Set the Bar a Little Lower, by Steve Almond

Each year Barrelhouse hosts the Conversations & Connections Conference, a one-day writer's conference that brings together writers, editors, and publishers in a friendly, supportive environment. This year's conference takes place in Pittsburgh on October 18th with keynote speaker Roxane GayRegister here.

In 2011, Steve Almond delivered the keynote speech at Conversations & Connections DC. Below is a transcript of his remarks.

I’ve been informed that the promotional literature for this talk promised it would knock your socks off. Let me reassure those of you with sock issues – mismatched, full of holes, really don’t smell very nice – that this talk will not knock them off. 

I’d like to set the bar a little lower.

  *

In fact, the central message of this talk, once you boil away all the anecdotes, will be this: I’d like to set the bar a little lower. 

*

Let me start, as every narcissist must, with some biography. I didn’t start writing seriously until I was 30. It took me that long to pull my head out my ass and stop watching TV and start reading. I published my first book when I was 36. Or maybe 37. I’m 83 years old now. Oh, and both my parents are psychoanalysts. If that freaks you out, imagine how I feel.

It gets worse. Last year, my mother wrote a book called “The Monster Within.” It’s about womens’ fears of giving birth to monster babies. How’s that for a personal endorsement?

*

Whenever I tell folks that my parents are both psychoanalysts they ask what was that like? I think they expect that my parents smoked pipes and wore little Freudian beards and had us reclining on antique couches around the dinner table. 

“Hey Dad, could you pass the potatoes?”

“Hmmmm. I wonder: why potatoes?”

“Because … I like them?”

“Interesting.” 

At the very least, people assume that my parents interrogated us about our feelings. They did not. The last thing they wanted after eight hours of listening to other people’s feelings was to hear about their kids’ feelings.

Our household was, in the broader contours, like most others: full of needy children and exhausted parents and not quite enough love. My brothers and I fought. My dad shook his head. My mom sighed a lot.

*

 

One thing about growing up shrunk, though. We were made aware pretty early on of the power of the subconscious. 

One night, at dinner, my brother Dave started recounting this crazy dream he’d had. He was racing around his room because he was late for his job scooping ice cream. When he finally got to work, he realized he was in his underwear, and there was this fancy cocktail party happening and he was handed a platter to carry around, with little dishes. But rather than ice cream, the dishes had Russian dressing in them. 

My dad nodded his head. “Freud talks about this, how some dreams have puns in them.”

“What pun?” Dave said.

“Well, you were late for work, so you didn’t have time to put your pants on. There was a rush in dressing. Russian dressing.”

My brothers and I fell into a hushed silence. We were all totally fucking blown away. It was like our dad was some kind of dream ninja.

Then I asked him to pass the potatoes.

*

Many years later, I traveled to Maine to visit my friend Tom. His first child had just been born, and his mother had recently passed away. When I got to the house, Tom came to greet me and brought me into the kitchen to meet his father, a tall, nervous man who was clearly still grieving.

It was expected that we would proceed into the living room, where the new baby and the rest of the family were gathered in front of a fire. But Tom’s dad, upon learning that I was a young adjunct professor, started telling me a story about when he had been a young adjunct professor and how he’d been forced to identify the body of a student killed in a car crash. At some point it became clear that Tom’s dad was telling this story in part because he didn’t really know to interact with the rest of the family.

It was a sad and strange little episode and, as sad and strange little episodes tend to do, it stuck in my craw. So I wrote a short story about it, called “Among the Ik.”

I changed a bunch of the details. Tom’s dad was a poet, but I made him an anthropologist. I got him nice and stoned, and had him escorted to the morgue by the president of the university and two state troopers.

Some years later, my first book of stories came out and my own father (the dream ninja) wrote me a long, kind letter about them. He said, in essence, ‘Well, your mother and I received your book. It contains a lot more sexual content than we realized, and we do have to carry it around in a brown paper bag, and much of the family no longer speaks to us, but we like the stories a lot and we’re very proud of you. And I just want to say, about that one story, ‘Among the Ik,’ that I never realized how distant I was as a father.’

My immediate reaction was to say, “Hey, Dad, you’ve got it all wrong. That story’s not … about … you.”

But of course it was about him. That’s the reason the story stuck in my craw in the first place, because it was a dynamic I recognized, subconsciously.

*

This is all by way of suggesting that your artistic subconscious is a lot more powerful than your conscious mind.

If I’d consciously set out to write a story about my distant father, I would have mucked it up. Believe me, I’ve written several dozen such stories over the years, and they’ve all sucked.

Set the bar lower: just write about the stuff that gets stuck in your craw. Your subconscious knows what it’s doing, even if you don’t.

*

I was absolutely sure that my first book was going to be an international bestseller, and that its publication would transform me into someone else, someone wiser, more debonair, less needy and neurotic.

It is perfectly natural for Americans to think in this way. Our screens have trained us to think in this way.

As it turns out, this did not happen.

Instead, the book sold a few thousand copies and I walked around feeling mildly betrayed and somewhat silly. I knew – in the way only a pornographic short story writer can know – that the only way for me to become someone worthwhile was to write a BIG IMPORTANT NOVEL. I was helped along in this perception by my agent, who was an asshole.

*

So I found myself a great historical saga and set about self-consciously attempting to write a BIG IMPORTANT NOVEL. I had no idea who the central character was, and thus spent two years shoving him around 13th century Europe, hoping he might bump into our old friends conflict, danger, meaning, and epiphany. Instead, we both got exhausted.

*

My agent, whom I believe I have mentioned was an asshole, took four months to get back to me, then 30 seconds to fire me.

*

She was right to do so. The novel was wretched. In fact, I’m not even so sure anymore that she was an asshole. She was just doing her job, which wasn’t to make me a better writer or a happier person, but to help me write manuscripts she could sell.

Incidentally, I’m not being falsely modest about this book. A few months ago, my wife badgered me into reading the thing to her and fell asleep on page five. We were lying in bed and I was getting really into it, thinking, you know, “Hey, this part isn’t so bad! That was a nice metaphore!” and I kept waiting for her to react somehow, a little laugh, a thoughtful hum. But all I heard was this calm steady breathing.

*

So the novel was a failure and I fell into a depression. It wasn’t a Capital D depression. But it was the sort of depression where it took me 20 minutes, and the promise of chocolate, to get me out of bed.

I had no idea what to do. My hobbies were masturbation and self-pity. It was a lot like adolescence. I was eating lots of candy, because I was depressed and because I’d recently written a newspaper story about the factory where they make Necco wafers, which, if you haven’t had them, are basically communion wafers as designed by a stoner.

The prospect of writing more doomed short stories, or a novel, seemed far beyond me. The only thing I wanted to do was visit more candy factories.

So what did I do? I set the bar a little lower.

I conned a bunch of confectioners into letting me visit their factories and wrote a book called Candyfreak. Because Candyfreak is the only one of my books that hasn’t been a complete economic failure, people tend to assume it was some ingenious career move. It was not.

I sent it out to half a dozen agents, all of whom passed on it. I shoved it in a drawer. My friends kept saying, “Didn’t you just fly to Boise, Idaho to work on some book about candy bars? What ever happened to that?” They eventually read the book and urged me to keep working on it. Listen to your friends. They know more about your work than you do, because they’re not a part of your little opera of self-doubt. They can actually see it. 

*

The editors at the big houses where I sent Candyfreak rejected it. They kept saying things like, “We just don’t know where this would be shelved at Border’s!” Nobody in publishing has any fucking clue what’s going to sell. I promise.

But readers all want the same thing. They want a story that takes them somewhere emotionally. They want truth in a world relentlessly shat upon by marketing. They want to know that they’re not alone in their madness. You want the same things, too. 

*

Human beings and the characters they invent are always telling two essential stories. The story of who they want the world to believe they are, and the story of who they really are. I’m most interested in a book when those two stories collide.

That’s the kind of sick bastard I am.

*

People are always asking if writing can be taught. It’s the wrong question. The question is: can you teach people to read? Can you teach them to turn away from distraction? 

I myself am a very poor example. I spend most of my time at the keyboard thinking about my failures and all the people doing better than me and browsing the klepto-psychotic bromides of our political culture and checking the sports scores of the teams I rooted for as a kid and worrying about my own kids and feeling guilty because I’m wasting my precious time on earth doing this shit, and then getting angry at myself for feeling guilty, and then feeling more guilty because getting angry at myself for feeling guilty for not writing does not actually constitute writing. 

Does any of the sound even vaguely familiar?

*

We all feel like failures. I spent most of this week waking up at five a.m. and lying in bed in a pool of my own anxiety, because I’ve stalled out at my new novel, which is my second stalled novel of the year for those keeping score. Most of writing resides in outlasting your own doubt.

*

Almost nobody in the world of literature is going to become famous. That’s not why you get into this. If you want to be famous, commit a heinous crime or fuck a movie star or, better yet, commit a heinous crime while fucking a movie star. You can probably even write a bestseller if you do that. 

For the rest of us, the struggle is simply to get your ass into the chair each day and write something. There are going to be days, maybe even weeks or months, when that feels utterly beyond your means. My advice on those occasions is set your bar a little lower. 

I’m not advising you to give up on your ambitions, on the exalted work you know you can do. I’m gently urging you not to turn that ambition into a torture device. Do what you can and forgive yourself the rest.

Back when I was terrorizing well-behaved suburban Catholic undergraduates at Boston College, I would often ask my students to write the worst scene they could possibly imagine. What they produced – once they got rid of all the intentionally awful adjectives – was often the best work they did all semester. Why? Because they weren’t putting any pressure on themselves. They were relaxed.

They had set the bar a little lower.

*

Another lesson from those years. I was teaching a class on humor writing. I thought this would be a cinch. It’s a bunch of college students, right? They spend their lives running smack. But remember: these were well-behaved suburban strivers. Obedient kids. And of course, obedience is the sworn enemy of the comic impulse. So these kids kept bringing me these tame little satires reminding us all how unfortunate sexism is. After a few weeks, I had a come to Jesus talk with them. I said, Look guys, I’m not interested in your nobility. I’m not interested in your good values. As your professor, I am now ordering you to write me some sick fucking shit. If I have to read another earnest word, I’ll flunk all of you. 

I should mention that I loved being an adjunct professor.

Anyway, the next class this kid named Pete brought in a lovely little primer on the protocols of shitting in public, one in which he introduced us all to the term “prairie-dogging” with which I instantly fell in love. It was an incredibly tense class, because most guys in college can’t quite handle the notion that women actually defecate. But we got through it, and everything kind of loosened up and rest of the term was really quite special and sick.

The point is: you’re not going to do your best work until you allow the full range of your personality onto the page. You have to be willing to risk overexposure. You have to cop to the obsessive and unbearable feelings that everyone else spends their lives trying to conceal. 

*

I should mention that one of my students from that same class – not Mr. Prairie Dog, but a woman named Tracy – wrote me a couple of years ago to inform me that she was the lead writer on the show30 Rock. She had spent her college career trying to be a “serious young” writer, only to discover that her true genius resided in being a smart-ass. 

I immediately sent her a note begging her for a job.

No. I’m obviously kidding. 

What I did was return to my office and briefly inspect the story I was working on and then I wept.

*

Thanks to wildly entertaining shows such as 30 Rock, along with The Real Housewives of the New Jersey Get Plastic Surgery Then Bite One Another’s Faces Off, literary works have become, shall we say, less central to the culture at large. One obvious symptom of this has been the contraction of the traditional publishing industry. 

You hear a lot of distress about this among writers. But it’s important to be clear about the real danger here, which is not just that your book may never find the readers it deserves, but that the very act of reading is dwindling as a means of imaginative entertainment. 

*

On a related note: Over the past five years, it has begun to dawn on publishers that I really only have about seven fans, and thus my relationship with publishers has begun to change.

The most obvious symptom of this change took place several months ago, in an office at the top of a Manhattan skyscraper. I was meeting with a Senior Editor to pitch my next project, a book of flash fiction and short essays on the psychology and practice of writing. It was the sort of book, I explained, rather too ardently, that young readers would embrace, in that it only took about an hour to read, and it was, like so much of my work, filthy, and it would have two distinct covers. I envisioned it as a kind of gateway drug to literature.

Having finished my spiel, I looked up. My editor’s face was somehow both horrified and bored. She looked not unlike a Real Housewife of New Jersey. 

I do not blame this particular editor. She was merely doing her thankless job, which consisted of trying to figure out how she might extract a profit from my meager talents, given the prevailing market. But gazing at her face, it was instantly clear that my idiosyncratic idea stood no hope at all in the realm of commercial publishing.

*

It’s worth stepping back here for a moment to take in a rarely acknowledged truth, which is that the very idea of a “publishing industry” is profoundly unnatural. It’s unnatural for artists to seek the sponsorship of a corporation. Anyone who has have ever watched a writer try to make sense of a royalty statement will confirm this.

Fortunately, while technology has supplied us many new and shiny distractions, it has also democratized the means of production. It’s much easier to make a book than it used to be. And so, to make a long story very short, last year I started making books myself. I collaborated with a brilliant visual artist named Brian Stauffer, who designs New Yorker covers and therefore has no business working with me, but fortunately we slept together during the 90s, and I took photos, so it’s not really a choice for him. 

*

The main thing I enjoy about making books myself is that I don’t feel all this pressure to sell them, because I don’t have a corporation breathing down my neck to recoup their investment and making me feel like a loser. My DIY books aren’t on Amazon or at Barnes & Nobles. They don’t even have ISBN numbers. I’ve basically gone from a multi-platform-wide-distribution model to a drug dealer model. I only sell the books at readings, for cash, and you have to get high with me afterwards. They’re not commodities. They’re artifacts intended commemorate a human gathering.

Am I now suggesting that you all run out and self-publish your books? No. I’m only trying to suggest that there are lots of ways for books to move out into the world, and that certain projects lend themselves to a more organic, personal approach.

Most of this boils down to expectations. I don’t want these books to be bestsellers. I’ve set the bar a little lower. I just want them to find readers who might dig them.

*

I had dinner this week with two writer friends. One of them, after many years of struggle, had his first novel accepted by Norton. It comes out in a few months. The second friend has also been working on a book for several years. It’s a remarkable novel, the best of her career, but she can’t even get her agent to return an email.

I’ve read both these books. They are better than anything I’ve ever written. I mean by this that they reach deeper into the language, more precisely and more innovatively, than what I’ve been able to manage.

I’m inspired when I read writers who do things I can’t. But I’m also sick with envy. I mention these friends by way of making a vital distinction. What I envy isn’t the book deal, but the book itself, the deeply human and excruciatingly private act of making so many good decisions in a row.

My own experience is that these feeling of envy never go away. There’s always someone out there doing better than you, getting the eggs you deserve. They’re probably younger than you are. And better looking, too. (Damn you Joshua Ferris. Damn you!)

The best you can hope for is to manage these feelings. You can’t control the world. You can only control what you do. Art is what happens when you convert the ugly truths inside yourself into beauty. That’s what you get. It may be all you get. It has to be enough.

*

Having sneakily exhorted you, one last time, to set the bar a little lower, let me stress this: Every decision you make as a writer matters. It matters that you used the word “anxious” when you meant “eager.” It matters that you chose a comma, and not a semi-colon, to separate those independent clauses. It matters that you jumped ship with your heroine on the brink of ruin.

The reader brings her patient heart to your work. She arrives ready to dream your dream. But if you betray her enough times, if you make a habit of lazy, self-regarding decisions, if you fail to grant your characters the love they deserve, she will find another dream.

We are living in an era of screen addiction and capitalist pornography. As a species, we are squandering the exalted gifts of consciousness, losing our capacity to pay attention, to imagine the suffering of others. You are a part of all this. It involves you. This is the hard labor we’re trying to perform: convincing strangers to translate our specks of ink into stories capable of generating rescue.

I mentioned before, or maybe I didn’t, the ancient feeling I get when I read a beautiful story. It’s as if I’m a little kid again and something very sad has happened and it’s winter, night has blackened the branches above, and I’m very stirred up, close to tears actually, because I can see – I’ve been made to see – the sorrow that everyone is lugging around and the cruel things this sorrow makes them do and still I want to forgive them. Some blessed stranger, toiling alone in a distant room, has forced me to feel more than I did before, to set the bar of mercy a little lower. 

God, I love that feeling.