INTERVIEW: Steve Almond, Author of Truth is the Arrow, Mercy is the Bow: A DIY Manual for the Construction of Stories

Interview by Kristen Paulson-Nguyen

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Book Cover: Truth is the Arrow, Mercy is the BowWhen the opportunity arose to interview Steve Almond, I jumped at it. He’s a fellow Bostonian and GrubStreet instructor, but I’ve been too shy to approach him until I had the excuse of this new craft book, Truth is the Arrow, Mercy is the Bow: A DIY Manual for the Construction of Stories. I read every word.

I appreciated Almond’s honesty about his screw-ups and his humor. I have written, but have not yet published, one book. Almond has published 12 but written several more that were never published. We have two things in common: We both make mistakes. We both have written books that haven’t been published.

I read most avidly about the concepts I try to incorporate in my essays and teaching. I’m working on an essay that covers 47 years. How am I going to pull it off in 2,500 words? Almond’s two questions in the chapter, “A Wrinkle in Time: How to Manage Chronology,” helped me focus: “Where, in the larger flow of events, have I chosen to enter the story?” “How did my central character arrive at this moment, and what’s at stake for her?”

I was also drawn to the materials in “Part III: Meditations,” because I love to slow down and reflect. However, my favorite section was “Adventures in Workshop Land.” As a workshop leader, I rarely get to consult others. Almond offered a detailed account of how he runs a workshop. Finally, I had some company. Also, I can use his material to think about and refine the workshops I lead. “The collective aim here should be diagnostic, not prescriptive,” writes Almond. I tell my students: “Try to be descriptive in your feedback, not prescriptive.” His words confirmed for me, a newer teacher, that the way I run workshops is actually pretty good.

I’ve admired Almond’s voice since I read his short story collection, My Life in Heavy Metal. Almond’s book, Candyfreak: A Journey through the Chocolate Underbelly of America is a TBR in my personal library. As a creative nonfiction instructor and middle-school English teacher-in-progress, I was eager to hear about his approach to craft and his teaching experiences.

Kristen Paulson-Nguyen: Was the book’s humor intentional or just your natural voice?

Steve Almond: I want the reader to feel like they are in conversation with, and spending time with, someone as neurotic as they are. People are intimidated enough by trying to write. They wonder when to call themselves writers. Any kind of creative endeavor is full of doubt. It’s a vulnerable spot to be in, especially in a culture where what gets attention is frantic and agitating. There’s lots of anxiety. People feel this sense that writing is high art, it’s literary, and that is also a barrier. They think, Maybe I’m not smart enough or literary enough. That’s bullshit. Everyone can tell remarkable stories. All they need to do is be honest about what matters to them most deeply.

I didn’t want to write this book from the perspective of, “I am the teacher.” That is not at all how it feels to me to write. I feel overmatched, avoidant, guilty, stuck and miserable. My way of dealing is to back off from my pretension and delusion that anyone has a handle on any fucking thing. We are all like fish in a forest, flopping around. I worked hard to avoid sounding like the professor getting up on my soapbox. Not taking myself too seriously—that is, having a sense of humor—is a big part of that.

Author Steve Almond


KPN: I read in the tub. What kind of reader are you? Do you read one book at a time? Or do you have three books going at once?

SA: I read in the bath too. It’s one of the few places in my house that’s quiet. I try to read one book at a time. I lead a book group at a retirement community and it’s a delight. The process forces me to step back and figure out why and how a book works, its mechanisms of enthrallment. So the kind of reading I like best is when I’m reading a book with the knowledge that I’ll have to talk about it and lead a discussion. I don’t speak as an expert so much as to just try to find the most moving passages. Leading a book group forces me to read carefully and share my passion.

KPN: I read essay drafts to my husband, a pharmacist. I trust his feedback. Do you share drafts with your wife?

SA: Yes. I depend on Erin to read my manuscripts. I have the good fortune to be married to a novelist. She is the best manuscript consultant I know. Erin is my first and last reader, but also, we talk a lot about how stories work and look at one another’s work and talk about books we’re reading. We’re engaged in a continuous conversation. It’s a great gift. It can be also a struggle because both of us have experienced creative and professional disappointments. It’s hard when you have a partner engaged in that same struggle. Even though we help each other, ultimately, we have to go to the keyboard and figure out how to tell our stories. We have to deal with the fact that our work might not be publishable.

This is why I went into so much detail in my book about workshops (“Part III: Adventures in Workshop Land”). It’s very fragile to expose what you’re working on. You know this because you’ve been through GrubStreet’s Memoir Incubator. The job of the instructor or workshop participant isn’t to give the writer the answer they want but to offer a compassionate and honest reaction. I count on Erin to give me that with every book.

KPN: We’ve both been editors at lit mags. What was your experience as the fiction editor of The Greensboro Review?

SA: I gained basic insights about craft from reading hundreds of story submissions. When you read that many stories the patterns become very clear. People leap into scene without the proper context. Writers wander around auditioning plots without always bringing them to fruition. At the same time, with each submission I was able to identify the moments when the story was at its strongest. The goal, it seemed to me, was to inspire the writer to bring the rest of the piece up to that level. That positive frame arose from working at The Greensboro Review, and eventually that became my method for running a workshop.

KPN: What is it like leading workshops for Nieman Fellows at the Nieman Foundation at Harvard?

SA: It’s an absolute delight to teach them. The work is intimate and intense. Nearly all the fellows have been engaged for years in writing about populations enduring tragedy. At the Nieman, I get to say, “Now is the time when you get to reflect on your reporting.” I’m able to give them essays by writers such as James Baldwin and Joan Didion and those pieces just light them up. They come into class thinking they’re just recording and transcribing. But what they have to offer is much deeper: a wise and compassionate point of view. I feel so lucky to work with them.

KPN: One of my GrubStreet students elegantly interpreted an essay in class. I was mesmerized listening to him and realized I need more practice with close reading. Do you have any advice for newer teachers?

SA: I love moments of recognition like that when our students become our teachers. That’s important for teachers to recognize: that they also get to learn. In this case, the challenge is to ask yourself: What made him so pleasing to listen to? Can I work those critical muscles and make them stronger?

Everyone has their own eloquence. You can’t try to be somebody else. But you can actively listen and find your own way to say something. I tend to babble without pausing. That has its appeals, but in classes and at readings, I’m always the most moved by people who aren’t polished, who are figuring out what they think and feel in real time.

KPN: How did you decide which books to quote?

SA: The reason I included so many passages from other books is that craft books don’t always include enough examples. Like readers, writers need concrete examples of someone doing it right. I quoted the opening of Natasha Trethewey’s Memorial Drive, for example, to give readers a model of what it sounds like when you establish two timelines.

What writers do is not mystical. They make decisions and those decisions can be examined. Trethewey’s book begins with a sense of calamity and suspense. She establishes this in her very first sentence. There are straightforward ways to explain what she’s up to. If we look at the decisions she’s made, the next obvious step is to realize we can make the same kinds of decisions in our work.

“What writers do is not mystical. They make decisions and those decisions can be examined.” —Steve Almond

In choosing excerpts, I thought about the passages that have had a big impact on me. I trusted my memory because what you remember is what you’re trying to learn. I chose to write about Megha Majumdar’s 2020 novel, A Burning, because she is providing such a remarkable example of how a small, seemingly insignificant decision can have huge unintended consequences. I also didn’t just want to draw from the old canon. I wanted to use examples from writers who I feel represent a new canon.

KPN: Do you hope readers will open the book to a random page or read it in order?

SA: Readers can read the book however they want! It has an arc, but I want people to read the sections that call to them. If they’re struggling with plot, I hope they read that chapter (“Arranging Incidents: How to Make Plot Your Friend”). If they’re dealing with writer’s block, there’s a chapter that addresses that particular nightmare (“Writer’s Block: A Love Story”). There are so many aspects of literary creation: craft, inspiration, the emotional and psychic barriers. I wanted to address all of them because I’ve dealt with all of them.


As I talk about in the book, everyone is a storyteller. It’s how we humans make sense of our lives. We do this in therapy, in our families, in our friendships, and how we think about our careers. Those of us who write find a place on the page where we can start to make sense of what we’ve lived through.

That’s what I’ve found in all the classes I’ve taught over the years: that writers are going in search of themselves. They want to run their experiences through the combine of their imagination. The instructor’s job is to try to disinhibit people, to get them to feel comfortable telling the truth. It’s harder than it sounds. We’re ambivalent about getting to the truth, because it can be scary and disruptive. And that’s before you get to the technical challenges.

KPN: What do you mean by “disinhibit”?

SA: Just that people do best as writers when they’re able to freely associate, without feeling self-conscious. That’s the state I’m trying to induce in my generative classes. Just to get the writer engine going, to help people figure out what they’re meant to write.

The book’s last section, “How to Write the Unbearable Story,” asks a basic question: What keeps people from being more honest? The answer is that most of us have been told, in one way or another, to remain silent. We’ve been sent the message that we don’t have a right to tell our story. It’s important to realize that that suppression is culturally enforced, and you have to actively battle through it. We need to remind ourselves, as writers (and citizens) that we’re “the fool in charge of forgiveness.” Forgive the people around you. If people could have done better they would have. Forgive everybody who was there, especially yourself.

KPN: It was great to talk to you. Thank you for your time.

SA: You’re welcome! I’d love to talk about this book with anyone who’s in the struggle. Please pass the word along to the writer grapevine.

Meet the Contributor

kristen pualson nguyenKristen Paulson-Nguyen was Hippocampus Writing Life editor from 2019–2023. Her personal essays have been published in The New York Times, Cognoscenti, The Keepthings, and Creative Nonfiction. She loves taking part in literary community.

  2 comments for “INTERVIEW: Steve Almond, Author of Truth is the Arrow, Mercy is the Bow: A DIY Manual for the Construction of Stories

  1. Yes, enjoyed this very much, Kristen! Interested in how much reading in bathtubs is going on — sounds so relaxing. And my favorite sentence of his is probably: “We are all like fish in a forest, flopping around.” If this is true, then it makes perfect sense why we’d prefer to linger in a bathtub.

  2. Love this conversation, Kristen! I bought the book and can’t wait to dig into it! Especially love this line: ….”writers are going in search of themselves. They want to run their experiences through the combine of their imagination.” What a great phrase!

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