The essay — structured around my disappointment about having to miss yet another Boston Red Sox game due to multiple sclerosis — is an exploration of how, since being diagnosed with MS in 2014, I’ve been on a long learning curve adjusting to my new normal, adjusting to an unpredictable life with chronic illness.
The essay begins this way:
It was game day.
I had tickets to see my beloved Red Sox play at historic Fenway Park. They were in the hunt for a Wild Card playoff spot.
But I couldn’t attend the game.
Why? Because it was going to be hot and humid. Because the weather conditions – not the spate of uneven Red Sox performances – would make me ill. Because multiple sclerosis has caused damage to the area of my brain that controls my temperature and, when I’m in hot and humid conditions, that damage causes me to, essentially, short-circuit.
Over on Intima’s blog, Crossroads, writer Marleen Pasch, compared themes in “Another Game Day” with a newly-published essay of her own, “Rocks and River.”
Pasch (on right) said, “O’Brien understands the need to assess risk then listen to and heed the more protective voice of wisdom.”
Fast-forward to early February 2021: I was contacted by MFA Program Director Leanna James Blackwell and asked if I could take over the already-in-progress Intro to Narrative Medicine class because Suzanne had to take a temporary leave due to an injury. (This is such a weird confluence of events, an injury preventing her from teaching narrative medicine.) Luckily, I was already familiar with the Canvas learning management system which they utilize — also used by Northeastern University where I teach journalism classes — and had already read one of the main texts.
Now as I plan to have my second evening Zoom class with a group of seven writers, I finally feel as though I’ve got a handle on the class and its rhythm, and cannot wait for the rest of the semester to unfold as we devour Writing Hard Stories by Melanie Brooks, Bodies of Truth edited by Dinty W. Moore, Erin Murphy, et al., and engage with the students’ creative nonfiction work about issues of illness and trauma.
Meanwhile, we’re sending healing vibes to Suzanne!
Tatnuck Booksellers in Westborough, MA has signed copies of three of my books (a memoir, a novel and a work of nonfiction) for sale, just in time for the readers on your holiday lists. Given that COVID has severely affected small businesses like independent bookstores, I’m sure they’d appreciate your support.
Signed books include:
Uncomfortably Numb: a memoir. My medical memoir about the life-altering impact of a multiple sclerosis diagnosis. It chronicles the two years it took to get an MS diagnosis and confirmation that the symptoms I was experiencing weren’t simply in my imagination (as one physician suggested), as well as the uneasy piece I reached an uneasy peace with my post-MS life.
Mr. Clark’s Big Band: A Year of Laughter, Tears and Jazz in a Middle School Band Room. A book about the 2012-2013 school year I shadowed the Southborough, MA middle school jazz band as they were recovering from mourning the sudden death of one of their own, a 12-year-old trumpet player named Eric Green. This award-winning book would be great for any educators on your list.
Mortified: a novel about oversharing. Set in 2004 at the height of mommy blogging, this darkly humorous work of contemporary fiction follows a thirtysomething mom of two who started venting about her frustration with modern parenting through her blog. When her family discovers the unkind things she’s been writing about them online, well, all hell breaks loose.
In the first scene in my recently-released medical memoir, Uncomfortably Numb, I am interviewing Jamie Clark, the music director of the middle school jazz band I’m planning to shadow during the 2012-2013 school year to witness how Clark helps his students through mourning the sudden death of a band member. The year I spend with Clark and his student musicians is the subject of my 2017 book, Mr. Clark’s Big Band: A Year of Laughter, Tears and Jazz in a Middle School Band Room.
As I’m speaking with Clark, I experience what I will later realize is the first symptom of multiple sclerosis. It will take two years before I’m officially diagnosed with the incurable autoimmune disease, and another three to see the band book through to publication.
The time line covered in my 2020 memoir Uncomfortably Numb starts with that August 2012 interview and ends with the launch of Mr. Clark’s Big Band. Pretty meta.
I’ll be joining award-winning author, Bay Path University writer-in-residence and faculty member, the wonderful Suzanne Strempek Sheaon June 1 for a free webinar where we’ll discuss “Narrative Medicine and the Art of the Medical Memoir.”
Writer Michael Carlton said in Yankee Magazine,Songs from a Lead-Lined Room “is one of the most moving and important books ever written about the extraordinary pressures the disease places not only on the victim, but on family and friends as well.”
Strempek Shea and I worked together at the Springfield, MA daily newspaper, The Republican, and she has written blurbs for a number of my books. It was our connection that resulted in my attending and graduating from the Bay Path University MFA in creative nonfiction program, which she was instrumental in creating.
Please join us for a warm conversation between friends about the craft of writing about the innately personal topics of illness and medicine.
UK Author Madeline Dyer and her Book Party Chat Twitter page hosted me for an hour-long discussion about writing, about memoir, about researching, and about work that inspired me as I wrote Uncomfortably Numb.
We discussed how long it took to write the memoir, what it was like to write such raw and personal material, as well as what projects I’m working on next … to which I would only say that it’s something in the thriller/fiction genre and will be set in Springfield, MA where I used to work as a newspaper reporter. It’s still in its infancy/planning stages.
Thank you Madeline and the Book Party Chat team for taking the time to speak with me about my work and about the craft of writing.
The memoir on which I’ve been working for several years, Uncomfortably Numb, is being published by Wyatt-MacKenzie Publishing in the spring of 2020.
While chronicling the onset of symptoms that ultimately led to a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, Uncomfortably Numb tells the story of not only finding an uneasy peace with the permanent uncertainty of living with a chronic illness, but also of coping with the premature death of one’s mother and the ensuing collateral emotional damage.
Here’s the Publishers Marketplace announcement of the deal:
Image credits: Wyatt-MacKenzie Publishing and Publishers Marketplace.
Bay Path University played host to its 16th Writers’ Day this past weekend, as scribes talked about how to effectively read one’s work aloud in front of a crowd (Charles Coe, All Sins Forgiven poet and author extraordinaire!) and how to turn family documents, handwritten letters, and memories into an intergenerational memoir (the fabulous Patricia Reis, Motherlinesauthor).
The final panel was packed with tales from three writers–Kinship of Clover’s Ellen Meeropol, This is How It Begins’ Joan Dempsey, and yours truly (see above photos)–who discussed how we used events in the world and in our own lives to inspire our writing, as well as how we folded current events into existing narratives on which we were working. My presentation focused on the real life events in my town of Southborough that inspired Mr. Clark’s Big Band, and how I worked events such as the Newtown school shooting and the Boston Marathon bombing into my book about a middle school jazz band.
Thank you to author and educator Suzanne Strempek Shea for putting these panels together and for affording us the opportunity to spend an afternoon talking about one of our favorite subjects: writing.
The rapidly growing MFA program, in which I enrolled in the fall of 2014, is staffed by a number of writers and editors with real-world experience who provided support and encouragement to the graduate students, something for which I remain grateful.
D’Aries, who will become the coordinator of Western Connecticut State University MFA program this fall, introduced me at the MFA event with generous and gracious remarks. (Photo right.) D’Aries offered valuable feedback as I worked on Mr. Clark’s Big Band — published in May 2017 — and workshopped large swaths of the narrative nonfiction work in his classes.
Meanwhile, Braver, my thesis adviser, was instrumental in helping me sculpt and develop my medical memoir into a richer and more reflective work. I am currently developing the memoir.
After completing the creative nonfiction program, I was more than happy to share my thoughts about it for the Bay Path MFA program’s website, where a number of my classmates also weighed in on their experiences.