Interview: Developing the craft of memoir writing

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World and How to Become a Heroic Writer

In this part of my interview with author David W. Berner, I ask him to comment on developing the craft of writing his memoir, “Accidental Lessons.”

(Read my essay about Accidental Lessons, here.)

Jerry Waxler: Before you wrote Accidental Lessons, you were a newscaster. What sort of writing, did you do for your work?

David W. Berner: A big part of my journalism background was a radio news anchor and a reporter. I was fortunate enough to have won some awards and was more well known through my reporting work than anchoring. My editors always told me I could paint the best mind-pictures. I used that as a jumping off point for my writing. But it didn’t come easily. I had to work at it. I got a D in English Composition my freshman year of college. I hope I’ve improved.

Most of the writing was Associated Press style broadcast writing, but I eventually began to put more of my own, personal observations in my work. Not opinion, but more description. I stayed with a simple style, and I ALWAYS read my manuscripts out loud when I edited. Not only because I came from the audio work, but because I think writing should move like music, there should be a rhythm, and you can’t tell if you’re producing that unless you read it aloud.

Jerry Waxler: What parts of your previous writing skill and experience helped you in your memoir writing effort?

David W. Berner: Well, as I said before, I had to work a bit on sensory language and internal dialogue. But broadcast writing is about getting to the point; it’s not flowery. It’s also about pulling it together quickly. My editor on Accidental Lessons could not believe I was able to do my rewrites so quickly. My experience with deadline pressure came in handy. So many of our best writers came from journalism — the most famous, of course, was Hemingway and he built an entire career on simple, direct language; short sentences that were rarely flowery or rambling.

Jerry Waxler: When finding the voice of a memoirist, how much did you have to unlearn or adjust from your previous writing style?

David W. Berner: Biggest thing was allowing my senses to come through in the work. Taking the time in print to find the small details of a moment. In broadcast writing, you don’t always have the time to do this, and when you want to do it, you have to think of simple ways to make it work. You can’t take a paragraph to describe a car crash. So word choice was crucial in broadcast. In print, you can take a little more space to flush out that detail. I had to work at that. But when I got it, I loved how it flowed. I think I’m much better at it now, but always working to improve it.

Jerry Waxler: What sort of research, workshops, or reading about memoir writing helped you shape your ideas about writing it.

David W. Berner: I’ll give you a long list of wonderful books. But first, I must again give Thomas E. Kennedy tons of writer love. He was essential in helping me find my voice, and tell my story. Not enough can be said about his input.

Here’s a list of books I found invaluable and still do. Some of them I’m sure many memoirists are familiar with and have used to help their own work.

1.    Writing Begins with the Breath: Embodying Your Authentic Voice
Loraine Herring, Publisher: Shambhala

2.    Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
Anne Lamott, Publisher: Anchor

3.    The Writing Life
Annie Dillard, Publisher: Harper Perennial

4.    Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writer’s Guide
Mark Kramer and Wendy Call, Publisher: Plume

5.    Shimmering Images: A Handy Little Guide to Writing Memoir
Lisa Dale North, Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin

6.    Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir
Russell Baker, Publisher: Mariner Books

7.    Ernest Hemingway on Writing
Editor: Larry W. Phillips, Publisher: Scribner

8.    The Spooky Art: Thoughts on Writing
Norman Mailer, Publisher: Random House

Jerry Waxler: What sort of editing or feedback from beta readers or critique partners helped you pull the book together?

David W. Berner: That was a huge part of my MFA program at FDU. (Fairleigh-Dickenson University) I wouldn’t only get feedback from Thomas, but also from fellow students in the creative nonfiction program – extremely talented people. There were even a few poetry students that read my work, giving me great perspective on the creative use of language. But I also have to say that my ex-wife — (I hate that word, ex-wife) — was wonderfully perceptive about story. She had some on-the-money comments about structure in some of the small scenes she read along the way in the writing process.

But I must caution: as a writer you cannot take every piece of advice as a reason to act. Ultimately, YOU have to decide how to proceed with your story. If I had made all the adjustments to my manuscript that had been suggested to me, it would not have been my story in the end. It would have been theirs. But, I must credit Thomas again. My original first chapter became the fourth chapter and the first chapter was originally somewhere else in the first third of the manuscript. I thought that change was crucial to the storytelling.

Notes

David W. Berner’s Home Page

Information about the MFA program at Fairleigh Dickinson University

Three Part Interview with Author David W. Berner
Interview Part 1
Interview Part 2
Interview Part 3
The author of the memoir Accidental Lessons answers questions about the craft and experience of writing the book.

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

2 thoughts on “Interview: Developing the craft of memoir writing

  1. I especially appreciate David’s thoughts about writing “moving like music.” I too read my work aloud. In school I was taught that “listening” to the words as I read was “immature” and slowed me down. We were pushed toward speed reading. Bosh! I love reading slowly and “hearing” the words. I savor great writing, sometimes reading passages several times just for the pure delight of the sound.

    Jerry, I’m surprised you don’t have any of William Zinsser’s books on your list. On Writing Well is super, along with Writing About Your Life, and Writing Places.

  2. Neat, thanks for the tip Sharon. I’ve been hearing Zinsser’s name for years as one of the great teachers of the genre. For now, my obsession is reading memoirs, but every once in a while I take a break from the memoirs and read about writing, and always learn something. I will finally get him on my list.

    Jerry

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