Reflections on Ira Glass (pt. II): The Courage to Kill

Another post gearing up for DMAC (see previous post). Ira Glass, host of NPR’s “This American Life” offers a piece of advice that I think can be really instructive for producers of digital texts: “It’s time to kill… and enjoy the killing, because by killing, you will make something better live.” He says it much better himself:

This is one of those counter-intuitive pieces of advice. On the surface, it feels like you’re supposed to give up. But really, you’ve got to learn how to not waste your time fixing certain types of mistakes you made. Mostly this has to do with choices producers (of digital texts) make regarding their projects. The choices you make when you’re first thinking about your project will affect every element of the rest of the production process. And you’re going to make mistakes. You will. It’s the best way to learn. You’re going to have something you want to communicate. That’s good. You gotta start there. But then it get’s tricky. For instance…

If you can convey your idea very clearly in words on paper/screen alone, then it’s likely going to be a very bad digital text. That’s not to say it won’t communicate what you want it to. Instead, I’m suggesting that making it into a digital text has been a huge waste of your resources. Digital texts, after all, take much more time, training, skill, and resources than an equally articulate text-only argument. So you need something that can’t be completely articulated clearly in text-only modes. That’s a hard place to start, I know. And I think this is different for everyone.

For me, there’s a little bit of fuzziness about it. Something I know, but can’t articulate. But it’s something I know from listening to an audio clip, watching a video clip, or rifling through some archival images. I’m working right now on a Sophie book about Walter Benjamin’s archival research into the history of photography and the framework his findings provide as a way of theoretically rethinking digital production and reproduction. But much of his discussions are about complex and unfamiliar machines. Phenakistiscopes and physiognotraces and such. Working with his notes, it’s incredibly important for readers to have access to what the machines did and how they worked. In this sense, the visual aspects of a text are really important. I’m still working out how much of the project will use video and how many still images.

I’m not a huge proponent of the Modernist dictum: “Form must follow function.” I think there’s gotta be room for play, irony, experimentation, and failure. There also needs to be room for humor and emotional spikes. But thinking about the relationship between form and function is a useful lens to help you use your resources efficiently.

I want to get back to the importance of the inarticulate idea or the fuzzy argument. It’s important for another reason. Writing is much more powerful and a complex tool to communicate your thoughts. It’s way more than language made material. It’s a recursive technology that allows and forces a writer to reckon with thoughts, arguments, and materials in a way that produces ideas that language alone cannot do. (Read: Walter Ong, Eric Havelock, Christina Haas, Myron Tuman, Michael Heim, etc.) To become a better writer is to become a better thinker. (Oversimplied, I know. C’mon, it’s a blog post.)

The same holds true for digital production. Writers think differently. I know it varies from writer to writer. Some with more clarity. Some with more complexity. Some more abstractly. Some more concretely. But it’s a recursively developed skill. The more you write, the more you think like a writer, the easier it is to write.

Same goes for digital production. If you’ve already got your idea worked out, what you learn about the digital production tools will be limited. Because your limiting the extent to which you’re using the tools to think. Producers need to use the tools to develop the idea. Not just to convey it. Thinking with the tools of digital production.

In a text I co-authored for Computers and Writing Online, I wrote that “the tools of composition need to be the same as the tools of production.” What I mean by that is if your final text is going to be in the form of a video, you should, to some extent at least, be using the video production tools to do some of your thinking for you. What does it mean to brainstorm in video? What are the different ways of thinking about revision with video? What does free-writing mean in video? As I’ve been working through my own experiments with these questions, it’s become overwhelmingly clear that I do start thinking about arguments in entirely new ways. (And it’s way, way more work. Worth it to me, though. Maybe I fetishize.)

But what also happens is that as your argument develops, you’ll realize that you’ve chosen the wrong technologies for your project. Kill it. You’ll realize that you don’t have the right digital assets (pics, vids, audio, etc.). Kill it. You’ll realize that you don’t have access to the tools you need to produce something the way someone else has done. Expensive software or equipment, time, collaborators, etc. Kill it.

What I’m getting at here, is that there’s a lot of labor involved in producing digital texts. Lots of investment. That’s both good and bad. It’s good because it keeps you from wasting a lot of time on arguments in which you’re not so invested. It also forces you to continually re-evaluate your argument and the production of it.

But the bottom line is… you need to keep in mind the NEXT text you’ll be producing. If it’s not working, if you’ve made the wrong choices at the beginning, or shouldn’t have started the project at all, just stop. Write a blog post about why it didn’t work. Make sure your friends read it. So they might learn from your mistake, too. So that they know you’re human. So that you seem cool enough to know there’ll always be another text…

…and that you might have to kill that one, too.

(I’d love it if anyone out there wanted to share your own experiences with mistakes or failures for digital texts. I’ve got one about my own experimentation with humor in a digital story. Wow. So many mistakes. None of them funny. I’ll share mine, if you’ll share yours…)