by Jerry Waxler
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.
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.
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.
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