On Writing a Memoir: Interview with Author David W. Berner

by Jerry Waxler

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

David W. Berner changed directions in mid-life, and became a teacher. Then he wrote a memoir “Accidental Lessons” about how his second chance gave him a deeper appreciation for life than his first. The book is an important one for anyone who is attempting to reinvent themselves in order to keep up with changes in external circumstances or in their own goals. This is part one in my interview with him about writing the memoir.

(Read my essay about Accidental Lessons, here.)

Jerry Waxler: In Accidental Lessons, you were starting a new career and you were single for the first time in many years. In addition to being hurled back to the beginning of relationships and career, you are entering the early side of aging. For example, when looking to date, you had to come to terms with the problem that you were no longer such a young, vibrantly sexy man. At what point during these tumultuous changes did you decide to write a book about it? What motivated you to share these vulnerable aspects of your life with the public?

David Berner: I had been kicking around book ideas for a long time. As a journalist, I had been telling a lot of other people’s stories, but in recent years had been doing a good bit of immersion journalism and writing from the — I — perspective. I had written some essays and personal memoir pieces that had been published in a few small literary journals, but a book was a bigger project than I ever considered before. And since my journalism background made it difficult for me to “make things up” — I figured the best way to get a book done was to tell something of myself. But I had in no way planned on revealing the story of my year in the troubled school outside Chicago. Not until my sons encouraged it.

Each day I would return home from the classroom with stories, the kinds of stories my two sons — middle school and elementary — had never heard before: students talking openly about sex in class, and using the “F” word in every other sentence in front of the teachers. Most shocking, and interesting to them, were the students’ personal stories of their dysfunctional families, gang influences, and drugs. “Dad,” they said, “are you writing this down?” I hadn’t until then.

It was a month into my teaching assignment, one I had secured through a scholarship program that would allow me to get my Masters in Education degree as long as I agreed to work in a troubled-school for a period of time, so I had to catch up on some notes. But from there on out, for the entire year, I kept a journal. Some notes were quite detailed, some cryptic, but enough for me to remember the daily experiences. My journal entries included the facts, but they also included how I felt, what touched me, worried me, concerned me, the stuff below the skin where the emotions are raw.

If I was going to write an honest memoir about this experience, I better be honest about it all, every bit. The reader can spot a fake. Hemingway said a writer has to be a very good “shit detector.” Be authentic and the reader will connect. I was determined to do that. Besides my sons, the strongest motivator for me to tell the true story of my feelings and experiences was the desire to be a good, honest writer. To me, there was no other way to take on this project.

Jerry Waxler: It takes time to put together a whole story about your life, and along the way, there are unlimited number of opportunities to shrink back from the task, put it away in your drawer, and just consider it a good writing exercise. What sorts of internal discussions or external supports kept you pressing through the effort, to keep you going to the end?

David Berner: My sons were my motivators. They would ask me regularly, “How’s it going? What did you write about today?” I couldn’t disappoint them. And also, I knew from my journalism work that you had to set deadlines for yourself and you had to make time for writing, like going to the gym. Not just write when you felt like it, or when you had some time. You had to get up in the early morning, go out to a quiet coffee shop, sneak into a corner and write for hours. I did that a few days a week and every weekend, Saturday and Sunday mornings, for years.

When I entered my MFA program at Fairleigh Dickinson University, I had a third draft of a manuscript. Then the real work started and I a met my new motivator – Thomas E. Kennedy, an incredibly talented author. His most recent work of fiction is In the Company of Angels He was kind, honest, and relentless about getting me to really dig into using sensory language. I could tell a story — again, my journalism background — but I would miss opportunities to bring my senses into the deep introspective moments in the manuscript. He got me to go there. And as all memoirists know, the personal reflection on your story is as important as the story itself, if not more so. He encouraged me, told me I had a good story to tell, and believed I had the skills to tell it well. I can’t stress enough to writers of memoir that finding a mentor, someone who believes you have something vital to say, is absolutely essential. Self-doubt will creep in; it’s inevitable. But it shouldn’t stop you. Never.

Notes

David W. Berner’s Home Page

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.

Two Types of Trainings in Your Memoir

by Jerry Waxler

In a famous scene from Star Wars, when warrior Luke Skywalker was learning how to fight, his mentor told him to close his eyes and “feel the force.” The training was a crucial step in the young man’s journey and a perfect demonstration that heroes need to learn skills in order to succeed.

To see how this applies to memoir writing, consider the brilliant, detailed treatment of training and mentors in Andre Agassi’s memoir, “Open.” To become proficient as a tennis champ, Agassi relied heavily on sport trainers. In his description of his training, Agassi offers us a bonus, demonstrating the distinction between two fundamental types of training. One type could be called “fight training” relevant for battle. In his case, the battle was tennis. The other form of training was his ordinary schooling, which was supposed to teach him how to live in peacetime, if he had stuck with it. His struggle to balance these two types of training became a key dramatic tension in his memoir.

Tension between School and Sports

As a teenager, Agassi was sent away to live in a special high school for aspiring tennis champions. He only attended ordinary classes for a few hours a day and the rest of the time he practiced to become a fighting machine on the tennis court. He hated the mundane schoolwork and pressured his trainer to let him drop out. After Agassi quit, he became even more immersed in tennis. He listened to his coaches and worked hard, constantly striving to succeed.

His progress, at first glance, seems like a perfect model for a successful life: study, challenge yourself to get ahead, and rise to the top of your field. Despite Agassi’s success on the tennis court, he had the nagging regret that he had missed one of the foundations of being a human being. His lack of general education did not interfere with his ability to earn a living but it gradually revealed itself as a missing piece in his heart. When he began to search for fulfillment off the tennis court, he tried to fill in this piece, not by going back to school himself but by building a school that would give this opportunity to others.

Writing Prompt

Write about your own two types of training. Consider the type of training that prepared you for battle. Perhaps you were a soldier and you really did have weapons training, or an athlete, a violinist, or any other skill that you used to make your way in the world. Show scenes of the warrior training, including classrooms, coaching sessions, discussions with mentors.

If you can’t think of any obvious “warrior training” loosen your definition and use metaphors to search for your warrior side. For example, if you went to business school or fashion school, imagine it prepared you to go forth to do battle in your career. If you engaged in social activism, or fighting against poverty or ignorance, what training helped you fight these “battles”? If you engaged in sports for fun, write a scene of those competitive situations to see what warlike aspects of yourself you can reveal. Or perhaps your warrior nature is expressed in board and computer games. Such activities are inherently competitive. You win, they lose. Write a scene about these skills and activities, to see if they can reveal more about that aspect of your experience.

In the peacetime type of training, how did you learn to live with people, socially, understanding your culture, your home and hobbies, and the less competitive aspects of life. What lesson or experience gave you the wisdom to be smarter about just being yourself? What mentors, beliefs, books, or classrooms helped you become a wiser person, easier to live with, more helpful to your community, family, and friends?

When and how did you feel torn between the practical form of training and the more general, peaceful one? Which aspect was over-accentuated, and which under?

When have you passed the training along, paying it forward, or returning to your community to share your learning with others?

Note
Another example of the way training can change lives, is, The Pact by Sampson Davis, George Jenkins, Rameck Hunt in which three boys in the ghettoes of north New Jersey band together to overcome their environment and became doctors.

Note

This is part of a multi-part essay about Andre Agassi’s memoir “Open.”

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.