May 7, 2010

Steve Almond Will Save Your Life

I once thought Steve Almond was two people, and this is why.

It's July 2007 and the first morning of the Tin House Writers Conference. This is my first conference ever, and I'm scuttling along the sidewalk just waiting for them to accost me and toss me out on my ear: "Tamara Linse, you don't belong here! Go home." But I'm determined, until that happens, to meet as many people as possible.

The sun is shining brightly as I come out of the morning panel and I'm just thrilled to be alive. I see a nice young couple with a little baby in a stroller unloading in the circle drive. I stop to offer to help with the luggage. They've got it, so I walk along beside them as they make their way toward the check-in.

"Your baby is so cute!" I say. I squint to try to determine the sex. Just to be safe, I say, "What's her ... his ... name?"

The woman, who is very pretty and very nice, says, "Her name is Josie."

I bubble, "Oh, she is so cute. You know, I've got three-month-old twins myself back in Wyoming. Their grandma came out from Nebraska to help their dad with them."

They exclaim about oh-my-gosh twins and I introduce myself. The woman introduces herself as Erin and the man introduces himself as Jeff. (I'm saying Jeff, but I can't actually remember exactly what his name is.) We continued walking and talking and in my mind I'm trying to fix people's names, as I always do: "Okay, this is Jeff and Erin and their little girl Josie. Jeff. Erin. Josie."

The next day, I come across this other couple ~ a father, a mother, and a cute baby. The man looks vaguely familiar, and I could swear I've met the woman before at the conference, but I've been introducing myself to everyone and it's all a blur. "Hi, I'm Tamara," I say.

"Hi, I'm Steve," the man says, "and this is my wife Erin and our daughter Josie."

Being the rocket scientist that I am, I say, "Oh! Did you know that there is another mother and baby here named Erin and Josie? What a coincidence!"

You guessed it: It was Steve Almond and his wife and daughter, and I had assumed that the first man I had seen was Josie's father, rather than just a friend helping out. Those assumptions, they make an ass out of u and me.

All throughout the conference, I hear great things about Steve Almond. "Oh, I'm in Steve Almond's workshop, and do you know what he said?" Then they proceed to tell me something that sounds so smart I am reminded of how little I know. So I'm having Steve Almond jealousy.

Then, he gives a talk about how to write about sex based on his great essay "Writing Sex" (that's in (Not That You Asked)). He opens by reading some really bad sex writing and everyone is laughing so hard their sides hurt. Then he assigns us an exercise to write really badly about sex. Everyone titters as they scribble away at their pads. Then he starts calling on people to read what they've written. The first person he calls on is a writer from New York. She hasn't written bad sex, but instead she's tried to write something poetic and beautiful. He tells her that she hasn't followed the assignment and, frankly, it sounds like a masochistic rape fantasy. I think, ooooooo, don't mess with him!

So a couple of years later I get a flyer in the mail for a fabulous conference in Florida (The Writers Institute in Miami) in which I can work with Steve Almond for a very reasonable price. I'm thrilled but a little afraid but I take the chance. He's so smart and funny and his writing is so fabulous, how could you not?

I cannot express how fabulous he was ~ and is! It was a short conference, and his class was only three days, but I got more from than I have in many other places. On the last day, he gave a talk about the realities of being a writer that brought tears to me eyes and inspired me beyond belief. Then I read (Not That You Asked) on the plane home, and I was riveted and it kept my usual flying phobia at bay the whole way home!

Can you tell I'm a Steve Almond groupie?

Since then I've worked with Steve in a number of settings and each time I've learned so much. He's one of those people who is so respectful of both you and what you're trying to do. I take to heart his dictum to follow your shame ~ that's where the good writing lies. Don't be coy and withholding with your reader; suspense comes from the actual events, not from withholding vital information. Also, don't try to be writerly; tell the truth and good writing will come.

So now Steve is out with a new book, Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life: A Book by and for the Fanatics Among Us, and I encourage you, urge you, extol you, exhort you to drop what you're doing and go buy a copy right now. For a delicious taste, go to Steve’s website, where you get an overview with excerpts and the soundtrack, or go to The Rumpus here. Don't do it for me; do it for yourself because it will truly knock your socks off.

What I’m Reading Today: Deliciously immersed in New Yorker stories.

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