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Visiting Author Encourages Students to Grapple with Passions

Kerouac Writer-in-Residence Steve Almond Teaches Nonfiction Workshop

Steve Almond at Jack Kerouac exhibit at UMass Lowell Photo by Tory Germann
Jack Kerouac Writer-in-Residence Steve Almond tries out a typewriter in the Kerouac Retrieved exhibit at Allen House.

01/25/2016
By Katharine Webster

Best-selling author Steve Almond is known for works that combine rants and reporting, such as his latest book, “Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto,” and op-ed columns for major newspapers. He also writes fiction and co-hosts “Dear Sugar Radio” with writer Cheryl Strayed. He publishes his readers’ hate mail – and answers it.

In all his work, he grapples with personal and public obsessions and moral dilemmas. Now, as the university’s Jack Kerouac Writer-in-Residence for 2016, he’s asking students to do the same thing in a weekly, three-hour workshop on creative nonfiction. Students will study personal essays, literature of place and essays in which writers “struggle morally on the page” – and then write their own. Almond says his style of teaching goes beyond technique.

“Students at this age, at the beginning of their writing careers, mostly need permission just to do that very simple thing of telling the truth about the things that matter to them most deeply,” he says. “You’ve got to find the things that you love – and usually those are the things you’re obsessed with and struggle with in some way – and that’s your material.” 

Patti Burris, a junior on a pre-law track, says that in the first workshop, Almond asked the students to spend 20 minutes writing in detail about an obsession they’d harbored throughout their lives. The resulting pieces covered everything from rock 'n' roll to human anatomy to Burris’ own obsessive search for the truth about God's existence. Almond quickly got to the heart of each student’s writing, she says.

“The speed and accuracy with which he workshopped our works, having never met us before and immediately after we finished, was mind-blowing,” Burris says. “He is very entertaining. His passion for his art translates and I feel fortunate to have him as a professor.” 

Justin Roy, a junior creative writing major who mostly writes fiction, says he’s excited about exploring a different genre under Almond’s guidance – especially in a workshop format, with students critiquing each other’s work.

“My ultimate goal is to become more proficient at crafting a better story, abandon my strict fiction style and be able to draw on life instances, write them down and make them readable,” Roy says. “I could not pass up the opportunity to study with Steve Almond.”

Almond was nominated by Assoc. Prof. Maureen Stanton, an award-winning nonfiction author, and selected by the English Department’s creative writing faculty for his prowess in fiction and a wide range of nonfiction formats. Almond also has extensive teaching experience, most recently at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University, where he teaches narrative journalism to mid-career reporters.

“Steve brings to the classroom so many tools and skills of the genre, exemplified in the broad array of his published works, from literary journalism to memoir to the personal essay and forms that he seems to have invented – the eloquent diatribe (or as he might say, ‘rant’), to immersion and investigative journalism entwined with personal narrative, to vivid and scenic storytelling,” Stanton says. “I know our students will soak up all that Steve has to teach them and I’m confident they’ll be better writers for it.”

In addition to teaching, Almond will give a public reading and answer questions about his work on Feb. 9 at 5 p.m. in the O’Leary Library.

Although the Kerouac Writer-in-Residence doesn’t live on campus, Almond is looking forward to renewing his connection to Kerouac’s work and the post-industrial landscape of Lowell. He’s currently working on a series of essays that deal, in part, with the question of how cities like Lowell and Gloucester reinvent themselves after their main industries collapse or move overseas. “To me, that’s personally heartbreaking and it’s more the story of what capitalism does to a landscape and a city,” he says.

But most of all, he’s looking forward to getting to know his students: their abilities and attitudes, their hopes and their struggles.

“The thing that actually feeds me creatively is just being in congress with students and their energy and their pure, un-cynical belief in storytelling,” he says.