by Jerry Waxler
Author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World and How to Become a Heroic Writer
In this final section of our interview, I ask David W. Berner to share more about writing his memoir, “Accidental Lessons.” Questions in this part of the interview dig in to the choices he made when constructing the book.
(Read my essay about Accidental Lessons, here.)
Beginning of the memoir
Jerry Waxler: In my experience, one of the hardest parts of finishing a memoir is to review the structure and decide exactly how to begin, so I am always curious about the way authors start their stories. I find yours especially intriguing. You start with the breakup of your marriage, and then you backfill, providing the back-story through reflection. I like the way the book is structured, and I’m trying to understand what made you pick this beginning. If it was me, I would have been tempted to start the book while you were still a newscaster, and then show how that world began to fall apart.
So how did you arrive at the particular structure that you published? What other ways did you consider? Help me understand your experience of wrestling with this structure. Was it daunting to pick one, and not do the others? If so, how did you come to peace with that decision?
David Berner: My first couple drafts were far more linear in nature – this happened, then that, then that. Frankly, that sort of story structure bores me a bit. Life is not linear. Sure, the clock ticks away in one direction, but during that time we all reflect, stop and think, try to recreate old times and invent new times. At the risk of sounding too existential, I wonder if there were no such thing as a clock, time as we know it, would life be linear?
As mentioned before, my original first chapter was not the first chapter that ended up in the book. So I did play around with different ways to let the story unfold. But essentially, the structure was based around the school year, so starting with a startling moment in that school seemed natural.
Although I played around with the structure a bit, I did not consider major, 180-degree flips in the storyline. Frankly, you can make yourself crazy as a writer considering what you could do, or should do, or could try. Sure, adjustments, many times big ones have to be made. But fixing, adjusting, editing, shaping will become a never-ending ritual if you let it. At some point you have to say – this is it, this is what I’m going with, this seems to get the job done. Trust it and believe in it.
Ending of the memir
Jerry Waxler: I love the way the school year provides you with a natural frame of reference that can help you tell the story, and helps me read it. How did you choose this framework, and how did you decide where to end it?
David W. Berner: The structure seemed a natural to me. The school year framed the story and acted as a bookend, you might say. I had that in mind all along. It’s just that I wanted the all-important reflection to come within that framework, not be somehow transported out of it. I also think because the story is not completely linear, that framework of the school year helps the reader stay on track.
Through every draft, the ending was always the ending. That email that is tacked on my wall, the one I reference in the epilogue of the book, is still there above my desk. It reminds me daily of that very special year and those students, and renews my commitment to teaching every time it gets shaky, and yes, there are times it gets quite shaky. I hope the reader would finish the book with the belief that although our past may be gone through the passage of time, it has left an indelible mark, a branding on all of us. And we should not dismiss it even when it’s painful or troubling; we should embrace it, use it to our advantage, and savor it until it becomes a memory that can be used as fuel to move us along in our lives. My mother always used to say, “It’s not what happens to you, it is how you deal with what happens to you.” I think that message comes through in Accidental Lessons.
Jerry Waxler: What are you writing next?
David Berner: I’m the Writer-in-Residence at the Jack Kerouac Project in Orlando this summer, and absolutely honored and humbled to have been awarded this time at Kerouac’s old apartment in the College Park neighborhood. The room where I’m writing is Jack’s old room. Maybe you don’t believe in these sorts of things, but there’s an energy in that room I hope I can bottle. It’s where he wrote The Dharma Bums, a book like all his others that was creative nonfiction before there was creative nonfiction. His work was always autobiographical, a memoir hybrid, I might call it. I’m hoping to complete a first draft and begin a second on another memoir while I’m here, this one based on a road trip I took with my sons. It’s really a father-son story, reflecting on all the men who came before me in that long line of fatherhood and how what they did well, and not so well, resonates in the generational DNA.
Click here for information about the Jack Kerouac Project
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.