This American Life is my favorite weekly podcast. It’s a slice-of-life series about interesting people, or sometimes just the guy-next-door who’s had something extraordinary happen to him. Ira Glass, the show’s host/producer is an amazing oral storyteller, and he shares his expertise with others. He has a series of four video podcasts on YouTube that are designed to help people new to interviewing and creating video productions. But, the storytelling advice is universal.

Most interesting to me was the third podcast called, “On Good Taste.” Ira claims that most videographers, and I’ll argue most people who love the arts, begin pursuing the arts themselves because they have good taste. They understand excellence and want to create it themselves. The problem is, when videographers first begin interviewing people and filming their stories, there is a large gap between what they know as quality work and what they are producing. He says it takes years to bridge that gap, and patience is key.

Writing is no different. Whether pursuing an MFA, or learning to write on your own terms, patience and persistence and practice are required. But, just as important, is the ability to see your work in the beginning stages for what it is. A work in progress. My first book was written as an experiment to see if I could write a full length novel, from beginning to end. The quality was not good, but I’m as proud of that book as anything I’ve ever written. It convinced me I was up to the task. The next several books helped me to begin understanding and fine-tuning the thousand different tasks that come together to form a cohesive work.

When I read a passage that is brilliant writing, it almost always produces a physical response. I get chills or smile or catch my breath at the beauty of the writing. It’s the desire to produce that reaction in others that makes me want to pursue writing. I’ll share an example from a short story titled By-and-By from Amy Bloom. I’m sharing this one because I just read it this past week on vacation and thought how perfectly written it was. It is the first paragraph of the story.

“Every death is violent.

The iris, the rainbow of the eyes, closes down. The pupil spreads out like black water. It seems natural, if you are there, to push the lid down, to ease the pleated shade over the ball, down to the lower lashes. The light is out, close the door.

Mrs. Warburg called me at midnight. I heard the click of her lighter and the tiny crackle of burning tobacco. Her ring bumped against the receiver.”

That is a brilliant beginning to a story on so many different levels! The intimacy of those two paragraphs is perfect. She draws the reader up into the face of the dead girl, and then into the faces of the two women who are about to discuss the girl over the phone. Can’t you hear the woman’s ring click against the mouthpiece? And, the way she refers to the eyelid as the, ‘pleated shade over the ball.’ That gave me chills. That’s brilliant writing, and Amy Bloom has been doing it for years. You may not be to that point yet, but, I agree with Ira – by having the ability to distinguish brilliant writing, you can hone your own writing to one day reach that same level. That’s my goal.

Next week – word choice