Today my guest is David W. Berner, author of Any Road Will Take You There: A Journey of Fathers and Sons, recipient of a Book of the Year Award from the Chicago Writers Association. As part of his WOW! Women on Writing blog tour, David shares his thoughts on how to be true to both the living and the dead when writing memoir. Join us in the comment section to share your own thoughts on this topic.
There’s an exchange in my memoir Any Road Will Take You There between my father and me as we sit at my kitchen table late one night. My young child, my first, and their mother are in bed. The two of us are alone drinking bottles of beer and talking about my new role, fatherhood. It’s a key scene in the book. Still, no one else but the two of us could have remembered that conversation.
I wrote about that moment after my father had died. So, I had to recall a decade old dialogue the best I could and rely on only my shaky memory. I didn’t expect to recall our exact conversation, of course, and honestly didn’t need to, but I was determined to write about that night in the truest, most authentic way. I wanted to capture the essence of that evening. Of course I had only my own recollections. But is that fair? Doesn’t Dad have a say here? And how could he have a say now?
There is no other way to a write a personal story than to tell it like it is. But what if you can’t run the details by someone, check the facts? First of all, you are not writing journalism, but you do want to recreate the spirit of the truth. Be honest with your story, honest with what you remember, and even if others have passed on and you can’t verify, try to step away to consider other perspectives. I truly believe the reader will know when you are not being honest with yourself, and ultimately will sense when you are not being honest or mindful of how another may have remembered that moment, incident, or conversation.
And what about the living?
In my first memoir, Accidental Lessons, there are several scenes with my ex-wife. First, I must tell you, the two of us are good friends. It is far from the stereotypical friction laden relationship of former spouses. Despite this, my publisher insisted on signed releases from everyone mentioned in the book. When I presented the release to my former wife, this is what she said: I’ll agree with one condition. When it’s made into a movie, Susan Sarandon plays me.
Just for the record, no movie deal yet and nothing in writing from Susan.
In general, I believed everything I wrote about my ex-wife was quite flattering. It wasn’t that I necessarily set out to write all great things about her, it’s just that what was needed for the narrative, her part of it, did not need to be about the times of our lives that were entangled in disagreement. So, when she read the manuscript, she had little problem with any of it. Was it true? Yes. I needed to reveal only what was needed.
But what do you do when someone you write about is absolutely appalled by what you plan to publish or is outright angry about your words? Maybe their version of the same incident is much different in their eyes, and this creates serious tension, risking the relationship with that individual.
If possible, let all those who are main subjects in the story read your manuscript. Prepare them for what you have written; let them know it may not be easy to read and that you are writing about difficult matters. Then, allow them to tell you exactly what they think, to point out errors, minor or major, and permit them to suggest changes. And if possible, ask them to write down their version of the scene or incident in question. Our truths are completely our own. They are no one else’s, and you must be true to your story. But permitting input from others can help you understand their truth, and some version of their story might actually be very good material to add to a redraft. It could, and many times will make your story better.
In the end, the narrative is your responsibility and you alone should decide whether or not to include others’ suggestions, thoughts, or versions. In the end, no matter what, the story you have written is yours. Keep it yours.
Get to Know David Berner:
David W. Berner–the award winning author of Accidental Lessons and Any Road Will Take You There–was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where he began his work as a broadcast journalist and writer. He moved to Chicago to work as a radio reporter and news anchor for CBS Radio and later pursue a career as a writer and educator. His book Accidental Lessons is about his year teaching in one of the Chicago area’s most troubled school districts. The book won the Golden Dragonfly Grand Prize for Literature and has been called a “beautiful, elegantly written book” by award-winning author Thomas E. Kennedy, and “a terrific memoir” by Rick Kogan (Chicago Tribune and WGN Radio). Any Road Will Take You There is the author’s story of a 5000-mile road trip with his sons and the revelations of fatherhood. The memoir has been called “heartwarming and heartbreaking” and “a five-star wonderful read.”
David can be found online at:
Website: www.davidwberner.com Twitter: @davidwberner Twitter: @anyroadbook Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/David-W-Berner-Writer/190345939480 Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/david.w.berner
A Brief Look at David’s Memoir:
Any Road Will Take You There: A Journey of Fathers and SonsAny Road Will Take You There: A Journey of Fathers and Sons is a heartwarming and heartbreaking story told with humor and grace, revealing the generational struggles and triumphs of being a dad, and the beautiful but imperfect ties that connect all of us.
Recipient of a Book of the Year Award from the Chicago Writers Association, Any Road Will Take You There is honest, unflinching, and tender.
In the tradition of the Great American Memoir, a middle-age father takes the reader on a five-thousand-mile road trip–the one he always wished he’d taken as a young man. Recently divorced and uncertain of the future, he rereads the iconic road story–Jack Kerouac’s On the Road–and along with his two sons and his best friend, heads for the highway to rekindle his spirit.
However, a family secret turns the cross-country journey into an unexpected examination of his role as a father, and compels him to look to the past and the fathers who came before him to find contentment and clarity, and celebrate the struggles and triumphs of being a dad.
Paperback: 242 Pages
Publisher: Dream of Things (September 17, 2014)
ASIN: B00NVBMDZ0 / ISBN-10: 0988439093 / ISBN-13: 978-0988439092
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