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Wednesday, August 1, 2018

The Dog in Books

Been thinking a good deal about dogs in literature. I'm writing a blog these days, one I hope will turn into a book in the future, about walking your dog—for the good of the dog and for me. The bigger theme is the joy of a good walk and how a good dog opens up the mind to reexamine. reevaluate, renew.

John Steinbeck with "Charley" from  Travels with Charley

Dogs in books. Ah, there are so many and such memorable ones. There's Toto of The Wizard of Oz, and Clifford of the Children's books, and Snoopy. Buck from The Call of the Wild is as famous as they get. There's Fang from the Harry Potter seriesArgos from The Odyssey, and Old Yeller. Cujo and Jip from David Copperfield. Every single dog in The One Hundred and One Dalmatians. There's Marley and Lassie and Charley, John Steinbeck's traveling dog.

These lists of dogs in books are easy to find; they are all over the internet. What interests me most are not the many lists, not the fact that dogs can be such great characters in literature, but rather that they are such important ones, one to which we are inevitably drawn. 

Humans have a long history with wolves, the dog's ancestral predecessor. In pre-historic times, man kept a few around for protection and they were relatively trainable for hunting. In time, wolves became tamer and turned into the dogs we now know. But why do we keep them around? They cost a lot. They take up a great deal of time. Maybe it's that they just make us feel good. But why?

Some scientists suggest we keep pets, have dogs, because it's cultural. Others do, so we do. But other experts say our love affair with dogs comes from being social creatures. Humans are constantly seeking relationships with others and that also means a relationship with animals. Dogs happen to be the most amenable. We can share our stories with dogs; they can share theirs with us in their own way. We carry on through life together, as friends. And we crave this relationship, just as we do with other humans. Social we are. Social we will always be. And dogs live in the same dynamic.

Sam of "Walks With Sam"
Sharing stories. That's why we love dogs in books. They help further a theme, twist a plot, create emotion, build a narrative. Not only in literature but in our real lives, too.  

I urge you to follow my own dog stories @walkswithsam and the blog Walks With Sam

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Something I Thought I'd Never Do

I've written creative nonfiction, journalism, fiction, and memoir. When it's all said and done, and if I had to label myself, I guess I would call myself a memoirist. But even that is not quite right. Must I label myself? 

Maybe naming what I am can help me keep my work in perspective, give it some parameters. But even with that said, I read experimental works like the book I'm reading now—Rising Tide Fall Star by Philip Hoare. There is no easy way to categorize this work. It's part fiction, part memoir, part journalism, part diary. It's as if the author is writing what simply comes to him through his heart and soul, and labels are just ridiculous constructs, bins bookstores need to keep the place organized. 

This is on my mind today because I am now writing, simultaneously, a work of fiction and a series of personal essays on the exact same subject, with the same characters, with the same theme, same premise, same...everything. Well, nearly. The fiction is, yes, fiction. Not every detail or movement in the story is fact, but it is based on relative truth. It feels a bit like a writing exercise, the prompt of a professor to try writing a personal essay then writing the same story as a work of fiction. The student is to learn something from this. I'm not sure I am. 

But what I am learning, slowly, is how to make this "story" the most impactful it can be. Is it best told as fiction or is it best told as fact? Not journalism, but the essence of truth, the kind of thing Joan Didion spoke about.  From an interview in the Paris Review, Didion talked about how different the genres are for a writer who works in both.

"Writing nonfiction is more like sculpture, a matter of shaping the research into the finished thing. Novels are like paintings, specifically watercolors. Every stroke you put down you have to go with. Of course you can rewrite, but the original strokes are still there in the texture of the thing."

Every word, sentence in the fiction will always be there, underneath the rewrites. The personal essays are less layered. However, unlike the fiction, they evolve into what it is I'm writing to say only as I write. 

Another Didion-ism, one many of us know...

“I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”

The theme only reveals itself through the work of writing. This is true, to some extent, as I write fiction, but it is absolutely the case when I write the personal essay. I have no idea what I'm feeling about the piece before I write it. In fiction, I know where I'm going but really have no idea how to get there. It's like driving without Google Maps. In fact, no map at all. Even the old paper ones we'd buy at the gas station. 

I've never done this before, writing the same story, essentially, from the perspective of two different genres. But like Philip Hoare's work, I wonder, in the end, if it matters. Someone is going to label what it is I've written, someone will decide if it's the fiction or the essays that get the job done, or if these pieces say something meaningful at all. But for the writer, I wonder, is that our job? Determining what will be "impactful?" Isn't our job just to write what we think is the truest way to say what we want? Whether that be fiction or nonfiction, poems or prose, doesn't really matter, does it? 

I'm going to keep writing both, at the same time, and the answers to those questions will reveal themselves in time, I suspect. Like Didion, I'm going to find out what I think.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Audiobooks and the Sound of My Father's Voice

Even now with Father's Day in the rearview mirror, my dad remains on my mind. He pops up there most days in some fashion—in the ninth inning of a Cubs game, when his and my beloved Steelers play, when the final round of the U.S. Open is underway on Dad's Day, as it always is. When I run the mower on the lawn, Dad invariably comes to me. He taught me to cut the grass in strips, back and forth, and then the next time to go the opposite way. "It helps the grass grow better," he said. Don't know if that's really true, but I do it anyway. Always have. 

This Father's Day, my younger son Graham wanted to make me something in his wood shop. My father's DNA was passed to him. Dad was good with his hands. He made furniture and was once, when he was a young man, a carpenter who worked building homes. Graham makes wooden pens, bottle openers, wine bottle stoppers, and men's hand razors. That's what he wanted to make me, a razor of rosewood, and he wanted to do it with me there as he turned the wood on his lathe. He even let me try it. "I want it to be something we made together," he said. 

Left to right: My father, my great grandfather,
my grandfather, and me as a boy. 
Watching Graham work, I could see my father standing there, smiling. He would have been over the moon to have seen his grandson working with his hands, sawdust flying, crafting wood into a work of art. I could hear his voice, saying, "Graham, that is beautiful work." 

I miss my father. And the one thing I miss most is his voice, hearing him laugh, tell a joke, teach me something about lawn care, groan at the television as the leader at the U.S. Open misses a birdie putt. 

A couple of weeks ago, I was reading about how author Michael Lewis will be offering some of his work through Audible only—audiobook only. Not print. No book. No ebook. Voice only. There was some criticism of this approach. Authors scolded him for abandoning the printed word. I think that's a bit harsh. He's only celebrating a new delivery platform. Nothing wrong with that. Audiobooks still lag far behind print or even ebooks. But it's really not about the sales aspect, I believe. It's about the voice. 

Storytelling began with tales told through speech, not print, not pantings on cave walls, but with verbal communication, not formal language as we know it, but rather grunts or snarls. Still, the stories were communicated through the human voice, and there is no reason why that process, through the modern-day audiobook, shouldn't be continued and celebrated. I'm considering a new project in a year or so that may be offered as an audiobook only because I believe in the human voice—its nuanced tellings, its emotional shades of expression—delicate story elements that could never be duplicated in print. 

Working on audiobook of the book of essays
There's a Hamster in the Dashboard
What I would give to hear the voice of my father tell a story, his expressive baritone working its way through setting, dialogue, character building. My father was a good storyteller. He was part Irish, so that my have something to do with it, right? But Irish or not, the human voice gives us something we could never experience in print. Yes, I love reading. I love writing. I love beautiful prose. But telling a story, voice only, may be the most primal, and at the same time, the most natural way of sharing our stories. 

I think Dad would agree


Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Father's Day Book Giveaway!

GIVEAWAY IS OVER. Winners are being notified. Thank you for entering! 

* * * 

A Well-Respected Man is celebrating FATHER'S DAY. And you can, too. 

We are giving away the novel by award-winning author David W. Berner through his blog -- where you are right now -- in an online raffle. Five gifted KINDLE Editions and THREE print editions (softcover) are up for grabs. This means EIGHT WINNERS selected randomly. FREE to enter. Deadline: June 18, 2018, 11:59pm.

Reviews: "Absorbing.” - Midwest Review of Books
                 "Masterful." - The Jack Kerouac Project
                 "Thought-provoking." - The Hemingway Foundation 

Here's how to enter.

In the email listed below, enter your FULL NAME, FULL ADDRESS, and the EMAIL where you would like the KINDLE EDITION sent electronically if you win. Print winners will have their copies mailed to the address given.


Send all giveaway entries to this email address:

Winners will be chosen randomly and will be notified June 19, 2018 by email. Entries received after 11:59PM June 18, 2018 will be deemed ineligible. Decisions are final.

Good luck! And happy Father's Day!


A WELL-RESPECTED MAN: A novel  (Strategic Publishing, Release: 4/5/18)

Chicago Professor Martin Gregory is the author of a critically acclaimed novel of love and longing, a cult favorite among women. The book brings him unexpected status and prestige, but also unwelcome fame.
A love affair with one of his students derails his career and breaks his heart. Coming to terms with a life knocked off balance, Martin retreats to a quiet English village, only to be confronted at his flat by a mystery woman with an unexpected message and an implausible request, one that could alter his life forever.
A cross-country train trip, a visit to his father's grave, and a re-examination of a deep loss will eventually reveal either Martin's greatest character or unearth his most heartbreaking flaw.
A Well-Respected Man is about the hard choices we make to find fulfillment, and the search to discover meaning in both the life we choose and the one thrust upon us.
"Thought-provoking ... a story of how love never goes away." - Nancy W. Sindelar, Ernest Hemingway Foundation of Oak Park, Illinois
"Award-winning author David W. Berner intertwines complex timelines in effortless fashion while creating characters of great depth. Typical of Berner's work, the reader is left to contemplate life's toughest decisions. A Well-Respected Man is a must read!" - Geralyn Hessalu Magrady, author of Lines
David W. Berner is the recipient of the Chicago Writers Association Award, the Royal Dragonfly Book Award, and has been short-listed for the Eric Hoffer Grand Prize. He has been honored as the writer-in-residence at the Ernest Hemingway Birthplace Home in Oak Park, Illinois, and at the Jack Kerouac Project in Orlando, Florida.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

When the Light Shines: Hemingway Shorts

Writing is communal, despite what they say about it being a lonely art. Yes, you can keep a personal journal and you can write in a secret diary, and these can be wonderful things. But being a writer is about getting your work read. Putting your work out there to share with the world. This is what art is about, the communal emotions born from the human condition. Painters need eyes. Writers need readers.

So, when the Hemingway Foundation of Oak Park called for submissions to its annual Hemingway Shorts publication, that is what we had in mind. Writers sharing. And that's what we got. Some 200 submissions were taken. And at the end of a long, tedious, sometimes difficult process, eleven pieces were chosen for publication. One, and only one, was the winner, a beautiful story by Veryan Williams-Wynn entitled The Empty Chair. Veryan is from Devon, England and she signifies the great reach of our submissions. 

She, like so many others, shared the work. And we thank you for the courage, for it certainly takes courage to offer your work to the world, shining a light on wonderful stories. 


The Hemingway Shorts, Volume 3 is available HERE.

Those who were chosen for publication are listed below:

Runner-Up: Everything That’s Something Must Come From Chicago by Jennifer Sears 

Finalists: (in no particular order)

Bairro Portugues by Sharon Willdin 

Last To Leave by Lisa Ferranti 
The Most Wonderful Time of the Year by Genevieve K. Waller
The Crossing Guard by Floyd Sullivan T
The Canalways of Kerala by David Alan Peizer 
Analisa’s Letter by Dottie Sines 
Intention by Melanie Haney 
Bomb Threat by Gregory Joseph Imhoff 
Chardonnay by Rob Vogt

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Review: The Vines We Planted

I always thought it would be fun to pair wine with a great work of literature— a robust cabernet when reading Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, a peppery tempranillo with Don Quixote, or a buttery chardonnay with Madame Bovary. Certainly one should be sipping on a pinot noir when gulping through the pages of the hit novel Sideways, the book about of two friends who head out for one last trip to wine country before one of them marries. 

I consider this again after reading the new novel The Vines We Planted by Joanell Serra, a complex family saga touching on a number of themes—loss, redemption, forgiveness, marriage, immigration, love, adoption, mystery, and yes, wine. Plenty of wine. Like an old vine wine, the story has deep roots, taking place in California’s wine country where generations have tended to a family vineyard. But where family also means complicated realities, secrets, heartbreak, and courage to face tough truths about mysterious relationships.

Along with wine, there are also horses. And I don’t say this flippantly. Some of the most beautiful passages in this story center around the Macon family’s young widower, Uriel and his love of horses, the peace and comfort he receives from caring for them. In the first pages of the book, Serra writes, Uriel understood how to coax an angry stallion back to his stall, when to let a horse run hard, and when to rein it in. He knew never to turn his back on a horse or put himself in the path of its temper.” These words come to define much more than the character’s relationship with horses.

Serra weaves a number of storylines into a larger narrative about how we face our challenges and learn to overcome them. Sometimes taking in all the themes makes for a dense read, but when is family not complicated? The layers of any family run long and deep. The Vines We Planted captures that reality. 

So, what wine should one be drinking when reading The Vines We Planted?


The wine has an array of flavor profiles—grapefruit, raspberry, peach, to name a few. And the range of colors includes mango, cantaloupe, and melon, among others. The assortment of possibilities with rosé is like the scope of storylines in The Vines We Planted—complex, but highly drinkable, a book, like the wine, that one can savor.  
THE VINES WE PLANTED, by Joanell Serra
WiDo Publishing (May 8, 2018)

Friday, April 27, 2018

The Muse of Music

I recently read a piece at Literary Hub about the influence Van Morrison's album Astral Weeks has had on writers. It's a tremendous record. Morrison's best, in my opinion. Songs on that album make me cry, make me think. The classic from 1968 is hard to pin down, however. It's an album with a lot of themes running through it. But all together, it's a masterpiece.

Certainly music plays a part in writing. Writers will often name great songwriters as inspiration. Dylan, for one. Even before the Nobel Prize for Literature. Springsteen, John Lennon, Joni Mitchell, Kurt Cobain—to name just a few. Jason Isbell is a tremendous lyricist. Listening to the music of Iron and Wine is guaranteed to trigger a bout of writing. But there are also the songs without lyrics that can spark creativity.

It may be a bit of a cliche, but Mile Davis' Kind of Blue has always been magic for me. It has for others, too. The album is over 50 years old and it still sinks into my soul every single time I play it. There is something new to hear; something new that resonates. It's cool, melodic, romantic, and 
revolutionary. Any one of those emotions could fit the bill. 

                                                                                                      Other Music without lyrics known to do the trick: Beethoven, Mozart, Debussy, and even meditative music like Indian flute.

Writers use music to get in the mood to write, but others have been known to create a "soundtrack" for their work, a song list that helps to maintain a theme or a mood. I read in a Write Life post that writer Chandi Gilbert was developing a personal essay that centered around her early teenage years, so she created a musical list of songs from the year 1994 to help put her in the right frame of mind.

My novel, Night Radio, actually prompted a musical playlist. The story revolves around a period of time when radio had strong musical relevance, and so I created a Spotify playlist for the novel. It was fun and it helped promote the book.

How does music relate to your writing? Do you play it when you write? Do you use it to create mood? When you hear a certain song, does it inspire you to sit down at the keyboard?

Share your thoughts on how music connects to your writing, because. . .you know it does.