Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story
(on a postcard)

#240 Monte Riek Never Missed a Party

Monte Riek was born in Montana in 1943. He had a normal childhood. There was no TV, so he concentrated on being a kid—playing with his dogs, roaming the hills, going swimming down at the river. At 7, he was introduced to nuns, which was terrifying. At 11, hunting with his dad, Monte shot the antelope that went down but didn’t die. Monte always remembered the terror in its eyes. His dad was proud, but Monte cried the rest of the day. At 12, Monte, an altar boy, threw up during mass—on the priest, on the altar—and thought he was going to Hell for it. In 1956, Monte’s family moved to Billings and Monte was awed by the big city. In 1959, Monte got drunk for the first time. It was down by the river and he kissed a couple of girls. It was euphoric. He wanted to feel that way again. By junior year, he was drinking nearly every weekend. That summer, his parents divorced—his mom going south, his dad and sister north. Monte stayed by himself in Billings to finish high school. In 1962, Monte graduated from high school and got a job working construction. He worked all day and drank all night. It was awesome. It was his idea of being a man. The next fall, he went to college, majored in drinking, and stopped going to classes. He started working construction again, saved up, then went to Mexico to drink it all. Back in Billings, he asked his dad for money for college and drank it up too. At 21, he could finally go into bars, which was fascinating. One night, he drunk drove his car into a house; then he borrowed a friend’s car and drunk drove it into the police chief’s car. Monte fled to Las Vegas and hid out at his Mom’s house, then Oregon for a dam construction job. Eventually, it was safe enough to go back to Billings, where he worked all day and drank all night. Monte met Burt (Elberta) on a blind date. She didn’t drink, but Monte was willing to overlook that. He asked her to marry him, but she didn’t answer. He asked Burt again and again she didn’t answer. In 1966, Monte got a job in Seattle at Boeing. Burt wrote him every day; Monte drank and wrote back every night. One day, she wrote him that she was marrying somebody else. Monte quit Boeing and moved to Canada, where the Canadian government drafted him to fight forest fires. After that, Monte moved back to Seattle and met Judy, who could match him drink for drink and did the same drugs too. They fought when they were drunk. Monte asked Judy to marry him. She said, Yes. Then they had a big fight and Monte stayed away for days. On his way to see her, he crashed and was taken to jail for a DWI. He called Judy from jail, but she had already left for CA with an old boyfriend. In 1972, started his 20 years of working at a steel factory. Half the workers were addicts, the other half alcoholics. Monte took speed so he could drink more. He became a molder, got a raise, and bought a house. He met Diane, whose kids started calling him Daddy, but she eventually made him choose—Diane or drinking. Alcohol was Monte’s true love. In 1974, Monte picked Johanna (Jo), a Golden Retriever, out of a litter of seven because he liked her mother. Jo kept Monte out of bars some, but Monte drank anywhere and everywhere by this time. He got pulled over all over Seattle. Sometimes he got a DWI. Sometime his lawyer got him off. In 1976, Monte spent the summer in jail, which wasn’t so bad—and he could get any drug there, which is where he discovered cocaine, which became his drug of choice for the next 18 years. In 1979, he started judge-ordered treatment. His sobriety lasted 3 months. After this, Monte got rid of his car because he liked alcohol better than his driver’s license. He got rides to work with his roommates who all worked with him. Monte’s house had turned into a crash pad for wayward husbands. He always shared his house, his booze, his drugs—as long as they were good to Jo. Monte adored his two nieces, Cass and Terri, they never new that he was always wasted until they were older. They just thought he was really funny and an amazing superstar. He was a cheerful and loving drunk and addict. In 1980, Monte started taking Antabuse to stop drinking, but starting doing more drugs, especially cocaine, which introduced him to lots of criminals. Around this time, Monte met Jerry, who had easy access to cocaine and became his partner in crime for 10 years. Soon, Monte stopped snorting cocaine and started smoking crack. He got heavy into the drug trade buying and selling, which was how he met Nettie at a crack house. He knew she was his kind of woman when she put in a pinch of Copenhagen (she also hated nuns). In 1988, Jo died in Monte’s arms, at the vet. She had been his constant companion for over 14 years. Monte’s health got bad—his kidneys, high blood pressure, signs of impotency. One night, Monte became confused and disoriented; he ran into a wall, had no coordination. Monte had had a stroke, but kept drinking through it. At the hospital, after the doctors told him he would live, all he wanted was a beer. He was drinking 30 minutes after he was released from the hospital. After that, Monte went back on Antabuse and went back to work. 3 months later, he had another stroke, but kept doing crack for 3 days before going to the hospital. The first night out of the hospital, he went to a bar and then got in a fistfight over a drug deal. By 1992, Monte couldn’t work anymore and retired, which gave him more time for alcohol and drugs. Monte sold his house as is—with the idea of moving back to Billings and living off the money, but smoked the money instead. In 1993, Monte went back to Billings the same way he left 27 years before, drunk. He moved in with his wonderful sister, Connie, and also spent lots of time at his father’s house; he was a drunk too. In 1994, Monte received 2 years of Social Security back pay and went back to Seattle to do crack. He thought of himself as a good junkie and he smoked until he didn’t have any money left. His nose bled all the way back to Billings. Monte got a little house there and made the Rainbow Bar his second home. He told people that he came back to Billings to die. It got him lots of free drinks. Monte decided to drink himself to death. Everyday, he would sit and drink until he shit his pants. On the way home, he would throw up in front of place where they had AA meetings. He wanted to get sober, but not drinking scared him. It’s what he had been doing the last 37 years. On August 1, 1995, Monte entered a treatment facility sober. Weeks after he got out, he started going to AA meetings and was surprised at how good it felt to share his life story. In 1997, Monte was diagnosed with throat cancer, had to give up smoking too, and had to have surgery, after which he was never able to speak again. He carried little spiral notebooks in his shirt pocket and wrote his conversations. He went to AA every day, which saved his life, and spent more time with a new generation of nieces and nephews, which he loved doing. Monte died in 2009—from complications from cancer. He was clean and sober the last 5078 days of his life. He gave out Lifesavers to every kid he met and dog treats to every dog he met. He was stubborn and funny to the end.
[Note: Monte Riek's life story came to me by way of his niece, Cass Sullivan, in the form of 20 single-spaced pages. He had written his life story as part of his participation in Alcoholics Anonymous (written because he had lost the ability to speak). That is, his life story was meant to be shared. Please feel free to share Monte Riek's story, to make links, to re-post, etc.]
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#182 The Myth of Scott McClanahan

Scott McClanahan was born in West Virginia and regularly used the bathroom in a johnny house (johnny houses have been a seminal event in many writers lives, including Jean Genet). Scott’s childhood was spent in Rainelle, West Virginia—a town full of lumberjacks, severed arms, coal miners, and old mountains. The town specializes in teenage pregnancy and prescription drug abuse. When Scott was five, he watched some older boys set a forest on fire, which the West Virginia National Guard had to put out. When Scott was 7, his grandmother Ruby had her gallstones removed, then brought all 15 of them home and asked Scott to put them in her flowerbed. During the blizzard of ’93, Scott started writing. Scott’s teenage years were spent reading Isak Dinesen and watching professional wrestling. He will not rest until Ric Flair is recognized as a great artist by this culture. In high school, he played quarterback, which is how he ended up with a compound fracture of his left arm. In college, Scott’s roommate was a great friend from Rainelle who suffered from OCD, which meant that he also always kept the room clean. Scott worked at the same grocery store his father did and was a substitute teacher at the same school where his mother taught. It was for 7 years that Scott chased a woman named Sarah before she went out on a real date with him, but now they are married. Sarah is a nurse and each night he sits and listens to her talk about patients dying, the way eyes look when the last moment of oxygen is escaping from a brain. Sarah has a magnificent heart and Scott will fight the man who doesn’t believe in true love (seriously, send him your address and he’ll come fight you). Scott cries every other day over something, which he considers a good thing. A couple of months ago, Sarah brought home a 13-year-old blind dog. Now Scott goes home each day and watches it bump from wall to wall. The blind dog has become a metaphor for Scott’s life and Scott is training his other dog to become a seeing-eye dog. Now Scott lives in southern West Virginia, an hour from where he grew up. He has stayed because it's one of the last places with myths (John Henry is from there). Scott does not plan for the future if it can be avoided—he understands that within 3 months the shroud could be his garment—but he knows that he will be buried on Backus Mountain. And he wants “I regret” written on his tombstone—along with “I told you I was sick.”

[Update: Scott McClanahan's second book, Stories II, is just out from Six Gallery Press. There is a nice write-up of it by Sam Pink at HTMLGIANT. This is Scott's first book, Stories.]
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#206 J. A. Tyler: Choose Your Own Adventure

J. A. Tyler was born in Fort Collins, Colorado. J. A.’s child was good, normal, solid. There was no divorce. There were no massive events. When he was in elementary school, J. A. wrote a choose-your-own-adventure book and, at night, he used to read by the light from the hallway when he was supposed to be asleep. In high school, J. A. read The Catcher in the Rye and then he couldn't stop reading it and then he did a presentation as Holden (in his voice). Also, J. A. acted a bunch in high school and then in college too. In college, J. A. studied English liberal arts. In graduate school, he studied composition, literature, and theater. He has always loved to read and to write—it’s mesmerizing—so that made sense. J. A. watches tons of movies and loves the non-chronological aspects of film; it’s kind of like a time machine where you can go and do whatever you want, whenever you want. J. A. met Aime when they were playing brother and sister in a production of Father of the Bride and, then, some time after that, they got married. Aime is J. A.’s opposite—kind, loving, and playful—and she is a child at heart. It is phenomenal to see. She will order whatever new thing is on the menu. She is taken in by ads for breakfast cereals. J. A. and Aime have one son named Eddie who they could not love more and they have another son on the way. Eddie is amazing and funny and clever and smart and out of control; for instance, sometimes Eddie corrects people when they read to him; also, for a while Eddie named himself Eddie Rhino Johnson. Their dog is a Yorkshire Terrier named Sunny that barks at everything, but everybody loves her anyway. J. A. teaches high school language arts, theater, and film, which he does, in part, so that he can talk about literature and books and art all day. It should also be mentioned that a lot of people have died during J. A.’s lifetime and that the older he gets the more he thinks about it. It is frightening that we are always aging. But J. A. is proud that he made a person and that he is raising a person, that he made a book and has a handful more coming out. He tries to live thoughtfully and honestly. J. A. doesn’t know what’s next, but if he did he would rebel against it.

[Update: J. A. Tyler's novella, Inconceivable Wilson, is now out from Scrambler Books. Also, J. A. Tyler's own Mudluscious Press will soon be releasing First Year, which is an anthology of all the MLP chapbooks from 2009.]
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Double Feature @ Creative Alliance

The two films that I made with Luca Dipierro -- I WILL SMASH YOU and 60 WRITERS/60 PLACES -- they are going to be a double feature at the Creative Alliance on February 5th, doors at 6, screening at 7pm. There's more information, plus stills and trailers, at Little Burn Films.

[Click on the flyer to make it full-size.]

Bridget Holding Writes Your Life Story: #239 Julie Spiller

Julie was born in September 1981 in Paignton, Devon. Coming after an older brother, she completed the traditional 2.4 children family. She had a hip disorder and spent quite a lot of time in hospital as a young child. She felt like the ‘black sheep’ growing up. She was too independent, had too much of her own voice. She went to school and didn’t play enough. She was too busy working hard and took life too seriously. She thinks she still does. She wishes she’d loosened up. This is something she still has to remind herself to do. In 1998, she left school and entered a Karate competition. She got beaten up, but her confidence got a huge boost. However, it caused concussional brain trauma, which has caused her to suffer vertigo ever since. Every few months she gets the dizziness; it’s like travel sickness. She was prone to anxiety attacks even before that; they’ve got a lot worse since. She had a period of agoraphobia when she couldn’t leave the house for months. These days she accepts her condition. It allows her to be at home and write. At eighteen, Julie met the boyfriend she was with for five years. He cheated on her for two of those. He bought them the same presents, exactly, and his parents knew about them both. She still can’t believe it. It was a steep learning curve. Then she met her husband. She’d known him for a few years before they got together. Opposites attract. He was a hippy, wanting to lose control. She needed to be in control. They got married on a freezing day in March 2006. He was seventeen years older than her. But that wasn’t the problem. Cannabis was the problem. He was in a different world a lot of the time. Then she noticed on the phone bill that he’d been in touch with an ex-girlfriend—a lot. They co-habited for a while, as neither of them wanted to let go of the house they loved. In the end, she kicked him out. At that time, a thirteen-year-old friend, Kimberley, who had possibly been abused by her father, came to stay with her and didn’t leave. Julie became a foster parent. They moved into a new house together. They needed each other. Julie had nothing, not even a sofa. She home-schooled Kim, because she was having problems with school. She had no time for herself. It was very intense. On the second day in the new house, her next door neighbour, Will, came round with his daughter Jessica and a cup of sugar. She told him she wasn’t interested, but he eventually won her round with good old-fashioned romance. They got together in October 2008. That December Kimberley moved out. In May this year, Julie had a miscarriage, but now she’s pregnant again, and getting married in June. She’s proud that she’s warrior-ed her way through many hard times. She’s come out the other side and now she’s back on track.

[See Part I of Bridget Holding's essay on the therapeutic benefits of writing your life story. This is part 1 of an article, of what will be a series on ‘The Psychology of Writing.’ Please contact Bridget Holding if you are interested in knowing more (bridgetholding [at] madasafish [dot] com).]

#237 Jason McCormick: Tuition Instead of Rent

Jason McCormick was born and raised in Hawaii. He was the only kid with blonde hair at his school and the locals called him the haole kid (meaning tourist or mainlander; that is, an offensive term that insults somebody’s skin tone). At 9, Jason moved to California and attended Palo Alto High School in the Bay area. He started playing golf and his grades improved. He moved to San Diego and studied philosophy at San Diego State University. Then he moved back to SF and then back to SD to study philosophy. The most important decision that Jason ever made was deciding to pay for tuition instead of paying rent. In early 2009, he had just been laid off from his job and had 2K in his bank account and paid his spring tuition instead of his rent. He stashed his stuff at a buddy’s house and crashed there twice a week while living in the campus library the other 5 days a week. Jason looked for a job every day, but was homeless for 3 months. In fact, there was a small community of homeless college kids who befriended the security guards and stayed floors of the library that security never checked. Jason read a lot of books during that time. His grades improved and he felt like a free man. But being homeless definitely took its toll on him. Jason hardly slept. He had to carry his backpack filled with my school stuff and a duffle bag filled with clothes and a shaving kit. He exercised and showered at the student gym. At the end of that spring, Jason signed a contract to coach youth golf at a summer camp in New York. Jason made some money here and there, sold some stuff on Craigslist, worked a few tutoring gigs, and an hour after he finished his last final exam his buddy Jon picked him up at the campus parking lot and they left San Diego to drive cross-country. After Jason coach at the golf camp, he moved back to SF. In SF, he worked part-time as a golf instructor for kids. He also read and wrote a lot (mostly stories about how he breaks the rules, but he still manages to save the world). Then Jason moved back to SD to finish his BA in philosophy. He still plays golf, but his grades are slipping. Over the years, Jason has had a few serious girlfriends—a 4-year thing and a 3-month fling, but he’s been single for a year+. He’s been dating a pretty cool girl, Savannah, for a few weeks. They met at a kegger. She has long brown hair, smells like vanilla, and makes him laugh. Right now, Jason is pursuing an American dream. He plans on writing fiction for the rest of his life and he wants to write a great American novel. Then Jason will escape from the real world and live like a recluse somewhere near the Adirondacks.

Jason McCormick’s blog.
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The Way We Reconstruct Memory

I have an interview with Andrew Porter up at The Faster Times. We talk about his new book, The Theory of Light and Matter, the reconstruction of memory, and what really happened.

More interviews @ The Faster Times: Gary Lutz, Blake Butler, Rachel Sherman, Laura van den Berg, Ben Tanzer, Brian Evenson, Robert Lopez, Joanna Howard, Dylan Landis, Joseph Young.

The Ultimate Hipster Reading List

DEAR EVERYBODY is on Flavorwire's Ultimate Hipster Reading List (and they mean hipster in a good way). Plus, they list a bunch of other great titles, if you're looking for something to read.

#216 Matthew Simmons Likes to Get the Door for People

Matthew Simmons was born in Columbus, Ohio, and his family moved around a lot after that—Pennsylvania, Kansas, Upper Michigan. Matthew always had the sense that every place he moved had a version of a person from the last place he lived. He had a friend in Lenexa, Kansas named Loren who looked almost exactly like his friend Andy in Gladstone, Michigan (similar temperament too). Sometimes, Matthew tried to reinvent himself after a move, but eventually he realized that he was always Matthew. Matthew had wonderful parents, but still managed to be a kind of sad child, and sometimes he feels a little guilty about that. Lots of good things happened to him, though. For instance, once, he won Best Customizing in the Pinewood Derby. Also, it was nice the way Matthew and his brother were so close growing up (still are; they live just a few blocks from each other). It wasn’t until his senior year of high school that Matthew became a reader, but now he really likes books. In college, Matthew studied English—reading, writing, and writing about reading were the only things that he felt naturally good at. Once, Matthew wrote a short story that somebody else turned into a short film without asking him, but the guy flew Matthew to LA to see it on a big screen and he liked it. Years ago, Matthew had a friend, a coworker, and he would write weird little stories for her on sticky notes and then stick them on her desk. Matthew liked her and liked making her laugh. She encouraged him to take storytelling more seriously. Within a year, he was sending fiction out to online journals. Within 5 years, he had an MFA. Matthew continued to move through the years—Wisconsin, Iowa, Kansas, and now Seattle, Washington. Moving to Seattle was big for Matthew. He had been rootless for a while. After Matthew turned 30, a lot of things in his life normalized. He stopped clamping his jaws. He stopped not letting things go. Also, the Zoloft has helped. A while ago, Matthew realized that he is often really melancholy and so he decided to just be okay with being sad, which sometimes he can enjoy now—not in a self-indulgent way, but in a natural way. Also, Matthew’s girlfriend is really wonderful, so easy to be around. His mind quiets down when he is around her. He likes waking up next to her and seeing her face softened by sleep. She's beautiful and smarter than he is and he likes that. Matthew’s cat let Matthew tattoo his likeness on Matthew’s arm. Also, he likes to get the door for people. Now Matthew works as a copywriter and feels settled, but there is a chance that he will move again—to go back to college to pursue a Ph.D.

[Update: Matthew Simmons’ first book A Jello Horse is now in its third printing and it received a really nice review in The Believer. He went back to Michigan for the holidays.]

Also, Here's Matthew’s chapbook, Caves.

#60 Kim Chinquee: Fully Formed

Kim Chinquee was three weeks late being born and she was a big baby when she finally arrived. She started reading before anybody else in her class and was the salutatorian of her middle school, but her parents divorced when she was 14 and Kim stopped studying in high school. She preferred sports, boys, and parties. When she graduated, she didn't go to college. She couldn't afford it and nobody had told her about financial aid. She was going to join the Navy, but the recruiter wasn't there, so she joined the Air Force instead. She didn’t want to fly planes, but she didn't really want to be a medical lab technician either--it was her 10th choice. She married another lab tech and they had a son a little over one year later. Technically, they were married for 7 years, but they were separated for the last 4 years of their marriage because her husband wouldn't sign the divorce papers. He couldn't believe that she actually wanted to leave him. The divorce finally became official and Kim left the Air Force too. She joined the Reserves, but the next few years were a difficult time. She was a single mother working multiple jobs, taking classes toward her college degree, and paying for food with food stamps. She took her first creative writing class because it filled a general education requirement and has been a writer ever since--though she never admitted that fact until she won the Henfield Prize and the 5K dollar award that goes with it. Now she is a creative writing professor at Buffalo State College and has published a great book of tiny stories called OH BABY. She may have started her writing life a little late, but she has arrived fully formed.

[Update: Kim Chinquee is now the fiction and creative nonfiction editor at elimae. The first issue is up. She is also the editor for the January 2010 issue of the Mississippi Review Online.]

Kim Chinquee's blog. Kim Chinquee's OH BABY.
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Poets & Writers: Beyond Words

The Jan/Feb isssue of Poets & Writers is out. It's theme is inspiration and it's the best issue of Poets & Writers I've ever read. There's a nice article by Cecilia Ward Jones about continuing to write, for years and years, even though she had never published a single piece (until the article). There's a good piece Dennis Cass on what gets called writer's block, a smart take that gets to research on divergent thinking and convergent thinking. And there's a great article by Suzanne Pettypiece called "Beyond Words"--about 5 writers who practice other arts. There's a two-page+ interview where I talk about painting--then Michelle Wildgen talks about cooking, Jesse Ball about drawing, Abha Dawesar about photography, and Jen Bervin about visual arts. It feels like a good way to end the year.

Meg Pokrass Writes Your Life Story (on a postcard): #236 Ethel Rohan

Ethel Rohan was born in Dublin, Ireland, while the nurse and her mother argued: her mother demanded to be allowed push; the nurse insisted the baby wasn’t coming any time soon. Ethel believes she shot into the world because she wanted her mother to be right. Ethel was her parents’ third child and first girl. Two sisters (twins) and another brother would follow. She remembers a home where there was more fighting than anything. She was a lonely, frightened, desperate-for-attention child, the kind of child that gets into deeper trouble. Amidst trouble and anger, she loved to read, act, and recite poetry. In third grade, she received a prize, a glass ashtray, for one of her poems. She has no idea what the poem was about. Her parents enjoyed the ashtray. She danced daily alone in her living room, pirouetting under the melancholy gaze of the gold-framed Sacred Heart of Jesus. Bless this home … Bless this home … She was wire-skinny and yet felt fat to bursting with so much that she couldn’t say. She excelled at debating and public speaking: all that she could say. Ethel is grateful that she also knew in childhood laughing, playing, sharing, caring, rewards, adventures, friendship, beaches, vacations, Sunday drives, and things as simple and precious as toasting bread in the open flames of her living room fire, dripping-with-butter toast that tasted of ashes and made her feel alive, crackling flames wherein she pictured bright things. She broke away for bright things at age twenty-two and settled in San Francisco. San Francisco is home, a place and people that have been very good to her. Shortly after her arrival to the city, her husband ended her winning run at a pool table in an Irish bar on Geary Boulevard and they’ve been together ever since. They have two daughters. Ethel’s daughters are her joy. Her greatest accomplishment is enjoying a happy home with them. “Circling the Drain” (Keyhole Issue 9) and “Air” (PANK, December 2009) are two stories Ethel wrote that hold deep personal meaning and that she believes are, in many ways, two of her strongest. Ethel’s story, “Circling the Drain,” centers on themes that recur in her work: yearning, fear, isolation, madness, abandonment, and loss. At the story’s end, the protagonist makes a crucial shift out of fear, yes, but also love: to give himself over to his wife’s psychosis. Writing “Air” was a moving and powerful experience for Ethel. In the original version of “Air,” the version Ethel believed was “finished,” the protagonist endured a harrowing rape. Ethel’s instincts told her not to submit the work for publication just yet. She set the work aside, but the story’s protagonist stayed with her and demanded a different fate. Ethel rewrote the story, and got it to where it felt “right-right.” For the first time she truly realized her power as a writer and the power of the characters and stories we create: there was now one less girl in the world raped, one more girl who escaped and survived. Ethel Rohan writes because she still feels fat to bursting with all that she needs to say.

[Note: You can read Meg Pokrass' expressive life story here.]
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