In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors–Steven Harvey
1. Tell us about your essay in Volume 20. How did it come to be?
“Another Way” is a lyric essay about the acceptance of life as it is, a letting go that opens new possibilities for discovery and love. I remember when I wrote it that I wanted to draw on a lively mix of experiences to capture this openness to possibilities, stories that could fold into each other such as skinny dipping at Martha’s Vineyard, Julius Popp’s amazing water sculpture, dissolving sand dragons at Coney Island, and the canals of Mars to name a few. I shattered and rearranged these stories of art and public life in order to form a new whole that slowly emerges for the reader, a single story of acceptance and affection in a fallen world.
2. What was an early experience that led to you becoming a writer?
I think I became a writer because of the suicide of my mother when I was eleven years old. Writing became the way I could come to terms with experiences that otherwise have no shape for me. Eventually, I was able to write the story of my mother’s life and death in the memoir The Book of Knowledge and Wonder, a cathartic experience that shook me to the core but offered consolation.
3. How has writing shaped your life?
As I shape the writing, it, likewater etching sand, shapes me. It continuously teaches me to look harder, think beyond received ideas, and open up to fresh possibilities. Its hours of silence make me a better listener and teacher. The intellectual challenge goads me. The research pushes me into the world. Through my website, The Humble Essayist, I meet new writers that I admire which enriches my life as well. I agree with Annie Dillard that it is a privilege to muck around with words each day. I learn so much!
4. What books, writers, art, or artists inspire you and your work?
I write less about myself now and more about the world, especially the world of books and art. My goal is to get as much of the world in my writing as I can. A reading of Henry Thoreau in college—the passage from “Walking” where he climbs a pine tree and sees his world in a new way—hadan enormous impact on me when I was young and Annie Dillard is the writer who introduced me to the contemporary essay. I admire the wide range of reading that informs their work. I’m also a fan of many of my contemporaries, writers such as Judith Kitchen,Charles D’Ambrosio, Eliot Weinberger, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Elena Passarello—to name a few favorites—who bring such varied subject matter into their writing and transform it elegantly.
5. What projects or pieces are you working on right now?
This desire to write personal essays about public experience, mixed with anxieties about democracy in America,has led me, inevitably, to writing about politics. In an essay called “The Beloved Republic” published recently in the Antioch Review, I consider the role of art and culture in a world threatened by increasing authoritarianism. The title comes from an essay written by E. M. Forster in 1939 with Europe on the brink of World War II and describes “an aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate, and the plucky” who lay low during dangerous times, continuing their creative work and resisting from within if possible, until the danger had passed. In my next book I am looking for fresh ways to explore art and literature as a tool for transforming a world drifting toward autocracy.
Visit Steven’s website here.