DARCEY STEINKE is the author of the New York Times Notable memoir Easter Everywhere, as well as five novels. In 2017 Maggie Nelson wrote a foreword for a new edition of Suicide Blonde. With Rick Moody, she edited Joyful Noise: The New Testament Revisited (Little, Brown 1997). Her books have been translated into ten languages, and her nonfiction has appeared widely. Her web-story Blindspot was a part of the 2000 Whitney Biennial. She has been both a Henry Hoyns and a Stegner Fellow; Writer-in-Residence at the University of Mississippi; and has taught at the Columbia University School of the Arts, Barnard, The American University of Paris, and Princeton. Flash Count Diary is her most recent book.
In Flash Point Diary you explore a fascination for female killer whales, the only other creatures on earth who go through menopause. I know from my own menopausal journey that the symptoms come and go and my feelings about it change. How has writing this book changed the way you think about your own aging and your relationship to the natural world?
I wrote my book out of desperation. When I first started getting hot flashes and having trouble sleeping, I looked around for books about menopause that talked about what menopause was physically but also what it meant. I found a lot of screeds about hormone therapy and plastic surgery but nothing on the spiritual transformation of menopause.
When I discovered that Killer Whales (and a few other kinds of whales) go through menopause I was fascinated. In part because the post-reproductive females are the leaders of their pods, tight complex family groups. No one diminishes them, no one tells them there is anything wrong with them. It was through studying and eventually seeing some of the Southern Resident Killer Whales that I realized its not menopause itself that is the problem but menopause as it’s experienced under patriarchy.
This was mind-blowing. And yes writing the book changed me. I think going in I saw menopause as something to be cured and by the time I finished I realized menopause was a trial by fire that helped me forge a new and bigger sense of self. I am a creature inside a life cycle…an animal…to embrace this rather than fight it has brought me closer to myself, to the earth and all its creatures.
Do you have a “room of your own” to write? What’s your process or ritual?
I have an office in my house in Brooklyn, but it’s also one side of the bedroom I share with my husband. He can be a late sleeper so in the last years I also write in a cubby at a shared workspace. I really love my cubby, I can go anytime I want, even on the weekends or in the evenings. For this book, which I wrote fairly fast for me, two years, I worked through the weekends and it was key to have a place away from my house. In my house, I am always tempted to do laundry and check to see what kind of cheese there is in the fridge.
I tend to write in the morning for 4 to 6 hours. I read a lot for this book. A lot of research. About twenty books per chapter, then I would write notes, usually a full notebook or two. I would feel my ideas coalescing and when I had figured out what I wanted to say on the chapter subject, female anger or sex, I would just start, not worrying too much at first about the prose. Get a draft and then rewrite over and over. I am a fierce rewriter.
What’s on your nightstand right now, books and otherwise?
I sleep a little better now than when I first entered menopause. But most nights I still have to turn the light back on and read a bit more before I can get to sleep. I might do this 1 to 5 times. So I like to have a wide variety of books on the nightstand, a mix of poetry and non-fiction and novels. At the moment there is: To Tell the Truth Freely by Mia Bay, an amazing biography of the journalist and activist Ida B. Wells, also How We Get Free edited by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, a book about the early Black Feminist Group, The Combahee River Collective. Like a lot of women I have been interested in feminist history, in the resisters that went before us, then two books of poetry: Alice Notley’s Certain Magical Acts and Hannah Sullivan’s Three Poems. I love the anti-heroine and so am also re-reading Toni Morrison’s Sula. And finally a masterpiece of a book by Maud Casey The Man Who Walked Away. It’s about a doctor and his patient Albert, a man who can’t stop walking and it’s set at the very beginning of psychiatry in the 19th century. Other items: a lavender scented eye pillow, a tube of Replens, lube, and many pens and earplugs.
You say at one point in the book that menopause provokes a “call to authenticity.” Would you elaborate on that?
It’s a feeling that’s hard to express but going through all the physical changes of menopause, the flashes, the sleeplessness, the changes in sex physically and in desire, I just feel more like my REAL self. Its almost like I am that 13-year-old girl, fierce and ready to take on the world, that I was before I started to menstruate. I have no interested in pretending to be younger or feminine in a way that really is not me anymore. I see some women really panicking about keeping their bodies and their desires like they were before, in the fertile years. But once you let go of that, the freedom is really mind-blowing. You may be outside of the clichéd idea of a male-female ideal, but it’s a small price to pay for the dilation of the soul and the self. You can’t let anybody else define you, that’s the key as we get older, the culture wants to box us in but we have to fight for our authenticity and not feel shame about our changing bodies. Menopause is natural its not a disease. This is what the whales helped me to understand, that on the other side of menopause is leadership and an expansive broken open sense of what it means to be a human animal.