Ira Glass on Failure, Empathy and the Importance of Being Wrong

In her now sadly defunct “Wrong Stuff” series on Slate, Kathryn Schulz, the author of […]

David Zahl / 12.6.10

In her now sadly defunct “Wrong Stuff” series on Slate, Kathryn Schulz, the author of Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, interviewed high-profile artists, academics and others about the experience of being wrong. If you haven’t read her Q&A with the late Chuck Colson (of Watergate and Prison Fellowship fame), it’s a great place to start. A bit more recently Schulz spoke with Ira Glass, the host of NPR’s This American Life, AKA the basis for the new Mbird publication This American Gospel: Public Radio Parables and the Grace of God. Glass offers some characteristically germane thoughts on hermeneutics, creativity and failure. In fact, at points he almost sounds like a preacher! And once again the creative process serves as a helpful metaphor for the theology of the cross:

Why is there such a big payoff for the listener in stories about wrongness? What makes it so pleasurable?

Well, if the story works, you become the character, right? You agree with their early point of view, and then when it gets shattered, you are shattered with it. So in the storytelling, you want to manipulate the evidence and the feelings so that the audience is right there agreeing with the person who’s about to be proven wrong. When that happens, if it’s done right, you as the audience get flipped upside down.

The experience of being wrong can be so emotional—it can involve feeling humiliated or confused or losing an organizing principle of our life in a way that can sometimes be devastating. What’s it like as an interviewer to bring people through that kind of experience all over again?

[He thinks a long time.] I’m not sure what to say. If any story is going to be good, whichever one of us is working on it, we have to go through the feelings of the story ourselves. Nobody’s going to feel it if we don’t feel. It’s honestly not worth making a story if you’re not going to have strong feelings about it, if it’s not going to create empathy. I walk the person through “What did you feel at each stage of this?” and if somebody’s telling you about some moment of incredible vulnerability and emotion, if you’re normal, your heart goes out to them. So if it’s going well, that’s what happens. But it doesn’t go well every time. We kill half of the stories we try, because not everything can live up to that.

One of the reasons I was interested in doing this interview is because I feel like being wrong is really important to doing decent work. To do any kind of creative work well, you have to run at stuff knowing that it’s usually going to fail. You have to take that into account and you have to make peace with it. We spend a lot of money and time on stuff that goes nowhere. It’s not unusual for us to go through 25 or 30 ideas and then go into production on eight or 10 and then kill everything but three or four. In my experience, most stuff that you start is mediocre for a really long time before it actually gets good. And you can’t tell if it’s going to be good until you’re really late in the process. So the only thing you can do is have faith that if you do enough stuff, something will turn out great and really surprise you.

I think some kinds of wrongness can be intensely pleasurable or useful or revelatory or transformative.

That makes me think of something I’ve noticed in this writer we used to have on the show all the time, David Sedaris. He would tell stories about his family, and in those stories he was always the one who was the butt of the joke. He was the one who was wrong and everybody else in the family was right.

After he went through the most dramatic stories of his childhood he had to figure out what his next book was going to be about. So what did he do? He moved to France, where he would always be wrong again. I don’t know if he thought it through this way or if it simply happened—I think it’s the latter—but he couldn’t have written that book [Me Talk Pretty One Day] in New York, where he knows his way around and speaks the language and feels at home. Whereas living in France was just constant wrongness. He was always going to be the butt of the joke again. I guess what I’m saying is that that being wrong turns out to be a very natural place for a lot of people to write from.

To order a copy of This American Gospel, go here.


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