The most inspiring two days I experienced all last year were spent at the Gel conference in New York City in April. The very last speaker was a mesmerizing Ira Glass, host of This American Life. At the time, I was not even a listener of the radio show, let alone a fan, but now I’m both. And I’m an even bigger fan today than I was just a week ago.
I listen to the podcast each week, generally when I’m taking a walk, because that’s pretty much the only time when my hands and mind are both free for anything close to an hour. At the beginning of my lunch hour this past Thursday, I cued up an episode I’d missed from October and set forth.
The episode was “Act V” —
We devote this entire episode to one story: over the course of six months, reporter and TAL contributor Jack Hitt followed a group of inmates at a high-security prison as they rehearsed and staged a production of the last actâ€”Act Vâ€”of Hamlet.
— and it was exactly what I needed to hear.
I’d been disappointed in the chapter draft I’d just finished because, amid the density of facts I presented, I had teased out very little emotional content. I’d gotten the chronology right, but there was no feeling. And I wondered whether I’d be able to do better in my next draft.
“Act V” was a revelation, and you really should hear it yourself. If you do, you’ll hear a reporter and his subjects alike plumbing the complexity and emotional depth of their material and of themselves, making that material known and knowable, and showing an astonishing capacity for growth.
At the end of that episode I knew that, put simply, if they could do it, I can do it. And if you yourself are struggling to get to the heart of some creative work, rest assured that you can do it, too.
I’m SO jealous that you got to hear Ira Glass live. I am a fan of This American Life — I catch up on episodes on my iPod in the car between audio books. Very often I’ve had the experience you did, where the message in his show is exactly the one I need in my life at that moment.
I listened to this same episode while flying to CA earlier in the week. It was incredible and inspired me, too.
That is one of my top five episodes ever. I heart T.A.L…
I adore Ira Glass–This American Life is freaking incredible. I haven’t heard this episode; will have to check it out.
The last one I heard that really blew me away (well, they ALL do) was a week or two ago–the story of the American Muslim family who lived in a small town on the East Coast, and after 9/11 their daughter was tormented so much in school–in a way that was encouraged by intolerant district-wide curriculum–that they ultimately ended up leaving town. That one was really hard to listen to.
Just so non-listeners (or not-yet-listeners) don’t get the wrong idea about This American Life, they should know that not so long ago there was a piece about the cut-throat world of balloon-animal-making, and another in which a correspondent successfully reached out to Phil Collins for help with crafting her post-breakup song — which This American Life then allowed the public to remix.
But yes, a., the American Muslim episode was powerful, too — not just the main segment you described, but also the segment at the end about the not-at-all-cynical U.S. effort to promote our virtues in a Middle East ad campaign.
And then David Sedaris regularly has HILARIOUS pieces. It’s the perfect mix, if you ask me…