Since 1995, Ira Glass, one of the greatest storytellers of our time, has been the host of the radio show “This American Life,”a weekly hour-long show that is primarily journalistic non-fiction but also features essays, short fiction and occasionally memoirs.
I had the pleasure of seeing Ira live recently. My experience was less like sitting in a large hall and more like sitting in a living room listening to a fascinating storyteller spin a variety of yarns. Ira spoke about how the stories for his show are picked and how they are fact checked. He mentioned how sometimes, just hours before a show was ready to record, the show would get canned because a fact would come back as incorrect. He shared how to find the best stories and what elements go into the making of a great radio story. But what he shared that especially resonated with me was his opinion of what qualities are found in the better storytellers.
The best storyteller is a “cross-over,” Ira explained, the person who doesn’t actually belong to a group but is familiar and comfortable with and accepted by the group. This person understands the psychology behind the group. For example, the white kid that hangs out with the black kids, or, as in one of Ira’s stories, the Shiite man who hangs around with a group of Sunni friends and who everyone thinks is Sunni.
I had an ‘ah ha’ moment when I recognized that I have always been that person. I am the grand-child of immigrants, and I grew up in both New York City and Los Angeles, large melting pots of cultures from around the world. Because my family craved ‘new experiences,’ as a child, I was exposed to people of many and varied cultures. And now, as an adult, I have lived and traveled around the world, making myself at home wherever I am.
For a long time, I’d never felt as if I belonged anywhere until I realized that rather than something being wrong, I was the total expression of all these experiences, cultures and people whom my life has touched and whose lives have touched me. I belong everywhere and truly enjoy the experience of hearing peoples’ stories. These are great assets for a video biographer.
My clients frequently open up to me, and their families often ask “How did you get that story out of my mother?” Or sometimes they explain, “My father never shared that story with anyone, I don’t know how you were able to get him to share.” Over time, I have learned the skills of really listening without judgment or agenda, but with interest and curiosity. It is these skills that have allowed me to become a great video biographer.
Ira Glass often asks, “What did you make from that experience?” A good biographer or memoirist helps their storytellers find the lesson, close the circle, and get complete with their experience. It’s a powerful exercise. I frequently come away from interviews in a state of awe and gratitude.
Seeing my life from the vantage point of being the “cross-over,” as well as an expression of all my experiences empowers me to continue my passion, helping people tell their stories in a way that identifies who they are and what has meaning for them and in the process leaving behind a wonderful legacy for generations to comes. Thanks Ira!
“The hunger to belong is not merely a desire to be attached to something. It is rather sensing that great transformation and discovery become possible when belonging is sheltered and true.” ~John O’Donohue