"When you know a thing, to hold that you know it, and when you do not know a thing, to allow that you do not know it—this is knowledge." (from The Analects of Confucius)

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Michael Perry: The Guy Who Tried Writing for a Living

[Note: This piece originally appeared in Creativity Connection, a quarterly newsletter for writers edited by author and writing instructor Marshall Cook. The article is based on an interview I conducted with Michael Perry in February of this year.]

Norman Maclean was right: a river does run through it. In this case, though, it’s not the Blackfoot. It’s the Chippewa. And it’s running right through my guts.

At least that’s the way it feels as I cross the Water Street bridge in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, to meet author Michael Perry at a coffee shop. I’ve just had a peaceful 2 ½ hour drive up from Madison, and everything that I know about Perry suggests he’ll be about as gruff as the Dalai Lama on Percocet. So my anxiety isn’t so much about how Perry will be—it’s the significance I’ve attached to simply meeting him.

I’ve come to identify with Perry, intensely, for a number of reasons. Both of us grew up on farms in northwestern Wisconsin, went to UW-Eau Claire, and know what it’s like to straddle “blue” and “red” worlds.

I’ve also been watching the trajectory of his writing career with interest—and awe. It’s a story with the power to jolt a writer-in-waiting into a state of action.

Perry’s breakout book was Population 485: Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time (2002), which was followed by Truck: A Love Story (2006). This spring Coop: A Year of Poultry, Pigs, and Parenting will be released. All are memoirs that center on his life in rural Wisconsin.

But before the book deals with Harper Collins and the tours that have him on the road for weeks at a time, there was just a desire to try writing, not an uncommon phenomenon, except Perry didn’t get bogged down in notions of writing. For him, writing meant doing: “One advantage . . . that I had is I just came to this with the idea that it was like a job—I’m self-employed. I gotta get out there and work,” he says.

Then add this twist: Perry went to college for nursing. And though always an avid reader, he never entertained the idea of writing until he was already well into a nursing career.

When he made the decision to try writing, it was grounded in practicality. Writing to pay the bills, yes, that he wanted to try. But as he makes clear, he had no grand notions of being a poet or a novelist—or a memoirist. “I just thought, hey, I seem to have gotten all A’s on my papers in college, and I got B’s and C’s on my regular tests. So maybe writing I could do.”

Though the early days are hardly a romantic account of writerly exploits—“I went to the library and checked out How to be a Freelance Writer”—what they embody is a blue-collar chutzpah that propelled him first into copywriting for brochures and radio and then increasingly into writing assignments for a range of publications—Backpacker, Esquire, and Cowboy Magazine to name a few.

In the meantime he began to hang out with poets, novelists, and professors who took his interest in writing seriously. “That’s why I’m not anti-academy, because I’ve benefitted from the academy. I just never had to pay the tuition. I had to drive home a few drunk professors,” he says.

As for his success now, Perry says, “I think I enjoy it on a whole other level because I meandered here.”

But don’t misunderstand the meandering. Perry clearly abhors self-glorifying statements and is reluctant to overstate the tremendous amount of effort he’s put into his craft. But the facts point to a man who knows success, first and foremost, through years and years of unadorned, good ol’ hard work. There’s a glimpse of this when he reflects on the writer qua writer: “The one constant that any writer, whether they came backwards through the library or whether they have an MFA from the finest institution in the land [is] you gotta work at it. You have to do the thing. You have to put your butt in the chair,” he says.

That attitude helps explain how, within a matter of a few years, Perry went from reading handbooks for writers to actually writing one himself in 1997. Though outdated in minor ways, Perry’s Handbook for Freelance Writing is more than insightful; it holds eerily prescient nuggets, lines like this from the first chapter: “I’d love to dispense with writing radio copy, or tips on how to avoid sunburn, but I’m not willing to dispense with my house payment, and I’m not willing to dispense with the progress I’m making toward working more and more on projects that truly move me—projects that truly allow me to write.”

Now 44, Perry estimates about 70% of his writing is “purely stuff I want to write” and adds that the other 30%, the freelance magazine writing, “is still cool.” And then there are his other roles: He’s a husband, father to two children, an emergency medical technician, a frequent guest speaker, a singer/ songwriter for his band the Longbeds, and caretaker to the chickens and hogs he raises on his farm just south of Eau Claire. Recently, he’s had to hire a part-time assistant to help him keep up with everything.

But there’s no feeling that he’s at all overwhelmed. This is a man who’s content, who has a preternatural sense of gratitude for what he does to earn a living. And when he says, almost apologetic of his sincerity, “I’m the luckiest guy in the world,” he means it.

Oh, remember my anxiety? Yeah, about 20 seconds into the interview it began to fade, morphing into giddiness and an annoying tendency to finish Perry’s sentences. After nearly an hour has gone by, he warns me that he’s going to have to answer his cell when it rings—it’s another interview, this time with a newspaper. When the phone beckons and we say our quick goodbyes, I walk out to a cloudy February afternoon and continue my road trip north to visit the folks. I also have some writing to do.