I've had the pleasure of knowing Bernadette Murphy since 1999, when we were in grad school together, and I'm so grateful for how we've borne witness to one another's lives over the years, one another's transformations. Bernadette has chronicled her own transformation in her latest book, Harley and Me: Embracing Risk on the Road to a More Authentic Life. An invigorating, deeply inspiring, read, Harley and Me tells the story of how Bernadette broke her life wide open when she decided to learn to ride a motorcycle at 48. She uses her story as a launching pad to explore the science and psychology of risk (especially in women, especially in midlife), and is a call to action for us to live more adventurous and authentic lives, whether that be physically, creatively, emotionally, or intellectually. I had the chance to ask Bernadette a few questions about her process--may her inspiring answers wake you up to more possibility in your own life (and inspire you to pick up her wonderful book)!
Lady/Liberty/Lit is committed to promoting freedom of body and voice. With your motorcycle, rock climbing, and other daring adventures, you are freeing your body in so many ways, and through your writing, you are powerfully freeing your voice—do you find that freedom of body and voice are intertwined, and, if so, how does that connection manifest for you?
They are absolutely intertwined! Part of the reason I persisted with the rock climbing, though my fear of heights kept yanking me up short, was that it seemed tied to the novel I’d working on, one I’d written hundreds of pages of and yet couldn’t quite finish. When I started climbing, I’d get half way up the wall and think, “I’m scared. I want to come down now.” And every time I came back down, I’d end up kicking myself for not continuing. That was the exact same feeling I’d been having with the novel, the same frustration, the same sense that I could do it if only I could get over my own self-doubt. I had this weird feeling that if I could learn this on the climbing wall, I might be able to do the same thing with the novel. I kept visualizing myself getting to the top of the route and hitting the anchor. And before I knew it, was doing that in real life and my creative work seemed to follow suit. I’m not done with the novel, so it’s too early to tell is this theory is true, but so far, it seems to be working!
I know in your early drafts of the memoir, you hadn’t included research about the science of risk to your narrative—could you share how that came about, and how it impacted your writing process? Do you hope/plan to weave research into future narratives?
Adding research came about very organically. When I bought the motorcycle and made plans for a cross-country trek with a friend – another woman from the mommy realm and like me, not exactly a biker chick – friends and family started wondering if I was losing it and having some kind of midlife crisis. I got worried: Was all this risk-taking just a way of distracting myself from aging and trying to reclaim younger days? So I turned to neuroscience, biochemistry and psychology to help me understand myself. Why is risk usually considered a bad thing? And if it was bad, why did I feel so good?
And there’s no question that now I’ve been bitten by the research bug! I adore looking into these questions and figuring out how to translate what the experts/scientists have to say into readable, engaging prose. I have to learn how to ‘own’ what I’m learning and then explain it in my own words to a reader. I find that process fascinating and a much-needed break from writing about my own life.
When you embark upon a risky physical adventure, do you know from the start that you want to write about it, or do you usually choose to write about something after you’ve experienced it? If the former, how does coming at an adventure through the lens of writing alter your approach to or experience of that adventure? What tools do you use as a writer to translate these experiences into language?
I pretty much never go and do things in order to write about them. That would seem too forced to me. But I often engage in experiences that dilate my view of the world, my perspective on myself, or how I fit in. When that happens, I’m instantly interested in writing about it. When an experience causes me to feel a bit queasy or to question my beliefs, that’s when I am fired up to write.
To translate my physical experiences into language, I try to root the reader in the body as much as possible. If you can’t feel what I’m describing -- the reach of an ice tool up the side of a frozen waterfall while ice climbing, or the satisfying clunk of first gear on a motorcycle – you may not be able to follow me into what those experiences mean. More than anything, my job is to get you to feel the physical sensation along with me. Then we can unpack what it might tell us about the human experience.
So, though I seldom know I’m going to write about something at the moment it’s happening, as a writer I’m always experiencing my life and that lens.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on the novel that has nothing to do with rock climbing, and yet the rock climbing is helping me make it through the pages day after day. It’s a close-to-the-bone story about a young girl with a severely mentally ill mother who has apparitions of the Virgin Mary.
Who are some writers and adventurers who have inspired you along your journey?
I love women adventurers. I’m currently reading Found: A Life in Mountain Rescue by Bree Loewen and am awed by her.
Emily Rapp’s tackling of tough emotional subjects always inspires me. Her memoirs are Still Point of the Turning World and Poster Child.
Your own memoir, The Art of Misdiagnosis inspires as well with its willingness to take on hard subject matters and examine them deeply, inviting me into questions that are penetrating and sometimes scary, but smoothing a path for me to make that journey with you.
Thank you so much for mentioning my book--very grateful! What advice do you have for folks who wish to add more risk to their life, whether physical or creative, but are hesitant to take that first step?
Start small. Don’t set big goals. Let the sense of satisfaction you feel in meeting a small milestone urge you on. When I first started running, I just wanted to keep up the cardio health I’d built in preparation for a Whitney climb. So I went to the local high-school track a few times a week and ran half a lap and then walked half a lap for about a mile. No huge goal. But I felt so good that I added onto the length. And then I could run the entire thing. And then, why not try a 5K? And so it goes. Engage in something that has always called to you. Tell yourself you don’t have to be good at it and that it’s completely okay to fail. The goal is to have a new experience to see if it speaks to you, if you enjoy it, to learn about yourself by engaging with it. Forget about judging yourself and your performance. Just have an experience and then see where that leads you.