I’m sure I wasn’t the only one confused when the man at the podium told a room full of writers “So let’s set the bar a little lower.” What? Steve Almond, weaving in and out of jokes, reminded us – seriously – that our best ideas rest not in self-criticism, but in willingness to let go and just write. It’s a great lesson. –Andrew
Cobalt: In a recent speaking engagement, you instructed a room full of emerging writers to “set the bar a little lower.” Could you briefly explain what you mean by this? Also, as a seasoned author, how do you “set the bar a little lower” in your own endeavors?
Steve Almond: Yeah, “set the bar a little lower” is going to sound pretty nutso as a piece of advice to young writers trying to get better. But I’m talking about the expectations we place on ourselves as we try to learn to get better. When people speak about writer’s block, what they mean, for the most part, is a crisis of confidence. The writer basically decides that the story or essay or novel in question sucks, and isn’t ever going to get better, and they give up. It’s at moments like these that “set the bar a little lower” becomes crucial. All I’m really saying is that you’ve got to get yourself into the chair and get writing, and if that sometimes requires that you judge your work less harshly, than that’s what you have to do. It also happens to be true that most writers do the best work when they feel the least pressure — they can relax and allow more of themselves onto the page. And this, too, happens more frequently when you set the bar a little lower. A first draft is supposed to be a work in progress, not a masterpiece. Most of mine are pretty cruddy. That’s just the price of doing business.
Cobalt: Lately, you have been publishing your own work. Tell us a little about your personal publishing process and how you came to it.
Almond: I just got an idea for a book I wanted to write, consisting of short short stories and short essays about the psychology and practice of writing. I pitched it to an editor at a big New York publishing and she basically just stared at me like I was crazy. From her perspective, my book idea was crazy. It wasn’t going to make her large company any money. But I really wanted to make this book. So I wrote a manuscript, and showed it to all my friends/editors, and rewrote it until it no longer sucked and then got in touch with an artist friend of mine, Brian Stauffer, who designed a gorgeous set of cover images. In other words, I just decided to do it myself. The technology now allows writers to do this. The means of production have become democratized, as they did for musicians years ago. I had so much fun making the first one, that I’ve produced two more. You can only buy them from Harvard Bookstore, which prints most of the books on their Espresso Book Machine, or from me, in person. The whole idea was to create a set of small books that were artifacts, rather than commodities. Writers should keep in mind that they can have whatever sort of publishing experience they want. For me, these DIY books are more personal and idiosyncratic and I like that they move out into the world in a more organic way.
Cobalt: In your book Candyfreak, you confess to thinking about candy at least once every hour. What are some of the candies you have been thinking about today – and what is currently in your stash? (I am also curious to know if you still have any Kit Kat Dark left, and what occasions warrant unwrapping one.)
Almond: My wife and I are TERRIBLE. We’ve got two or three high-end candy bars in our crisper drawer, including a caramel with black sea salt bar that’s drool-worthy. But I’ve also got a whole bunch of mini Snickers and Milky Way Darks and M&Ms and chocolate-covered raisins. I literally just had to bring a bag of M&Ms downstairs, because it was clear that I would eat the entire half-pound bag if they remained within my reach. Seriously: I’m totally pathetic when it comes to candy. I’m like the alpha junkie of all time. As for the Kit Kat Darks, they are LONG gone.
Cobalt: Rock and Roll will Save Your Life seems like another book of the “freakness” you describe in Candyfreak. Could you tell us a little about this book and your experience writing it?
Almond: I do best when I’m writing about my obsessions. I’ve been an annoyingly devout music fan for years, always lobbying my friends to get on board my latest band crush. And I’ve also always felt that music is the one artistic medium that allows us to reach the feelings inside that we need to reach, but can’t by other means. I do a lot of crying and unreasonable dancing when I’m listening to music. So all I wanted to do was write a book that described this set of feelings — what it’s like to be an obsessed fan. After all, very few of us actually get to be rock stars. But EVERYONE has dreamed of being a rock star, and has used music to commemorate their lives, to celebrate the best moments and endure the worst. I also really wanted an excuse to go hang out with my favorite musicians, most of whom were very patient (if somewhat afraid.)
Cobalt: Did you approach Letters from People Who Hate Me with the intention of publishing a book a la Ted L. Nancy’s Letters from a Nut series?
Almond: I’ve never heard of Letters from a Nut. Sorry. My intention with Letters was simply to address a set of people who seemed full of rage and grievance — not so much at me, as at life itself. The guys who wrote these letters are speaking for a small, but disproportionately loud, portion of Americans. And it’s important not just to ignore what they have to say. I find the letters quite sad and moving. Beyond all the name-calling and death threats, they’re very honest documents. And I tried to respond to them honestly.
Cobalt: You’re no doubt interested in politics; and your latest book, God Bless America, bears a title that it seems can only be read with cynicism or sarcasm. What do you want the typical reader to take away from your new collection?
Almond: I don’t mean the title to be read cynically. I do think America has been blessed, whether by God or good fortune. We’re the luckiest country in the history of the world. My distress arises from the sense that we’re becoming less compassionate as a people. My hope is the same as any author: I want folks to feel implicated by the stories, to feel some part of themselves revealed. My intention is never to mock our country, but to be honest about the ways in which we’ve failed to live up to our values.
Cobalt: What offends you?
Almond: Yikes. Well, certainly my own neediness offends me. My failures as a husband and father — I spend a lot of time troubled about those. In terms of the greater culture, the main thing is people taking their privilege for granted. Most Americans have no idea what it’s like to fear for your life, or not have enough food, or medical care. We pitch a fit if we have to wait five extra minutes in line at the ice cream shop. That kind of entitlement is tough to stomach.
Cobalt: What’s the last story that kept you up at night; and what finally let you rest easy?
Almond: I assume you mean a short story. My friend Bruce Machart has a new collection called “Men in the Making” and a lot of the stories there just haunted me. There’s one that’s about this medical currier who has to transport body parts, and another about the murder of James Byrd, down in Jasper, Texas. Both of those really stuck with me. The new biography of Kurt Vonnegut is terrific, too. As for resting easy, I have a two and five year old, so there’s not a lot rest to be had these days…
Cobalt: Finally, if you could choose one candy to serve as international currency, how would you pay off the national debt?
Almond: Oh gosh. If I was put in charge of the national debt, I’d tax every single millionaire and large corporation in this country at 91 percent — the highest tax rate during the Eisenhower administration — and use all the money to give every teacher and social worker and nurse in this country a 100 percent raise. (I doubt a CEO could do their job for more than a couple of days without breaking down.) They can buy whatever kind of candy they freak on.
God Bless America was published by Lookout Books and is released on October 25, 2011. Buy your copy here.
*Editor’s note: I can thank the folks at Barrelhouse for hosting the event at which I was introduced to Steve (not including his contributions to Tin House).