn with them. You sympathize, you empathize and you want to know they’ll be alright. Sometimes, as we know, things aren’t alright. Wars, famine, divorce, death and all of life’s cruelties happen to us all at some point. These are the interesting kinds of stories that veterans like Glass share with such grace.
What I enjoyed, quite possibly the most, was that on a smaller scale, with each “thing” Glass shared with us, we heard examples that showed his storytelling formula of “meet, connect, emote, carry on.” And, as the show was coming to a somewhat dark close Glass brought present-day politics into his narrative, we saw how he had cleverly made the entire show match this same formula.
He met us with a heartwarming story about a mom and teen, followed by a sampling of people interviewed for “This American Life.” We connected and emoted with Glass as we took a few winding turns through his own life story, including memories of his deceased mother, leading us to the finale. Glass acknowledged that politics might have been a bit heavy for a Saturday night, and did us the favor of telling a lighthearted story about his dog, Piney, a final push to help us “carry on.” In an hour and a half, Glass met us, connected with us, we emoted with him, and we carried on.
Glass talked about his desire to have his weekly show taken off air someday when he’s dead, including any archives. He said he thinks there should be room made for young storytellers and artists to fill that space instead. This is an interesting concept because work like Glass’s is a timeless example of excellent storytelling. While I hope more young artists will emerge and thrive, I also hope that we can carry on Glass’s mantle of simplistic but impactful storytelling.