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Monday, September 10, 2018

To Be Alone

It's been said that writers are loners, angsty artists who seek solitude. We are weirdos who want to be left alone, by ourselves, away from everyone and everything.

Okay. That's fair. And somewhat true. I think.

If you write, do you like being alone? Are you a solitude junkie?

I like aloneness. I'm comfortable with it. Always have been. Too much stimulus can be overwhelming. I can't think. I can't breathe. But that doesn't mean I always like to write in solitude.

I've written here before about the shed I have on my property, the writing space, built solely for that purpose. Built for me alone, to be alone to write. And I love it. Love what it represents and how it functions for me and my work. I am tucked away in a small space, surrounded by books and art. But yet there are times I want to be in the middle of life, not away from it. So, I write in coffee shops, busy one with the whir of the espresso machine, the clatter of ceramic cups, and constant human conversations blanketing the space. But I'm there solely for the sounds of life, not the acceptance of others.

In Rilke's famous correspondence to a budding writer, Letters to a Young Poet, he advises the new artist to stop seeking adoration or affirmation. Never, he says, ask anyone if a work of art is any good. He says the answers are not outside yourself, they are inside. And with this, comes more confirmation that a writer must be one who craves solitude, where he can contemplate his work alone, without the influences of others. The writer, Rilke believed, must find his way through this with his own compass, not the compass of another. 

For years, early in my writing career, I would carry Rilke's book around with me in my work bag. I'd read passages on the commuter train or in my office. I would pull it out when I had doubts, when I needed to tell myself my writing, whatever I was working on, was worthy. With the help of Rilke, I was able to believe in my own art without affirmation from outside, and I was able to accept the aloneness that comes with that process.

Rainer Maria Rilke

So, yes, writers like to be alone. But there's a good reason for this. If we are uncertain, unsure of our own artistry at times—and we are, like anyone who creates—then we need the solitude in order to work things out with ourselves, for we are the only ones we need to convince.

Tell your alone stories. Why is aloneness important to your writing? Or is it? Share.

Monday, August 27, 2018

The Best Quotes on Writing

I dislike the many online articles and blog posts that offer a list of dos and don'ts on writing. They are nothing but click bait or shortcuts to the real work of writing. These are the ones that tell you to "start with action," or "show, don't tell," or the "ten rules of writing a novel." They are a disservice to the work, a disservice to the art, a disservice to you as a writer. Are there best practices? Of course. But good writing is not about rules and formulas.


I might not like the articles that tell you to "do these ten things to write a winning novel," but I do love the quotes by writers that suggest a path to follow. Those little clips, sound bites (if you will) of inspiration and support are wonderful.

What are your favorites? Share them in the comments. These are mine.

Here we go...

"The road to hell is paved with works-in-progress." - Philip Roth

"Style is to forget all styles." - Jules Renard

"Genius gives birth, talent delivers. What Rembrandt or Van Gogh saw in the night can never be seen again. Born writers of the future are amazed already at what they’re seeing now, what we’ll all see in time for the first time, and then see imitated many times by made writers.” - Jack Kerouac

“When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people, not characters. A character is a caricature.” - Ernest Hemingway
"To gain your own voice, you must forget about having it heard." - Allen Ginsberg

"Writing means sharing. It's part of the human condition to share things - thoughts, ideas, opinions." - Paul Coehlo

"Writing if an act of faith, not a trick of grammar." - E.B. White

"Art is never finished, only abandoned." - Leonardo da Vinci

"Don't bend; don't water it down; don't try to make it logical; don't edit your own soul according to the fashion. Rather, follow your most intense obsessions mercilessly." - Franz Kafka 

"I write entirely to find out what is on my mind. what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I'm seeing, and what it means." - Joan Didion

"I think there are a lot of similarities between writing and music. Music is much more direct and much more emotional and that's the level I want to be at when I'm writing." - Karl Ove Knausgaard

"Be courageous and try to write in a way that scares you a little." - Holly Gerth

And one of my very favorites...

"Writing is the painting of the voice." - Voltaire

Got more?

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

I Never Read it. You?

I'm a writer. I write. And writers read. You can't write without being a skilled reader. Reading like a writer is important to understand structure and pace and tone from the greatest of the great. Reading other writers works is a serious endeavor and should be considered important to the craft. 


And this is a big but. 

What if you haven't read some of the books you and everyone else think you should have? I'm talking about the books that are considered essential, books one believes every writer worth his weight should have read—the best of all time, the greatest of a generation, modern classics, or just...classics, period.

Here is a list of books I have not read, or at least never finished after trying to get through them. This, I'll admit, is a confession in many ways. But like a lot of confessions, it is cathartic. 

Ulysses, James Joyce. Started. Bounced around it. Never finished.

Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace. Started. Never finished.

The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky. Never read.

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt. Started. Never finished. Lost interest. 

War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy. Never started. 

Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert. Started. Never finished.

Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens. Started twice. Never finished. 

Nearly all of these books are on a shelf in my house or office or writing shed. Maybe someday I'll read at least one. Someday. 

There are many reasons for reading great works of literature, the modern classics. They are cannons of the art; they are models of literary brilliance. Knowing them, at least reading them once, helps to understand the world of literature and the world itself. Many say the first great American novel was The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Every American novel afterward comes from what Twain started. So, reading a classic gives us insight and perspective into the history of literature and the authors who have contributed the most.

A classic is a book that people most always say they are "re-reading" not "reading." But in reality, many of us are not being truthful when we say this. It just sounds better, more appropriate, more well-read if we say we are "re-reading" Great Expectations than saying we are reading it for the first time. 

I'm a big Hemingway fan, especially his short stories and his nonfiction. But I have never read For Whom the Bell Tolls. So, a month ago I bought a used copy of it. I've read the first ten pages. Since then, nothing. I plan to get to it; I really do. And maybe someday I can say I'm "re-reading" For Whom the Bell Tolls and consider myself a well-read man. 

What classic have you not read? I'm sure you can add to the list...if you dare to admit. 

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.