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Life's Little Explorations
The yarns of memoirist Steven Church are full of faces, places, odd jobs, fears,
and fatherhood. Those who meet him soon realize that he can't sit still in one
place for too long before moving on to impart his comical and insightful
The Lawrence, Kansas, native will share his stories Thursday, Oct. 5, when
members of the Fresno MFA faculty read their work as part of the Fresno Poets'
Association season-opening event.
Church and his family journeyed to Fresno this past summer, as he accepted a
teaching job in the MFA program in creative writing at Fresno State. Church
earned his MFA degree in fiction at Colorado State University, and most recently
taught creative writing at Roger Williams University in Bristol, Rhode Island.
His 2005 book, The Guinness Book of Me: A Memoir of Record, was a
finalist for both the prestigious AWP Book Contest and the Bakeless Prize.
Church has been thrice nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has won support from
the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference.
In an interview, community journalist Carol Claassen talked with Church
about his first impressions of Fresno, his thoughts on the genre of creative
nonfiction, and the unusual places he finds his writing inspiration.
How did you choose Fresno, and what are your first impressions?
I chose the creative writing program at Fresno State -- or California State
University, Fresno, as I've been instructed to call it at all times -- mainly
because it has an MFA degree in creative nonfiction. I knew that I wanted to
teach nonfiction, and then when I interviewed [here] I was really impressed both
with the faculty and the creative writing program as a whole.
Job interviews are generally painful for many reasons, but this one was as
pain-free as they can get. [Fellow faculty] John and Connie [Hales] met me at
the airport, and we hit it off right away. Then we had a Q&A session, and often
when you do those things, people aren't familiar with your work at all, they
don't know who you are, and often people don't show up. But the room was packed …
[and] there were probably more students there than faculty. The students asked
the toughest questions.
[My wife Rachel and I] wanted to get back out in the West, and California was
attractive. [Fresno poet] Chuck Hanzlicek has said Fresno has an inferiority
complex that's good for art, and I kind of like that idea. It definitely has
one, and I think it's largely undeserved.
How would you describe the writing community in Fresno, and what's your place
as a newbie in that community?
I'm still trying to figure out what the writing community is here. It has a
strong reputation for poetry. There aren't a lot of places in the world that
celebrate poets or poetry as much as Fresno, which is great for poets, but I
also think it's good for nonfiction because people with an ear or an eye for
poetry often make the best nonfiction writers.
Before I came here, I read pieces of the [student-produced] San Joaquin
Review journal that I thought were quite good. Really strong essays, and
people seem to be engaged and interested. It's short on pretension but long on
honesty, modesty -- people work hard and take themselves seriously.
Also, the Fresno Poets' Association that Chuck [Hanzlicek] runs is a great
organization that brings in some amazing writers. There are lots of
opportunities here for people to hear great writers, talk to them; that adds a
How do you define the complicated genre of creative nonfiction?
Here's the standard definition that I always give: it begins with some truth --
I say that with air-quotes around "truth" because we all know that truth, or
objective truth, is somewhat of a myth -- but it begins with some element of
truth. I potentially don't think of it as fact because I think fact is too
limiting. Then, it filters that [truth] through an artistic consciousness.
One of the things I like about nonfiction is that I think there's a different
sort of relationship between writers and readers and subject matter. It's a sort
of weird love triangle where trust is really important; you can lie, you can
violate trust, but you have to get permission. You have to seduce your reader,
say, "Come on! Let's do this!" It doesn't take much to get readers to agree to
be seduced or tricked or whatever. You have to take responsibility for it as a
writer, more than you do with other genres.
You don't hear people say things about a novel -- people who read a novel and
then find out that the novel is inaccurate or that it wasn't the writer's life
and say they feel betrayed. Because you already know going into a novel or a
poem that it's a fraud, basically, that it's artifice -- artifice is a better
way to put it. Nonfiction is still artifice. But, whether we like it or not, if
it says memoir on it, readers are going to react differently to it. We have
Your memoir clearly shows your obsession with world records. In a previous
interview, you said: "I always seem to look for the loss, the absence, and the
gaps in the Guinness stories. I also think -- perhaps foolishly -- that trying
to relate to the Guinness characters will help me understand my relationships
with my dad and my little brother -- both larger-than-life hero-freak
In hindsight, do you think that structuring your life stories around tree-eating
and longest-fingernails records distracted you from more deeply exploring your
personal stories? Or do you think the Guinness stories gave you a framework to
write about difficult subjects like the loss of loved ones?
The latter, yes. I did my MFA in fiction, and I spent a lot of time trying to
write fictional stories about my Dad and my brother and my relationship to them
and the death of my brother. Every story had a dead brother in it. But they just
didn't work. I couldn't really get into the truth of it, the meat of it, the
heart of it, through fiction.
What I needed was some sort of filter, or a lens, to see my adolescence. I was
stuck, writing-wise, and I got this old copy of The Guinness Book -- my Dad sent
it to me. It was the one that I originally owned when I was a kid. And I just
started doing writing activities where I would take the pictures or the entries
in the Guinness books, and I would just try to imagine a life, why somebody
would do this.
I would look for the gaps. What are their motivations? What's their life like
behind this? And all of a sudden I realized, I'm writing about myself. I was
really writing about my own feelings of freakishness and insecurity, and these
speculations I was doing about these Guinness characters -- fiction, if you want
to call it that -- were illuminating truths about my relationships with my Dad
and my brother that I couldn't see before.
So do you find that writing organizes your life, or keeps you organized?
Yes. I think if I didn't write, I don't know what I would do. It helps me
interact with the world. It's how I make sense of the world, even on the most
basic level. There are few things I find more satisfying than making a list and
crossing things off. I love e-mail. I like to write. It definitely organizes my
life, gives me structure. It gives me goals.
In your book, you write: "I turn to stories, hoping the right kind will set
me free." Do you believe that reading other people's stories is crucial to
finding the truth in your own?
Yes. I think of myself as a memoirist and a personal essayist, but I think I
have the same struggles that everybody does -- how does a person access personal
stories, how do you tell your personal stories? I think "write what you know" is
a fine mantra, and it works for a lot of people, but I also think it's important
to write what you don't know or what you wonder about.
For me, what I love about nonfiction is, the point of it is to explore. It's not
like you have this big truth and then you just put it down on paper. If that's
how it worked, I don't think I would write. It helps me explore the world, it
helps me understand my place in it, and often that's through other people's
I'm always reading news stories; I'm obsessed with crime reports and weird stuff
like that. I love reading about freaks. I think that you have to read to be a
good writer. You have to use writing to explore the subjectivity of others.
I recently read your essay, "Bright Orange Fear," published in the
November/December 2005 North American Review. Is this essay part of a
larger collection? What are you currently writing?
I have a long piece where I write about working at a gold mine in Colorado. I
was a tour guide. I took tourists into a tunnel and told them stories about gold
miners, which is a great experience. I learned a lot. That essay was challenging
because I had to find a way to incorporate all the information I knew about
mining with personal narrative.
And then I've got another one about working at Meteor Crater Natural Landmark as
a tour guide as well. Rachel and I both worked there. We moved from Kansas to
Flagstaff, Arizona, on a whim and then we got jobs working at Meteor Crater,
which is a strange place. It's North America's largest meteor impact site, but
it's privately owned by a cattle rancher. So I wore a brown shirt, little
American flag patches, tight brown pants.
There's an essay [where] I witnessed a drowning at a lake in Colorado. It's
about my son Malcolm and the fear of water; there's a lot of stuff about fear.
We moved up to a cabin in a canyon outside of Fort Collins. Malcolm was a
newborn, only a few months old. It sucked. We were isolated. I wrote about the
mental stress of being isolated and living in a canyon where your horizon is up
above you. I felt claustrophobic, so I wrote about that.
Fresno is a city fertile with writing talent of all kinds. As a newly
published author, what advice can you offer writers?
Trust your obsessions. That's a good way to start. Write to explore; aim for the
gaps. Aim for what you don't know and want to figure out.
The thing I often say about writing is that there are some things you can teach
and other things that you can't. You just have to always write, you always have
to work at it. And by work, I mean work. Discipline. That's a big part of it.
You can't really teach work ethic.
So writing really is mostly perspiration?
Yes, there's some truth to that. You have to believe that you have something to
say, that you have some way of looking at the world and thinking about the world
that is unique and worth pursuing. You have to be confident in yourself even
thought the life of a writer is full of rejection. So I think it helps to be
competitive, not necessarily with others but with yourself.
Finally, you'll be appearing with your new fellow Fresno MFA faculty at the
Fresno Poets' Association reading. What will it be like for you, reading with
them at the Fresno Art Museum?
It's a wonderful venue. If you haven't been to the Fresno Art Museum, it's
beautiful. It's definitely the coolest museum in town. Plus they have this whole
outdoor sculpture garden.
There's a whole corner where they have poems on plaques, carved into granite.
It's like a shrine to writers. Chuck [Hanzlicek] has a poem up there. Philip
Levine and Peter Everwine, too. These are famous poets, so I'm really honored to
Church will join fellow Fresno MFA faculty Connie Hales, John Hales, Tim
Skeen, and Steve Yarbrough for the Oct. 5 reading at 8 p.m. For details, check
the calendar, or visit the