Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Writing in the Dark

I've been thinking a good deal about writing in the dark. Not writing inside my writing shed with the lights off at 3 o'clock in the morning, but instead writing without knowing where I am going, where the story is leading, uncertain of what I am trying to say.


Writers talk about the mysteries of writing, especially fiction, a strange and powerful force that leads you to the story, that propels you to...something. Characters come alive on their own. They take on their own reality. And if it's memoir you are writing, it's that spooky moment when, as you write, the clarity comes out of the shadows. You finally know what you are trying to convey, a relative truth. Before then, you are in the dark and only when the ghostly essence appears does your writing start to come into its own light.

Norman Mailer used to call it "the spooky art." "You never know," he wrote, "where those words are coming from." Others call this spookiness or the mystery of writing—"pantsing." The urban dictionary defines pantsing as "yanking down someone's pants." But in the art of writing, "pantsing" is the act of flying by the seat. It's the opposite of plotting, planning, or outlining.


I have never plotted a story. Don't think I ever will. So, this makes me a "pantser." I write and let the story take me where it will. Inevitably this approach needs an enormous amount of reworking and rewriting for the story to make sense, to have a cohesive presence. But "writing in the dark" is the purest form of the art. This is true for fiction but it is most true—I believe—when writing memoir or personal essays. Joan Didion said, "I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see and what is means. What I want and what I fear." Joan is a bit of a "pantser." She writes in the dark. And she may be the 20th century's greatest essayist.

I'm currently working on a project that I have no idea where it will take me. Yes, I have a rough focus and I'm taking daily notes and jotting down thoughts many times a day. But what it will become at the end is a mystery. What I will eventually write remains in the darkness. At some point, I will gather my notes, find what rises to the surface, and start writing...start pantsing...begin my work in the dark and hope for the light.










Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Five Books for Summer's Last Fling


August is here. For so many this triggers an awful feeling of woe. Summer is coming to an end and fall is lurking. Truth is, there's plenty of summer left. But August brings with it thoughts of another year of school, returning to classes, lost vacation time, and the dread of squandered seasonal opportunities. Still, there are days remaining, precious days...time for walks in the park, canoe trips, golf, a swim or two, a rod in the water, a road trip, and, yes, time to read. 

Here are the five books I'm concentrating on in the last days of summer. Old and new. 

Travels with Charley—John Steinbeck: This classic is worth rereading many times over. Certainly Steinbeck was a master writer but he was also a master observer. This cross-country journey in 1960 is teeming with spot-on insight and remains keenly relevant more than fifty years later. Be sure to reread the paragraphs on "Lonesome Harry" at the end of Part-Two. They are brilliant. 

The One Inside—Sam Shepard: The great artist's death is fresh. But I started reading his last manuscript several weeks before he left this world. Yes, like much of Shepard's work, the book is otherworldly, challenging, spiritual, odd with a Twin Peaks sensibility, and yet marvelously insightful of the human condition. If it starts to move out of your comfort zone, I urge you to stay with it. It's worth it. 

So Much Blue—Percival Everett: I'm not sure why Everett is not on the top of the bestseller list every single day. Well, I actually believe I know why, but that's for another blog post. This novel is absolutely perfect. I am not one who quickly puts books in the "perfect" category but his story of artistry, love, death, danger, and human longing is as good as any story you will ever read. 

The Zen Commandments—Dean Sluyter: I have always been interested in Zen philosophy but I've  struggled to immerse myself in the discipline. Much of what I read is either too simplified or far too complex. Believe me, I've tried. I've wondered many times if I am simply incapable of fully understanding, reaping the benefits. That was until I started reading this book. Sluyter quotes Bob Dylan, William Shakespeare, the great rock critic Lester Bangs, and Aristotle. How can a freshman student of Zen go wrong? 

Walking—Henry David Thoreau: This was originally an essay in the Atlantic Monthly, taken from a lecture Thoreau gave around 1850. It remains a classic for the environmental movement, linking man and nature as profound partners. But what I find most endearing about this short, tiny book is how it promotes the art of movement, how it urges man to get out and see what is around him, to saunter and wander. Not to hurry through life; not to rush from one event or the next. It encourages and champions what many of us would categorize as "wasting time." Take a walk, Thoreau says, because it will replenish you.

The days are ticking away. Go read. 






Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Digitized: The End of the World?


Let’s get one thing straight from the top. I am not one who believes the Internet, the smartphone, or the digital revolution are going to destroy mankind, turn us into cyber zombies, or wither our brains. If you are old enough to remember, similar warnings were made when TV sets became affordable enough to land in living rooms all over America. And oh my, then there was cable! And let’s be clear, author Larry Kilham, the very knowledgeable and astute observer, researcher, and scholar of the digital world and author of the book The Digital Rabbit Hole (FutureBooks, 1/2016) is not suggesting society’s digital transformation is the beginning of the end of the world. But he is suggesting a cautionary tale. And that is enough. 

https://www.amazon.com/Digital-Rabbit-Hole-Larry-Kilham-ebook/dp/B01A3MTVBS


This is not the place for the debate on whether smartphones and the digital arena are a detriment or a revelation for society. Certainly all of us have experienced both sides of this issue—the good and the bad. There are incredible merits to smartphones, the Internet, wearable media, and the overall digital dynamic, but when our children appear to have been sucked in by the power of the cyber monster and zone-out on us, well, that’s the time we curse the new world order. This argument and dilemma have been bandied about in myriad of ways—op-ed pieces, documentaries, countless news stories, and certainly books. What is debatable is whether we needed yet another book on the subject, one more cautionary tale. Despite my disbelief that the digital world will somehow end all good and bring us only despair, I believe we do need this book.

The Digital Rabbit Hole is an insightful scrutiny of our digital place in the world. It does not necessarily offer gloom and doom; although Kilham does make the suggestion that tossing your smartphone off a bridge into a river might be a good idea. And at times the book even offers a true hopefulness for what a digital life can bring. “Digital media and services will be a basic resource for people to advance their lives,” Kilham writes. The caution in this cautionary tale comes in the strong proposition that all of us must find a way to limit our time with digital media in order to manage potential anxiety and the seeds of narcissism—our desperate need to be noticed and recognized. But the most important observation Kilham makes is a much larger one, a societal one. He writes prophetically about how digital media may be eroding truth. “A major problem in households as well as in an active democracy is whether people lose interest in the truth or even how to find it,” Kilham writes. He intimates that by gorging on instant and constant information through a deluge of digital media outlets, we are many times only confirming what we already believe or just using this collected information to “make us feel good.” And if that is the case, then “why take the time and effort to see if there is deception, misinformation or misunderstanding involved?” This is the most significant of the cautionary tales. Not that we might ignore a dinner guest because we can’t wait to check our online banking account or that our children are compelled to Snapchat one more experience when they should be doing homework. It’s a bigger, bolder issue, one of profound consequences. Kilham addresses it clearly and with a sharp vision.



The Digital Rabbit Hole is written in a readable, relatable, and conversational style, yet it delves into serious and sometimes complicated issues. Kilham explains them and shares them with ease. This makes for a gratifying read and one that I would suggest might be good to share as a family—all members agree to read the book and take some time to discuss it, talk about it, debate it. You’ll not only be focusing on one of the more pertinent issues of our time, but think about all the personal non-digital talk time you can chalk up without once looking at your smartphone.



Thursday, July 13, 2017

A Writer Went Walking

I've been thinking a lot about walking. Coincidentally, I was reminded about walking and its intrinsic connection to writing when I was...taking a walk. It is the ultimate mindful release. One foot in front of the other—briskly or leisurely wandering. And it has been celebrated by writers for centuries. 




Great writers walked. William Wordsworth, it has been said, walked some 180,000 miles in his lifetime. Virginia Woolf walked the English countryside. Dickens walked at night when he couldn't sleep. Hemingway walked to work out kinks and hiccups in his writing. Think A Moveable Feast. Henry Miller said most writing happened away from the typewriter, much of the work while out for a walk. And Henry David Thoreau famously walked in the woods around Walden four hours each day. “The walking of which I speak has nothing in it akin to taking exercise, as it is called, as the sick take medicine at stated hours …but it is itself the enterprise and adventure of the day," Thoreau wrote. 



We know the health benefits. Blood flow. Exercise for the muscles. But there is also mindfulness. Silence. Solitude. Walking permits the gods to enter your spirit, especially when one has no destination. No place to be. No set agenda. No Google map to adhere to. It's the essence of freedom; freedom at its most primal. Walking frees the mind. Famous thinkers walked. Aristotle—a great mind working while moving. John Muir—the man who walked through the woods he called home. And the Danish writer, Soren Kierkegaard who wrote until noon each day and then walked his way through Copenhagen each afternoon—thinking and writing in his head. "I have walked myself into my best thoughts," Kierkegaard said. 



But yet, with all this talk of walking and its benefits for the creative mind, one must also be reminded of the beauty a simple walk allows—for the process itself, when properly permitted, is a journey of the soul. 

I leave you with Rilke. 

My eyes already touch the sunny hill.
going far ahead of the road I have begun.
So we are grasped by what we cannot grasp;
it has inner light, even from a distance-

and charges us, even if we do not reach it,
into something else, which, hardly sensing it,
we already are; a gesture waves us on
answering our own wave...
but what we feel is the wind in our faces.


                       —Rainer Maria Rilke

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Write or Publish...or Both




Are you a writer? You are, you know? If you write most days, you are a writer. If you write poems to yourself, you're a writer. If you write lyrics to songs no one hears but you and your closest friends, you're a writer. If you write short stories, personal essays, big books, little books, manuscripts unread, posts in your journal—you are a writer. And you can call yourself that proudly. 

It's the next step that makes you a professional. 

Writing is one thing. Publishing—in any form—is another. When a writer publishes—self-publishes, posts an original poem on Facebook, or has one of the Big-Five sign you to a contract, you are immediately compromising. You are adjusting and reworking and editing for an audience. And if you get paid, in any form, you can call yourself a professional writer. But I don't want to confuse the profession with the obsession, if you wish to label it that. Maybe that's too tough a word. (It rhymes with profession, so it seems good to use.) Still, writing as a profession is different than writing because it's a form of expression. Yes, some writers do both beautifully. Many of the greats had and have this dual spectrum. Still, as a writer—and you are one—you must decide what category you best fit into. 

It's okay to be in any one, or both, or have the desire for one or both. But the sooner you decide what kind of writing life you want to lead, the better writer you'll be. And, the more confidence you'll build. 



On July 20 at 7pm at the American Writers Museum in Chicago, I will be conducting a workshop on how to get your writing out into the world...how to get your writing published. That can mean a lot of things and the kind of writing you do and the kind of writer you are will help shape your publishing goals. What do you want to accomplish? What is the next step for you? I will touch on this and all the practical steps for getting your work out there. We'll discuss your writing, self-publishing, traditional publishing, and hybrid publishing. We'll talk about editors and agents and how and when to submit your work. There are a lot of places for your writing these days, more than ever before. 

 American Writer Museum, courtesy CBS2

Let's figure it out together what kind of writer you want to be, set some goals, and develop practical steps to move forward. You can sign up HERE. The American Writers Museum is a great space and I promise to make it worth your time.

Let's get your work out to the world. 

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Havana Dog Days


"For centuries, Cuba's greatest asset has been its people."—Pico Iyer

Havana is the home of the street dog. They can be found most especially along the cobblestone walkways near the Plaza Vieja. The dogs, in a symbolic way, are the soul of Cuba, a living creature seeking companionship and a place to live in peace, a place to call home. The street dog is as much Havana as the 1959 Chevy.

Credt: David W. Berner Instagram: @davidwberner

One night on a recent five-day trip to Cuba with my two sons, we sat in the late hours in the patio not far from the Plaza de San Francisco with the ancient statue of St. Francis of Assisi just down the walkway. A smallish, dirty-white, short-haired dog, curled up under our feet. He did not beg for food; he did not lean in, hoping to be scratched about the ear. The dog simply wanted to be near and he stayed with us until we left for our hotel under the steamy light of street lamps in the early morning hours. As we walked in one direction and the dog in the other, I remembered an old lesson from elementary catechism: St. Francis was the patron saint of animals, believing that all creatures are our brothers.

https://www.instagram.com/caseyberner/
Credit: casey berner Instagram: @caseyberner

Earlier in the day, a number of Cubans, certain we were Americans, had been intent on discovering from which U.S. city we had traveled. They asked about Chicago and the Cubs. Did we dislike Trump as much as they did; did we love Obama as much as they did? One young man, after asking how long we would be in his country, pleaded with us. "Please stay," he said. "You are from USA. Stay." He, like the street dog, seemed to want to be close to something more hopeful.

Cuba has changed and is changing. You see it everywhere. This beautiful country lost in time is both enchanting and exasperating, and as it stretches out from its isolation, shifting ever-so-slowly, it seeks hope, hope that something, someone will be its savior. Its people are proud of the revolutions—the three against Spain to gain its independence and even the one led by Fidel Castro against a right-wing, authoritarian government despite its lost idealism—and they are quick to find goodness in Che Guevara, the country's omnipresent spirit. But the people are keenly aware the idealism born in these conflicts was never fully realized. Because of this Cuba is still reaching for something else, curling up under the feet of the world, waiting to be delivered to the rest of us. 

For several days, my sons and I immersed ourselves in cigars and rum, silky black beans and sweet plantains, the sights of strikingly beautiful women, giant ceiba trees, royal palms, and the taste of sugar cane. We walked in Hemingway's footsteps and drank the liquor he drank. But we left remembering the street dogs and the hearts of the Cuban people passionately beating for more.

Credt: David W. Berner Instagram: @davidwberner

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Denis Johnson's Best Nine Paragraphs

“English words are like prisms. Empty, nothing inside, and still they make rainbows.”--Denis Johnson.


He was addicted to drugs and alcohol, even heroin, and was admitted to a psychiatric ward when he was 21 years old. But Denis Johnson got sober and got better. And so did his prose. Or should I say he simply became more prolific. He once said he thought his sobriety might hurt his writing. It didn't. In fact, his best writing--and in my estimation the best nine paragraphs in modern literature--came when he was straight. 


One of my favorite books of all time is Johnson's Tree of Smoke. It was the National Book Award winner in 2007. Not everyone liked Johnson's Vietnam War novel. The Atlantic called it "bad prose" in "unrelieved bulk." I cannot imagine what on Earth the reviewer could have been reading. Tree of Smoke is a masterpiece, on the same shelf with The Things They Carried, (another big favorite) and The Naked and the Dead. If you read anything from a war novel, read the first nine paragraphs of Tree of Smoke. It is as perfect as any opening in modern American literature. The Atlantic does not agree and the reviewer seems to be stuck on grammar and stylistics.One can miss art when they only concentrate on mechanics.

That's not Johnson's only great work. Jesus' Son is worth every word. His poetry and journalism is also not to be missed and his influences may have been as telling as his works. He once noted Dr. Seuss, Walt Whitman, Dylan Thomas, and the guitar solos of Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix as ingredients in his creative juices.

But despite all the drama in Johnson's own life (he was married three times)and his work, what might be the most interesting thing about him is that he considered himself a "Christian writer." In a New York magazine article he said, "I have a feeling God finds us pretty funny. But that's all the speaking I can do for God--he doesn't go around talking about me." Johnson said God is always a theme in his work, always wondering about his existence in our troubled world.


Johnson will not be considered alongside the greats like Hemingway or Fitzgerald. Instead, he may be looked upon by some as a Kerouacian kind of character. Not in that he burned out in flames like Kerouac. Plus, he was a lot more formally trained as a writer. Unlike Jack, Johnson was able to turn around his early troubled life. Kerouac was not. Jack's life suffered and so did his prose after The Dharma Bums. But Johnson was like Kerouac because he could, like few others, shine a light on the troubled among us--the downtrodden, the under belly, the slightly off--who, in some way, always carried a bit of heaven in them. Kerouac was the same. Some would say his traditional Christianity helped him connect to those forgotten lives. In that way, Denis Johnson deserves to be considered among the very best.