Tag Archives: Steve Adams

An Interview with Steve Adams

17 Sep
Steve Adams has won multiple awards for his writing, most recently a Pushcart Prize for his memoir, "Touch."

Steve Adams is a writing coach has won multiple awards for his stories, plays, and essays, most recently a Pushcart Prize for his memoir, “Touch.”

Steve Adams lives in Austin, Texas, where he is a writing coach. His memoir, “Touch,” appeared in The Pushcart Prize XXXVIII. He also has been published in Glimmer Train, The Missouri Review, The Pinch and Notre Dame Magazine. His plays and musicals have been produced in New York City.

To read Adams’ essay, “Waiting Till the Wait Is Over” and an exercise on directing the reader’s gaze, click here.

In this interview, Adams discusses writing for an imagined audience, shifting POV without knowing it, and circumventing chronology.

Michael Noll

You make an interesting nod to the reader at the beginning of the second paragraph: “People who have issues with hunting do not understand hunting as I experienced it.” Did this line always exist in the essay, or were you anticipating something about the particular audience for this particular magazine—that readers might have issues with hunting?

Steve Adams

I did not write this essay for that particular magazine, but wrote it, as I do most of my pieces, because a story or essay idea came to me. Afterward I try to find a home for it. That particular line was for my imagined audience while writing it. I’m a liberal, but I’m also a liberal from Texas with a hunting background, and posts from friends on Facebook and elsewhere in social media are not always forgiving or understanding toward hunters. I have a paranoid vision of a reader out there who’s screaming “Bambi killer!” at me. And though I happen to be one, I haven’t hunted since I was a teenager. So I placed that line there to try to buy time from that reader, to establish the possibility that there might be more going on with hunting, at least under proper conditions, than just slaying animals.

The original concept, before I even knew an essay would come from it, occurred in a random conversation at a party in 2002 when I was finishing up my MFA at The New School. I’d developed a reputation for being a guy who produced pages (whether good or bad) regularly, and classmates began asking me for advice along those lines. Writing’s tough for everyone, but I had no idea of the degree that a lot of otherwise gifted writers struggle to simply get words to the page. I’m a writing coach now, and I realize The New School is where I began coaching writers. Anyway, this friend and I were talking in 2002—I specifically remember we were standing a door frame leading to a living room—and somehow via the conversation (thanks, Rebecca!) we discovered that I wasn’t just a natural at producing pages, but that I’d had perhaps the best training possible for such work, and at a very formative age. It was a huge “Aha!” moment for me. Then maybe three years ago I came across the crazy/stupid/wonderful German word “sitzfleisch,” which describes the same capacity, namely being able to keep your butt (or your sit-flesh) in a chair and see a project through to completion.

Michael Noll

You also make a cool chronological move: telling the history of your experience with hunting from first grade to age 14 and, then, shifting back in time (“But I’ve jumped ahead. I want to go back to age 5.”) This seems like a move that many writers could borrow since chronology can be such a trap. We get caught in it and can’t escape, which limits our ability to make sense of events (a process that tends to be circular, not straightforward). How did you find this strategy? Purposefully or through happy accident?

Steve Adams

Good point regarding chronology. I worked with those sentences quite a bit trying to get the passage to feel “right.” First I listed a brief sequence of events, then circled back through expanding on them, and then told the reader I wanted to stop and go back and explore the larger meaning, the larger story they tell. I didn’t decide on that technique beforehand, but tried to follow what the essay seemed to want at the time, which is what I always do if I can. By the circling, as you noted, I think I was instinctively trying to circumvent being locked into strict chronology. I wanted the reader to pull up at that moment, to look back and instead of seeing those moments as separate and linear, to see them as a whole. I also wanted the reader to stop and consider what it might mean that as a child I carried a lethal firearm beside my father and knew full well it was lethal, as well as that if I did something really stupid I could accidentally take his life. He gave me an enormous responsibility by putting a gun in my hands, but also a staggering trust. The gesture carries immense personal weight for me.

Michael Noll

Steve Adams' essay, "Waiting Till the Wait Is Over," is a meditation on hunting and writing and the surprising connection between the two.

Steve Adams’ essay, “Waiting Till the Wait Is Over,” is a meditation on hunting and writing and the surprising connection between the two.

I love your shifts in perspective. For example, you start one paragraph like this: “Picture me beside him, our feet hanging off the platform’s edge.” And the very next paragraph starts this way: “Here is how you manage your presence on the deer blind.” This is the sort of thing that would seem to be forbidden by workshop teachers, but it’s really effective in drawing in the reader. Do you have a particular strategy for switching POV?

Steve Adams

I don’t have a particular strategy so much. And frankly, I wasn’t even aware I’d done that until you brought it up. But I went over that passage a lot, and again, in a focused creative state trying to make it “right.” And I just made that move and worked with it, much as a painter might intuitively decide their painting needs more yellow in the upper right hand corner, and without analyzing why (“why” doesn’t matter as much as “what”), does the work of adding it in. I was keenly aware of how the words sounded. But looking back and putting on my analytical goggles, I think part of my attempt was to break up the narrative flow. Like in the passage above where I break up chronology, I wanted to get the reader to slow down and consider not just the facts of this child’s experience (freezing, feet going to sleep, nose running, unable to move except in the smallest and smoothest of increments), but the fact that this particular child raised in this particular tradition wouldn’t even think twice about such discomforts, thereby (hopefully) causing the reader to frame them and that unit of thought as a whole unto itself that would connect to the discipline of writing.

Michael Noll

The essay is about the writing process, which is surprising given that it’s published in a general-interest magazine, not one aimed solely at writers. Is that why the writing aspect of it doesn’t appear until the end? Were you trying to draw the reader in with hunting and then make the connection with writing after the reader has bought into the story you’re telling?

Steve Adams

Notre Dame Magazine is an interesting hybrid sort of magazine. It’s general interest and focuses a lot on work from Notre Dame alums, but also has a section toward the back called Crosscurrents devoted to more personal essays. They’ve racked up a number of “notable” mentions from the Best American Essay series, and I know of one essay that was published in the series in 2013. My essay went in their magazine almost as-is. I’ve just placed a second piece with them so clearly we’ve got a sympatico relationship happening. They don’t shy from a piece that has a spiritual or ethical component (and not just Christian), and there’s definitely a strain of spiritualism through my essay and the next essay they took.

More than anything with this piece I just wanted to find a way to connect hunting, once I realized the impact it had on my life, with the discipline of writing. By my way of thinking, done right, both are spiritual disciplines. Both demand patience and endurance and usually a degree of hardship before you experience a shift in perspective. And I believe my instinct with this piece was to establish hunting as such a discipline first and foremost, then take a quick dip into meditation, and finally do that swoop into writing at the end, hopefully bringing it all together in a single gesture.

September 2015

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Direct the Reader’s Gaze

15 Sep
Steve Adams' essay, "Waiting Till the Wait Is Over," is a meditation on hunting and writing and the surprising connection between the two.

Steve Adams’ essay, “Waiting Till the Wait Is Over,” is a meditation on hunting and writing and the surprising connection between the two.


If anything defines great writing, it’s the ability to control chronology and time. Inexperienced writers will start a chapter or story with an alarm clock and end the piece when the character goes to bed or passes out. In other words, their structure is driven by time and consciousness. A few weeks ago, I wrote about creating pockets of narrative as a way to avoid the chronology trap: the tendency to kill tension by narrating a story blow-by-blow, one thing after another. But that’s only one method for corralling time. Another great strategy is to step outside of chronology to point the reader toward what is important.

This strategy is put to excellent use in Steve Adams’ essay, “Waiting Till the Wait Is Over,” which was published in Notre Dame Magazine, where you can read it now.

How the Essay Works

The essay begins as a story about learning to hunt: “The greatest gift my father may have ever given me came as a byproduct of a wish — he wanted me to be a hunter.” The first paragraph ends with a condensed history of his education as a hunter:

I was fishing with him as early as age 3; at 7 carrying a BB gun as we skirted a cornfield for doves; by 9 crouching in a duck blind with my pint-sized 410 shotgun at the ready; and at 11 sitting next to him up high in a tree blind as we hunted deer.

The essay then elaborates on this brief chronology with several paragraphs of specific details:

  • “at 3 I could be quiet and still in a boat”
  • “By first grade I knew how to scan a trail for snakes, for copperheads and rattlers.”
  • “In the third grade I was carrying a firearm that could kill my father.”
  • “When I was 11 my father drove us from our home in Grand Prairie, one of the suburbs of Dallas-Fort Worth, down to his lease in the Texas hill country.”
  • “A few years later he bought me a rifle small enough to manage, a Winchester lever-action 30-30.”

The chronology of how Adams learned to hunt is now firmly established in the reader’s mind. Now, watch what he does next:

But I’ve jumped ahead. I want to go back to age 5. Or 6 or 7. To consider the hours I spent fishing in the boat with my father, walking beside him hunting doves, hunkered in the duck blind waiting for the birds to fly in. I sat beside him in the tree blind and never saw him shoot, or shoot at, a deer.

Story matters. As readers and viewers, we often demand an ending. I’ve heard many people say that once they start a book, they rarely quit before reaching the end. At movie theaters, you almost never see people walk out, even when them films turns out to be terrible. We are, it seems, genetically obligated to follow a story until the very end. Adams accounts for this, twice telling us the basic sequence of events that mark his becoming a hunter. But that chronology isn’t what he really wants to write about. And so, once he’s charted the story, he points us toward what he feels is truly important. He’s not subtle about it: “But I’ve jumped ahead. I want to go back to age 5. Or 6 or 7. To consider…”

I often say this in classes, but subtlety isn’t always a virtue. In workshop, students often use the word authority, and for a long time, when I was a student, that term had a fuzzy meaning. How did one gain authority? What made prose confident? The answer, I’ve come to believe, is that stating things clearly when clarity is called for. Adams writes, essentially, “That’s the outline of the story, but, now, look here. Pay attention to this.” He steps outside of the forward momentum of chronology and focuses on a particular idea, a particular moment—the aboutness of the story, the reason he’s telling it in the first place.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s step outside of chronology and direct the reader’s attention using “Waiting Till the Wait Is Over” by Steve Adams as a model:

  1. State what will happen in the story. Adams does this with his first line: his father wanted him to be a hunter. The suggestion is that this is exactly what happened. How can you state the chronological end of your story in the same way? You can use Adams’ template: “My ____ wanted me to _____.” The understanding behind such a statement is that you, the writer (or your character), either did or did not do what was desired. You can also cut the second party and make the statement personal: “I wanted to _____.” The word wanted can also be replaced with words like loved, feared, hated, or obsessed over.
  2. Give the basic chronology of the story. Adams’ father wanted him to become a hunter, and over the course of 14 years, that’s exactly what happened. Adams highlights moments along the way that stand out to him. Almost any narrative can be broken down this way: I was headed here, and along the way, this and this and this happened. You’re basically giving the short version of your story.
  3. Redirect the reader toward what’s important. Most stories are not, ultimately, about the ending of their plot. Instead, they’re about the meaning or unexpected consequences of that plot. Even The Lord of the Rings is not really a story about a hobbit tossing a ring into a mountain of fire; it’s about the passing of magic from the world, and Tolkien repeatedly directs our attention toward this consequence of the plot. So, consider a moment along your narrative arc that seems worth of considered attention. Put another way, what part of the story does your mind return to, over and over? What moment have you analyzed from every possible direction? Something is happening in that moment, and after you’ve laid out the basic chronology, you can go back and examine what it is. Try using Adams’ model: “But I’ve jumped ahead. I want to go back to ____.”
  4. Dig into that moment. Adams doesn’t stop telling his story, he just slows down. What details can you give about the moment you’ve returned to? What did you think about at the time? What do you think about now, when remembering it? When I was a kid, there was a TV show in which a girl could touch two fingers together and stop time in its tracks. In going back, you’ve created a similar moment. Time has stopped, and in that pause, what do you see?

Good luck.

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