How to Be True to Both the Living and the Dead in Memoir by Guest David W. Berner

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 AssociationAs 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.

Welcome, David!

Author David W. Berner
Author David W. Berner

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: Twitter: @davidwberner Twitter: @anyroadbook Facebook: Facebook:

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
Genre: Memoir
Publisher: Dream of Things (September 17, 2014)
ASIN: B00NVBMDZ0 / ISBN-10: 0988439093 / ISBN-13: 978-0988439092

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15 thoughts on “How to Be True to Both the Living and the Dead in Memoir by Guest David W. Berner

  1. The question of whether one should allow characters in memoir to read the manuscript is very hotly debated. For some of us, the only choice we have is to write what we remember and let the chips fall where they may. Because the “truth” of what happened has never been dealt with before. When you live in a family where silence and denial have shrouded the truth for years, and you know that you will never get anyone’s permission to write your truth, you have two options… enter into the silence and denial and allow it to continue… or break the silence and hope that healing can occur. I chose the latter. It did affect my relationships. At first it was a complete cutoff with all my surviving siblings. Eventually one sister wanted to establish contact. We now have a more honest relationship with one another than we had before.
    I have written two memoirs. I have to say, the reaction to my first book certainly affected the way I wrote the second. I was much more mindful of my descriptions of people, and included only the aspects that were important to the story. But the silence had already been broken, so it was easier to do that.
    Thank you for opening this important discussion.

    1. Saloma, thanks for your comments. My debate with characters began when I first asked questions about their inclusion. Total shutdown! So, no one will be reading my manuscript. My brothers choose to ignore the truth, and I choose to tell it. Their desire to be “left out of the book” will not keep others from knowing it is their family as I am using my own name and my parents’ names. Like you then, I’m breaking the silence and hoping for healing. Interestingly, in communicating with two of my cousins, they neither one suspected anything was going on. It still amazes me how the truth is so easily hidden. I do appreciate your taking part in this discussion.

      1. Sherrey, isn’t that so true… how easily the truth is hidden. I think that’s partly because people on the outside don’t want to know… they might feel like they have to do something. And there is never so helpless a feeling as knowing that something should be done, but you don’t have the power to change anything. It is in this vein that abuse can continue… and the silence that shrouds it.
        I did not give my family members a choice about whether they would be included… I simply could not tell my story without them. I wish now I would have changed names… I think I would have saved face for some of the people involved. And I would not include some of the things I did in my first book. At the time, it was part of the process of telling my truth, and I didn’t want the reader to think I was holding back. I’ve read memoirs like that, and they frustrate me terribly.
        Thanks to you and David for starting this discussion.

        1. Oh, Saloma, as the middle child and only girl, I always felt I was the one to keep the peace. Only in recent years, and since starting my book, I have I learned that isn’t so. I’ve become stronger in vexing situations and speak my feelings. I suppose that middle child was once more seeking to be the peacemaker before the war started!
          I enjoyed David’s post the first time I read it and was so glad this was our topic. Glad you enjoyed it.

  2. Thank you, Sherrey for featuring David in this provocative and important post.
    Truth-telling is a hot-topic for anyone writing a memoir. I can safely say it was the single most difficult aspect of writing my memoir. I struggled for months with how I would present my truth without intentionally disparaging the people in my life who were key to my story. My biggest concern was my ex-husband and father of my children.I worked very hard to portray him as the “good person with a bad problem” he was. I was careful to include only the scenes that were relevant to my theme.
    Over the years we developed a civil relationship and worked well together in issues related to our two children. But he was a very private person who never admitted to a drinking problem. I sought legal counsel, discussed the issue with my children, prayed, and worried. My children strongly advised me not to alert him to the book. In the end, I felt in my heart I had honored my truth without intentionally disparaging him, letting the facts speak for themselves. I was ready to face any queries. Sadly and suddenly, he died of cirrhosis six weeks after my memoir was published. I was at his bedside along with my children, his wife and family. They knew I had written a memoir, but nobody mentioned it. The truth was in the silence.
    I do agree with Saloma that sometimes full disclosure is not possible because “the truth has never been dealt with before.” Like Saloma, I broke the silence and I may yet pay the price somewhere down the line but I am right with what I wrote. As I write my second memoir, I will continue to be careful about telling my truth without intentionally disparaging anyone.I know I am standing my truth. Thank you both for stimulating this important discussion!

    1. Kathy, good to see you here and I appreciate your comments. As you can see from my response to Saloma’s comments, I too will be breaking the silence. And I feel I have to do that. Now that I’m recovering so well I am anxious to get back to working on my memoir. Not that this has been a fun few months, but I feel like I’ve been “away” from life for too long. My energy is coming back, I feel better than I have in 18 months, and I’m ready to finish that book!

    2. Kathy, you treated your characters with compassion and sensitivity. What a sad coincidence that your former husband died so soon after your memoir was published.
      I don’t think I could have published either of my books before my parents died. I tried… but it was obviously not meant to be.
      I’m wishing you all the best, Kathy.

      1. Thanks for your kind feedback, Saloma. It’s nice to hear from you again! Treating my characters with compassion and sensitivity was what I wanted which means I had to have emotional distance from the story. But I appreciate your statement about not being able to publish your memoirs while your parents were alive. It’s an individual’s decision and we all have to find our own way through the process. Wishing you the best,too.

  3. David, I want to thank you a bit belatedly for this post. As you can see, we have two great commenters with us, and I think we hit on a topic that is of interest to some of our fellow memoir writers. I am looking forward to reading both of your memoirs and would like to feature them in reviews on this site. Perhaps even review them together, even though there is no real connection between the two. So glad WOW! connected us through your tour.

    1. Sherrey, thank you for your kindness. I would be more than happy to have you review my book. Perhaps we should also talk about you writing a guest post for my blog with a subject of your choice.
      I think the connection between Kathy’s memoir and my own is the abuse we had to deal with somehow. Though I think Kathy was more sensitive and careful than I was, at least in my first memoir, this question obviously has brought us together in this discussion.
      Thank you, David, for provoking our thoughts on this subject!

  4. A very succinct post on writing from our own memories. It’s what WE remember, how WE felt about the situations that took place. Agreed on all counts. A very informative post. 🙂

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