A Conversation with Steven Church
Steven Church is an award-winning American essayist and nonfiction writer. He has authored multiple books, including The Guinness Book of Me: a Memoir of Record, Theoretical Killings: Essays and Accidents, The Day After the Day After: My Atomic Angst, and others. Church serves as coordinator of the residential MFA program at Fresno State, teaches in the MFA program at Sierra Nevada College, and is a founding editor and nonfiction editor for the literary magazine, The Normal School. His newest collection of essays, I'm Just Getting to the Disturbing Part: On Work, Fear, and Fatherhood, is a fascinating reflection on topics as diverse as past jobs, fatherhood, and mental clarity. The essays on parenting delve into the joys, fears, and anxieties a father experiences as his children grow and learn. Church spoke with Scott Ross about the book and how parenting has affected his writing.
Scott Ross: In the preface of I'm Just Getting to the Disturbing Part, you focus on the idea of clarity. Do you feel that the creative mind breeds a lack of clarity? And does reaching for that clarity hamper the creative process or connect its dots?
Steven Church: I guess my problem with clarity is the assumption that it is the starting point from which an essay begins. Perhaps it’s the end point, but usually not. And yes, I think the creative mind is fueled fundamentally by curiosity, by the embrace of ignorance combined with the fire of inquiry. If we think of “clarity” as a kind of closing of the circle or wrapping up of the threads, then I don’t think that’s necessarily what art is striving to achieve. I think, rather, art should be pushing toward an opening up, an expansion of ideas.
SR: A theme in a few of these essays is the fear of parenting and its sometime irrationality. You call fear “the gift of the imagination.” Do you think the creative mind is especially susceptible to this fear, in particular with regard to parenting?
SC: Susceptible or just more in tune to the possibilities, perhaps, and willing to make something out of what appears on the surface to be nothing. Again, I guess it’s that mix of fear and curiosity that, in our best moments, combine to make us like overgrown, slightly more responsible and reflective children.
SR: A follow up to that question might be, has this fear changed as your children matured? Evolved from one area to another?
SC: Absolutely. Particularly as the father of a teenage boy and a daughter just entering adolescence, a daughter who is hyperaware of things like sexism, misogyny, and rape culture, but for whom that awareness doesn’t necessarily provide protection or insulation. It isn’t so much that I’m afraid for my kids’ safety (which, of course, I am at times), but that I’m afraid I’m not preparing them adequately for the complexities of the world, not preparing them properly to not need me.
SR: You mention the myth of the father as a superhero. Most fathers know they can’t achieve this mythical status. Has there been a time you’ve embraced a superhero status as a father, however briefly?
SC: I think it’s tempting but also kind of dangerous to buy into the myth of the father as superhero, and it’s perhaps more important that the children see you try, struggle, and occasionally fail. I think when I’m writing about it in the book, I’m mostly talking about my confusion and failures. As I argue in the preface, I think confusion is often the most interesting engine of art and writing. But the truth is that I feel most like a “superhero” now when I’m just there for the small moments of my kids’ lives, when I’m the one who drops off the forgotten lunch box or who gets called by the nurse when someone is sick.
SR: In the context of explaining to a child perceived versus real fears and dangers, you wrote, “We should believe our eyes, but know that things aren’t always as they appear.” As you evolved as a parent, did you feel better able to balance the urge to protect versus the urge to inform bluntly about the “real world”?
SC: To me, the urge to protect and the urge to inform bluntly about the “real world” are one and the same. My kids aren’t sheltered from much, unless it’s graphic violence—though they certainly know it exists. I honestly don’t know how you can shelter kids today from the “real world.” It seems like you’d be trying to shelter them from encountering gravity. As I’ve gotten older, I think I’ve just become more comfortable with my failures and my confusion and I don’t feel like I have to get everything right as a father. But back to my previous point, I guess I feel like the best way to protect my children is to not create or install false shells around them, to be honest with them, and encourage their strength and independence in the face of a world that wants to marginalize or challenge them.
SR: Are there moments in your children’s lives that are off limits to your writing?
SC: Off limits to publishing or sharing is perhaps more accurate. I try not to put too many blocks on my writing in the generative phase, try not to make up reasons why I can’t make art. But I’m definitely not writing as much about my kids these days, in part because they’re older and have more agency and intent, not to mention more independence. They’re also more accepting of me. My son said recently, “I’ve realized I have to be careful what I say around you or it might end up in an essay.” He didn’t say it out of anger or frustration, but more a sense of recognition that this is who I am and what I do. I really appreciated that gift. He attended one of my readings recently where I read from I'm Just Getting to the Disturbing Part. He’s a toddler in that book and now he’s a 16-year-old, so I was a little worried how he’d react. But honestly, he really enjoyed it. He remembers some things differently, of course, or not at all, but that provides an opportunity for us to talk about storytelling, truth, and memory. I’ve always tried to remind my kids that my story is not the definitive story, not the only one, and not inherently better or more authoritative than their own.
SR: The need to create, and the time it involves, is often hard to balance with the needs of children. Can you remember a time when these two needs conflicted greatly? If so, what was your solution?
SC: I think balancing the needs of your kids with anything else is a challenge and one that doesn’t really go away, particularly if you’re engaged and invested in your kids’ lives. I guess I’m a bit wary of offering solutions to these questions of time management because I feel like everyone figures it out on their own. Or they don’t. It helps to have a family that understands, appreciates, and respects your writing as work, to have a partner with whom you can work together and collaborate. But I can try to offer some “easy” solutions: wake up early, write, revise when you have spare moments, keep a notebook, establish a routine of work, and give yourself assignments and deadlines. I also think it’s important for your children that you own your identity as a writer and an artist and that they see you giving the work time, energy, and dedication to your craft.
SR: Can you remember a moment when one of your parents influenced you to be a future writer?
SC: Every single time they read to me. They read to my brother and me every night well into our teenage years. I always had a book in my hand, and they’re both great storytellers.
SR: Any projects in process you’d like to mention?
SC: I’ve edited an anthology of essays, The Spirit of Disruption: Selections from The Normal School, that will come out in August 2018, and I’m the book series editor for The Normal School Nonfiction Series from Outpost19 which will publish our first title in Spring 2019. I’m also coordinating a class for CSU Summer Arts, The Normal School’s Creative Nonfiction Workshop and Publishing Institute.