The World Before Her: A Talk with Bernadette Murphy

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(Image credit: Luca Galuzzi, http://www.galuzzi.it)

Bernadette Murphy is a fearless chronicler of her own life. Her most recent memoir, Harley and Me, traces a journey of discovery that eventually led her from old, imprisoning circumstances and into a new understanding of herself and what she wants from life.

Oh, and there are motorcycles.  Let’s not forget the motorcycles.

As her former life subsides, Murphy’s new life–including her passion for riding Harley Davidsons–rises in vivid, glorious color in this memoir.  In these pages you’ll even encounter the familiar voice (if you grew up on TV’s “Happy Days”) of Henry Winkler, the one-and-only Arthur Fonzarelli.  Don’t misunderstand, though, Bernadette’s tale can be quite harrowing, too, especially as she faces the private traumas that have shaped her growth and evolution.

Call of the Siren recently talked to Bernadette about her writing process and the element of risk-taking that has been clearly rooted in her writing from the first time she ever took up a pen and started telling stories.

Enjoy, my beloved friends.

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Harley and Me chronicles both an ending and a rebirth for you. On the origins of this story: In its earlier stages, did you realize you were going to write a book-length memoir when you started out, or did this begin as something on a much smaller scale?

I had a feeling from the outset it was a book, but I had no idea of the terrain it would cover, just as I had no idea of the terrain my life would cover over that period. The whole book started because I was so surprised to fall in love with a motorcycle at the age of 48. I had never had even a passing interest in motorcycles – so how could this have happened? More to the point: If I didn’t know I could love a motorcycle, what else might I love but hadn’t yet experienced?

Thus, opened up a whole new chapter in my life: To explore activities, adventures, experiences I never would have dreamed of previously, and to see what rang my bell. It was a glorious rebirth in midlife. But it also came at a high cost. In realizing I wanted to have this bigger, more expansive life, I had to close the door on the constrained suburban wife-and-mother life I’d built. The death of who I thought I was – a good girl who abides by society’s expectations of her – was excruciatingly painful and included a divorce following a 25-year marriage.

Did you think your book would talk about this painful subject?

The last thing I ever thought I’d write about was my marital life. I had always considered that subject off limits. And yet, as the book unfolded, the disintegrating marriage became a core theme. I had no choice but to write it.

 

 

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My life dilated, becoming bigger and richer and more satisfying once I embraced that risk could be good for me. That’s the gospel I wish to shout from the rooftops: We only get one life. Don’t make yours small. Make it count.

–Bernadette Murphy

 

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The beauty of fiction is that you can adjust/change the content and narrative structure if something isn’t working, but you can’t do the same thing with a memoir about your life, right? You can’t change out the material if it’s not working the way you wanted for a simple reason: because it’s your life.

Did you find your narrative tugging and pulling you in directions you hadn’t expected?  How do you handle that?

Absolutely! (See “divorce,” above). Yes, narrative nonfiction ties the writer to the facts as they occur. We look for our metaphors and insight into the human condition from what unfolds in real life, not what we might dream up. We are stuck with the reality that presents itself.  But so many of the lessons are to be found there. By adding the constraints of reality, writers have to dig deep to understand the more mundane aspects of daily life – and that’s where some of the juiciest bits are found.

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Happy_Days_Fonzie_Superstar_1976At first I was surprised to meet actor Henry Winkler and Claremont Graduate University neuroeconomist Paul Zak in these pages – but you introduced these and other voices into your book because you wanted to create more than just an account of your own life, is that right? Your personal situation has such a strong universal dimension. 

 I wanted to look into the question of risk-taking at midlife and ask if it’s a good thing or not. When I learned to ride the motorcycle, I was initially appalled with myself. Surely, normal, average people don’t take up crazy, dangerous hobbies when their kids start leaving home.

To be honest, on some level, I feared for my psychological wellbeing. Keep in mind, my mother was seriously mentally ill, institutionalized throughout my childhood, and her illness shaped me deeply. When I took up with the bike, I worried I might be going around the bend, following in her footsteps. So I looked to neuroscience, biology and psychology, and turned to people like Henry Winkler and Paul Zak to help me understand and make sense of what was happening. To my everlasting delight, what I found was, not only was this risk-taking normal, it was healthy and life expanding.

Who do you hope will be helped by reading this book?

Ultimately, I hope that my experiences might encourage other people – men and women alike – to reconsider the concept of risk and see if it might contain an upside for them. My life dilated, becoming bigger and richer and more satisfying once I embraced that risk could be good for me. That’s the gospel I wish to shout from the rooftops: We only get one life. Don’t make yours small. Make it count.

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The chances of attention and success in the memoir genre seem so challenging today. It is a field that is crowded – and yet you’ve had terrific success. Did you consider the marketing obstacles facing your story when you planned to write it or did it not matter to you?

I really didn’t consider marketing obstacles. All along, I felt very driven to write the book and probably wouldn’t have been deterred even if I had considered them.

The one marketing challenge I discovered later is that motorcycles put off many people. The book is really about the benefits of taking risks and daring to live authentically, but when people see the motorcycle on the cover, some think it’s not for them. Once readers understand that they don’t need to ride a motorcycle, can in fact be scared of or actively dislike motorcycles, they start find themselves in the pages of this book, taking on risk, being brave, learning to stare down their fears.

***

Your memoir is extremely candid about your private pain. At first I was going to ask you how you mustered the courage to write this, but then I realized – as you describe your father’s anger over your first book – that this isn’t the first time you have mustered the courage to write about difficult, private matters. For you, writing has always involved risk-taking, hasn’t it? Why?

You nailed it. I wish there was a way to make writing less risky. But there isn’t.

Honestly, though I do a lot of risky things in this book – I ride a motorcycle across the country, I learn to scuba dive, paddle an outrigger canoe over the open ocean, learn to rock and ice climb, move to French Polynesia for three months – the most risky thing I do is to write about how devastatingly painful it is to end a long-term marriage. To be left questioning everything about who you think you are. But doing those physically risky activities gave me the courage I needed. Courage to primarily make difficult, raw decisions about my life, but secondarily, to write about them.

 

 ***

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You write beautifully of learning to ride a motorcycle and the experience of riding. I find so much poetry and philosophy studded in passages like:

“The minute I got the machine to skim smoothly over the blacktop, I was hooked. As I began to master the motorcycle, a complete version of myself coalesced. Weaving through orange cones on the training range, I sensed the two parts of me work in tandem for perhaps the first time.”

I love these moments where you take us into your experiences with the bike. Were there any books, at the back of your mind, that were models of this kind of writing for you? I’m thinking of Hemingway giving a long, intricate discussion of how to hunt, or Norman Maclean describing the step-by-step process of a fly fisherman. I can’t think of anyone who’s done the same thing with a motorcycle … until now!

I’m honored that you’d put me in a category with Hemingway and Maclean! Sheesh! I’m turning red.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson’s “The Perfect Vehicle” was a huge inspiration; she writes lyrically and movingly about motorcycling and the feelings that come with it. And every writer I’ve ever read who has slowed down the experiences of living long enough to help me feel something deep and abiding about an experience – too many to mention – inspired me.

That’s the writer’s job, though, isn’t it? To take us inside an experience that’s new or to help us feel more deeply and viscerally an experience we’ve had perhaps many times – to help us see it and savor it in a new way. Writers help us stop the hamster wheel of our own lives long enough to relish and delight (and fully experience the ache and tenderness) of these all-too-brief human experiences we’ve been blessed with. So, to the extent that every writer does that to some degree, every book and essay and short story I’ve ever read inspired me and I’m grateful and privileged to be part of that conversation.

 

And Call of the Siren is privileged to have you here, Bernadette.  Thank you for responding to the Call!

 

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Visit here to learn more about Bernadette Murphy and Harley and Me.

4 responses

  1. Well, now I’m left wondering whether Bernadette has read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance….Interesting and scary decision she made, one that takes an immense amount of bravery.

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