Steve Almond talks writing at UMass Lowell

Steve Almond is the author of “Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto.” (Photo courtesy of Jesse Costa/NPR)

Jacob Boucher
Connector Staff

Kerouac Writer-in-Residence and celebrated author Steve Almond hosted a reading of his work in O’Leary 222.

Almond is best known for his works “Candyfreak: A Journey through the Chocolate Underbelly of America,” the Paterson Prize-winning story collection “God Bless America” and his most recent release “Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto.” He also cohosts a podcast, “Dear Sugar,” with the memoirist Cheryl Strayed, and has self-published smaller works on everything from countering hate mail to overcoming writer’s block.
Steve Almond was introduced at the event by UMass Lowell professor and renowned author Andre Dubus III, who told the audience anecdotes about how he became familiar with Almond and his writing.

After this, Almond took to the stage and informed the crowd there was “nowhere to go but down.” In a similar fashion to his writing, Almond’s talk was frank and funny, saying it like it is while also being sarcastically self-deprecating and sincerely well spoken. He knows why people often will get angry at him for his writing, as his topics are often political. Almond, however, holds his ground to the very end, undeterred by angry, often vulgar dissenters.

Almond read from a variety of pieces, everything from his poetry to short stories to hate mail, but with every reading he found the right pace and tone to illicit in the audience exactly the reaction he hoped for: bringing out the seriousness in darker pieces and highlighting the irony or hilarity of others. For every heartbreaking short story, there was an over-the-top poem that was bad enough it read like humor; every sex scene would be punctuated by the comical evisceration of a proverbial internet comments section.

Many of the questions that night concerned Almond’s most recent work, “Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto.” Almond, a former Oakland Raiders fan, was forced to condemn the sport due to the effect it has on players’ health, coming out against the sport for the brain damage up to one third of players receive as a result of constant collisions, going so far as to call it a “brutal, crazy murder ballet.” One observer drew a comparison to boxing, a once popular sport which also caused serious injury, and asked why one had been condemned while football still gains popularity in the U.S. To this, Almond said. “You never see the guys’ faces,” arguing that in boxing the blood and bruises were center-stage, while in football the damage is cleverly hidden beneath helmets. “You just don’t see it; it’s invisible,” he said.

But Almond did not just talk about football, he also gave excellent advice to aspiring writers. Throughout his career, Almond said he was trapped in a struggle between two extremes – intense narcissism, believing every word he wrote was profound and game-changing, and crippling self-doubt, which he believes in its worst form to be writer’s block. Finding a balance, Almond said, is the best way to write well and write consistently.

In his opinion, the best way to do this is to read and review the work of other writers at your skill level, improving your “critical faculty.” He also advises using great authors, your Jane Austens and David Foster Wallaces, as inspiration and not contemporaries. By comparing yourself to the greats, he said, your early work will never live up to them and never improve.

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