I went to see Ira Glass, host and producer of This American Life, at Massey Hall last week. He spoke about the process they use for finding great stories.
This American Life broadcasts to about 1.7 million people via public radio and the Internet each week.
To create the show, they make a huge long list of all the possible stories.
Reddit has a list from a sample week (scroll down). They start with 20 stories. They end up with 3 or 4.
Glass knows that this is messy:
“It’s like harnessing luck as an industrial product. You want to get hit by lightning, so you have to wander around for a long time in the rain.” [source]
My writing process is also messy. I finished four novels between The Line Painter and The Bear, which will come out in 2014. The four dead books, as I’ve come to call them. They aren’t good enough to publish.
The same week I went to see Ira Glass, Random House (my publisher) and Penguin announced that they are merging. I’ve heard all sorts of theories about why, but the article posted by my agent, Denise Bukowski, about ‘creating synergies overseas‘ sounds about right.
I worked at Pearson, Penguin’s parent company. There was a lot of talk about ‘synergies.’
My more-suited-to-writing-novels brain has since figured out that they meant savings (smell the rubber burning).
A public company is required to squeeze out maximum profit for their shareholders. If sales are looking iffy, they need to save costs. They need to make a more efficient process.
I wondered if a public company, a commercial radio broadcaster, would put up with the chaos of Ira Glass? Imagine being the boss and watching all Ira’s random radio penguins scatter and skid around?
In businesses that package ideas, like publishers or radio broadcasters, there are two main parts: Creating and distributing. If you want to save costs, on the distribution side you can shrink costs by using the Internet, closing warehouses and increasing your bargaining power.
On the creative side, what can you do about ‘synergies’? “Okay Ira, you are only allowed to have 8 medicore stories on your long list this week. Lightning must strike every second time. Your bonus will now depend on a 50% lightning target.”
As I sat and listened to Glass, I felt soothed. It is nice to know that there are other people out there, running in circles, following dead ends and, occassionally, coming up with something good.
Publishing is, of course, different from radio.
As a novelist. I work alone. The creative process of writing a novel doesn’t start as a weekly list.
It’s more like a car crash in slow motion. The final impact only comes after a few years. More often than not, something ends up dead (hopefully not me).
As Glass said, “a great story is like a great melody: it announces its inevitable greatness and you recognize it the first time you hear it. Most stories aren’t that.”
Most novels aren’t that either.
Creating anything is messy. There is a lot of rain and very little lightning. There are no guarantees. As a writer or a producer of radio, you can only enjoy making a mess everyday.
And the odds of getting hit by lightning in U.S. in any given year? 1 in 700,000.
Choose your random penguin and place your bets.