Only Through Unknowing: Darcey Steinke on Fiction, Divinity, Spirituality and Beyond

Darcey Steinke
PHOTO COURTESY OF THE AUTHOR

American novelist DARCEY STEINKE is the author of the memoir Easter Everywhere (Bloomsbury, 2007; New York Times Notable) and the novels Milk (Bloomsbury, 2005), Jesus Saves (Grove/Atlantic, 1997), Suicide Blonde (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1992), and Up Through the Water (Doubleday, 1989; New York Times Notable). With Rick Moody, she edited Joyful Noise: The New Testament Revisited (Little, Brown, 1997). Her books have been translated into ten languages. Her novel, Milk, was translated into French, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese. Nonfiction has appeared, among other places, in The New York Times Magazine, The Boston Review, Vogue, Spin Magazine, The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, and The Guardian. Her web-story “Blindspot” was a part of the 2000 Whitney Biennial. She has been both a Henry Hoyns and a Stegner Fellow and Writer-in-Residence at the University of Mississippi, and has taught most recently at Columbia School of the Arts and Barnard College. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Let’s begin with your recent memoir, Easter Everywhere. I was touched by this book, perhaps because it is so intimate, as if you were retelling a story to a close friend. It talks about your fluctuating relationship with God, and the stages of your life when you questioned the ideology of the Lutheran church. Do you think the process of rejecting ideology, authority, and order in society is necessary to regain a sense of certainty?

My relationship to God, or the Divine, or the Universe, whatever you want to call it, has always been rather rocky. I can never get comfortable with one set of ideas about the divine, or one practice. When I hear how people want set rules and how they get comfort from staid ideas (in religion), I can never ever identify with that.

We all have to work this out ourselves; we need the structures, the religions, the literature, the art and idea of people and groups that have come before… but we need to look at it honestly…

My relationship to the universe has been defined by confusion and chaos, great love too, and hope. Also much doubt. I have gone through many phases. As you mention, my memoir narrates my young life as the child of a minister and then my falling away from church, and then in my thirties coming back to an interest in theology, and ideas of God. Since I finished that book I have had many more phases and ideas. I had several years of reading the Transcendentalists and being very interested in those ideas, of the transformative power of nature and man/woman as a part of that nature and therefore a natural part of the god head.

More recently I have been reading Trangpa. His book Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, is very fine and influenced me a lot. I also read, many other Buddhist texts as well as the monk Thomas Merton’s Asian Journal. I have felt called to move through the idea of a finite God, or presence, even though my idea is not all that finite. I feel the move for me has to be to give up any preconceived ideas of the divine so as to get closer to it. I must unknow what I think I know. It’s only through unknowing that I can have any direct experience of the raw universe. This summer, I read a lot of William James and his idea that thinking and the movement of the mind is divinity itself very much thrilled me.

Do I think, to get to your question directly, that you have to look at your belief system carefully and see where its acquired and where it has real life, energy and movement that can push you and help you — absolutely, no one should rely on some big institution for redemption (Church or University). We all have to work this out ourselves; we need the structures, the religions, the literature, the art and idea of people and groups that have come before… but we need to look at it honestly and make sure it’s ALIVE FOR US.


Easter Everywhere

Easter Everywhere
BY Darcey Steinke
(Bloomsbury, 2008)

Milk

Milk
BY Darcey Steinke
(Bloomsbury, 2005)

Jesus Saves

Jesus Saves
BY Darcey Steinke
(Grove/Atlantic, 1997)

Suicide Blonde

Suicide Blonde
BY Darcey Steinke
(Atlantic Monthly Press, 1992)

Contemporary memoir writers often recount their travels around the world or outside of their element, in search of spiritual connections or in hopes of life-changing events. But you’ve unpacked an experience much closer to home; your upbringing as a minister’s daughter in suburbia. You describe everyday culture of adolescent Americana; Cherry coke, Kmart, Tiger Beat magazine. Do you feel more of a connection to writing about daily events, as a bridge back to psychological and spiritual struggles?

In Sanskrit I have heard that the word for writer is “Piler into Piles,” and I think that is perfect. What we do as writers is to collect sensory details of all kinds — sights, smells, how sand feels or cashmere — and we use all of these thousands of senses to build a narrative. That happens as you say in the daily, I mean whether you travel around or not, all you really have is the day-to-day, the warm rich sent of your beef stew or the drowsy feeling on a late winter afternoon. We must make our fictional worlds with what we know, materially, emotionally, sensually and so yes, I think the day-to-day is key, really. You don’t need to travel the world to think of yourself as a complex person or a spiritual individual.

Which genre do you feel most compelled to write in?

I like both nonfiction and fiction. I really don’t have one I like better. For me, to pick would be like saying I liked one of my children better then the other. I find nonfiction very helpful in telling my own story to others, but also to myself. To me that’s what memoir is: you tell your story to your own self, and it helps one to feel centered in life, or at least to get down what one part of life was like. I feel the need to write about the self often comes when you see your life for a while as a story that can be told; it has a slant, it has a theme. Most of life is not like this of course; it is just chaotic life.

Fiction is more about the unconscious I feel, and about desires that go deep into the hidden soul and mind.

Language, or artistic expression as a whole, could be said to be only a symbol for reality. Aldous Huxley, for example, regarded writing and art as an “elegantly composed recipe, rather than the actual dinner.” Do you think writing is a limited form of expression or has writing always been fulfilling to you?

I am driven to write and I have been since I was a little girl. I wrote poems as a child and as young as ten I wrote every day in my journal. I had a bad stutter as a child. In my speech there was no way for me to be fluent or have any grace, so I went to the page very young to find flow and music in language.

I get frustrated at times with what I am working on, and I have had, like all writers, stories that have not worked and have had to be abandoned, but I still feel strongly drawn to the daily work of writing.

I have great faith in books. Do they solve all problems? Of course not. But some of the most meaningful conversations I have had with others, the deepest communion, has been about books.

Do you use other artistic mediums (besides writing) to express yourself?

I wish I had more things I could do! I can’t draw or paint. For a while, I was in a rock band called Ruffian with my girlfriends and we played out some in clubs around New York City and Brooklyn. That was great fun. We started the band as we were all going through bad breakups and rather than talk about it all the time, we decided to do something more pro-active. So we bought guitars, started to learn to play a few notes, and then started to write songs. I still have my guitar by my bed, but I am sad to say it does not get used much lately. I also like to collect things for my little house in Brooklyn. I have a tiny Victorian and I like to find cheap things at thrift stores to decorate it. I just found an old Exit sign!


What are your daily writing habits like? Do you consistently keep a notebook, or do you compose words in your head?

I hope in my books to show life as the paradox it is, both terrible and beautiful at the same time.

I get up in the morning, after I get my daughter to school, I try to write between two and five hours. I am more engaged if I have a book up and going. If I am just starting out on something, it’s harder for me to sit and work. I also try to read a few hours every day and my reading has to do with my writing, I pick nonfiction books that will help me with my theme or plot or I read books I think might be like mine in tone. After lunch I do school work, looking at student stories or reading the novels I will teach.

I do keep a journal and I try to write in it each day. It is like my head in book form and I write about art I see, or music I hear, or plays or books I am reading, also my life in general. When I look back at my journals, I have years of them now, I see mostly so much anxiety expressed on the page!

You have a writing “web project” called blindspot. What drew you to this format?

This was at the very start of the Internet craze, I was asked to work on a project with a group called “adaweb.” They were doing web projects with writers and artists. We met a few times and I laid down my idea and they talked about how to make it all work on the computer. I am sort of a Luddite, so it was really interesting for me to work with these great minds. I think at the time, we all thought there would be more art projects on the web, though that idea does not seem to have come to be really. Blindspot, I am proud to say was in the Whitney Biennial, which meant a lot to me.

You are currently working on a new book. Please tell us about the inspiration for the book, and how it compares and/or contrasts with your previous work.

The first tiny seed for my new book, Sister Golden Hair, came to me while I was teaching in Vermont five years ago. It was snowing and I was sitting at my desk and I had this vision of a bunch of crappy duplex complexes on the side of a mountain, hanging there like barnacles on a rock. I thought of my young self, but also of another young girl, maybe thirteen, and I felt her confusion, and how really hard it is to find your own weight in the world. I felt this sort of sliver in my heart, this feeling of the uncertainty of adolescences, the hope and the fear. That was what started me working on it.

It’s different from my other books as the narrator is younger and it’s more episodic than some of my early work. I feel it’s a more mature work as it has a wider cast of characters and looks at many ways to make a life. I think it is more open-handed in its ideas. It is like my other books in that it is fairly dark and it looks at the worries and the pain in life clearly. I hope in my books to show life as the paradox it is, both terrible and beautiful at the same time.

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