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The writing life

Author Michael Perry finds inspiration in his rural roots

By Nancy Wesenberg

Michael Perry
Michael Perry '87

Michael Perry is a bit of an enigma. Soft spoken, with a quiet, almost shy demeanor and a frequently self-deprecating manner, he seems like the last person you’d expect to call attention to himself. Yet there is clearly something in Perry that demands expression, because he now makes his living largely by letting people into his life and thoughts and, increasingly, by performing. Whether he’s reading from one of his popular and critically acclaimed books, speaking at a writers convention, giving “The Clodhopper Report” on Wisconsin Public Television’s “Here and Now” or performing “sensitive twang” with his band, the Longbeds, he is often on stage.

In fact, he has garnered such a following since the 2002 publication of his nonfiction book “Population 485: Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time” and its sequel, “Truck: A Love Story,” that he’s often forced to turn down speaking engagements, especially since, as he recently pointed out, he now has a wife, a farm, pigs, chickens and babies.

Before success hit, Perry spent a number of years traveling the United States as a freelance writer for a variety of magazines, including Esquire, Salon, Hope, Outside, Backpacker, No Depression, Road King and others. He has since also written for The New York Times Magazine and is now a contributing editor to Men’s Health. Some of those articles and essays were collected and published in his 2005 book, “Off Main Street.”

Perry still writes for many magazines, and although he describes it as “a silly way to make a living,” he also enjoys it and fits work on his books in between those commitments.

“The magazine articles are great,” Perry said, adding that he still has to pitch stories and still gets rejections. “They keep me invigorated because it’s different stuff all the time.”

For one of his recent pieces, “Shock and Awe,” in the April 2008 issue of Backpacker, Perry climbed Mount Rainier with two war veterans: one who lost a leg and another who was blinded in Iraq. The piece brings Perry’s trademark low-key humor to a serious and inspiring subject.

One might suppose that Perry, a 1987 graduate of UW-Eau Claire, was an English or journalism major who’d always dreamed about being a writer. But those familiar with “Population 485” know he earned a nursing degree and later worked as an emergency medical technician and volunteer fire-fighter. Before he attended UW-Eau Claire, Perry said he never thought about writing, although he’d been an avid reader since childhood. 

So how does one get from nurse to successful writer and humorist?
UW-Eau Claire actually figures prominently in this story. Perry said he clearly remembers sitting in the library at New Auburn High School with a Sports Illustrated in his lap and overhearing a UW-Eau Claire recruiter speaking to students at a nearby table. She was running down a list of possible majors.

“When she got to nursing, I remember thinking, oh, nursing, that would be interesting. I’ll do that,” Perry said, and he insists that was all the thought that went into his decision.

But he acknowledges that other factors probably played into that seemingly snap decision. Perry’s mother was a nurse and worked in hospitals when he was young, but later she took care of many severely ill and handicapped foster children in their home. He remembers assisting a child at their table with a gastric-tube feeding, and because his sister had heart problems, he also remembers accompanying his mother to Madison and staying in the hospital during his sister’s surgery.

So Perry entered UW-Eau Claire’s School of Nursing (now the College of Nursing and Health Sciences), but to fulfill a humanities requirement, he took a creative writing class with now retired English professor Bruce Taylor.

“And, boy, I just devoured that class,” Perry said. “I couldn’t wait to go. I enjoyed all the writing. I enjoyed all the assignments. Bruce Taylor had a way of bringing the subject to life. He was just so engaged, so over the top. I can still remember huge chunks of the lectures he gave.”

And although Perry said when the class was over he went right back to his nursing studies and didn’t think about writing again until some years later, he believes Taylor was very important to his development as a writer.

“The best thing he did for me was he was tough,” Perry said. “I remember someone wrote a poem about her grandmother dying, and Taylor said, ‘I don’t care about your grandmother dying. Everyone’s grandmother dies.’ At the time we all thought that was so harsh, but he was telling us that we had to try harder, to make those individual experiences applicable to something larger. And that was the best favor he could have done for me, although I didn’t realize it at the time. Later when I was out of nursing and starting to ease toward writing, the things Taylor said just came flooding back.”

Perry also believes that his nursing studies prepared him in a surprising way for his life as a writer. At the time, he said, the School of Nursing had just instituted a new nursing paradigm, a holistic model known as the Loomis-Wood model, and Perry’s class was the first to use it.

“As I recall, it was a grid of interlocking areas of assessment, so when you talked to patients you didn’t just focus on their sore elbow or their abdominal pain,” Perry said. “You did an assessment of their psychosocial background, you asked about their family dynamics. Basically, you assessed all these different systems, and from that information you drew some sort of conclusion and based your nursing plan on it. What was cool about that was that later, when I was learning to be a writer, and I came into it backwards — I had to learn it on the fly — writing turns out to be a lot like nursing by the Loomis-Wood model.

“So you’re assigned a story, let’s say on carp shooting,” Perry said. “You don’t just write about the carp in one particular place on the river. You look into what kind of people go carp shooting and why, you do some research on the history of carp in North America, that sort of thing, and from all this you draw your threads and you start to write and you base your article on the main threads that emerge from that ‘assessment.’ So, the UW-Eau Claire School of Nursing had already given me a very ordered and reflective way of approaching subjects. I’m not sure if any other writers in America are using a Loomis-Wood model, but I am.”

After graduation, Perry worked as a nurse for a surgeon in Rice Lake. Later he came back to Eau Claire and worked in a rehab unit at Sacred Heart Hospital. In 1988 he also got his EMT license and started working part time with an ambulance service on the weekends. Sometimes Perry worked in the rehab unit with the same people his ambulance team brought in.

But maybe it was the pressure of all those traumas and personal stories building up in Perry’s mind, because in the summer of 1989 he left the hospital and went to Europe, where he backpacked around for a while before stopping in a small town in England.

“For about a month I sat in a damp old brick house in front of this small coal fire with a manual typewriter and just wrote and wrote and wrote,” Perry said. “I really didn’t know why I was doing this or what I was going to do with it, but when I came back from that summer, I decided that I either had to go back to nursing or leave nursing and try to be a writer. Although I was a nurse for a relatively brief time, I didn’t leave it because I was unhappy. I left it because I wanted to try this other thing, and I figured if it didn’t work out, I could always go back to nursing.”

And, in a way, he has.

Despite his success as a writer and, more recently, as a musician and songwriter (his last local show was sold out weeks ahead of time), Perry still serves as an emergency medical first responder for the local fire department in the Wisconsin county where his farm is located, much as he did when he first returned to his hometown of New Auburn, the setting for both “Population 485” and “Truck.”

“I’m so grateful to be writing, and as rewarding as it’s been to write, being able to go into someone’s house at 2 a.m. when they’re having chest pains, and to help them, that’s far more relevant than anything I’ve ever written,” Perry said. “Good reviews, bad reviews, good book sales, bad book sales — at the end of the road I’m going to need help someday too, and I hope someone will be there. When I get home from a book tour and hit the county line and turn on the pager, that’s the real world. And you cheat yourself if you don’t spend time in as many worlds as possible.”

Nancy Wesenberg is a writer for the UW-Eau Claire News Bureau.


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