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Steven Church talks essays, and his new book 'Ultrasonic'

David L. Ulin
Los Angeles Times Book Critic
Steven Church's 'Ultrasonic' gathers 11 essays that focus the author's 'ranging mind'

For Steven Church, the essay is, as he explains in his new collection “Ultrasonic” (Lavender Ink: 168 pp., $12.95 paper), “a way to focus my ranging mind.” The key word there, of course, is ranging, for that is what an essayist does.

Gathering 11 pieces, first published in journals such as AGNI, Fourth Genre and the Rumpus (“Auscultation” was selected for “The Best American Essays 2011”), “Ultrasonic” adapts Montaigne’s definition of the essay as a “try,” circling a variety of subjects, personal and otherwise. “[I]t feels at times nearly impossible for me,” Church says, “to wrap my arms around the enormity of a thing like the subject in an essay, nearly impossible to reach the emotional bottom without diving in too deep.”

Church is the author of three previous books, and teaches in the MFA program at Fresno State, where he is founding editor and nonfiction editor of the journal The Normal School. Recently, we corresponded, via email, about his new book, essay writing and the allure of racquetball and sound.

Late in “Ultrasonic,” you write: “The truth was that a well-rendered sentence had the effect for me of ordering the day and making sense of a chaotic world.” And yet, the essay is a dance with chaos, don’t you think?

Absolutely the essay is a dance with chaos. That’s one of the things I like most about essays, that bodily engagement with form and content, that dance around the floor, lost in the spin of thought as the reader taps you on the shoulder, cutting in. The essay, for me, has a kind of physicality to the way it bends and flexes to fit the author’s consciousness. It’s risky and constantly changing. It leaps boundaries while still retaining its essential “essayness,” defined by exploration, approach, retreat, doubt and an aesthetic of noble confusion.

An essay such as “Auscultation” experiments with theme and structure. How much do you know, going in, about what you want to say and how?

With “Auscultation,” I knew pretty early that the essay would have four chambers to correspond with the four chambers of the heart and the other “chambers” I explore (coal mines, the human body). I also knew that I wanted each section to be fairly short and that I wanted to wait to introduce any sort of personal connection to the subject matter. I played around a bit before settling on the current order of sections, but I knew that I wanted to follow the first section, focused on trapped miners, with a more intimate engagement, a movement from cold and distant to something more emotionally warm. I’ve had astute readers (some of them high school kids) point out that the structure of the essay mimics the way blood flows through a heart and gets oxygenated, all of which I like to pretend is absolutely intentional. The truth is: I love that readers have discovered meaning in the essay I didn’t necessarily intend because it shows how an essay (or any piece of writing) can be a participatory experience with your reader.

“Crown and Shoulder” builds to an investigation of grief over your brother, but it doesn’t begin there. How did the essay take you to that material?

Though this may sound like a convenient fiction, I didn’t see it coming. The essay started out in a completely different direction, beginning with an extremely boring catalog of head and shoulder injuries I had sustained in my life. Gripping stuff. At some point I decided to give myself some handcuffs, some constraints, to focus my thinking and expand the reach of the essay. This is when I decided that I wanted to circle around the words “crown” and “shoulder.”

Before long, the essay was going off in all sorts of interesting directions, gathering momentum until “rubbernecking” showed up; and I suppose it wasn’t long after that when I realized that I was still circling around my brother’s death as well. It’s a subject I’d written about many times and, though I’m not foolish enough to believe I’m done with it, I thought I’d worked through much of the meaning of that loss in my life. Of course, this is ridiculous. Like all meaning, nothing is fixed. Everything changes. That’s scary stuff for a nonfiction writer, or for any writer; but it is also kind of exciting. I will admit to enjoying an oblique approach to the subject in this essay. Its appearance on the page mimics almost exactly its appearance in the process of writing; and for me this was an extremely satisfying surprise.

In “It Begins with a Knock at the Door,” you address the notion of writer as parasite.

The essay is at least in part a consideration of the postures we assume, both on the page and in life, as writers of nonfiction; and it is also for me a consideration of the moral and ethical implications. At times I’m quite intentionally putting my arm around the reader’s shoulder, pointing at the scene and myself as a character — not as fellow witness but as controlling narrator. It’s a manipulative stance, one I try to soften with humor and self-deprecation. But it was a hard essay to write, because of the “confessional” quality, and also because, despite my essaying and dithering over these aesthetic and ethical issues, I’m still using the people around me — in this case my neighbors — for aesthetic purposes.

Ultimately, I end up believing (at least in this performance of the I) that our role as essayists, or writers, is that of the ethical and efficient parasite. A true parasite does not bleed its host dry. It does not kill the subject but keeps it alive, feeding off it, taking just enough to survive. It is a symbiotic relationship, one that can at times even benefit the host. Or think of it this way: The subject in an essay is the great white shark and I am the remora fish, circling in its shadow, feeding off the scraps.

“Ultrasonic” is a collection of stand-alone essays, but there are motifs. Sound, for one thing. Also racquetball.

This may seem odd, but a great deal of this book was generated out of a particular inquiry into the unique and ineffable sonic character of racquetball. I’d taken up the game again in my late thirties, to deal with stress and lose weight, and I found myself fascinated by the sound of it, the aesthetic of noise and speed and power. I especially loved the way you could feel the sound in your body, and also how you could see physics at work. The ball would bounce off the wall and a split second later you’d hear the crack. You could watch sound trying to catch up to the speed of light, and I found this endlessly fascinating. I started trying to write and realized how difficult it is to capture sound on the page; I started to think about sound as source, subject and form.

I did a Google search for “blue noise,” and up popped a list of different colors of noise. Somewhere in an entry on “blue noise,” I read a sentence that said, “Blue noise makes a good dither,” and, though I had no idea what it meant, I loved how it sounded. The sentence became a puzzle that I wanted to solve and, before I knew it, something like a book project began to take shape as individual essays, each focused on sound in some way. All along I was guided by the idea of echolocation as a way to describe both the process of writing the essays and also of moving through each essay and the book as a whole. I wanted to create not so much “lines” between pieces as “echoes.”

Some of these essays were composed for specific venues: Brevity, Largehearted Boy.

Nearly every piece was composed for some kind of deadline — either self-imposed or other-imposed. “The King’s Last Game,” about Elvis Presley and racquetball, began as a failed assignment for Men’s Health (a publication for which I have no business writing anything). Such deadline making and seeking is a big part of my writing process. I suppose I work well under the pressure of deadline because it gives me an excuse to ignore other obligations, deadlines or expectations in my life. Writing usually comes first (except when it doesn’t).

These essays are very personal. At the same time, the personal often leads to, or emerges out of, something larger.

To me, the personal material in any essay is mostly interesting as a lens for seeing larger connections. Sometimes it’s the connection to a personal story that pulls the piece into focus, but just as often it’s something ineffable about language or culture. At times I’m actively writing away from personal material, because I am interested in complicating these experiences. I once booed a writer who told an audience that you shouldn’t be allowed to write memoir or personal essays until you’ve reached the age of 45 and achieved clarity, at which point I suppose this individual would hand you your laminated “memoir license” or something. This, at least in my mind, completely misses the point of essays as being attempts, efforts at understanding, defined more by doubt and skepticism than by clarity.

Twitter: @davidulin

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