A lot of what I do as a writer boils down to making obnoxious assumptions, so let me start with one: if you’re reading this, you’re an aspiring writer, or an aspiring musician, or both. The first thing I’d like to do (this being the case) is to dismiss any lingering notions of glamour you might associate with a career in the arts. I will do so by presenting an essay I composed last night. It is entitled: What I Did Yesterday. Okay.
What I Did Yesterday
By Steve Almond
Okay, so the first thing I did was I got up at 1 am, because
my daughter Josie uttered the words that no parent ever
wants to hear: Mama! Papa! I just threw up.
She had thrown up from eating too much pizza,
by which I mean nineteen kid-sized slices, which is, I
think, more than recommended for a five-year-old. The
reason we let Josie eat so much pizza is because we are
essentially lazy and negligent parents who were hoping
that her binge eating would induce a sleep coma. I had to
get up at five am to catch a flight down to Wilmington,
North Carolina, where I had a workshop to teach.
I will not detail the scene that greeted me in Josie’s
room. It will suffice to say that she appeared to rid her
body of all 19 pizza slices and that we are burning her
mattress. Naturally, Josie wanted to sleep in our bed, but
because I have been through this scenario before, I know
that it involves being vomited upon, so I slept on the
My flight was too early for me to get a ride from my
wife, but I refused to take a taxi, because I am plagued
with guilt about my carbon footprint, so I walked a mile
in the dark to the subway.
At the rental car place in Wilmington, I was upgraded
to a Nissan Altima, a car so large that I could fit my own
car, a 1994 Tercel, in its trunk. This was a lucky break,
but the car made an eerie grinding noise and started
smoking almost immediately. I returned it to the lot,
where a kindly attendant advised me to take the car out
of first gear.
At UNC Wilmington, I was assigned a guesthouse on
campus, which was equipped with an alarm system that
I failed to disarm. It was pretty much the shrillest noise
I’ve ever heard. Imagine Celine Dion hitting a high C for
twenty minutes straight, while having her legs chewed off
by hyenas. The cops who eventually showed up did not
feel it necessary to draw their weapons, as I was on the
kitchen floor in a fetal position.
All this traveling was being done in an effort to
promote my new book of short stories, God Bless America.
My teeny tiny publisher had arranged a live radio
interview in the afternoon at the Durham NPR affiliate.
But because I am an idiot with no real conception of
geography beyond the distance between myself and the
nearest chocolate, I assumed that Durham was maybe an
hour north of Wilmington, and thus I spent the hours
after class updating my list of enemies and listening to
my wife complain about our two-year-old son, Judah,
who has become, in her words, “a little fucker.”
“I guess he got my genes,” I said.
Eventually, I got around to Googling the route
to Durham. It is a two and a half hour drive from
Wilmington. My live interview was slated to begin in two
hours. If you have ever had the experience of driving on a
highway and having some smug blowhard whiz past you
at 90 MPH and sorting of quietly hoping that this smug
blowhard dies in a fiery ball, I am here to tell you that I
agree with you.
It is on days like yesterday that I ponder my career choice. Why did
I get into this line of work? Why not something more relaxing, such as
knife juggling? Of course, the crazy thing is that I’m actually lucky as hell
to be running around like a chicken with my head cut off. As mid-list
authors go, I’m living the dream.
* * *
The dream, as I envisioned it 20 years ago, was quite different: I figured
my first book would wow all the bad parents of New York City, who
would get into a huge bidding war. The book would sell millions of copies
and win rave reviews and eventually be optioned by Michael Bey and
turned into a violent post-apocalyptic trilogy, at which point I would
be able to fulfill my life-long dream of purchasing the world’s first oral
sex machine. Awesome. Also, I would be transformed into a different
human being: wiser, more debonair, less sad and needy.
It is perfectly natural for Americans to think in this way. Our
screens have trained us to think in this way.
But in the case of writers, this manner of thought is foolish and
perhaps fatal. We live in a culture that is predominantly visual and
increasingly distracted, unwilling to do the sort of inconvenient
emotional and intellectual work required to read a book. And thus there
are only a handful of writers in the world who support themselves by
writing books. Most of us have to find a day job to support our habit.
The dream of capital F Fame is a bit more understandable for
musicians. The Rock Star is a certified archetype in our culture, after all,
the Dionysian figure who gets to trash hotel rooms and have wild sex
with groupies and do all the best drugs.
My own impression—having spent much of the past three years
thinking about musicians and basically invading their lives under the
pretext of writing a book about music—is that almost no one gets to lead
this exalted life, and the few who do wind up patently miserable.
This brings me to Scott Stapp. Arriving at Scott Stapp is not a cause
for joy, but here we are. For those of you not familiar with Christian
hard rock, Stapp was the front man of a band called Creed. Back when
I was the music editor of the weekly newspaper in Miami, I received
no fewer than six demo copies of Creed’s debut record. They just kept
arriving at the office, one after another. Did I ever listen to this record?
If I did, it obviously didn’t make an impression. All I remember thinking
is: Wow, this band really wants to get capital F Famous. And they did.
Over the ensuing decade, Creed sold 40 million records and played to
arenas full of rabid disciples. They became a very big deal indeed. Did
this make them fundamentally different and happier people? No. Scott
Stapp wound up with a substance abuse problem that led him to the
brink of suicide. He was last spotted skulking around in the world of
reality TV, which is the spiritual equivalent of suicide.
Of course, the history of rock and roll is littered with figures like
Stapp, who max out on the credit card of their talent early and wind
up staggering around the burning wreckage of their ego. Even the most
enduring of our rock stars wind up cursed by their best years. Think
about Mick Jagger. For all his showmanship, the guy has to know (on
some level) that he’s no longer young and beautiful and dangerous, that
no one wants to hear his new songs, that he’s gone from being an artist
to a nostalgic money sponge sponsored by a major credit card. And he’s
the best-case scenario.
The musicians I wind up worshipping, the ones I interviewed for
my book, were of a different sort. They’d harbored all the grandiose
dreams in their twenties. But they’d all come to recognize, after years
of mostly hollow promises from various cigar-chomping record execs,
that they weren’t going to become superstars. And so they’d focused
instead on making music in a way that was emotionally, psychologically,
and financially sustainable. Their measure of success had become, to a
crucial extent, internal. The question wasn’t how many units they were
moving. It was how many songs they were writing, and whether they
stuck with the good ones.
* * *
I’m not suggesting that these folks were all happy and well adjusted. On
the contrary, they were (as a rule) heartbroken that their gorgeous work
hadn’t found a larger and more lucrative audience. Some of them were
downright bitter. Ike Reilly, whom I can only describe as the bastard
child of Joe Strummer and Bob Dylan, seemed on the verge of kicking
me off his property when I first arrived, despite having invited me to visit
He felt a deep sense of shame, I think, that he hadn’t become a
major rock star, as had seemed destined when his debut record came out
in 2001. Instead, he was living north of Chicago, in the town where he’d
grown up, working as a video editor, and making music on the side. He
had four kids to support, and a mortgage he couldn’t quite pay.
I was a huge fan of Ike’s music. But in many ways this made my
presence even more annoying. Because the basic question I’d flown out
to ask him – why don’t more people know about your music? – had
haunted him for years. It hung over him like a personal cloud of unmet
expectation, as he cruised around town with his old pals, who all figured
he was going to be a star, too, who were still waiting for the golden kiss
of fame to whisk him away.
Every musician I visited had the same basic story to tell. They had all
been given reason to believe they were going to be stars. They all walked
around under that same increasingly heavy cloud. But what marked all
of these folks as distinct, what redeemed them, was that they had not
allowed their disappointment to curdle into cynicism. They had managed
to uncouple their private creative lives from external expectation. They
had made the difficult passage from aspiring rock stars to musical artists.
On the last day of my visit with Ike, I spent eight hours watching
him record a new song. He played the tune over and over, tinkering with
chord changes, time signatures, vocal phrasing. It was grinding work.
Every now and again, he would put down his guitar and walk over to
the window of his home studio and stare down at his sons, who were
skateboarding with deadly abandon in his driveway. He clearly wanted
to be down there. But he kept working on the song, making it better one
take a time – doing the lonely, dogged work.
As I sat there watching him, it occurred to me, for perhaps the
millionth time, that the dream of fame has very little to do with the
reality of making art, which is mostly about making one small decision
after another, about converting your doubt into an engine.
* * *
My own experience tells me that the central reason people quit making
art is because it just proves too hard: too full of disappointment and
rejection. It is my own belief, therefore, that the best preparation
for a career in the arts is a childhood and adolescence filled with
disappointment and rejection. It probably aided my cause immeasurably
that I was such a lonely kid, and such a social disaster. Probably, I owe a
lot of no-longer-young-women notes of thanks.
Dear Karen Dodd,
I just wanted to thank you for turning your face to
the side when I tried to kiss you goodnight on our third
date, back in 1982. As you’ll recall, I wound up sort of
licking your ear, which was troubling for both of us. I
want to thank you also for showing up a few weeks after
that third (and final) date at Edy’s ice cream parlor, where
I worked as a soda jerk, and being thoughtful enough
to bring along your new boyfriend, a very large, blond
guy whose arms were, as I recall, thicker than my neck.
Having to scoop you ice cream in my dirty smock, while
not watching you make out, has made me, if not a better
writer, at least a more resilient one.
Not at all bitter,
* * *
When you’re a writer—an artist of any kind, really—you have to view
every heartbreak as an opportunity, if not at the time then further down
the road. As I tell my students: Your job is to traffic in the feelings most
people spend their lives avoiding: unrequited desire, shame, guilt, rage,
The wonder of music is that it can transmute those feelings into
melody and rhythm. The best songs make us feel, almost instantly,
what the songwriter was feeling when she composed the song. They
induce emotions that are otherwise inaccessible to us. And they come to
represent the particular people, places, and eras of our lives. When I hear
the song “Long Time Running” by the Canadian band The Tragically
Hip, I am instantly transported back to El Paso, Texas, where I spent
three years after college, living in a dusty third-floor apartment with a
gorgeous, intelligent woman I couldn’t quite bring myself to love. When
I hear the song “Suddenly” by the Bogmen, I’m back in Greensboro,
North Carolina, grinding my way through graduate school, driving away
virtually every person I hoped to befriend. “Fred Astaire” by Dayna Kurtz
brings me back to my years as an adjunct professor, living in Somerville,
getting stoned and gorging myself into nightly starch comas.
e stories I was writing during this era were (it should go without
saying) painfully dull, and I spent far too much time submitting them
to editors at large magazines where I had no business submitting, and
scheming ways to get on their radars. I staggered through my days under
that cloud of unmet expectation. Once, I even included with one of my
submissions a cover letter personally addressed to Bill Buford, then the
fiction editor of the New Yorker. It read:
Great to catch up a little bit the other night. That
recipe for short ribs you gave me is out of this world! I’m
enclosing the story you asked me to send along. Enjoy.
I hope I don’t need to tell you that Bill Buford didn’t really give me
a recipe for short ribs. I received, in response to this fraudulent missive,
a nice handwritten letter from Mr. Buford, apologetically rejecting my
story, “The Delectable Short Rib,” a letter which I have subsequently
mounted over my desk, so as to occasionally gaze at it and be reminded
of just how much personal integrity I have.
There’s a larger mission here, folks. And it’s not just to seek our own
not-so-glamorous destiny as writers. It’s to remind ourselves that the
connection we seek doesn’t reside in sitting in front of a computer screen
ego surfing and updating our status or brushing up on which celebrities
are ruining themselves, and how. That stuff is intellectual and emotional
junk food. It’s empty calories. It doesn’t feed our souls. It doesn’t cure the
essential disease of our loneliness.
happen to believe that Americans are dying of loneliness.
We’re moving faster and faster, hurtling through time and space and
information, forever seeking that human connection, and at the same
time, falling away from our families and neighbors and ourselves. This
is why people seek to make art: because it offers the chance for people
to go off in search of themselves, to begin to reconnect to what’s really
happening inside them.
* * *
As I’ve noted, most of my own childhood recollections—the stuff that
comes back to me most vividly—is pretty awful. I remember (for instance)
that I was nearly killed in seventh grade. I was in one of the breezeways,
on my way to class, when someone announced that they’d just released
the yearbooks and this set off a stampede of yearbook-crazed students
trying to get to the little office where they were handing them out. I’m
still not sure why yearbooks were such a big deal, given how truly ugly
most of us looked in our photos. But this was an ancient era, before the
rise of Facebook, and it was populated by primitive peoples.
I was suddenly in this vast crush of students and before long kids
started to panic and to push and because I was small and perhaps not
the most coordinated guy, I wound up on the ground. Things got worse.
I felt someone land on my legs, pinning them down. Then another body
landed on my chest, and a third on my head. Actually, the body part
that landed on my head – I was able to spot this before everything went
black – was Scott Chase’s butt. Within a few seconds it became clear to
me that I couldn’t breathe, that, if I didn’t somehow get myself free, I was
going to perish.
I began to panic.
Scott Chase was, of course, the biggest stud in our school, a soccer
star, and it struck me as somehow appropriate that I was going to be
suffocated by his ass. I could see the headline that would appear in our
Wimpy Seventh Grader Spared Further Humiliation in Breezeway
Scott Chase’s Ass Hailed as Hero
Obviously, I did not die. Some poor journalist was spared the
pleasure of reporting this story. Instead, I managed to kick myself free
and get up and stagger from the mob. I’m pretty sure I was in shock,
silently crying and hysterical. A girl named Vanessa, who had seen me
pinned to the ground, looked at me with a heart-wrenching pity and
asked if I was all right. She was a sweet girl, beautiful in her own way,
with a gap between her front teeth. I wanted to embrace her, to fall
against her and confess everything, how sad and lonely and terrified I
felt, even when I wasn’t pinned under Scott Chase’s ass. But I wasn’t ready
to be comforted. I felt, in some deeply messed up way, that receiving
her comfort would undo my injury. And I wanted to feel injured at that
point, so I just lurched away.
It is my own belief, after forty five years on the planet, that most of
life is about avoiding shame. But most people are too polite to say this.
So they trot out all these fancy lines about how life is about “making a
difference” or “finding your passion.” I always want to say, “Yeah, okay.
But that stuff doesn’t really matter if you’re in a total shame spiral.” Most
of the reason I became a writer is because I was tired of feeling ashamed
of my weakness.
I suspect the same thing drives those of you who are aspiring
musicians, as well. Becoming an artist begins as a dream of applause.
But it endures as a means of surviving humiliation. That’s what artists
do: we convert pain into beauty.
The reason I get all starry-eyed around musicians is because
they speak a language that is immediate and intuitive. They don’t lock
themselves up in some garret and peck little black symbols onto paper.
They open their throats and sing. They bang on drums. They shred. They
speak, much more directly, to the limbic system, and to the heart. In my
besotted view, the making of music is a holy activity on par with spiritual
I realize that I’m completely distorting the process, that my worship
of musicians, and my idealization of the pursuit, is directly attributable
to the fact that I’m not a musician. As several musicians have pointed
out to me, I wouldn’t view music as so mystical if I spent my life trying
to make it. But this is the prerogative of the fan: we get to worship with a
purity unavailable to the pros.
For what it’s worth, I’ve learned more about writing from musicians
than other writers. I spent more than a decade trying to learn from other
writers. But all I could do was offer pale imitations of their style. I wrote
dozens of such short stories, all of them stinking of competence. It was
only when I listened to music that I felt the way I wanted my readers to
feel. Because musicians aren’t coy about their intentions. They are trying
to make the listener feel, to make them dance with joy or sob with grief.
And this, in the end, was what I wanted. I didn’t have melody or
rhythm at my disposal, let alone amplification. But what I discovered, as
I ploughed through one crap-ass draft after another, was that if I pushed
my characters into enough trouble, if I brought them to a place where
their emotions were too much to contain, and if I slowed down right at
this point, a strange thing would happen. The language would suddenly
have to stretch to express all that emotion. And this compression of
sensual and psychological detail would unlock the melodies and rhythms
inherent in language itself, would lift the prose into the lyric register.
This, I began to realize, is how writers sing.
* * *
And singing is important. It’s an essential activity, something people used
to do every day. The central benefit of organized religion, in my view, is
that it affords people the chance to sing together in public. But the culture
has changed in ways that discourage non-famous people from singing.
We no longer live in clans or villages. We’ve left our extended families
behind. We spend most of our time staring into one sort of screen or
another, frisking the Internet for some proof that we matter to the world.
And I think this compulsion stokes the dream of Capital F Fame. It’s
really a fantasy about shedding our anonymity, about becoming known
to the entire world and perhaps (ideally) loved by them.
The problem with this dream is that technology has also
democratized the means of production. And this means that more or
less anyone can make a book or an album these days. You don’t need the
sponsorship of a corporation. You don’t even have to pay some studio
owner twenty grand to lay down and mix the tracks. Anyone with the right
software and instruments can record a lovely album in their bedroom.
The expansion of available media has also caused a radical splintering of
the culture. We live in an age of instant access to everything, a world of
multiplying frequencies, channels, and portals.
When I was a very little kid, the appearance of a new record by the
Stones or Dylan (or hell, even the Eagles) was a major cultural event.
Everyone wanted to hear what Exile on Main Street sounded like. We
were all talking about the same songs, playing them at parties, cranking
them on our turntables. There are still a few token superstars out there.
But even our biggest stars are unknown to much of the culture. (Ask a
country music fan what Lady Gaga sounds like.) The vast majority of
musical acts are known only to a tiny niche of listeners. Such is the new
paradigm. And it requires musicians to think a bit more like writers.
That is: to abandon the notion of capital F fame. To think instead about
how one builds a sustainable life that includes making music.
This is especially important to remember in a place like Berklee,
from what I understand pretty much the Harvard of aspiring musicians.
Everyone at Berklee expects to be the Next Big Thing, even if they don’t
say so out loud. I’m sure it’s incredibly stimulating to be around so much
talent and ambition. But I’m equally sure that it’s exhausting and fraught.
* * *
People have always dreamed of fame, of course. The fairytales I read my
daughter are full of peasants who are reborn as royalty. The most famous
books in our history—the books of the Bible, specifically—are full of
superstars: warriors, kings, queens, saviors. But it is (I would argue) a
uniquely modern pathology to expect that artistic pursuit would bring
us riches and acclaim. It would be like expecting the hero of
The Iliad to be Homer, rather than Achilles and Hector.
I can certainly understand why musical artists become cultural
icons. They are engaged in an endeavor that is essentially performative.
To see Paganini play violin, or Chopin play piano, or Jimi Hendrix play
guitar, is to witness the human genius for invention made manifest. And
I can imagine that audiences must have felt a similar tingling sense of
awe watching Mark Twain or Charles Dickens perform their work. But
the true purpose of art— musical, literary, or otherwise—is to implicate
the audience, not to exalt the artist.
If I’ve learned anything from my interviews with musicians, it’s that
the careers of those who chase fame never end well. I am thinking now
of my brief interview with Dave Grohl, the former drummer of Nirvana
who has had one of the most successful solo careers in rock. I asked him
what it was like to be in a band with Kurt Cobain, to take a backseat to a
songwriter of his caliber. Grohl didn’t miss a beat. He explained that the
songs he was writing back in those days really weren’t that good. Kurt
was the star of the band. He recognized that.
Listening to Grohl, oddly, made me think about my own approach
to writing workshops. Students always come in at different levels
of expertise. But it’s not the ones with the most talent who wind up
publishing books. It’s the ones who recognize early on just how hard it is
to write a good story (let alone a great one), the ones who seem driven
not by a desire for recognition, but a deeper need to figure out who they
are. Those are the ones who are able to keep themselves at the keyboard,
who recognize that failure is the main ingredient to improvement, who
find some reward in the process even as the world ignores their work.
* * *
I wish I could say that I was that kind of student. But I’m afraid I was
more like the students I tend to hate: full of clever bullshit and ego needs.
It’s taken me twenty years to make peace with the notion that
I’m not going to be Capital F Famous, that my given version of fame
will reside in being a big deal to a very small, but awesome, subset of
people. Namely, readers who find in laughter a means of experiencing
And I’m not sure “peace” is really the most accurate word. The
truth is, I still spend far too much of my time wallowing in useless
resentments. Over the past few months, I’ve also set about working on
a novel. I’m not a novelist by inclination. In fact, I suck as a novelist. I’m
far too disorganized for long plotlines. Left to my own devices, I tend to
write myself into pedantic little cul-de-sacs. But I’m a firm believer that
a writing career is partly about trying to do things that don’t come easy.
How else do we get better? Still, the effort has been causing me a lot of
anxiety. I’ve been waking up in the wee hours with a belly full of dread.
It’s occurred to me, in these blue hours, that the desire for fame is
not just a narcissistic wish for unconditional love. It’s also a perfectly
understandable desire to be rewarded for our labors.
The writers and musicians who endure almost never receive the
rewards they deserve. But rather than growing bitter, they simply turn
stubborn. They accept that their first and final job is to rise from the
mattress of dread and grab the guitar, or the laptop, or the paintbrush,
and make the tough decisions. This doesn’t guarantee that the work will
find the place it deserves in the world. It just means you’re willing to
work for the next beautiful song or story or canvas. You’re probably not
going to be a star. But you are an artist.