Creative writing students soak up advice, criticism from radio host Ira Glass

About 100 creative writing students gathered on a recent Saturday afternoon in the Francis X. Kinahan Theater, hoping for words of wisdom from one of the undisputed masters of nonfiction storytelling.

They got what they bargained for: Ira Glass, radio host of “This American Life,” had plenty advice for them—and a little tough love.

Daniel Raeburn, lecturer in the Committee on Creative Writing, who organized Glass’ visit, had asked students in his Intermediate Creative Nonfiction course to write sample “This American Life” story pitches for Glass to review. Glass glanced at the stack of pitches and looked into the audience.

“These pitches were terrible,” Glass good-naturedly told the students. “They weren’t even close to being good.”

At least they were in good company. Glass confessed he was a “terrible” writer when he began his journalism career as a reporter for NPR. Writing and reporting “seemed very mysterious,” he said. It wasn’t until he mastered the basics of storytelling that his writing began to improve.

Throughout the two-hour conversation and workshop, Glass encouraged the aspiring writers and reporters to stay focused on compelling storytelling and plot. “A story is about logic; it’s not about reason, it’s not about emotion, primarily,” he said, “It’s about the motion of action—this thing happened, which led to this thing.”

If you create narrative suspense, your audience “can’t resist it,” he explained. “So you’re kind of stuck with us.”

Even when “This American Life” tackles serious issues, the producers try not to let their sense of mission detract from the show’s entertainment value, Glass said. “We want to play a really advanced game on both of those things.”

He also urged the students not to lose sight of what they found interesting. “It’s important that you’re out to amuse yourself,” he said.

Glass called on several students in Raeburn’s class, and encouraged them to hone in on the most engaging aspects of their story ideas.

Glass praised third-year Tyler Leed’s idea for a story about his experiences with the waning punk scene in Washington D.C. Leeds said he planned to go back and revise his pitch based on Glass’ feedback—“seeing as my final grade depends on it.”

Fourth-year Adam Gillette also was singled out by Glass. The experience was “nerve-wracking,” he said, but he was grateful for the guidance. “You’d be foolish not to take something away from it,” Gillette said.