On craft

On “Tree Eater”

by Steven Church

Steven Church’s essay “Tree Eater” appeared in ROOTED: The Best New Arboreal Nonfiction

I wrote “Tree Eater,” during a time when writing had begun to seem like a burden and a chore, and I wanted to write something “fun.” I picked up my old copies of The Guinness Book of World Records (the old ones are MUCH better for this, btw) and just started flipping through, looking for oddity and wonder, which isn’t hard to find in these books. And the beauty of the entries in the Guinness Books is that they only tell you so much and leave all these pregnant gaps in the story, these windows into their own unique kind of wonder. So I just started writing into those gaps, trying to answer questions through imagination. When I read about Jay Gwaltney, I wondered not only why he would eat a tree but how he would do it, and then I just tried to write toward answering those questions. And while much of these exercises started off in fiction, they inevitably veered off into memory at some point. If I were to suggest a writing prompt, it would be to find those odd, wonderful, or fantastical stories from the past, those moments that lie just outside the spotlight of history or memory, and write into those penumbral spaces. Imagine answers to nagging practical or existential questions and just have some fun with writing.


Steven Church is the author of five books of nonfiction, the most recent being One with the Tiger: Sublime and Violent Encounters Between Humans and Animals. His essays have been published in Passages North, Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, River Teeth, Prairie Schooner, Colorado Review, DIAGRAM, Brevity, and many others. He’s been anthologized widely, including in the 2011 Best American Essays. He’s a Founding Editor and Nonfiction Editor for The Normal School and teaches in the MFA Program at Fresno State and for the Sierra Nevada Low-Residency MFA Program. “Tree Eater” originally appeared in The Guinness Book of Me: a Memoir of Record (Simon & Schuster, 2005).