Sanctuary

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I visited my mother’s grave the first several years for the same reason I used to attend church: it was expected, it was meant to make me feel better, it was supposed to signify something. I stopped going for the same reasons I ceased attending weekly services. Catharsis by commission most likely satisfies only those who don’t realize the game is rigged, spiritually speaking. Or else, they do know it’s a game and they couldn’t imagine it any other way. (It is not the people with genuine faith the faithless have reservations about; it’s the folks who find their faith so onerous or insufficient that it causes them to act in ways antithetical to the precepts they purportedly approve.)

The historical intersections of culture and psychology suggest that there can be no archetypal way to grieve, just as there are no ultimate answers for how we might reconcile our place in the world, including the non-place before we are born and wherever we go when we die. But there is certainly a wrong way to grieve and grapple with the transient nature of existence. Anytime we are encouraged—or obligated—to follow a path someone else prescribes (particularly someone who is getting paid for the prescription), it’s a short cut to resolution we can only attain for ourselves.

Cemeteries are like churches: created to contemplate people not accessible to those still living. They serve as memorials, affording an opportunity to ponder this world and reconcile our place in it.

I’ve been to the cemetery, and I don’t mind going to the cemetery. From a purely aesthetic perspective it is a lovingly constructed memento for departed souls: names and ages and years connected by what all of us ultimately have in common. The cemetery is where my mother’s body rests. Anyplace else I go is where she lived; where she still exists. Wherever I go, she accompanies me.

But sometimes this is not enough.

So I return to the lake by my father’s house. The house I grew up in; the house where my mother helped raise me; the house where we helped her die. The lake where I once caught sunfish; where I swam and drank my first beers. The lake where I skinny-dipped with the girl across the street, not knowing what I’d do without clothes on dry land. The same lake I walked around during those last two weeks, my own routine once the August sun began its slow descent and most families sat down to dinner. The only place I was ever alone those last two weeks: a respite from crowded and uncomfortable thoughts; a retreat from the inevitable rituals of adulthood. The same lake my father and I ended up, later that final night, after it was over and my sister had returned to her family. The lake we silently circled, not saying much, not needing to do anything other than exist.

This is where I go. I return to this lake. It is my church, my sanctified place for reflection. The water flows and recedes, feeding and restoring itself. The trees surround the water, their leaves emblems of Nature’s enduring procession. The sky stares down impassively to see its ancient face reflecting up. At night the stars strain toward the earth, fulfilling their preordained purpose.

*excerpted from the memoir Please Talk About Me When I’m Gone.

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Art and Life (Three Years Later)

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(2003)

Every so often I can’t help hoping that there will be a knock on my door and when I open it, who is there but my sexy soul mate, a beautiful woman who heard the blues music every time she walked by, and wondered if, according to her own fantasy, a sensitive, erudite dude had been right there all along, waiting for her, waiting for happily ever after. And after a while, she could no longer ignore the siren song escaping from the small space under the front door and came knocking.

Of course, this illusion presupposes three things, in descending order of unlikelihood: one, that there are such things as soul mates; two, that my soul mate happens to live in my building; and three, that anyone actually listens to—much less enjoys—blues music.

(2012)

Sometimes art aspires to attract life, and sometimes –all too seldom– life responds.

Sometimes life manages to surpass art: life is where the real art happens, if you are open to it; if you are paying attention. Or if you are lucky.

And sometimes a dignified and generous gentleman (you won’t use his name and you can no longer call him a stranger) surprises you.

“I love music,” he says. “And I walk past your door and always hear your records playing.”

He is holding a pile of records.

“I hear jazz and blues, and those are my two favorite types of music.”

He holds up one of his records, and it’s an artist you both admire.

“There are not many people I know who appreciate this.”

Not many people appreciate jazz and blues, you don’t need to say.

“We should listen to music together sometime,” you say.

“Well, I would like that. I’m caring for my wife and I don’t have a chance to listen to music like I used to.”

You just summed up everything I’ve been trying to write about for the past five years, you don’t say. (You can’t begin to explain, but you think about connections, omens, gifts and messages, and all that this week signifies. And what this encounter may or may not mean, and how it need not represent anything other than what it is: that elusive, soulful human touch.)

He would understand, though. And maybe you’ll get there.

For now, he’s left you with a pile of records.

“I want to find people to give these to,” he says.

I can’t tell you how much this means to me, you say.

And although he is obviously a dignified and generous man, he could not begin to understand how much you mean these words.

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For My Mother on Her Birthday

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I’m scared, I said.

“It’s okay,” she said. “You know I’ll never leave you, right? I would never leave this place without you.”

How many times did she tell me that? How many places did she need to remind me that even if I couldn’t see her, she was still there? In the grocery store, the shopping mall, a swim meet, even a restaurant. Parents typically didn’t use words like agoraphobia back in the late ’70s. Maybe they don’t use them today, at least around eight-year-olds.

“It’s okay,” she would say. “You know I would never leave you.”

And I did know it. I believed her. It wasn’t the fear of being left alone (even an eight-year-old knows it’s irrational, even if he can’t explain it); it was the fear itself. It’s the fear itself, I didn’t say, because how can an eight-year-old articulate a concept he can’t understand? How do you convey the dread, bubbling up like blood from a scraped knee, brought on without warning or reason—the inexplicable consequence of chemistry? Only once it’s become established, a pattern, do you remember to expect it, even if you still don’t understand it. Anticipation of a word you haven’t yet learned and a sensation you can’t yet articulate: anxiety.

I’ll never leave you, she said.

And I believed her. It was never quite enough—in that moment—but it was all she could do, other than never leaving my sight. Even I could understand that. Years and too many close calls to count later, I finally figured out that I had to go through that moment, alone, and then it would never be the same. The fear disappeared and everything would be okay. It was the dread of not knowing, yet being aware it was always inside, that made those moments so difficult to deal with. I had to experience it, get past it, and then this ineradicable fear would subside.

Like her mother, she eventually became acquainted

With the white-walled world of procedures

And all that happens—before, during, after, and beyond:

Hope and fear, faith then despair—the nagging need

To believe in men and the magic of machines.

Or the things we say when no one is speaking.

There were three pictures above the fireplace: her wedding, her daughter’s wedding, and her son’s high-school graduation. So many of her friends’ marriages had ended in divorce, even the marriages she had admired and envied. So many of her friends’ children required separate sets of photographs for special occasions. They had done it, she reminded herself. They lived up to every reasonable expectation, for their children, for themselves. This was a comfort, even if it also caused an indescribable sorrow at times. Nothing lasts forever.

She sits alone by the window.

She hears the old clock, spinning above the fireplace as it always has, serving its simple purpose. Above her, a picture, a moment secure in time. In her mind, in her memory. The man, a lifetime of work and fatherhood ahead of him. And who is that woman smiling back at her? What thoughts were in that hopeful bride’s head? The same thoughts that are most likely behind every face that knows the assurance of love. What would she tell her younger self now, if she could? Everything? And to what avail? She would not have believed it; this is the redemption of youth. Who should think about anything else when all a young woman knows is the security of a healthy heart, the shuttle that spins life and expedites the enduring labors of love? She would say nothing. She has no regrets; she has done the best she could.

She closes her eyes and hears her mother: He’s beautiful. Yes, a girl and then a boy. Perfection, completion. Her prayers answered both times. She sees her daughter, married and once more a mother (a girl and then a boy; all of their prayers answered, again). She sees herself, a grandmother, but still a mother. A woman, a wife.

She considers her son and focuses her energies on his evolving design, the visions he shares with her, the way he sees himself, the way he hopes he can be. She prays it will happen, she wishes it might happen for him as well. He hasn’t found a soul mate yet but she no longer worries about him; he has found himself. His writing keeps him company and it helps keep her alive; their discussions, the things they love and share, the things he still wants to learn. Hopefully he will live that life and find ways to record what he sees.

She envisions the future and sees her husband, alone or at least without her. He would have to learn new routines, she knows. He would also have the time to recall some of the things work and married life have prevented him from pursuing. She hopes he will feel contentment if he reconnects with things that matter only to him. Mostly she prays for him to find peace, without her and for himself. She prays and worries for him, and then for the people she knows and the people she has never met. And, eventually, for herself.

Who will remember us?

This is the question implicit in all these words, addressed to God, or Nobody or Anybody who might be willing to listen. This is the question that can’t be answered except by words and deeds and memories that will occur after we’re gone. This is the origin of our primordial impulse to connect and believe we stay associated, somehow, some way, after we’re no longer able to interact on human terms. This, perhaps, is what ran through her mind once her eyes closed and she stayed asleep, already in another place, still hoping to apprehend some of the miracles she had or hadn’t happened to miss during her life. This is the final question that, scrubbed of its universal and spiritual covering, asks explicitly and directly: Who will remember me?

 

She said: I’ll never leave you.

Neither of us realized, then, that in addition to comforting me—like she always did—she was also preparing me for this moment.

Any time I need to be reminded that I’m one of the lucky ones, I look at the picture taken of me and my mother the day I was born. The pose is not unique; virtually every child has at least one frameable shot of the post-delivery adoring gaze. Or, every child fortunate enough to have been born in a hospital (or home) under safe conditions to a mother who welcomes the moment and, most importantly, is prepared for the moments (and days and years) that will follow. Surprisingly, even the week that presents a triptych of raw remembrance, comprising her birthday (August 23), and the anniversaries of her death (August 26) and funeral (August 30) have been bearable. These have become prospects for celebration, however somber, and I’m mostly able to channel that grief into gratitude for the times she was around, the time I did get to spend with her.

How do you get over the loss?

That’s the question I asked a former girlfriend who lost her father when she was a teenager. “You don’t,” she said. Hearing these words, you can acknowledge—and appreciate—the sentiment; you can easily empathize with how inconceivable it is to possibly heal from that kind of heartbreak. But it isn’t until you experience it that you comprehend the inexplicable ways this reality is an inviolable aspect of our existence: it’s worse than you could ever envision, but if you’re one of the lucky ones, it’s also more redemptory than you might have imagined. Mostly, you accept that a day will seldom pass when you don’t think of the one you loved and lost. And more, you wouldn’t have it any other way.

*Excerpts from my memoir Please Talk About Me When I’m Gone

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Under the Influence: The Story of My Life, Cont’d

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Q: What did Holden Caulfield do when he grew up?

A: He got a job.

That is the elevator pitch of my novel Not To Mention a Nice Life, reduced to two lines, a simple question and answer.

(Here is an excerpt that expands on the narrator Byron’s dilemma:

Something was wrong with me. I applied to the appropriate colleges and one of them accepted me. I applied to the appropriate graduate schools and one of them accepted me. I decided not to apply to any PhD programs (it didn’t seem appropriate) and so none of them accepted me. The unreal world of academia beckoned; the unreasonable world of reality awaited. Neither seemed particularly appealing and I found myself paralyzed: options aplenty, none of them especially enticing. And so I decided it was time to go underground for a while. I found myself serving the people who had the sorts of jobs I regarded with the ugly envy of the underclass. I made less money than I might have liked but I got more free drinks than I could ever have imagined. One way to see the glass being half-full is to ensure that it is always half-full. While I worked on emptying those glasses I came to the conclusion that money is wasted on the wealthy and retirement is wasted on the elderly.

Something was wrong with me. I drank myself sober and couldn’t commit myself to more serious indiscretions. I did the unthinkable: I started thinking about that unreasonable world again. I found myself skulking around the library, picking up magazines and thinking about that itch I could never quite scratch. I read an article about this world wide web. How ridiculous it all seemed. So this is what people do during the day? A million possible futures unfurled in unreal time, right in front of my not so open mind, none of them remotely appealing. There it was, I thought: it’s already over; I’m out of options. And then a funny thing happened. I got a job.)

Of course, I’m taking some presumptive liberties and the question would not be possible without the heavy lifting J.D. Salinger did to create Holden Caulfield in the first place.

My novel does not mention The Catcher in the Rye, does not in any conscious way imitate it and the invocation of Caulfield is only a conceit.

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In fact, and for full disclosure, I’ve weighed in on Salinger’s novel (inspired to do so shortly after his death, in 2010). I concluded that I was perhaps a tad too old or insufficiently impressionable when I first encountered it, though I did –and do– love the short story “For Esme–with Love and Squalor”. Here’s a taste:

The narrator of this story is reeling from actual experience in the real world, so it resonates to a young reader about to enter it, and certainly a more mature reader who has seen and felt some of those proverbial slings and arrows. It is, for me, difficult to recall a more quietly coruscating image in literature than the narrator lifting Esme’s (KIA) father’s wristwatch, which has shattered in transit, out of the care package. The question, as the story ends, is: does that broken glass represent the narrator’s spirit, or will he rally to once more become part of the world?

Q_ What did Holden Caulfield do when he

Speaking of becoming part of the so-called real world, one of the reasons the instant classic film Office Space is so beloved is because it’s so real; it resonates with just about anyone who has spent a single day in the unreal world of corporate America. More, it retains a nostalgic vibe for its irreverent and accurate deconstruction of the dot.com error, I mean era.

To be certain, Office Space, and any work of art that attempts to take the piss out of our increasingly mechanized, complicated and incomprehensible modern world, owes a tremendous debt to Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.

Anyone who understands Heller’s masterpiece as the ultimate insider’s sardonic assessment of the insanity/inanity driving so much of military muscle is at once accurate, but selling it short. Heller is going after America, as a corporation, and his writing, while prescient, is also distressingly relevant, well into the 21st Century. In many regards, he understood the way middle management and their underlings would be used as proverbial cannon fodder (foxholes becoming stock-boosting rounds of layoffs), while increasingly isolated and aloof higher-ups would divide the spoils and conquer their 401-ks. Yossarian is our guide through this surreal hall of one-way mirrors, but it’s not the commanding officers, but the evil star of the supporting cast, Milo Minderbinder, who epitomizes what our country has become, and who has engineered the shift. It’s not by accident that the average employee wages have stagnated for decades while the riches of the executive officers have multiplied by factors that would be hilarious if they weren’t so horrifying. Making Monopoly money a real thing via stocks and shares and seeing profits increase as production craters has long been the American Way. For all the success stories from the dot.com era, we now have systematized a formula where the game is rigged to imperfection: CEOs are brought in like exterminators to kill a company from the inside-out, and then they parachute away with millions of dollars (and shareholder approval) for their efforts.

Suffice it to say, Catch-22 has informed my sensibility as a writer (and thinker) and has more than slightly inspired some of my writing. The corporate shenanigans in Not To Mention a Nice Life owe a debt of respect and gratitude to Mr. Heller.

And I think all of us, dot.com veterans or not, owe some measure of approbation to the iconic Steve Jobs, one of the few citizens who we can actually claim changed the entire world.

Certainly, the dot.com era and the online reality of the Internet would be very different (if it happened at all) without his input and influence. Here is some of what I said on the occasion of his passing in 2011:

While I’m congenitally disinclined to join the choruses of hagiographers anointing this outstanding marketer, salesman and genius as some type of saint, I’ll certainly throw my hat in the very crowded ring and concede that our world would be much different (and not for the better) without his influence. As trite as it may sound, Jobs did in many ways help transform fantasty into reality. For that alone, he is a monumental figure in American history and should be celebrated as such.

For now, it seems right –and human– to celebrate the life and accomplishments of a man who undeniably left his mark, and provided a past, and future that would be radically different (and not for the better) had he not made his mark. Equal parts iconoclast, counter-cultural guru and corporate crusader, he made a complicated motto (Think different) and turned it into a postmodern religion of sorts. We could have done much worse. Whatever else he did, Jobs thought differently and in the process, took much of the world with him.

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It’s easy enough to admire (and envy) the abilities and lifestyles of the great artists, especially the ones talented (and/or fortunate) enough to actually make a living out of making art.

For me, I take a special inspiration (and kinship and solidarity) from the folks who never had it easy, who struggled to make art and/or a living. The ones who plugged away, with little assurance of pay-off, artistically or otherwise. They did it, ultimately, for the same reasons anyone tilts at the creative windmills: they don’t really have a choice. As such, Harvey Pekar remains someone that anyone with artistic aspirations can appreciate. In the excellent film about his life, American Splendor, he wakes up from a nightmare, and then remembers he still has his job. He actually stops to appreciate that he can pay his bills and understands how much worse things could be. In that one scene he provides proper perspective for all the naval-gazing narcissists who feel the world owes them a living, and lament that the world is so full of imbeciles who can’t appreciate their genius.

Here’s some of what I wrote in tribute to Pekar, when he passed, in 2010:

And while Pekar was groundbreaking in a way for making the primary source of his subject material his own life, his life story is more remarkable than anything written by or about him. To go from a genuinely obscure misanthrope living in squalor to becoming the mostly obscure misanthrope living mostly in squalor…that’s America. It’s definitely the American Dream, through a broken glass darkly.

It’s almost impossible to envision now, with everyone’s daily trials, tribulations and ablutions the focus of a billion blog posts, or the solipsistic Greek chorus of the Twittering class, but what Pekar did, then, by pulling the soda-stained cover off his personal life in the service of art was a revelation. Certainly, the subject of our immortal Self goes back to cave drawings and Don Quixote, and only official autobiographies are truly fictional. But when it came to the more postmodern type of tilting at windmills, Harvey Pekar was the patron saint of the unshaven, recalcitrant crank (actually crank is too harsh by half; he was more misanthrope who looked at life the way a chronically ambivalent dieter regards that piece of cake: he knows better but he just can’t help himself).

To become a meaningful artist one must be intolerant of cliche. To become a meaningful human being one must be intolerant of untruth. Although it came at a considerable cost, Harvey Pekar was incapable of cruising along the soul-crushing streets of quiet desperation. In becoming the poet laureate of disinclined endurance he helped remind America that there is a splendor in our shared obsolescence.

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Finally, I pay tribute to the force in my life that rivals the solace and inspiration I take from books and friends and family: music.

I could say more (and likely will), but I put my love affair in writing for my memoir Please Talk about Me When I’m Gone (2013). While the book describes my relationship with my mother, whom we lost to cancer just after her 59th birthday, the memoir is also the story of my life, and the things that have helped motivate, galvanize and shape me. The chapter is entitled “Bright Moments”, and an excerpt is below (the inspiration for that title is written about in detail, here.):

Question: What’s it all about?

Answer: I don’t know.

But I do know a few things.

I know some of the things that make me tick.

Even though I write (for fun, for real and forever), I would still say that music has always been the central element of my existence. Or the elemental center. Writing is a compulsion, a hobby, a skill, a craft, an obsession, a mystery and at times a burden. Music simply is. For just about anyone, all you need is an ear (or two); that is all that’s required for it to work its magic. But, as many people come to realize, if you approach it with your mind, and your heart and, eventually (inevitably) your soul, it is capable of making you aware of other worlds, it can help you achieve the satisfaction material possessions are intended to inspire, it will help you feel the feelings drugs are designed to approximate. Et cetera.

You hear plenty about the suffering artist syndrome, the suicides, the drinking and the desolation, because these are the things that people who write about artists tend to write about. Certainly, the artists themselves express this angst in their art, but you seldom see the solipsism on the screen or the stage or in the grooves of the vinyl. But then again, these artists don’t need anyone to celebrate their achievements, because the art they created does so with exceeding adequacy and eloquence. You can’t believe everything you read, but you can always have faith in what you hear; the ears never lie. Not when it comes to music.

I reckon, if everything else was removed from my life, including love, I could find meaning and solace if I still had music. If I’m ever reduced to a bed-bound wreck, so long as I have ears to listen with, I’ll never be beyond redemption; I’ll always be willing to draw one more breath. Take away my ability to write, speak, see the world, smell the air, drink, eat or emote, this life will still be worth living if I can hear those sounds.

To be continued, of course.

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“My First Time”, via The Quivering Pen

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It was my great pleasure to guest-post at The Quivering Pen, a fantastic site for writers (and readers) curated by David Abrams (himself an excellent reader and writer: check him out, here).

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My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.  Today’s guest is Sean Murphy, author of the just-published novel Not to Mention a Nice Life. Murphy has been publishing fiction, reviews (of music, movie, book, food), and essays on the technology industry for almost twenty years. He is an associate editor at The Weeklings, where he contributes a monthly column. He writes regularly for PopMatters, and his work has also appeared in Punchnel’s, The Village Voice, AlterNet, Web Del Sol, All About Jazz, The Good Men Project, Elephant Journal and Northern Virginia Magazine. He is the recipient of a Noepe Center for Literary Arts Writer Residency. Murphy’s best-selling memoir Please Talk about Me When I’m Gone: A Memoir for My Mother was released in 2013.

All My Firsts

Let’s talk about the first.

There’s the first story I wrote. (Original story: fifth grade; vaguely plagiarized ones where, looking back and with apologies to Edgar Allan Poe, imitation was the sincerest form of flattery: third and fourth grades.)

There’s the first “adult” book I read. (Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, fourth grade. Huge mistake. Having seen the movies and read some comic book treatments, I thought I was ready for the real thing. It took me more than halfway through to understand Frankenstein was not, in fact, the monster.)

There’s the first success. (Being asked to compose and recite an original poem for an eighth-grade student assembly.)

There’s the first readership. (A series of features I wrote for my high school newspaper. For a teenager, a printed byline is as close to the big-time as it got, at least in the old-school era before social media and blogs.)

There’s the first publication. (A poem in my college literary magazine.)

There’s the first “important” publication. (A short story in another, better-known literary magazine.)

There’s the first in a series of unfortunate events. (Also known as writing workshops, wherein the cocky writer’s work gets, well, workshopped. Hilarity does not often ensue.)

There’s the first in a longer series of ceaseless rejection. (No comment necessary.)

There’s the first short story I knew would make me famous. (It’s still unpublished.)

There’s the first attempt at a novel. (Also unpublished. Fortunately, for all involved.)

There’s the subsequent, earnest attempt at a first novel. (Still a work-in-progress. Sort of.)

Nothing especially unique or noteworthy, right? All of these events or experiences were stepping stones most, if not all, writers will recognize and relate to. There is an evolution comprised of myriad firsts (and lasts), but what separates all but the most successful and/or lucky authors is what happens after the familiar epiphanies of the apprentice have occurred and it gets to the eventual, inevitable matter of perseverance.

The “first” that was, if not unique, for me the most formative and indelible, involved rejection and resolve.

Let me tell you a story: a famous writer saw a first chapter of this aforementioned novel. Famous writer picks up phone (people still used phones in those days) and tells unknown writer that he loves the material and wants his agent to look at it. Agent receives chapter, loves it too, and asks to see entire manuscript on an exclusive basis. Unknown writer thinks: this is it, the big break, the moment of truth, and other clichés. An entire summer passes, which is unfortunate. It happens to be the same summer unknown writer’s mother—who has been battling cancer for five years—begins to lose her final battle. By the time unknown writer’s mother passes away, the novel, the agent and the famous writer are about the farthest things from his mind. On the day of mother’s funeral, unknown writer makes the ill-advised decision to check his email before leaving the house. He sees the overdue email from agent. Something tells him not to open it, but of course he has to; according to logic and everything right in the world, not to mention the imperative of Cliché, this is the perfect time to see he’s about to be represented and eventually published, and this is the miracle he’ll employ to overcome his grief, and he’ll dedicate this book to his mother, without whom he could never have written it, or written anything.

Naturally, the email is, in fact, a rather terse (but apologetic) rejection.

And this unknown writer, in spite of himself, looks past the computer, looks beyond his disbelief, and looks out to whomever or whatever may be listening (or orchestrating this test of faith) and can’t quite believe hearing the words, in a voice that sounds a lot like his: “Is that all you got?”

No, this is not going to be the final, unkindest cut, the sign that failure is inevitable, the signal that it’s better to move on to other things, the message that it’s not meant to be. I’m not doing this, he thinks, because I want to, or that I hope to prove anything, or become famous (he has put away childish things). I’m doing this, he knows, because he doesn’t know what else he could possibly do with himself. He does it, he finally understands, because there’s nothing else he could imagine himself doing. And that the only failure is to stop. To be afraid, to give up.

It wasn’t the first rejection, obviously, and while it may be the biggest, it wasn’t the last.  In addition to death and taxes, writers recognize at some point, however resignedly, that rejection will always be on offer, for free, forever.

And ultimately it mattered only in the sense that it didn’t matter. Or, it mattered a great deal in the sense that it was not enough to dissuade or discourage him from stumbling down a path he made up as he went along; that revealed itself only when he looked back on another piece of writing and thought: Good thing I didn’t stop.

This was the most important first, the first day of the rest of my life.

My novel Not To Mention a Nice Life is now available.

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Where Writers Write: From The Next Best Book Blog (TNBBC)*

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(Link to piece here.)

So, this is the official place I write, in that there’s a desk, a computer and a chair, and eventually all final drafts of manuscripts (be they essays, music reviews, poems, memoirs or novels) go from there to here.

But a more accurate and less respectable answer would involve me taking pictures of my car, my work office or especially my candle wax and wine-stained coffee table, where I often sit, with legal pad, hammering out initial drafts in my recalcitrantly old school fashion. All of these places are frequent spots where I stop to jot down an idea. Or, even more accurately, where the ideas stop me and oblige me to capture them before they fly off to a more receptive and attentive writer’s muse. And the most honest answer of all would be to take a picture of my mind (not that this would be possible or something anyone—including myself—would want to see): I suspect most writers will concur that a great deal of writing occurs when we are thinking, or remembering, or trying to do anything other than write. In his autobiography Beneath the Underdog, the great jazz musician Charles Mingus recalls reaching a stage in his development where he was always composing. Through a combination of discipline and dedication—and to accommodate the urgent voices crowding his mind, demanding to be expressed—he found that while he worked, sat in a cab, or walked down the street, he was always practicing. He never turned it off, and that is the secret.

Ideally, a writer wants a space that is clean, quiet and peaceful, perhaps with a view to stimulate the imagination, etc. In reality, many writers opt for a place that minimizes distraction. If a writer’s space is too perfect and looks like something out of a movie, it’s likely they have spent more time worrying about what it should look like to be a writer. Writing is seldom sexy, and no sane author would ever want a camera on them while they went about their business: it’s intense, personal and often boring work.

So for me, being surrounded by books and pictures of family and a couple of my heroes (Miles and Coltrane), helps me feel equal parts comforted and inspired. Music is always on, although jazz and classical work best, as you don’t want the voices from the record competing with the voices in your head. No matter the setting, everything is as it should be when the writer forgets where he is, or even who he is, following those voices from here to there, in search of the story. These are the moments writers live for. The rest of the times, a proverbial room of one’s own is a necessity, but should always also be considered a luxury.

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*I am grateful to the good folks at TNBBC for giving me an opportunity to talk about my writing space.

Speaking of Miles, and Trane:

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Every Time I Scribble A Thought With Artistic Intent

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Hey, look! There’s John Cusack, playing me on my 19th birthday. Some of his finest work; he managed to look just like me (extra props for the authentic paisley tie, which was featured at many seminal occasions of my life at that time).

***

I’m fortunate, in a sense, to be the type of person that gets more sentimental about the times I read a certain book or heard a particular album than I ever do about holidays. But I’m still human. I still recall the almost breathless inability to accelerate time and make Christmas arrive more quickly. Or the Halloween costumes, Easter candy or the great Thanksgiving feasts (and the not-so-great family fights that would sometimes ensue). The holidays, as idealized rites of passage, still resonate; but these occasions are not capable of enhancing or obliterating whatever mood I’m already in. As such, the absence of my mother might feel more acute on holidays, but none of these events have been unduly marred during the past decade.

Surprisingly, even the week that presents a triptych of raw remembrance, comprising her birthday (August 23), and the anniversaries of her death (August 26) and funeral (August 30) have been bearable. These have become prospects for celebration, however somber, and I am mostly able to channel that grief into gratitude for the times she was around. Similarly, Mother’s Day is seldom joyful, but it provides an imperative to consider happy times and my relative good fortune—despite what is obviously lacking, now. It also obliges me to behold my family members and friends who have become admirable mothers themselves, and I am humbled to see my mother alive in the looks they give their children.

And if I’m ever inclined to stop and consider how corny, or manufactured these sentiments may be, I console myself with the awareness of how increasingly corny and manufactured holidays in America have become.

***

Any time I need to be reminded that I am one of the lucky ones, I look at the picture taken the day I was born. The pose is not unique; virtually every child has at least one frameable shot of the post-delivery adoring gaze. Or, every child fortunate enough to have been born in a hospital (or home) under safe conditions to a mother who welcomes the moment and, most importantly, is prepared for the moments (and days and years) that will follow. I don’t need to resort to religion or sociology: I can simply consider the circumstances and the infinitesimal odds that I ever made it from my father to my mother in the first place (if you know what I mean).

What child cannot recall asking, on Mother’s Day, why there wasn’t a Kid’s Day? The response was always the same: Every day is Kid’s Day. Most of us who have lived a single hour in the so-called real world quickly came to register how accurate this tired cliché actually is. Indeed, those of us who were sufficiently well-raised didn’t need to wait that long for this epiphany to occur. A year or two punching the clock, paying bills, cleaning up one’s own messes—the literal and especially the figurative ones—and generally attaining that independent status one strove so single-mindedly to attain is impetus enough for reflection. Not merely an appraisal of how impossible it would be to repay the investment made, measured in money, time, affection and approbation, but a recognition of what was truly at stake: the selflessness your parents displayed, putting in all that effort to enable you to become your own person. The best gift a parent can give (you come to understand) is loving you enough to allow you to not be exactly like them; to encourage you to figure out exactly who you are supposed to become.

***

Holidays have not been intolerable, no more than any other day, especially the bad days when I miss my mother most. As a result, I reckon I’m not the only one who has found that my birthday is the single occasion that can never be the same. Inexorable nostalgic pangs, the pull of biological imperatives, or the simple fact that I’m still human has ensured that the annual recognition of my birth day is imbued with sadness and a heavy longing I don’t feel any other time. If so, it seems a reasonable trade-off: that deep and uncomplicated connection, along with the longing any child can comprehend, signifies that yet another cliché holds true: absence makes the heart grow fonder.

Every time I scribble a thought with artistic intent I am inspired by the support my mother offered, going back to the days I was a kid with crayons, coloring outside the lines while listening to The Nutcracker Suite. She will never be forgotten; in fact, she will never be gone. This is what helps and it is also, at times, what hurts.

***

How do you get over the loss?

That is the question I asked a former girlfriend who lost her father when she was a teenager. “You don’t,” she said. Hearing this, you can acknowledge—and appreciate—the sentiment; you can easily empathize with how inconceivable it is to possibly heal from that kind of heartbreak. But it isn’t until you experience it that you comprehend the inexplicable ways this reality is an inviolable aspect of our existence: it’s worse than you could ever envision, but if you’re one of the lucky ones, it’s also more redemptory than you might have imagined. Mostly, you accept that a day will seldom pass when you don’t think of the one you loved and lost. And more, you wouldn’t have it any other way.

Every day is Kid’s Day, and who would hope to change that?

Every day, for me, is Mother’s Day. And on my birthday, I don’t celebrate myself so much as acknowledge—and appreciate—the one who did the most to help me get here.

*Excerpted from my memoir Please Talk about Me When I’m Gone.

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Conversations (Revisited)

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Since it’s the day after Mother’s Day and the day before my birthday, it seems appropriate to revisit an experience (and the words) that helps illustrate how I feel this time of year, since 2002.

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Every Day is Mother’s Day (Revisited)

mom

I’m fortunate, in a sense, to be the type of person that gets more sentimental about the times I read a certain book or heard a particular album than I ever do about holidays. But I’m still human. I still recall the almost breathless inability to accelerate time and make Christmas arrive more quickly. Or the Halloween costumes, Easter candy or the great Thanksgiving feasts (and the not-so-great family fights that would sometimes ensue). The holidays, as idealized rites of passage, still resonate; but these occasions are not capable of enhancing or obliterating whatever mood I’m already in. As such, the absence of my mother might feel more acute on holidays, but none of these events have been unduly marred during the past decade.

Surprisingly, even the week that presents a triptych of raw remembrance, comprising her birthday (August 23), and the anniversaries of her death (August 26) and funeral (August 30) have been bearable. These have become prospects for celebration, however somber, and I am mostly able to channel that grief into gratitude for the times she was around. Similarly, Mother’s Day is seldom joyful, but it provides an imperative to consider happy times and my relative good fortune—despite what is obviously lacking, now. It also obliges me to behold my family members and friends who have become admirable mothers themselves, and I am humbled to see my mother alive in the looks they give their children.

And if I’m ever inclined to stop and consider how corny, or manufactured these sentiments may be, I console myself with the awareness of how increasingly corny and manufactured holidays in America have become.

***

Any time I need to be reminded that I am one of the lucky ones, I look at the picture taken the day I was born. The pose is not unique; virtually every child has at least one frameable shot of the post-delivery adoring gaze. Or, every child fortunate enough to have been born in a hospital (or home) under safe conditions to a mother who welcomes the moment and, most importantly, is prepared for the moments (and days and years) that will follow. I don’t need to resort to religion or sociology: I can simply consider the circumstances and the infinitesimal odds that I ever made it from my father to my mother in the first place (if you know what I mean).

What child cannot recall asking, on Mother’s Day, why there wasn’t a Kid’s Day? The response was always the same: Every day is Kid’s Day. Most of us who have lived a single hour in the so-called real world quickly came to register how accurate this tired cliché actually is. Indeed, those of us who were sufficiently well-raised didn’t need to wait that long for this epiphany to occur. A year or two punching the clock, paying bills, cleaning up one’s own messes—the literal and especially the figurative ones—and generally attaining that independent status one strove so single-mindedly to attain is impetus enough for reflection. Not merely an appraisal of how impossible it would be to repay the investment made, measured in money, time, affection and approbation, but a recognition of what was truly at stake: the selflessness your parents displayed, putting in all that effort to enable you to become your own person. The best gift a parent can give (you come to understand) is loving you enough to allow you to not be exactly like them; to encourage you to figure out exactly who you are supposed to become.

***

Holidays have not been intolerable, no more than any other day, especially the bad days when I miss my mother most. As a result, I reckon I’m not the only one who has found that my birthday is the single occasion that can never be the same. Inexorable nostalgic pangs, the pull of biological imperatives, or the simple fact that I’m still human has ensured that the annual recognition of my birth day is imbued with sadness and a heavy longing I don’t feel any other time. If so, it seems a reasonable trade-off: that deep and uncomplicated connection, along with the longing any child can comprehend, signifies that yet another cliché holds true: absence makes the heart grow fonder.

Every time I scribble a thought with artistic intent I am inspired by the support my mother offered, going back to the days I was a kid with crayons, coloring outside the lines while listening to The Nutcracker Suite. She will never be forgotten; in fact, she will never be gone. This is what helps and it is also, at times, what hurts.

***

How do you get over the loss?

That is the question I asked a former girlfriend who lost her father when she was a teenager. “You don’t,” she said. Hearing this, you can acknowledge—and appreciate—the sentiment; you can easily empathize with how inconceivable it is to possibly heal from that kind of heartbreak. But it isn’t until you experience it that you comprehend the inexplicable ways this reality is an inviolable aspect of our existence: it’s worse than you could ever envision, but if you’re one of the lucky ones, it’s also more redemptory than you might have imagined. Mostly, you accept that a day will seldom pass when you don’t think of the one you loved and lost. And more, you wouldn’t have it any other way.

Every day is Kid’s Day, and who would hope to change that?

Every day, for me, is Mother’s Day. And on my birthday, I don’t celebrate myself so much as acknowledge—and appreciate—the one who did the most to help me get here.

* Excerpted from the memoir Please Talk About Me When I’m Gone.

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Indie Author Interview: Sean Murphy (Revisited)

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Indie Author Interview with Sean Murphy – Author of the “Memoir for My Mother” Please Talk about Me When I’m Gone.

Sean Murphy has been publishing fiction, reviews (music, movie, book, food), and essays on the technology industry for almost twenty years (check him out on NPR, HERE).

 

Ian Kealey (Indie Author News): What is your (writing) background?
Sean Murphy: I’ve been publishing fiction, reviews (music, book, movie, food), and essays on the technology industry for almost twenty years. I blog at bullmurph.com and write regularly for PopMatters. My work has also appeared in The Weeklings, Punchnel’s, The Village Voice, AlterNet, Web Del Sol, and Northern Virginia Magazine. My background in academia, culminating with my MA in Literature, prepared me to use a love of art to ask questions (of myself, about the world) that enhance our ability to understand existence, and each other. Inevitably, a love of experiences and things, including food, drink, sports, conversation, the outdoors and the solitude required to think and write, all influence and inform the things I write.

Who are your favorite writers, your favorite books, and who or what are your writing influences?
So many writers and books! I’ve been especially inspired by Hawthorne, Melville, Flannery O’Connor, Ralph Ellison, Milan Kundera, Kurt Vonnegut, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Keats, Shelley and Bukowski. Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” is one of the important books in my life, and I regularly revisit “Catch 22”, “The Picture of Dorian Gray”, “The Great Gatsby”, and anything by Orwell.

When did you first know that you wanted to be a writer?
When I shifted from comic books to children’s books (Lloyd Alexander’s “Chronicles of Prydain” had a tremendous impact) and, eventually, to Stephen King, I fell in love with the idea of creating stories, as well as reading them. As early as grade school I began writing poems and short stories and, with the encouragement of some remarkable teachers, kept plugging along. I was on my high school newspaper staff and by the time I got to college, I was learning how to write both fiction and non-fiction, some of which got published. Along the way the act of writing was less a decision and more a simple reality: it was what I did, and I’ve continued to do it, always seeking to improve, learn and expand the ways I communicate.

Do you remember the first story you ever wrote?
I do. It was a very short story entitled “Never Let a Black Cat Cross Your Path” which reflected my interest in scary stories—and likely was heavily influenced by some of the work I was reading at the time. Most of my early short stories were imitative of Poe, as was a great deal of my initial attempts at poetry. When I was in high school I wrote a longer (20pp) story and that may have been the first time I realized this was something I could aspire toward doing more of.

Tell us about your writing process. Do you have a writing routine?

I’ve always envied the discipline of writers who have a set routine: waking up before sunrise, cranking out a thousand words or so before breakfast. Or the lucky (and talented!) authors who are able to sustain themselves through writing and have time to set aside each day. For me, it’s always been a frenetic balance between work, life, sleep, reading and human interaction. But any writer understands early on that there are myriad distractions and excuses: in order to get writing done one has to write; often and badly. The moments one lives for are when you get obsessed by an idea and see it through to fruition. These are the times when sleep, socializing and even eating become secondary. For a longer project, like my memoir –which took several years to complete—it necessitates a different type of discipline; a more marathon than sprint mentality. That said, my response to people when they ask how often I write or how I’ve managed to write so much, is simple: I seldom watch TV.

“I write the way I always have, on a legal pad […]”

Please, describe your desk/workplace.
I do have a desk, by a window, with a computer. But I’m old school: I write the way I always have, on a legal pad, in longhand, usually sitting on the floor on my old wooden coffee table that has absorbed spills of ink, beer, wine, candle wax and sweat. No blood, as of yet. I am obsessed with music, so I invariably am listening to music (typically without words) when I compose.

What do you find easiest about writing? What the hardest?
Easiest? I don’t trust any writer for whom writing comes easily. The hardest part, aside from the struggle to make time for it, is the ceaseless self-doubt and insecurity that accompanies almost any writing endeavor. Even when I write an 800 word music review –albeit one that will be published—I always have to gear myself up for the task: I need to ensure I know as much about the topic at hand as possible, have done my homework and do the subject justice. For personal writing, including essays and fiction (and, of late, memoirs), there is often the concern of being able to translate what you see in your mind onto the page. So often scribbled words, however eloquent, seem such a pale approximation of the vision or idea that occasionally inspires the story.

“[…] to think anything I write can have a positive impact on anyone else is the best gift I could give or receive.”

What is the greatest joy of writing for you?
For me writing is always an act of communication, an attempt to initiate a dialogue—even an internal one. Being able to share ideas or thoughts or emotions with people (friends, family, strangers) and hear from them that you’ve managed to describe something they can relate to, or a feeling they thought they alone held, is supremely gratifying. The act of seeing a longer project through from conception to execution is something any writer should be proud of. As someone who possesses an active imagination and a sensitivity that occasionally is too acute by half, it’s wonderful having an outlet that helps me interrogate the thoughts, fears and passions that fuel my life; to think anything I write can have a positive impact on anyone else is the best gift I could give or receive.

Sean, please tell us a little about your Memoir Please Talk about Me When I’m Gone.
Please talk about me when I’m gone is the title of my memoir. It is also the presumptive title of any memoir. More, it’s the unwritten title of any work of art—a desire to have those thoughts and feelings articulated, read, understood, appreciated. More still, it’s the often unexpressed message of any individual life: we want to be discussed, loved, and celebrated after we’re no longer around. Mostly we do not want to be quickly or easily forgotten.
The antagonist of this particular tale is cancer, but implicit in the narrative is an appreciation that a struggle with illness –and the ways it can unite or disintegrate families—is a true story for too many people. It can be a horror story or a ghost story, a love story and a real-life fairy tale, where memory and devotion are capable of outlasting death.
The memoir unfolds in a range of voices –first person, second person, third person—from the points of view of a mother, a father, a son. The story of one woman’s life and death is interspersed with meditations on the causes and effects of alienation and empathy, faith and friendship, and the cultivation of an artistic sensibility. The whole is an examination –and interrogation—of sickness, grief, love and remembrance.

Please Talk about Me When I'm Gone (Sean Murphy)
Click to Read an Excerpt

What inspired you to write the book?
When my mother died in 2002 at the age of fifty-nine, I found myself both shattered and honored to have been a witness. In order to live and to keep her memory alive, I needed to make sense of her death. I knew I would inevitably write about her, but I wasn’t certain what form the material would take. Eventually I realized it could be –it had to be—a memoir. As I plotted out the narrative, I knew I wanted to somehow convey a story that was deeply personal, but also universal: something that grappled with situations and feelings (and questions and fears) that most of us have to face at some point.

Who do you see as your target audience and where can we buy the book?
Certainly anyone who has dealt with the loss of a family member, most especially to cancer, might find familiarity and comfort in these pages. Of course, contemplating mortality, whether it’s that of our loved ones or ourselves, is the ultimate universal theme. As such, I believe this memoir will resonate with anybody who is unsatisfied with any one ideology or explanation for how we live and why we die. I think, despite the occasionally somber subject matter, there are large doses of humor, affirmative ruminations about art and existence, and ultimately a solidarity offered to anyone who understands how glorious and humbling it is to be a human being, which is pretty much all of us.

What makes your book special?
The readings I’ve held and generous reviews at Amazon have confirmed that this memoir has been many things to many people: I’ve had people tell me it’s helped them heal from their own losses, others tell me it’s helped them prepare for the future, and many tell me they have been inspired to live more meaningful lives –all of which is at once gratifying and deeply humbling.
The memoir uses very short chapters and shifts back and forth in time to give an accurate approximation of how memory works, particularly when dealing with grief. Although it’s a very personal story, I sought to write in a way that respectfully deals with serious themes in ways that any reader can, and will, understand and relate to.
While it could be described as an extended meditation on life and death, growing up, moving on, it is ultimately a tribute to loving and being alive. I feel a profound connection with the people, places and wonderful works of art that have moved and inspired me, and by celebrating these things, I hope even the most cynical reader could come away refreshed or encouraged.

“My mission, in addition to telling my mother’s story, is to raise awareness.”

How would you describe the success of your book so far?
As of this writing I have over 40 reviews at Amazon, all of which are 4 or 5 stars; certainly that is one metric toward assessing its impact.
My mission, in addition to telling my mother’s story, is to raise awareness. As such, I’ve worked closely with several cancer-related organizations. I’ve held readings that doubled as fundraisers for Hospice of the Piedmont and the Lombardi Cancer Center. I was invited to speak at Lombardi’s annual cancer symposium at Georgetown University in December, and it was deeply moving to read to, and interact with, medical professionals as well as patients. In recent months I’ve officially aligned myself with the Chris4Life Colon Cancer Foundation: I’m donating copies of the memoir which they are selling via their website and at their events, with all profits going directly back to the organization.

How long did it take it to write the book?
From my initial attempts to conceive it as novel, to the false starts and eventual epiphany it had to be a memoir, to the day it was finished, about five years.

“[…] read and write all the time.”

Can you give some advice for other Authors regarding the writing process?
First and foremost: read and write all the time. It’s the most basic and ostensibly simple advice, but it’s crucial. I meet aspiring writers all the time who talk about what they want to do (or will do) “eventually.” Writing material that aspires to connect in a meaningful way with a broader audience involves hours and years of hard, often unfulfilling work. Don’t quit your day job, but treat your writing like it’s your life. Seek to execute sentences and scenes you haven’t encountered, even in books you admire. Work toward cultivating a unique style and ways to convey familiar –and unfamiliar—themes with honesty and originality. Turn off the television, shut off your phone, and understand the real dirty work that results in quality writing involves lots of long, lonely hours. If you aren’t feeling it with all of your being, how can you hope to engage a potential reader? Above all, trust yourself and love yourself: writing is necessarily a solitary endeavor, but you are connecting yourself with a community of special human beings who have made our world demonstrably better. Celebrate the idea of contributing something of yourself to that tradition.

“Don’t quit your day job, but treat your writing like it’s your life.”

Are you working on another book project? Can you tell us a little about it?
I have two projects I’m working on: one is a novel I spent the middle part of the last decade agonizing over; it’s just about done so now begins the unromantic phase of working with an editor and making sure it is as perfect as it can be. I also have another memoir I started on last year, some of which uses material that didn’t make the final cut of this memoir. (That’s another bit of advice for any aspiring writer: sometimes the work you feel best about or actually does contain your best writing is not right for a particular project: you need to be willing, and able, to leave that out even though it can be excruciating.) In a sense, by ascertaining which sections I couldn’t use for this story, I realized I had an entirely different story to tell. I also look forward to assembling the best essays, reviews and blog posts I’ve published in the last decade; I’ve got about 300,000 words of material to cull through.

Where do you see the book market in 5 or 10 years? Will there be only eBooks and will book stores disappear like record stores disappeared?
This is a question I’ve thought, and written, quite a lot about in recent years. Short answer: I think books will always be around for two reasons. One, a paperback book is already the ideal delivery device for literature: small, portable, affordable, durable. Two, although we’re seeing a great deal of disruption to traditional markets, books have been around a lot longer than albums, and are a permanent part of culture. Records, on the other hand, have always been evolving, from wax to cassette to CD to digital files. With eBooks we have the best of both worlds: a new, interactive way to access and absorb content digitally, and good old fashioned books can (and should!) decorate walls, sit on tables, be in laps, given as gifts, and read during commutes.
I do think eBooks have, on balance, been very positive for the publishing industry. Digital content has helped democratize both the creation and dissemination of literature. As such, traditional gatekeepers, including an ever-shrinking and less profitable book industry, no longer are a writer’s only option. More, no matter how much content is now easily available (a common complaint), work that matters tends to find a way to survive. Content, be it for a blog, a journal or a novel, that is written solely for profit or page views will almost necessarily be evanescent; material written from the heart is meant to last, and technology is helping ensure that more worthy voices are heard.

Do you write full-time or do you have a day job? When you’re not writing, how do you spend your time?
I do have a day job, and thankfully it affords me an opportunity to write. As with most authors, I’d reckon, the dream is to make a living solely from writing my own work. Of course, an exceedingly small percentage of writers can do this, so it’s not only imperative to have a day job, it’s important to find one that is meaningful and amenable to one’s talents. I used to think I had to write all the time to be a writer; the reality for me is that the time not spent writing can help keep me hungry and insatiable: there is a certain itch that can only be scratched through writing, on one’s own time, in one’s own space. In some regards, it’s a significant blessing to pay the bills and cultivate a balance that is as productive and healthy as possible.
When I’m not writing (or reading), I try to experience opposite sensations: being outdoors, working out, interacting with friends, talking, existing without self-consciousness. I also do some of my best thinking while I’m driving; I’ve been known to pull over or stop in a parking lot to scribble down a thought before it disappears. I’m a huge believer in balance, and each person needs to find what works for them, what inspires them, how much time they need with people or by themselves, and hopefully the life you choose is one that feeds and sustains the creative impulse.

How can readers connect with you?
The best way is via my website: http://seanmurphy.net/.
I also blog at bullmurph.com and I can be contacted via either of those sites. I welcome feedback and thoughts and would love to hear from you!

Thank you very much for the Interview, Sean.


About the Memoir Please Talk about Me When I’m Gone

Please Talk about Me When I'm Gone (Sean Murphy)
Click to Read an Excerpt

Question: How do you get over it?

Answer: You don’t. You don’t want to. It makes you who you are.

Sean Murphy lost his mother days after her fifty-ninth birthday, following a five-year battle with cancer.

In this eloquent memoir, he explores his family history through the context of grief, compassion, faith, and the cultivation of an artistic sensibility.

Unfolding in a range of voices, brutal and tender in its portrayal of terminal illness, Please Talk about Me When I’m Gone is an unyielding love story, in which devotion and memory are capable of transcending death.

“Please Talk about Me When I’m Gone, which pulled me in from the first page and never let go, is a mosaic love letter from a son to his lost mother, so everyone in the bereavement club should read it. But this memoir is also a thoughtful, compassionate meditation on being alive. I nodded in recognition, dog-eared pages containing lines I loved, felt my eyes well with tears. In the end you should read it for the reason anyone reads good writing: to feel less alone” – Jenna Blum (NYT Bestseller Author)

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