Little Bits of Grace

new Michael Perry book compiles best Roughneck Grace columns

Mike Paulus, Raquel Dorf, photos by Andrea Paulseth

SNEAK PEAK. In addition to being a memoirist, Michael Perry is now a novelist, a playwright, and the author a weekly Wisconsin State Journal column.
SNEAK PEAK. In addition to being a memoirist, Michael Perry is now a novelist, a playwright, and the author a weekly Wisconsin State Journal column.

If you ever called him a “celebrity” to his face, area writer and humorist Michael Perry would probably reply with his trademark humility, his deep voice murmuring something about pig farming or raising chickens. Over the years, a quick shot of levity and a hearty scoop of self-deprecation have endeared Perry to his many readers. However, whether he likes it or not, our favorite Northwoods memoirist sits upon a short list of local celebrities, and not because he’s a bit of a household name ‘round these parts.

We celebrate Perry because his art has reached far beyond the Chippewa Valley, further than most. But people across the country don’t devour his hilarious, approachable, and (as astute readers know) meticulously crafted books just because they’re funny. No, we like Perry because he’s got heart – heart that emerges throughout his stories right when we need it most.

“My wide-ranging incompetence yields a lot of material. And I get a lot of ideas from my family, most of whom are funnier than I.” – Michael Perry, on generating ideas for his writing

It’s been a busy year for Perry, as he’s been announcing paperback editions of his various books, producing and acting in a stage adaptation of his breakout memoir Population: 485, playing an important role in planning and promoting the Eaux Claires Music & Arts Festival, hosting shows at Big Top Chautauqua, performing with his band The Long Beds, and of course, writing. As an honest-to-goodness professional writer, Perry approaches his craft as job – a job-job – with long hours, stressful deadlines, and the pressures of balancing work and family.

What’s more, since February 2013, Perry has penned a weekly column for the Wisconsin State Journal called Roughneck Grace. And now, on Oct. 1, the Wisconsin Historical Society Press will release a selected collection of these columns in a book of the same name.

In anticipation of the new book, Perry talked to us about column writing, working on Eaux Claires, current influences, and current projects.

Michael Perry on what he’s learned from producing a weekly column:

“It’s a privilege to be able to write about whatever I wish each week. But I’ve also described it as a form of literary calisthenics ... the enforced, recurring deadline means I have to get to the keyboard and type, no matter what, no matter where. [It] has reminded me yet again that above all writing is about putting yer butt in the chair and your mind to the words. I can dilly-dally all I want but in the end there’s either a column or there’s not.”

On generating ideas:

“My wide-ranging incompetence yields a lot of material. And I get a lot of ideas from my family, most of whom are funnier than I.”

On collaborating with Justin Vernon during last summer’s Eaux Claires Music & Arts Festival:

“I was especially grateful that they allowed me to bring in poets and writers this year. It proved to me that Justin and Aaron (Dessner, of The National) are serious about trying to create an experience that goes beyond music.”

On who’s influencing him now:

“You’d never know from reading my column but lately – thanks to the Eaux Claires festival – I’ve been very much influenced by Chance the Rapper. Not in my material, not in my style, but in watching how he handles himself. About the artistic choices he makes. About how he handles being a dad and companion and partner.”

On what’s keeping him busy:

“I’m finishing a very overdue book about the essayist and philosopher Michel de Montaigne, then I have to write the sequel to The Scavengers. In between I’ll be touring with my stories and sometimes my band, working on getting the Population: 485 play out to some new venues, and trying to be a decent dad and husband. Also, I have a newspaper column due ...”

On what’s been driving him:

“The final essay in this book is about gratitude. Last night before a performance, I was backstage paging through the new book looking for a story to tell onstage and I realized again how gratitude is the only answer to all I’ve been allowed to do as a writer. I am so fortunate, and I don’t take it for granted.”

Join Michael Perry for the release of Roughneck Grace at 7pm on Saturday, Oct. 1, in The Volume One Gallery (205 N. Dewey Street, Eau Claire). Perry will read from it and sign copies. All day, Local Store shoppers can get 15 percent off their entire purchase when buying the book.

Read an Excerpt From Michael Perry's Roughneck Grace: "Gratitude"

It happens that this essay is being composed in the waning days of December, and thus on the cusp of a new year. I cannot anticipate the state of our hearts as we meet in this moment, but I choose for my subject a word I owe more study whatever may transpire after I type it: gratitude.

Gratitude. Such a lovely word. Humble and warm. Humble, because it’s not a word you use if you think you did everything yourself. Humble, because no matter how hard you did work at whatever it is you’re grateful for, you know – and more importantly, acknowledge – there was some luck involved. Warm, because gratitude is not compatible with a cold soul. Warm, because gratitude radiates, like the gentle rays of a heart-sized sun. Gratitude goes softly out and does good works – which generate more gratitude. Gratitude is renewable energy.

Gratitude, because to offer anything less would be to ignore all privilege. The privilege of existence. The privilege of health. The privilege of privilege. And now we are back at humility – or ought to be.

Gratitude, because the world is awash with the sour surf of opposing sentiments.

Gratitude, for those who show us the same.

Gratitude, even in grumpiness. Which is to say I am not talking all hosannas, hugs, and puppies here, I am talking about perspective and preponderance and relativity and a sideways glance into the cosmic mirror, where behind me I spy millions of souls who would give all they own for just one of my disappointing Tuesdays. Gratitude as my moral duty.

Gratitude, because it’s so easy. A note. A word. You don’t even have to talk. Gratitude can be soundless. You can speak it with your eyes. Share it with a smile. Weave it into your works. You can kneel down and offer it up.

Gratitude. A triple-syllabic salutation to the six directions, whichever way you’re pointing. The echoes go on and on. The echoes are gratitude returning. There is the idea among psychologists that gratitude can be cultivated. Put it out there and it comes back to you.

Gratitude as a practice. As an intentional act. Gratitude in the form of reflection. A quiet moment. A look back.

Gratitude, not as obligation but as celebration.

Gratitude, with our loved ones in mind. The ones who suffer our ingratitudes with grace, and that grace yet another reason for gratitude. Grace: cousin and catalyst to gratitude.

Gratitude, because as this year draws to a close I am reminded it was another year granted, not guaranteed, and therefore not taken for granted.

Gratitude, no matter the season.

Gratitude.

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