The Creative Life:
Steven Church is the author of The Guinness Book of Me: a Memoir of Record, Theoretical Killings: Essays and Accidents, The Day After The Day After: My Atomic Angst, Ultrasonic: Essays, One with the Tiger: Sublime and Violent Encounters between Humans and Animals, and I’m Just Getting to the Disturbing Part: On Work, Fear, and Fatherhood, published in Spring 2018 by Outpost19. He also edited the essay anthology, The Spirit of Disruption: Selections from The Normal School. His essays have been published and anthologized widely. He is a Founding Editor and Nonfiction Editor for the nationally recognized literary magazine, The Normal School; and he coordinates the residential MFA Program at Fresno State and teaches for the low-residency MFA Program at Sierra Nevada University. He spoke with Mount Hope co-managing editor Jillian Damiani about his work.
MH: I was doing a bit of research, and you’ve had a variety of different jobs and occupations while you were publishing essays and books. You were a tour guide at a gold mine and at a national landmark, which I saw from your book, I’m Just Getting to the Disturbing Part. You’re a founding editor for The Normal School and you’re a professor. Do you think your diversity of experiences influences what you write or how you write?
Steve Church: For sure. I had somewhat of a circuitous route to the MFA. I was a philosophy major as an undergraduate and didn’t really take a writing class until I guess it was my last year or something. And then I spent about three years after that just doing various jobs and traveling around. When I started my MFA, I was ready to write. I was ready to get to work. I’d done a lot of manual labor kinds of jobs, other weird jobs, and I was ready to be in the world of the academy again.
MH: I think humans should always do a myriad of things. As well as changing jobs, you changed locations. You’re originally from Kansas, but now you live on the West Coast. How much do you think location affects how you write?
SC: Oh, it’s a huge part of my work. A couple of my books are pretty heavily based in Kansas and my childhood there. Some of my more recent writing is centered around California—I’m writing about earthquakes and things like that. And location definitely shapes my writing, just from teaching, because most of my students are from the Central San Joaquin Valley. And the Valley just is such a part of their work. It’s there. It’s the dirt. It’s the stuff that we grow. It’s all one thing. It’s a huge part for sure.
MH: I was looking at your debut, your 2005 memoir, The Guinness Book of Me: A Memoir of Record, your fascination with World Records. Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, which was 2008, was a similar catalog of idiosyncrasies as a book premise. Do you think creative nonfiction is moving away from this structural basis of categorizing and making narratives? Where do you think that it’s headed as a genre?
SC: One of the things I like about nonfiction is the possibilities are endless. In nonfiction, you have an obligation to do a little bit of everything as a writer. You have to be good at the level of the sentence. You have to understand language and pay attention to it like a poet—you may even write lyric essays. You have to understand character and plot and scene. You have to be the character on the page and the narrator and the author all at the same time. And so there’s so many different ways that it can go. One of the cool things about being an editor [at The Normal School] is I get to see interesting possibilities and ways that essays can be constructed, how nonfiction is happening these days. The Guinness Book of Me, for me, was a book that I didn’t really know what it was going to be about, and most of my books are like that. I have to figure out a way into it. It’s [The Guinness Book of Me] a book that developed by me going back to this childhood obsession over these Guinness freaks and writing about their stories, making up stories for them, which was fun for me. There’s a lot in that book that is fiction. The book itself has a fairly traditional arc, but it’s constructed out of these little episodic sections. Every book of mine is different, in terms of structure. There’s so many options. In the future, I want to do more journalistic stuff because I just like reading it, but I don’t always have the time.
MH: That’s really interesting. While I was reading different reviews [of The Guinness Book of Me], I thought of Diane Arbus. She was a photographer in the ’60s. She would photograph a lot of people that were doing burlesque shows or circus performers in freak shows. She wanted to focus on the “weird people.”
SC: I find that a lot of my books are a lot of times me trying to demystify somebody’s story or get inside of it. My book One With the Tigers started with my reading a news report about a guy who jumped into a tiger enclosure at The Bronx Zoo and survived. He said that he wasn’t trying to kill himself, that he just wanted to be one with the tiger. And I just got obsessed with this story. People said, “He’s crazy.” And I thought, “Maybe he’s not!” The project of the book was to suggest that maybe he was totally normal.
MH: That’s amazing. That’s really interesting because you don’t really know what sanity is and what sanity isn’t, especially in art.
MH: Why and how did you decide to focus on nonfiction? You mentioned that in your first book that there is fiction involved too. Did you ever kind of try other genres before landing on nonfiction?
SC: My MFA’s actually in fiction. When I did my MFA degree, I started it in ‘98. And there really weren’t that many programs doing creative nonfiction at the time. There’s a lot now, it’s one of the faster-growing fields. But in ’98, there weren’t very many. There were only four magazines that were nonfiction only. So I went into my MFA thinking I wanted to write short stories. And I still love short stories—I never imagined myself writing a novel. But it turns out I’m just a really terrible fiction writer. I have no interest in things like plot or characters. All of my characters were thinly-veiled versions of myself saying things that I want them to say. I had a professor who introduced me to nonfiction and that just blew my mind. [Joan] Didion was one of those people. The White Album made such an impression on me. There’s a book by Bernard Cooper called Maps to Anywhere—it’s brilliant. I’ve been teaching it for almost twenty years. It’s a book that’s hard to categorize and classify. When I came across that in my studies, it changed the way I was thinking about writing. So I stopped trying to force myself to write more conventional stories. I just loved essayistic writing. I haven’t really looked back.
MH: I don’t know this book, but I’m going to buy it. What do you think the nonfiction genre can do that fiction can’t do?
SC: I don’t know if it’s so much that either genre does things that are mutually exclusive, but nonfiction is a shapeshifter of genre. It can behave in different ways depending on the context or the form or the subject. I also like the risk in writing nonfiction. I think it makes it a very raw, alive genre. People are writing about serious stuff and finding artful ways of telling their personal stories. And to me, there’s something very important and real about that. It’s hard to put yourself on the page like that. There’s no speaker that you’re hiding behind, there’s no fictional narrator or characters. It’s just you. And so nonfiction workshops are fundamentally different from other workshops because they’re workshopping you and not your character, not the speaker of your poem. I think there’s some really fascinating risk involved in writing it. I think risk is good for the genre. Nonfiction is also constantly trying to define itself. Everybody who writes it is part of this shared project, of trying to figure out what it is. It’s the only genre that’s defined by what it isn’t. It’s nonfiction, not fiction. But what is it? I’m mostly interested in modes of writing. And so for me, the essay mode is really what I’m sort of obsessed with these days.
MH: That’s perceptive—It’s already in the name. It’s not fiction. I like that line, categorizing by elimination.
SC: Exactly. Everybody knows what poetry is. Everybody knows what fiction is. And that’s weird. You’ll tell people like, “I write nonfiction,” and you can see they’re trying to understand what you’re saying, asking, “Is that a thing?” “Yes. Yes, it is.”
MH: How do you draw inspiration from the mundane aspects of life? How do you think you find creativity where you are?
SC: I do believe you have to work for that. I think a lot of people could be creative but it is a matter of committing to that side of yourself. It’s still hard for me to say I am a writer—I tell people I’m a professor first. I still have a hard time saying I’m an artist, I’m a writer, but now I understand how my brain works creatively and I know I need time and space—the time to let a thought develop and grow, instead of being scattered in a million different directions. It’s a matter of trying to carve out a little bit of space in the day to dedicate to your creative self. I tell students, “You have to dedicate the time to it and the practice. It is a discipline.” You have to work at the fundamentals and the more you practice, the more you internalize. When you’re a writer, every single word matters. The thing about writing is that we have to make our own raw material first and then we sculpt it--we just don’t buy a block of stone. We have to make the stone first and then we have to carve it down and turn it into something beautiful. So it takes time. It takes effort. It takes patience. It takes me time to finish an essay, honestly, sometimes years to finish one essay. I’m always working on different things in different stages, so I always have something I can go to if I need to write. And then, frankly, I think as an essayist, my job is to pay attention to the world around me and to be curious about it. You can have everything else, but if you’re not curious about the world, you’re just not going to be a writer. Writing is trying to puzzle out things and paying attention to the world and what’s happening around you and seeing everything as the potential for some kind of art, every kind of interaction or every kind of exchange. Especially now. Like everybody, I spent the last year inside my house mostly. So what am I writing about? I’m writing about my backyard pool. I spent a lot of time sitting there looking at it and trying to figure out if there’s anything meaningful. It doesn’t just happen.
MH: I would definitely agree. You want to have this instantaneous, amazing thing. But it’s probably not going to happen that way.
SC: I’ve studied with, worked with, taught dozens of talented writers, incredibly talented writers. So talent is one part of it, but the other side of it is the discipline and the slog. You have to really enjoy it. For instance, I love revising. You have to enjoy it.
MH: What’s a project you would make if you had infinite resources and infinite time to do something?
SC: Oh, wow, what a great question. You mean like a creative project?
MH: Any kind of writing thing, not a writing thing.
SC: If I had unlimited resources I would start a press to publish nonfiction. I’ve run the magazine now for twelve years and that’s been great. One of the things I enjoy the most about running a magazine is getting to publish people for the first time—just helping them with their careers and supporting them as writers. I think it’d be fun to do that as a publisher.
MH: That’d be so cool. I hope you will. For my last question: is there something you want to talk about that you haven’t been asked before? Something people don’t ask?
SC: That’s interesting. That’s a great question, actually, for interviews. I’m going to steal that. I have many friends who are women writers, and they always tell me how they can’t get through a single interview without getting asked about their husband or their kids or some crap like that. Sometimes I wish they’d ask me about my kids, because no one ever does. Obviously that’s deeply institutionalized and rooted sexism. But I write about my kids all the time. It’s really funny that nobody ever asks me about my kids. I like to talk about my kids because they’re great, they show up in all of my books. They know that and they make fun of me for it. My son said to me one day, “I realize I have to just be careful what I say around you.”
MH: Some writers are very family-based. But who do you observe the most and the most frequently? It’s the people you live with, it’s your family.
SC: I used to say all the time. My kids are older now. My son’s in college and my daughter’s in junior high. But when they were younger, when they were toddlers, and I used to say that my job was to try to get adults to think like them. Because they’re just full of wonder and curiosity and language is developing and it’s magical. And us, the adults are old and jaded and we don’t find the little things so exciting anymore. But kids get super jazzed about little things, like grass. Adults need that kind of excitement and natural curiosity. It’s a huge part of being a writer.
MH: I think so too. In any kinds of relationships you have, it’s always good to have a variety of age ranges.
SC: It sounds like a cliche, but I’m excited for our future because of the kids today. I get really tired of adults complaining about millennials or whatever. My kids are smarter than me. They’re more socially engaged, my students too. I learn from them all the time. That’s one of the best parts about being a professor, is that I’m still in school, even though I’m the professor, right. I still go to school. I still am learning from them. And that’s pretty awesome.
MH: You should never stop learning. It’s something people always fall victim to—they get to a certain spot and think, “I can coast now for the rest of my life.” You miss a lot if you do that.
SC: Exactly. For sure. It’s a lot of wisdom there.