by Steve Almond
When I handed Steve Almond this book to sign, I said, “I read about this from your bit in Poets & Writers.” In the article, he talked about self-publishing the slim volume via the Espresso Book Machine in the Harvard library. Powell’s was selling them the day of his reading. The covers still felt freshly printed.
“Are you a writer?” he said. I nodded. “Well, Portland is a great city for writers.”
“Actually, I live in Spokane,” I said, though that’s not entirely accurate. I live about fifteen minutes south of Spokane Valley.
“Oh.” His eyebrows ticked slightly upwards.
“And I’m moving to Montana soon.” Compulsive honesty is often my specialty.
“Oh.” He paused. “Are you going for your MFA?”
University of Montana is somewhat known for its creative writing program, one I once attended. Again, I confess, “Well, one would have to finish the first four years of school to do that.”
His “Oh . . . ” was so far italicized, the letters laid on their sides. “You really should consider it,” he said. “It’s important to surround yourself with other writers.”
“Sure, yeah.” My face flushed, I thanked him for signing my books and let the next person in line approach. I couldn’t fault him for the comment — he comes from an MFA teaching background, after all — but it never eases the voice inside my head. How do I explain? I think. Expectation and happiness did not meet in those classes.
What I could have said was: This is my education. These books. These moments I stand before you and know how I will do better. I can always do better than what I’ve done.
The great irony of the Bullshit Detector is this: as yours gets bigger and stronger, your own prose seems smaller and weaker. If you look at a draft you wrote three months ago and all you can see is a mess of bad decisions, congratulations! You are making progress.
Half essays on writing, half micro fiction, This Won’t Take But A Minute, Honey can be read entirely in an afternoon, or like the title says, for a moment here and there. It is designed to fit in a back pocket and does away with dense ruminations on inspiration and style. “Writing is decision making,” Almond says. “Nothing more and nothing less.”
Part of that decision-making involves the writer’s personal history. With chapters titled “Slow Down Where It Hurts” and “Excessive Emotional Involvement is the Whole Point,” I could wholeheartedly agree that fantastic, beautiful prose doesn’t mean anything if it’s not honest.
If the story is any good, it’s only because we’ve colored it with the dark ink of our own freakish secrets.
What are my secrets? They are peppered throughout everything I write. Read enough and you will eventually see the larger picture of myself. Every person I have ever loved, every song, every smell I’ve burned into my brain — they are forever trying to work their way out. Still, “it takes a long time to come clean [ . . . ] We’ve all got work to do.”
Almond’s stories hover between the beautiful past and the potential of a glowing future, all filtered through melancholy. Love and regret both reach their peaks at one crucial moment, and “These are the minutes he wishes were a thousand years” (“Chibás Speaks”). When else do we learn?
His borrowed edict that every word should receive scrutiny is true, and his descriptions are perfect. Even in stories I did not enjoy as much compared with others, I could pluck out at least one sentence that made me say, Yes.
She was drinking — we were all drinking — and the wine made me want to soap her breasts.
Best of all — as one prone to indexing would say — there are recommended reading and listening lists at the end of each section. Some I’ve heard, some I’ve read, but I like seeing the influences all laid out on the page. No hiding. No pretense of divine imagination. This is my past, this is what makes my heart howl. Show me yours.
To buy, check out the Harvard Book Store, or just get yourself to a Steve Almond reading. You won't be sorry.
This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. The challenge ends October 31, 2010.