by Jerry Waxler
David W. Berner, author of the memoir “Accidental Lessons” should have been satisfied with his successful career as a newscaster. Instead he hated chasing the latest sensational story in order to increase ratings. His distaste for his work infected his marriage. His wife couldn’t stand living in the shadow of this hollow man and so, they parted.
The memoir “Accidental Lessons” begins with the demolition of David W. Berner’s life and for the rest of the book, he builds himself up. He goes back to school to earn teaching credentials and he takes a job in a public high school. As a beginning teacher, he makes freshman mistakes with students, and when he tries to date a young woman, he behaves like an amateur there, too.
Can a beginner be a hero?
When I read a thriller, I expect the hero to know exactly what to do. However, I enjoy memoirs for the opposite reason. The protagonists of most memoirs are beginners whose journey is paved with mistakes. That’s the case in Coming of Age stories which are, by definition, about beginners. Children in blockbusters like Jeanette Walls in “Glass Castle” must make the journey from helplessness to adulthood. Readers cheer her, not because of her expertise, but because of her vulnerability.
Children are not the only beginners. Adults often find themselves starting over. Will readers cheer for older beginners, the way they do for young ones? David Berner’s memoir suggests that the answer is “yes.” His place at the bottom of the totem pole contrasts sharply with his success in broadcasting. And yet, as he bumbles along, trying to figure out how to make a positive impact on these kids, it is easy for me to cheer him on. I turn the pages, thinking, “Please grow.” “Please learn.”
In your own memoir, you might cringe at the mistakes and frustrations of starting over. Rediscovering these periods also highlights your courage. Write about a situation in your life that pushed you out of your comfort zone and forced you to take a new approach.
All memoir writers expose situations and emotions that most people keep hidden. We writers must learn new language arts. And we have to overcome reluctance and press on with tenacity. To get in touch with your vulnerability and courage, write a scene that shows you overcoming some emotional obstacle on your writing journey.
Second Coming of Age
At the beginning of the 21st century, more of us stay active well past the traditional retirement years. So how do we find meaning during our extended years? Stories like “Accidental Lessons” are perfect demonstrations of how such a “second act” can succeed.
David Berner’s new career is not just about regaining his earning power. In order to feel good about himself he needs to help young people feel good about themselves. He needs these kids as much as they need him. And even though as a new teacher he doesn’t know all the procedures of his position, he knows enough about life and love.
Through the memoir, he shows his sometimes-clumsy attempt to let his students understand he cares about them. In some cases his effort pays off, providing support to the kids and meaning to the teacher. I find the book to be a wonderful exploration of one man’s effort to create a more worthwhile life than the one he constructed the first time.
Teachers serve kids (and readers) in exchange for a sense of purpose
I love the fact that David Berner finds meaning through teaching. This is the third inspiring high-school teaching book I’ve read. The first two were “Teacher Man,” by Frank McCourt, and “Freedom Writer’s Diary” by Erin Gruell. In each of these books, an adult pours out information and support in the hope that children will grow. In exchange for their effort, they achieve their own sense of purpose.
Each of these teachers then wrested stories from their mundane experiences. By turning life into story, they created additional social value from their effort. I didn’t have to leave my home in order to vicariously experience their sense of purpose and uplift, and to learn more about my own years in a classroom, through the eyes of a teacher.
In the external world, David Berner traded in a glitzy career for an incredibly unglamorous one. However, inside himself and inside the kids, beautiful things were happening. Just as he filled himself up with his journey, by sharing it, he filled me up too.
What sorts of other new skills or crafts do you want to learn, “before it is too late”? Write a scene in which you are taking steps to achieve those goals.
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.