Writers on Writing
Writers on Writing

The Roots of Obsession

by Darcey Steinke


When I was a little girl, if the teacher called on me to read, it took me ages to get through a paragraph. My face flushed bright red, my vocal chords constricted. In spoken speech I had no grace. I stuttered when I answered the phone, the H in hello terrified me, and when I was asked what sort of ice cream I wanted I’d always say vanilla because the V was so much easier than the CH in chocolate.

 

I was anxious and weepy about my stutter, but it also made me attuned to language. As I spoke, if an S, T, or Q word was necessary, I would quickly swap it out for an easier word. If a sentence had an internal rhythm, I learned, it was less hard to say out loud. I began to write down the words I wanted to say. When we studied parts of the body, I’d go over the illustrations in my encyclopedia and see which words would be least difficult for me. In art class when we studied Van Gogh, I’d look up lists of his colors and the names of his paintings so I could contribute without stammering. I’d write down my comments the night before, reworking the sentences until they were smooth and melodic.

 

My obsession with language grew organically out of a flaw in my speech. I’m convinced that if you are obsessed with language, there is always a root cause. It might be so subtle that you don’t even recognize it yourself or it might be obvious like my stutter. Either way, the important thing is not so much why you are drawn to words, stories, and books; why you turn from life’s action to the empty white page, but that you do. If you are called to do this work, you must accept the call, and work to communicate to others from the page. It is difficult. It is, as Flaubert said, a dog’s life, but it is also the only life worth living.  

 

 

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Darcey Steinke is the author of the memoir Easter Everywhere (Bloomsbury 2007, A New York Times Notable book) and the novels Milk (Bloomsbury 2005), Jesus Saves (Grove/Atlantic, 1997), Suicide Blonde (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1992), and Up Through the Water (Doubleday, 1989, A New York Times Notable book.) Her new novel, Sister Golden Hair, came out in Fall 2014 from Tin House.