annotation by Liz Prato
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.
Steve Almond’s “This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey,” is a self-published chapbook containing 30 flash fiction pieces, and 30 essays on craft. It’s printed on the Espresso Book Machine, this large contraption found in select bookstores that looks partly like a time machine conceived of by some mad scientist, and partly like the Xerox machine found in the most mundane office. The chapbook is bought and sold primarily through what Almond calls the drug dealer model: He carries several in his backpack, says, “Pssst, kid, over here,” gives you a taste of his goods, and takes your cash.
The IRS loves Steve Almond, by the way.
I’m going to talk solely about the craft essays in “This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey,” because I’m a teacher and a craft junkie and I’m always looking for a fix for my vice. Like I said, there are 30 essays/chapters in this book, the shortest being one sentence long, and the longest spanning a vast page and a third. Just to be contrary, I’m going to talk about the last one first, titled: “This Is Just My Bullshit.” I wish more craft authors admitted that whatever thing they’re writing about is the thing that has stuck in their particular craw and may, or may not, be of value to others. It may or may not be advisable. You may or may not agree with it.
People – fans, critics, bloggers, readers – love to either vehemently agree or disagree with Almond (to witness a sampling of the latter, acquire another one of his self-published chapbooks, “Letters From People Who Hate Me.”). In this concise collection of essays, there isn’t much to hate. Almond isn’t saying anything incredibly controversial. He’s just saying, “Here are a few things I think lead to good writing, stated in an incredibly simple way.”
Whereas other craft books spend pages upon pages spinning different definitions of plot, Almond does it in one sentence – and then goes on to suggest the various reasons why your plot is probably fucked up. He writes about voice and POV and metaphors and attributives, and all those other terms we fling about in workshops to sound like we know what the hell we’re talking about. Almond writes most passionately about the need for an independent narrator in contemporary literature, and tells you why “My character is alienated/depressed/crazy” is not a valid argument for distancing or confusing your reader.
Based on his time editing a literary journal and reading hundreds of student stories, Almond sets forth a Hippocratic Oath of Writing in Chapter 6: Never Confuse the Reader. I’m considering having this tattooed on my forehead, so I don’t have to keep repeating it to my own students (and then I will stand in front of a mirror to remind myself). Because isn’t that the basis of almost every problem we see in early drafts of literature? We don’t know what’s at stake. We don’t know who to care about. We don’t know who’s talking. We don’t know where we are. In one way or another, we don’t know what the hell is going on.
You know, it might be easy to dismiss these 30 short essays as too basic, too prosaic. I can just hear the more accomplished writer (who looks and sounds alarmingly like me) saying, “Well, this is fine for beginners, but I already know all this.” Listen, if I slammed a shot of tequila every time I was dazzled by some writer’s prose but couldn’t get a grasp on the basic story, I’d have started my own version of AA by now.
Perhaps my favorite feature of Almond’s craft essays is they don’t make you feel dumb or illiterate or like you need to do homework to understand what he’s talking about. There are some really good craft books out there that frequently reference other texts. Long texts, classic texts, ones printed before the twentieth century and often in other countries and originally in other languages. The fact that I haven’t read the referenced works often leaves me feeling poorly read (okay, which I am), and that I should stop writing right this second and go catch up on the more obscure works of Proust. Understanding Almond’s craft advice requires one prevailing criterion: that you care about your characters. That’s it. Because, as he sets out in Chapter 18, “Excessive Emotional Involvement is the Whole Point” of this thing we do called writing. If you don’t give a shit about your characters, that will be conveyed on the page and no reader will give a shit, either. But if you care deeply and passionately for them, you will keep rendering them on the page, again and again, until you make the reader care as much as you do.
That’s what this chapbook is all about.
Yes, I use it in teaching, mostly to back up myself up, so my students don’t think I’m totally winging it in class. But it’s more than that: it’s what I think of every time I sit down to write. Whether I’m working on a novel or an essay or a story or my memoir, I ask myself Almond’s essential question: what do my characters care about? And then I write until I find out.
So next time you see Steve Almond at a conference or a reading or in a dark alley, say, “Pssst. I hear you’ve got the goods,” and score “This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey” off of him. Tell him Prato sent you. Then go write.