The Art of Stories: A Conversation with Steve Almond

Christine Sneed

Steve Almond is one of the few writers whose books I await with genuine impatience, and his newest was no exception. I read Truth Is the Arrow, Mercy Is the Bow: A DIY Manual for the Construction of Stories (Zando; $18) in a few fervid sittings, underlining passage after passage, Almond’s characteristic wisdom and wry sense of humor wholly present in each of the book’s four sections. Truth Is the Arrow is an addictive blend of fiction-writing craft essays, writing prompts, and poignant reflections on the challenges and felicities of making a life as a writer.

Almond is also the author of two novels, All the Secrets of the World and Which Brings Me to You (the latter cowritten with Julianna Baggott), several works of nonfiction, including the New York Times-bestselling Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto and Candyfreak: A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America, and three short story collections, the most recent, God Bless America.

He answered my questions via email, and there’s so much here I’m still thinking about, perhaps especially his take on the old writing bromide “Show, don’t tell.”

ZYZZYVA: Has this book been percolating for a while? What ultimately got you into the chair to write it?

STEVE ALMOND: Oh, yeah. I’ve been writing this book for more than three decades. It contains pretty much everything I have to say about writing—which winds up being most of what I have to say about life. As a teacher, I’ve been sputtering these ideas at students for years, trying to put simple and direct language to the struggles they encounter.

But what I learned from hosting the Dear Sugars podcast—as well as from being a dada—is that people don’t really want advice. They want to know that they’re not alone in the struggle. They want you to acknowledge how bewildering the human arrangement is. So rather than writing from on high, I’ve mostly just tried to be honest about all the ways in which I’ve gotten lost at the keyboard, and the stuff I realized amid my wandering. It’s more of a confessional than a craft book. That’s what got me in the chair: the chance to make something useful from all my failure.

Z: Truth Is the Arrow, Mercy Is the Bow is such an engaging and memorable combination of craft-based discussions and stories about your own formation as a writer (and as a human being). Did you know this would be the structure from the outset?

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SA: I had no idea what form the book would take. I only knew that I wanted to avoid being overly technical, or mystical, about the creative process. Because it’s really pretty simple, when you boil away all the romance. Your job is to make decisions. As a writer, those decisions concern words, punctuation, paragraph shape, plot, characters, conflict, chronology, and so on. It’s relentless and exhausting and most of time, doubt-choked. It was important that I identify, in very concrete ways, the kinds of bad decisions I’d made as a writer, and why they held my stories back.

This meant writing some essays about the basic elements of craft (plot, narration, chronology, etc.). I also wanted to write about where stories come from—the inspiration part of the process. So the second section of the book is about all the stuff that gets our engines going: sex and obsession and humor, and it includes prompts to get folks writing in a loose, relaxed way.

The third section of the book is about all the internal stuff that holds us back. Writer’s block. Ego need. Competitive envy. Anxiety about exposure. What I call the Evil Voices. There’s also a Frequently Asked Questions section, at the end, which are these little micro-essays, many of them lifted from my crazy DIY craft book, “This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey.” This was a book I wrote fifteen years ago, and sold out of my backpack, for cash, like a drug dealer.

Z: I was struck by so many of your observations in this book about why making a life as a writer is often so hard, among them: “You have to be able to convert humiliation into humility. You have to be patient and stubborn enough to outlast your doubt.” Many writers (myself included) find it easier to take refuge in pessimism and cynicism. Why is humility so crucial for writers?

SA: I understand the impulse to become cynical. It’s natural at an historical moment like this. The planet is overheating. Innocent people are being slaughtered by war and famine. Our own political discourse is becoming mindless and cruel. And the internet is tempting us into becoming rubberneckers and trolls. But my feeling is that America is suffocating on cynicism. It’s a dead end. By which I mean: it’s a defensive emotion.

The job of the artist—and the good parent, and the good teacher—is to strip away the evasions, to reveal the grief hiding beneath our grievance, the thwarted desire thumping away below our alienation, the sorrow lurking in our rage. We have to be able to make the reader feel what Sarah Manguso calls “the burden of hope.” Cynicism is designed to protect us from feeling hope. And frankly, if we participate in that cynicism, we become a part of the problem. There’s an entire movement in this country built on cynicism, led by a cruel man who was once an unloved boy. When you listen to his sociopathic word salads the central thing to notice is that there’s no hope there, aside from vengeance. It’s an utterly cynical arrangement.

I’ve written elsewhere about our political dysfunction, and I didn’t want that stuff to infiltrate this book. I don’t think making art is, or should be, a political act. But I do think it’s a moral act. Our mission is to entertain, but also to enlarge the moral imagination of our readers, to awaken their empathy. Language is central to this. Orwell argues that language can corrupt thought—and I agree. But the opposite is also true: language can improve and even redeem thought. If we can tell the truth—about how much life hurts, about how scared and confused we are, for instance—our readers are invited to become truthful. That kind of candor requires humility. We have to surrender to the enormity of our feelings, our fears, our inadequacies. We can bow to cynicism in our lives off the page, but as writers, we’re the fools in charge of forgiveness.

Z: Another observation I found especially resonant is how many writers you’ve taught seem to have taken their cues from TV shows and films rather than from books: “I continue to encounter manuscripts with far too much vivid camera work and far too little actual storytelling. Vital information has been withheld, and the result, I often feel, is that I am not being told a story at all, so much as being asked to solve a puzzle.” The way to remedy this, you note, is to make sure your story has a bona fide narrator, i.e. someone who tells. Showing can only take us so far. Why do you think the bromide “show, don’t tell” persists?

SA: Well, to begin with, it’s a very useful idea. Readers want to see moments of passion and betrayal dramatized, not summarized. We want to be inside the characters, in real time, when shit is going down. Completely get that. The problem is that this workshop mantra has become a kind of mindless dogma. Writers think that if they’re writing in scene it’s automatically more compelling to the reader than exposition. And that’s simply not true if the reader has no idea what’s happening in a scene, or what’s at stake. The reason this has become dogma has to do with two forces.

First, the fact that TV and movies are the dominant forms of storytelling in our culture. This means that most writers come to the keyboard feeling deeply insecure, worried that the reader will wander off to Netflix unless they, the writer, hooks them immediately by plunging them into some moment of chaos. Sadly, agents and editors—who are operating under the same pressures—tend to reinforce this message, so that it becomes a kind of groupthink echo chamber.

We’ve lost faith in the power of traditional narration. In our panic to enthrall the reader, we’ve forgotten that the reader isn’t picking up a book because they want to watch a movie. They’re picking up a book because they want to hear a story. And they want a narrator who can guide them through that story, who can tell them who they should care about, and what sort of ruin or redemption awaits. You don’t have to ditch show-don’t-tell to do that. You just have to modify it a bit. Tell me just enough that I can feel what I’m being shown.

Z: A recurring theme in Truth Is the Arrow is the inner life’s importance and that good writing accesses interiority, doubt, bewilderment. “The stories we tell (if they are honest) should be full of doubt. Because we, as a species, are full of doubt.” And, “We’re all the same way. We present to the world a version of ourselves brimming with assurance, free of anguish, in control. We know it’s a lie, but we see everyone else participating in that lie; the result is a vast and insoluble loneliness.” I remember a professor of mine, the poet David Wojahn, once saying, “We write because we want to be loved.” I have to think you agree—is this good for us, dangerous, both?

SA: I love David Wojahn. And I do think he’s right, in a broad sense. Of course we want to be loved. That’s the ticker tape that never stops running in our heads and hearts: please love me, please love me. But that desire, if it’s too persistent, can become a kind of ego need that diverts the writers attention from the story itself. Rather than focusing on the characters and their struggles, the writer starts to pursue a needier agenda: to write in a manner that makes them appear smart, poetic, sensitive, worthy of love.

When things are working well for me, I’m more interested in the story than in how well I’m telling it. That is: I’m thinking about my characters as much as possible, and myself as little as possible. It’s a kind of sublimation of the ego in service to the story. So I guess the way I’d put it is like this: We write because we want to connect with the reader. We want to be understood. We want the reader to admire us, of course. But that’s more of a surface concern. Deeper down, we want the reader to feel what we felt as we were writing, to participate with us in that revelation.

Z: Lastly, thank you for saying this: “Your job [when writing characters] is not to burnish the saint but to redeem the sinner … I want to emphasize this because certain agents and editors stress that characters should be likable, which, along with its ditzy cousin relatable, is one of those marketing words that has infiltrated publishing. (Thanks, capitalism!)” I really dislike the word “relatable.” If not likable, what qualities make for the best characters—and who are some of your favorites, besides John Williams’s William Stoner?

SA: Yeah, it’s just so barfy when you encounter these corporate words in the context of writing. I’m with Lorrie Moore and Claire Messud (two of my faves), who have both said, in different ways, that you don’t go to literature to make friends. You read to encounter characters who are alive, who are struggling in ways we recognize as part of our story.

That’s really what I’m after: how deeply am I traveling into this character’s inner life? It’s that quality of attention, of deep access, that enchants me. And it shows up regardless of a character’s temperament or history. It could be someone like India Bridge (from the novel Mrs. Bridge), a middle-aged matron who is repressed to the point of asphyxiation, or Jasira, the teenage narrator of Alicia Erian’s novel, Towelhead, who is throwing her body before her heart in totally reckless ways. It could be any of the three characters in Megha Majumdar’s astonishing novel, A Burning, each of whom is battling for power within corrupt public systems that lead to private corruptions.

We are swimming in a world of bullshit at this point, one of our own making: capitalism with its endless bumps of dopamine and perpetual lust for convenience. What I look for in characters, most centrally, is inconvenience—the inconvenience of truth, of intense emotion, of bad behavior, of mercy.

Christine Sneed’s most recent books are Direct Sunlight, Please Be Advised: A Novel in Memos, and The Virginity of Famous Men. She’s also the editor of the short fiction anthology Love in the Time of Time’s Up. Her work has appeared in publications including The Best American Short Stories, O. Henry Prize Stories, Ploughshares, New England Review, Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, and The New York Times. She has received the Grace Paley Prize, an O. Henry Prize, and the Chicago Public Library Foundation’s 21st Century Award, among other honors, and has been a finalist for the L.A. Times Book Prize. She lives in Pasadena and teaches for Northwestern University and Stanford University Continuing Studies.

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