The Chicago Writers’ Association Book of the Year for 2018 was awarded to Nadine Kenney Johnstone for her book Of This Much I’m Sure. In this memoir, Kenney Johnstone reflects on her Chicago upbringing, the first years of her marriage, and the challenges she faced while undergoing in-vitro fertilization (IVF). Her other work has been featured in The Moth, PANK, The Magic of Memoir, among others.
Kenney Johnstone earned her MFA from Columbia College Chicago and currently teaches at Loyola University. She also serves as a writing coach and can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
The interview was conducted with Sadaf Ferdowsi for the one-year anniversary of the memoir’s publication. It has been edited for length and clarity.
Punctuate: When was the moment you decided your first book would be a memoir recounting your experiences undergoing in-vitro fertilization (IVF)?
Nadine Kenney Johnstone: Back in 2012, I went to a writing retreat in Guatemala, and the instructor encouraged me to write about my nine frozen embryos. This inspired my essay “Nine Babies on Ice,” which got published in the parenting issue of PANK that year. Writing it felt so scary and freeing that I knew I had a lot more to say on the topic.
Punctuate: While it is very much about the journey of pregnancy and birth, Of This Much I’m Sure is also driven by the relationships between you and your mother, you and your sister, and you and your husband. What challenges existed to incorporate these (sometimes-complicated) relationships into your narrative and how did you overcome them?
Kenney Johnstone: When I started writing about our journey to conceive, I realized that it affected all of my important relationships. I also realized that when I moved to Massachusetts to be with Jamie, I neglected the people who were most important to me back in Chicago. I had to write about it all because it was so intertwined. And in order to do that, I had to write like no one would ever read the manuscript, otherwise, I’d have censored myself based on what I thought everyone’s responses would be.
Secondly, I thought of this as the opportunity to really expose all of the roles I had played in the demolition and rebuilding of the most important relationships in my life. Any time I wrote about a tension I had with someone, I asked myself how I had contributed to it, and that helped me write what I hope is a fair depiction of those experiences. My mom, sister, and husband all read the final manuscript before it was published and we had some really deep, connecting conversations about the struggles we had been through.
Punctuate: I valued the honesty you had in terms of portraying the “demolition and rebuilding” of your important relationships and also when it came to detailing your insecurities. For example, you wrote about how sad and angry you would feel when other women were pregnant when you weren’t and then felt ashamed when you did the same thing when you were pregnant to another woman who was struggling to conceive. What was it like creating this voice for the page? Was it challenging to remain honest?
Kenney Johnstone: I’m glad that the book feels honest. Really, this comes from my favorite literary mentors—Mary Karr, Cheryl Strayed. I reread them so often during the process of writing my memoir, and the thing I valued most was their honesty. I challenged myself to do the same.
That scene about bragging about my pregnancy in front of a woman whom I didn’t realize was having a hard time conceiving was inspired by Anthony Bourdain. He has a scene in Kitchen Confidential where he shadows a broiler man and makes a total idiot of himself. I teach that scene in my memoir classes as a challenge to fess up to a time when you were oblivious. I gave myself that same challenge. That’s how that scene was born.
Punctuate: In terms of scenes, you also include several tender moments about your grandma’s Irish bread and your love of scarves. I loved these small bits of prose on inanimate objects and what they mean for us. Was this an intended motif or did it just occur as you were writing?
Kenney Johnstone: In Columbia College Chicago’s MFA program, we were taught to notice objects and to see how they propelled the plot, so this was good training. Ann Hood also teaches something called an objective correlative, where you use an object as a vessel that holds the emotional weight of the story. It’s one of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned as a writer. So whenever I’m trying to convey emotion but don’t want to come off as sappy or melodramatic, I see how I can use objects to convey the emotion.
Punctuate: Another ongoing theme in Of This Much I’m Sure is “the pause.” Throughout different times of the book, you establish that you are being pushed and pulled between opposing forces.
For example, you write, “I can imagine the two halves of my body fighting—my left ovary versus my right—my desire for independence versus my longing for motherhood” and you attempt to find balance in the “pause” between the two forces. Can you describe the process of discovering this pause, in your life and as a literary device?
Kenney Johnstone: When I met my husband, Jamie, back in 2006, he was always pausing—during our walks, during our meals. He is a person who knows how to notice and experience things. I come from a family of non-stoppers. We are very much destination people rather than journey people. Jamie taught me to pause, but, I was not very good at it. So in 2010, the universe forced me to pause. When I was rushed into emergency surgery for internal bleeding, my entire former life was put on hold, and I had to relearn and reevaluate everything. I didn’t call it a pause at the time. I called it a pain in the ass. But, three years later when I was working diligently on the manuscript, I realized that life was trying to teach me to pause for a long time through the events and people placed in my path. I’m stubborn, though, and I clearly needed a major event for the message to get through my thick skull.
Punctuate: Here’s a craft question: As opposed to having your memoir reflect back on your IVF treatments in the past-tense, you chose to write it in present-tense so the reader is right there with you going through your life’s up’s and down’s during that time period. Why did you choose present tense? Why was it the better choice for your story?
Kenney Johnstone: The first part of the book is in past and everything after my emergency surgery is in present. I tried to force everything to be in the past, but every time I wrote and revised, there it would be–present tense. I realized that my subconscious very much felt the before and after of that emergency surgery. Everything before felt like a past life, and everything after felt very immediate. So, I kept in present.
Punctuate: While we’re on the subject of revision, how many drafts did you have? How did you go about revising them?
Kenney Johnstone: For my memoir, I had many, many full revisions. My first draft barely resembled my final draft.
I did a lot of micro-revising along the way–starting off my writing day by reading what I wrote the day before and revising. But for full manuscript revisions, I always print out a copy, put it in a binder, and read with a pen, marking what to cut, add, or move. If I’m sick of sitting and reading, I go on a treadmill, put it on a slow walk, and prop the binder up so I can read and mark as I walk. I try to read it all in one day so I can get a feel of how it reads from beginning to end. In this way, it feels like I’m an outsider reading a book rather than reading my own story.
Punctuate: Can you describe your writing process, more broadly? Did you write in chronological order or randomly pick scenes? What strategies did you use to interrogate your memorie
Kenney Johnstone: I knew the time period that I wanted the book to cover and I created a list of scenes that had to be written, but I wrote them in random order depending on what was grabbing my attention that day. I had journaled quite frequently during all of those experiences, so I went back through my journal notes as I was creating scenes. But as I was writing, other unplanned things made their way into the book.
I’d planned to end the book with my son’s birth, but I wrote the bulk of the book’s first draft during his first year of life, so I couldn’t help but write about some of those experiences, especially given that one of the themes is “home.” I moved away from Chicago in 2008 and we moved back in 2014, as I was revising the book. That definitely needed to go into the book.
Punctuate: What was your favorite part of the book in terms of writing it?
Kenney Johnstone: I loved writing the end because it was like I was some kind of fortune teller with a magical 8 ball who got to tell the narrator what her future held. Also, I liked incorporating flashbacks because I liked being able to make the link between past and present–to show the ripple effects of life.
Punctuate: You released your book with She Writes Press (SWP), a publisher dedicated to sharing women’s stories. How was that like? Can you describe the experience?
Kenney Johnstone: It is so empowering to see female authors fulfill their dreams. I had the opportunity to go to the SWP retreat in Arizona in 2016 and it was so inspiring to meet these motivated, smart women put their work out into the world. We share marketing and publicity tips and support each other by attending readings and spreading the word on social media. It’s pretty amazing.
Punctuate: Speaking of women writers, Jo from Little Women is used throughout your memoir to symbolize independence. Before you met and married your husband, you had a vision of being just like Jo – of keeping your independence and becoming a writer. How do you balance this need for independence among your additional roles as spouse, writing instructor, and mother?
Kenney Johnstone: I’ve learned that there is no true balance. The scale is always tipped more in one direction than the other. So rather than balancing everything at once, I usually give my energy in segments and then I see who or what needs my energy, and I tip the scales towards that.
Your calendar shows you where your priorities are. When I work too much or socialize too much or am at home too much, something else suffers, and then I feel the void. I’ve learned to create rules and boundaries. My students get all of me during my work hours and then I have to shut it off and stop checking work emails when I pick up my son from preschool. Weeknight and weekends are coveted family time–sharing meals, playing outside, cuddling on the couch.
I wake up early–5am a few days a week–to work out and do yoga, but I also go to bed before 10 most nights. I try to write something each day, but the majority of my writing happens on Tuesdays and Thursdays when I am not teaching.
When I wrote my book, I really struggled with the work-life balance. I was on a tight deadline. I was also working full time, so if I wanted to finish the book; that meant long days and weekend away from my family. I won’t repeat that. It’s not worth neglecting my marriage or missing my son grow up. So, with this next book, I’ve given myself permission to take longer to write it so that my marriage and mother-son bond don’t suffer.
Punctuate: What is your next book?
Kenney Johnstone: I’m working on an essay collection called Try Again Politely. Whenever my son asks for something, but does not use his manners, I say, “Try again politely.” So, if he says, “I want milk,” I say, “Try again politely.” Then he’ll say, “May I have more milk, Mama?”
I think that second chances usually work better than punishment or silent treatments. So, as I started writing different essays, I realized that this saying applied to other contexts, as well. In life, we can always try again politely. The collection is about giving and receiving second chances in parenting, marriage, and friendships.