How Steve Almond Rocked My Face Off & How I Will Now Rock Yours

By Melanie Yarbrough

I got home from the Boston Book Festival around 7:30 last night, and frankly, I was pooped. After nine glorious hours of readings, chatting, perusing and venturing into the churches of Boston, my brain was abuzz with all I wanted to write about: How Steve Almond has once again won my heart and those of my friends? The woman who read last at the Guided Open Mic and killed it? The Web of Relationships panel discussion about how Twitter and Facebook are (or aren’t) being incorporated into contemporary literature? Instead, I didn’t write about anything. You’re welcome.

Today, after a little bit of rest, I’m a little bit clearer-headed. So here’s a nugget on my favorite event from the festival (Spoiler Alert: There’s a giveaway at the end!):

Steve Almond knows what he’s talking about.

I’ve heard from some that he’s abrasive, that his choice of language seems only to involve choosing the crudest option. True, he’s not for everybody, but (also true) those that are “for everybody” aren’t being honest. Almond loves writing in all of its stages: idea, creation, critique, sharing, second-guessing. After each writer read their three to five minute excerpt, Almond rushed to the podium to share his initial reactions. Generous and smart, Almond didn’t miss a beat.

Some of my favorites of his advice: Avoid abstraction when speaking idealistically. If you’re nervous as shit during a reading say, “Fuck. I’m nervous as shit” (expletives optional). In non-fiction, run toward the shame; write about what you don’t want others to know, because that’s all they’re interested in knowing.

He’s funny: After equating one of his minor critiques to moving the cherry on a sundae over a centimeter he quipped, “That’s a bad metaphor. Don’t use metaphors.” Addressing a spoken word poet who might have seemed out of place in the predominantly prose environment, Almond said, “You’re young and fearless. Fuck you.”

He’s no comedian, but he knows how to talk to a crowd. Like his writing, he’s got boldness and wit. He went beyond giving his thoughts on our writing, offering his thoughts on the art of reading your own writing in front of a crowd: Don’t act like the crowd’s not there. He told us to engage our audience in real life as much as we strive to in our writing, and he showed us exactly how it’s done.

There was a big turnout for this event, so not everyone got to read (including yours truly, wah wahh). Instead, Almond promised to organize an open mic at Grub Street for the rest of us, so I’m looking forward to that, even if just to see him in action again.

To celebrate how much Shane and I love Steve Almond, we’re giving away one of his recently self-published (thanks to Harvard Bookstore’s Paige M. Gutenborg) books: This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey, a collection of short essays on writing and super short fiction. Almond is as honest and concise as he is in person and warns: “I’m describing the sort of prose I dig. There are plenty of other sensibilities out there, less bossy and abject. But I come to stories in the naked hope they will fuck me up. I want people at the end of their ropes. It’s far too late in the history of our species for sophisticated poses.” (From essay #13, “I Don’t Want Your Stinkin’ Ideas,” italics his own.)

If you want this kickass collection for both non-fiction and fiction addicts alike, simply leave us a comment on an author you’ve seen in person and what the experience was like. Never been to a reading? (WTF is wrong with you?) No worries, just tell us an author you’re dying – or mildly in pain – to see. We’ll pick a winner at random in two weeks.

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6 thoughts on “How Steve Almond Rocked My Face Off & How I Will Now Rock Yours

  1. ravi says:

    Junot Diaz was in town on Friday. Good stage presence, relaxed and engaging. Handled all the questions extremely well. Knew to keep the reading material short and funny. And it was held in a chapel, so that was cool.

  2. Kristin says:

    A few months ago, I saw Anne Carson read from her latest book, Nox. The book itself, reprinted as closely as possible to her scrap-booked, handwritten original version of the poem, was just like her reading, lush, layered, and beautiful.

    Before Carson even began the reading, her publisher and the production team on the book spoke on the process of creating such a complex title, and mentioned that the original publisher for the book had lost Carson’s original for several months, and everyone thought all was lost before it appeared in Germany six months later. Once Carson took the stage, she had us pass a copy of the book around, each new person opening one of its accordion pages until the book looped through the audience.

    Her reading of the piece was spectacular. Nox focuses on the disappearance and death of Carson’s brother, set against the impossible task of translating Catullus’ poem 101, and the words and images in the book are stunning. Carson’s reading, though, was cool and composed. I’ve seen her read before, and her voice is deep and makes the audience feel every word. I don’t know why, but I expected this one to be different, since the work was so personal, but in a way, hearing the familiar composure made the work all the more moving. It was a wonderful experience, overall, and one that helped rekindle my faith in poetry.

    (And Shane, this blog is fantastic! Thanks for sharing the link.)

  3. K says:

    Is it a cop out if the reading that I write about IS Steve Almond? I saw him emcee and read the “Rains Down In Africa” essay at the Boston Book Festival on Saturday, and he’s an amazing presenter. The way he got the audience involved with a sing-a-long was enough to keep everyone entertained in case his written words didn’t do the trick. Oh, but his written word DID do the trick, and still does as I delve into “Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life.” He’s the kind of author that I’m excited to go hear speak again.

    I also saw a memorable reading/talk a few years ago in New York by Amiri Baraka. It’s so wonderful to see a powerful author come to life outside of his books. As such a controversial figure in his long life as an author, the Q&A was incredibly interesting.

    • K,

      Let’s get one thing straight: It’s never a cop out to talk about Steve Almond. Also, thanks for sharing! Shane & I tore up the Boston Book Fest this year, and we’re glad to hear others got as much out of it as we did.

      Send us an email so we know how to contact you in case you win!

      – Melanie

    • susan tepper says:

      Steve Almond is a master storyteller, phenomenal reader and all around great guy. I hosted him last spring at FIZZ (KGB bar)and he took down a packed house. He’s got a big heart, so evident in his stories. There’s always an open door in my series for SA–

  4. Congratulations to the winner of our very first contest: Ravi!

    Thank you to everyone who stopped by. We hope you’ll keep supporting your local authors and bookstores by attending these great opportunities to interact with the prose you read.

    Mel & Shane

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