I met Nadine Kenney Johnstone almost two years ago when I attended my first Writers Conference. I put it in caps because it was a BIG DEAL. I’d finally started calling myself a writer, and showing up physically with other writers seemed like a good idea.
The first day, I attended a workshop taught by a fancy MFA professor. The degree wasn’t the only intimidating thing about her. Nadine was thin and blond and, well, incredibly talented. Turns out, she was also incredibly encouraging, funny, and kind.
This was why I was so excited to run into her again last summer at a writing retreat. Here’s the most fascinating thing about her: she’s also human and like all of us struggling through life, she had an incredible story to tell. Unlike 90% of the human population, though, she put a portion of her story down on paper and just released her first book, Of This Much I’m Sure (She Writes Press, 2017).
A few weeks ago, we chatted by phone about her new book, National Infertility Awareness Week, her family, and the writing life. I’m thrilled she agreed to be interviewed and excited to feature her as my first subject in the return to the blog.
How are you doing with all the activity surrounding the release of the memoir?
It’s exciting and overwhelming – most of the hard work is done now, it’s just about showing up and trying to give it my all. I feel better than I did a few months ago when I was just working like a mad woman. Authors have to take on so much responsibility even if you have a publicist.
What would readers be most surprised to know after having read the book?
I think they’d be surprised to learn as much about my marriage, my struggles with anxiety, and my relationship with my mom. I go pretty in depth. I was turning in the final manuscript and I was like, “Oh, crap!” But that’s one of the positives of having publication happen so long after you’ve written. It tells the story of my life from ages 22 to 30. This most significantly focuses on 28-30. That’s a version of me and a character, but it’s not necessarily all of me.
What are some of your biggest personal changes since the end of the story?
At the end of the book we were making the decision to leave Massachusetts and come to Chicago, and I had no idea if it would work out. It was a really big leap for my husband. That’s the biggest thing. We’ve moved out of the city into a suburb, and we have roots there now. This is where we want to stay.
We decided that Geo will be our only child. The book talks so much about chaos, always in this frantic state. The lack of changes is the biggest thing. We’re trying to ground ourselves and remain steady and not have the chaos that we had in the book.
Let’s go back a bit. How did you get started writing?
I’d always written, kept a journal. I was a really big reader, a total book nerd. I watched Little Women every Christmas, and wanted to be like Jo. I was nutrition major, and switched to English. Most of time at University of Illinois, I just studied literature, but I wasn’t writing anything.
One day, my sophomore year, I sat down in my sorority house and just wrote a story. I had been a camp counselor for mentally and physically disabled kids, and I wrote a story about one of the autistic kids I worked with. I sent it into this submission opening, and it got published. It was a total fluke, and I’ve had so many rejections since then.
That first initial acceptance was a boost for me. I took a creative writing class that was good and then one that was awful. Then a professor said, “Did you know you could get an MFA?” I submitted to so many programs and got many rejections but got accepted at Columbia. That definitely made me serious about my work. Being around Eric May, Patty McNair, and the Chicago literary community, that’s what taught me to be serious about writing.
What can you share about your current project?
I’m writing an essay collection tentatively titled Try Again, Politely. We always say to Geo, “Try again, politely.” He’ll say, “I want milk.” We reply, “Try again, politely.” Then he says, “Mama, may I please have some milk?”
I was saying it a million times a day, and I started thinking about second chances, either me giving them or me receiving them. Moving back to Chicago, my second chance at that, second chances in my marriage, with my mom. We’ve really tried hard to repair our relationship. All these moments of starting again or repairing things that have gone wrong in a way.
That sounds like a universal topic. Is there a common thread that runs through your work?
I think it’s just me trying to work out some emotional kink. That seems to be my go-to. This was an issue or is an issue and I’m trying to work it, make sense of it, see it from different perspectives, what I’ve learned it, how it’s affected me.
Do you see yourself staying with essay and nonfiction?
Right now, I don’t have any pieces that feel like fiction. Back when I was writing fiction at Columbia, it was very thinly disguised autobiography. I didn’t know I had a good enough story to tell. I thought the people writing nonfiction had extraordinary lives.
I had to grant myself permission to say my story mattered. I think I’ve always been a nonfiction writer who was using fiction as a way to skirt around some issues. I have a great love of fiction, and I wouldn’t write it off because who knows what story might come into my head that might be better served as fiction?
Do you think you’ll go with a hybrid publisher again?
I really don’t know. I had a great experience with She Writes, I would definitely go with them again.
I want to concentrate on the writing for now and get there eventually. I loved that I had input on the cover design, the internal pages. I felt like I was in complete control. We followed a timeline. I knew I wanted it to be published in April because of National Infertility Awareness Week at the end of the month. With the traditional route, none of that is within your control, and that’s the downside.
Who are your first readers?
I didn’t workshop much of the memoir. I was in a flow, and I didn’t want to show anyone at first because I didn’t want opinions and revisions to stop the flow. I hadn’t experienced a flow like that. I just wanted to go, so I went and created this draft. Really only a handful of people saw it. My agent has a great editing brain. I just felt very clear about my vision, and she gave me feedback and I revised. I was totally open to what was and wasn’t working.
I have good writing friends, Steph and Kate, who read my stuff. But I feel like I want to take a class again and just get inspired. I want to seek out people who I know will challenge me, inspire me and not create an experience where I’ll be halted. That’s what my biggest challenge is. Sometimes I care so much about other people’s opinions and revising that it can really interrupt the process.
What’s one piece writing advice new writers should consider ignoring?
I don’t necessarily believe that “you have to write every day” thing. You do have to exercise this muscle. I think it’s honestly kind of like exercising or a diet. If you have goals that are too large, they become unattainable, and as soon as you mess up you feel like you have failed, and then you don’t get back on the horse.
I like small, manageable goals, and that is what works for me. Like working out–I tell myself you have to be active four or five days a week, not a certain amount of workouts for a certain amount of time. Or you can never have sweets again…well that doesn’t work!
Describe the physical process for you. What was it like writing the memoir?
I wrote in various spots, revising at this Starbucks in Ravenswood. I write standing up. Starbucks used to have two areas with a standing level bar area. I would drink almond milk with mocha syrup, basically chocolate milk! I put in my headphones, get all jacked up! I would listen to Eric Church and Fleetwood Mac albums over and over and over again, because I couldn’t listen to any songs that were new, or I would start paying attention to the words.
Now that I teach at Loyola, most of this second book has happened in my office. I never thought I would be an office writer, thought I’d always be a coffee shop writer.
Now for the fun stuff. Think of it as the speed round.
Last great book you read, other than your own: At Columbia, I was exposed to a lot of great fiction writers like Dorothy Allison and Edward P. Jones. Right now in nonfiction, Abigail Thomas, Mary Karr, and Cheryl Strayed are great.
A piece of advice or something you’d wished you’d known starting out: Follow your instinct and attention. What I loved about Columbia, we worked on developing our themes. Even with a totally random image, the professor would tell us to go deeper dive deeper. To our logical brain, that doesn’t make sense. But if we followed our attention and intuition, scenes would develop that I never thought I’d write about.
When I sit down, I do some brainstorming, even if I’d planned to write about something else, I don’t discard what pops up. This is taking my attention for some reason, and I am going to follow it. It’s giving yourself permission to write those things. To write your story even if you think, “Oh it’s nothing crazy or big.” There’s something there. There’s some element of truth or emotion in what you have to say. If you’re thinking it, it deserves to be put on paper.
You can read more about Nadine’s writing and coaching services by checking out her website at www.NadineKenneyJohnstone.com.