Saturday, March 04, 2006

One Writer's Process: Steve Almond

Steve Almond, the author of My Life in Heavy Metal, Candyfreak, and The Evil B.B. Chow, wrote "The Day I Turned Chickenhearted," a short story which appears in Sixteen: Stories About That Sweet and Bitter Birthday, edited by Megan McCafferty.

It's one of my favorites in the collection, not just because it's from the guy's point of view, but because he struck a rare, deep place in terms of understanding the kind of courage it takes to enter into relationships.

There's a moment when his narrator says "You reach a point in every relationship where you have to decide to be brave, to move forward into the dangerous territory. Or you retreat."

And that moment seems true, not just for entering new relationships, but for entering into the kind of unfamiliar territory a writer has to enter each time he or she faces the blank page.

Almond has a new novel, Which Brings Me To You, co-authored with Julianna Baggott, due for release in April, 2006. He was kind enough to share these thoughts on his writing process:

The most basic truth when it comes to writing is that I hate to do it.

I know a lot of writers who will say things like, "Oh, it's just so great to be able to write every day!"

Or "I was up all night working on this novel--it's just flowing out of me and I just can't stop myself!"

I have no idea what these people are talking about.

For me, the central emotion I feel toward writing is dread.

It's hard to concentrate in the way writing requires (hard, steadily) and it's hard to maintain your belief in a particular piece and it's hard to feel that there's any point, given the general reception to writing in this culture (slim to none).

So I spend most of my time not writing.

In fact, on an average day, I spend about two hours writing and another 14 or 15 hours avoiding writing.

I'm not making this up. If you mounted a spycam in my apartment--and I have no idea why anyone would do such a thing--this is basically what you'd see.

There are only a couple of things I can do to combat this dynamic.

1. Be stubborn

2. Write about stuff that I find really interesting

There's no need to expand on point one. Nobody makes it as a writer--or an artist of any sort in this culture--without being stubborn. In some cases, being stubborn can even pass itself off as being disciplined, though I'm here to tell you they are really only second cousins.

As for point two, it took me a long time to realize this. The act of writing itself--that battle of bringing oneself to the keyboard--is hard enough. I simply couldn't do it if I wasn't writing about characters and situations that got under my skin.

Most good writing has an obsessive quality, a sense of urgency that you can't fake. Because the author needs to be obsessed. It's this intensity of desire that most readers are actually responding to.

So that's really all I try to do: make sure I'm writing about the things that obsess me: sex, candy, romantic possibility, loneliness, the damage we do to one another, knowingly and otherwise.

There's no secret formula for me (though there might be for other writers).

I just try to structure my life in such a way that I have about 16 hours each day that I COULD be writing.

I do tend to write in the mornings, for the simple reason that I'm the freshest then and that I'll feel less racked by guilt if I get some writing done early on.

That's my approach.

The bottom line is that writers should do whatever gets them to the keyboard, and keeps them there.

Also: they don't talk about this much in MFA programs, but writing is extraordinarily lonely. Any way you slice it, it's hard to be alone for such long stretches, unnatural really.

So I try to make sure that whatever I'm working on is good company, that I care about the characters enough to see them through their necessary dangers.

For more information about Steve Almond and his work, check out his website at


Anonymous said...

It feels better starting off another week after reading Steve’s comments. I know other writers besides Steve have said similar things, but it's a welcome message to be re-validated. Almost all his remarks resonate with me; I like it that he's an accomplished, published author and can still let us know that writing doesn’t come easy for him, that it’s hard work. Amen. It feels like he’s been looking over my shoulder at my latest novel; fifty pages in and I agree with him: “it's hard to maintain a belief in a particular piece and it's hard to feel that there's any point.” But I keep going, to see what will happen next. I don’t worry about loneliness anymore, though I sometimes think about trying medical marijuana. It's getting like Kudzu around here. I might be better able to communicate with my characters, which may seem a little far out, but one can get much farther out on a visit to Steve’s web page. Great fun, and helps to avoid writing, while laughing.

Anonymous said...

Almond's comments resonated with me as well and I appreciate his ability to just spit it out plain and simple. Why is writing so hard? Writing is hard because it is extremely difficult to maintain intense, steady concentration and it is extraordinarily lonely. Period. Meanwhile we must stubbornly (or with discipline)fight off feelings of guilt and inadequacy that fester during those (essential) 16 hours of down time. No wonder we take such perverse pleasure in learning that our colleagues are just as miserable as we are.

Anonymous said...

Hi jude, good to see your comments (and your past column) in the blog; hope to see you return often.