Interview: Chicago author Nadine Kenney Johnstone's "Of This Much I'm Sure"
When The Matador Review was first founded in 2016, we sat down with a number of local writers to talk to them about their work. Mandy Grathwohl spoke with Loyola professor Nadine Kenney Johnstone about her work as a nonfiction writer. In honor of the April 11th release of Johnstone’s memoir, here’s our conversation with her.
Nadine Kenney Johnstone is the author of the memoir, Of This Much I'm Sure, about her IVF challenges and the healing power of hope. She teaches at Loyola University and received her MFA from Columbia College in Chicago. Her work has been featured in various magazines and anthologies, including Chicago Magazine, The Moth, PANK, and The Magic of Memoir. Nadine is a writing coach who presents at conferences internationally. She lives near Chicago with her family. Find her on Facebook at @NadineKenneyJohnstone, and at nadinekenneyjohnstone.com.
Q: In your Review Review article, you stated that many people have called your writing "some synonym of honest." How do you make reality interesting? Why is honesty important?
NKJ: I saw a talk by Mary Karr, one of my favorite memoirists, when she came to Loyola. She said that she threw out twelve hundred pages of her memoir, Lit. The memoir is almost 400 pages as it stands. She wrote nearly sixteen hundred pages in order to write that memoir, and the reason she threw out the twelve hundred was because they didn’t feel "honest." She was writing what she wanted people to think of her, not really what she was thinking.
I admire both her and Cheryl Strayed because they both highlight writing the thing that you most fear saying out loud. When I read writing that I can tell is honest, I relate to it more. That's what I hope for my reader. I hope that they'll read it and see that I know that it doesn't show me in the best light, but it shows me in a human light; it's flawed. If I like to read things where authors are vulnerable, then I want to write things where the reader feels that I'm vulnerable.
Q: Do you have any advice for writers who may be afraid to tell the truth?
NKJ: They have to tap into what they're afraid of. I don't think people are afraid to tell the truth; they're afraid of the repercussions that come from telling the truth. They're afraid of offending someone, or letting themselves be seen as less than perfect. If they're writing and simultaneously censoring themselves, they're doing a great injustice to themselves and to the work. Whenever I'm coaching students on an essay class or a memoir class, I always encourage them to write the work as if no one else is going to see it, as if it's not going to get workshopped, as if it might never be published. Then, ask yourself, as Mary Karr does: what are you most afraid to say out loud? Say it. Give yourself permission to say it on the page. And then when it comes time for workshop, or if you get the great opportunity to publish, then you make that decision, if you want to keep that in there or not.
Q: Some people only write when they feel a certain way -- very sad, very happy. How do you go about writing nonfiction?
NKJ: I'm both a free-spirited person and a routine person. I'm a person that has to work out three times a week otherwise I feel crazy. More than that, and it's too much pressure on me. But the most productive I've ever been was when I got into the routine of writing my memoir about IVF. I was on a really good roll where I would write two hours every day in the morning, and then I was writing all day Saturday and all day Sunday if my husband could watch my son the whole weekend. It was great and very productive, but I also had to give up seeing my family and paying bills and cleaning my house.
I'm good on routine, but I find that when my schedule is a little crazy, I write in bursts: I have one day where I can do a six-hour burst, like it's been bottled up in me all week, and I need to get it out.
Q: You've written about your trauma with IVF, and now you have a happy, healthy son. Is writing about that time of your life over? What's next for you when it comes to writing projects?
NKJ: It's not that I'm done writing about it, but I think because now there's a whole book on that period of my life, even though it was only six or seven years ago, it seems like a long time ago. So right now, I'm actually working on an essay collection about parenting my son. A lot of it is about Chicago, raising him in the city. It's very nostalgic, and about lessons that he has taught me, and lessons that I want to teach him.
I'm really into essays right now. After you write almost four hundred pages of a narrative, you just want to write five pages and be able to move on afterward.
Q: Are pieces like "Nine Babies on Ice," your essay in [PANK], included in your memoir?
NKJ: I wrote that piece before I got pregnant with Geo. I was in the midst of IVF, and so at the time I was still revising my novel, which I had put to the side, but I thought that that essay was very interesting.
I went to AWP when I was pregnant with Geo, and I was trying to talk about my novel to agents and editors there, but everyone at the time was asking me if I had a memoir. "That's great, but what about nonfiction?" I would tell them about the [PANK] essay and how I foresaw it becoming bigger, and a couple of the editors there asked for my book proposal. I didn't have a book proposal! I wrote it, though, and an editor was interested, which inspired me to then write the full memoir. So "Nine Babies on Ice" became a scene in the book, and following that I wrote this piece called "Wishing" for Story Club Northside that I presented for SecondStory. "Wishing" is a mini summary of the entire memoir.
Q: What's your process of finding the right memory to write about? What makes instances special enough that you can write them for others to read and, in turn, experience them?
NKJ: There's a moment where something happens. Usually it's a small thing, but it has to do with a revelation, and it's usually almost always about a relationship. I recently worked on an essay about my husband and I packing our boxes before we moved to the suburbs. My husband tried on his motorcycle jacket that he hadn't worn in twelve years. It's this 1980's broad-shouldered, short-waisted, kind of funny jacket. And he came out of the room wearing it and I took one look at him and I laughed, and I could see his face drop. He took it off and put it in a box. I thought, "Oooh, that was a moment. That was a disconnect." That jacket was nostalgic for him, and that meant something to him, and to me that was just some funny costume he was wearing in the moment. So I noted it in my head. Usually it's an interaction, where there's some sort of disconnect that I need to write about.
Q: As somebody who instructs on nonfiction, but also who teaches students the basics of writing and rhetoric, do you feel that there is any truth that may not be worth writing about?
NKJ: I think that if you're at a point where you know that the repercussions of telling the truth would be so awful that life would be much better without you telling that truth, press pause on that project. At least until you maybe have a discussion with the person you're writing about, or until you've processed a little bit of what it is you're dealing with. If you're having heart palpitations about how awful your life will be if you tell this truth, maybe hesitate on this project.
Q: Do you have a preference when it comes to writing, be it fiction or nonfiction? Did you have influences when you were younger that may have inspired this?
NKJ: When I was younger, I had a huge love for ghost stories. And then typical dorky things, like Babysitter's Club; series that I could fly through and live through vicariously. When I applied to my MFA program, I chose fiction because nonfiction, to me, was more biography. More academic. I hadn't read, as a young adult, anything that was entertaining and nonfiction. I always thought of nonfiction as much dryer. I thought that writers disguised their real lives in fiction. Writing fiction was more by default.
I don't know when I switched to nonfiction. I think it was right around the time that I was going through my complications with IVF. I realized that the things I tended to write more were pieces with realism within them, and I realized that all of the works of literature that I loved to read were thinly disguised fiction. Then I started reading essays and I realized that there was this whole form, the personal essay, that that was an option for me.
Q: Censorship has often been a problem for artists. Works of fiction, as well as nonfiction, have found themselves being shrouded by authorities, for fear of provocation. Why is it especially important for people to be allowed to read nonfiction, even if the truth may be hateful, like Mein Kampf?
NKJ: Think about the options that are on TV, think about the movies that are out there, think about the trash as well as the quality material that's available. There are all of these options that you have, and I think that you should, as a member of society, have all of the same options available to you. You can read crap, you can read make-believe, you can read truth, and you can read any version of the truth. I think that you should not only have all of these options available to you, but when it comes to the truth, bad stuff happens. To deny that, or to not allow people to read about things happening, would be like saying that you're not allowed to live. That's life. Anybody can have some kind of traumatic experience. You should have the option to choose whether or not you want to read similarly wonderful and similarly traumatic experiences, because even if it might be something horrible, you might find a lesson or some relatable moment in it.