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.

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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.


Monday, May 22, 2017

The Final Days With Hemingway

In a couple of weeks, I am heading for Cuba and I feel like I'll be traveling full circle. 



For the last two years, I have been privileged to be the Writer-in-Residence at the Hemingway birthplace home in Oak Park, Il. I've conducted workshops in the home's living room and wrote stories in the attic office set up for the WIR. I've also helped choose the finalists and the winners in the Hemingway Shorts competition in the small library of the magnificent Victorian house and been honored to edit the literary magazine.

But now it is time to say goodbye to Hemingway's birth home and hello to Finca Vigia, the Cuban home where he lived for two decades, where he wrote The Old Man and the Sea. I will also visit Cojimar, the tiny village nearby and eat in Hemingway's favorite restaurant, which is still there, I'm told. I will walk the grounds of his home where he occasionally played baseball with the local children, and peer in the windows of the house, left just as it was in 1960.


And as I do this, I will remember the home in Oak Park and especially the solitude of one early morning.

One of the questions I have been asked more than any other is whether or not I have encountered any ghosts in the home. I won't say that I have. But I will say I have experienced a presence. Much of the time I spent writing at the Hemingway House was in the early morning. It was the best time. The attic office was cool, there was no one around, and the light through the southern window was always just right. One morning as I sat at the desk editing a manuscript that would later be published as the novel Night Radio I sensed a kind of momentary euphoria. It is that fleeting moment when the world seems in perfect balance; when all is well with the world; when the creative work seems effortless and there is no flinching or second-guessing your work. That's a rare thing in creative endeavors. But the Hemingway house gave me that, at least for one beautiful morning. Now, it's off to Cuba.


The birthplace home has a dedicated staff, smart and thoughtful people work and volunteer there, and they have made my stay unforgettable. Thank you, Hemingway house. Thank you for your kind shelter and particularly for that one magnificent morning.



Monday, May 8, 2017

The Best Thing You Can Do For a Writer

October Song, my latest book, is now officially out there. It's time to review it and tell everyone you know—friends and family and colleagues. Post to social media. Buzz, buzz, buzz. And you are the only one who can do this.


The book launch party at The Book Cellar in Chicago was a wonderful time. Family, friends, colleagues, supporters, and lovers of memoir came out to support the new work. It was humbling and surreal in many ways, seeing all those people—some 45 of them—from all walks of my life along with the Cellar's patrons. My son talking to my college roommate. How weird is that?

So what now?

All authors know the process is a marathon and not a sprint. And yes, I want to sell books. But for me it's mostly about the story—getting it out there and touching people somehow. This is what really drives me to write. And to help get the word out, Amazon and Goodreads are key.

I love the independent bookstore. The Book Cellar is one of the best. And I applaud the radio shows, podcasts, newspapers, and journals that talk and write about literature, authors, and books. But the reality is many of the previous avenues of "getting the word out" are no longer or have small audiences. There are fewer and fewer places to spread the word. So, Amazon and Goodreads reviews are the new normal.
 
If you like October Song—if you like ANY book you read—the best thing you can do for me, for any writer, for literature in general is to put in an honest review at Amazon or Goodreads. It doesn't have to be long and tedious; it simply has to be real. One paragraph is plenty. Write from the heart. Be true to how you feel. It is the new way to share your feelings on the written word and it is invaluable to authors, writers, and readers everywhere. Next, share it. Tell your friends. Post your thoughts and reviews on Twitter and Facebook and Instagram.

Those first few weeks are CRITICAL. Buzz is big. And your reviews and sharing of those reviews are gigantically important.


So, with that, read October Song and click on the Amazon or Goodreads links below and have at it. Post to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and the rest.

Every book lover, every storyteller everywhere will thank you.

Amazon-October Song Review
Goodreads-October Song Review






Thursday, April 27, 2017

Throwing a Book Launch Party



Prepping for a college party at your tiny sophomore apartment: Pick up several six packs, maybe a cheap bottle of tequila, lemons, some chips, some dip, make sure the ashtrays are empty, and be certain the music is ready. In my day this meant the turntable's stylus was relatively new and the vinyls were stacked in an appropriate order so you could play entire sides without having to change the record.

Preparing for your wedding: Say yes to everything she wants and show up on time.

Prepping for your child's birthday party: Order lots of pizza. Make sure the pies are cheese only. Kids aren't into your garlic and mushroom slices. Have plenty of cake and ice cream. Vanilla is best. Hire a clown. No, scratch that. Bad idea. Instead, buy a pinata that will break with only a few weak whacks, not one you have to take a chainsaw to. Get balloons.

Preparing for a book launch party: Don't forget to order books. Either you or the bookstore. Make a list of people who like you, or at least can tolerate you. Invite them. Tell them there will be wine. Remind them. Tell them again there will be wine. Remind them again. Pray they show up.

I've written several books, but I've never had a full-out book launch party. October Song is my first. So, please be gentle.


I've done readings, signings, and appearance events. But this is far different. This is the arrival of your newborn, fresh from the hospital. You walk up the driveway holding it tight and everyone is going to want a look. Ugly baby? If it is, no one will admit it. You'll coo after it, kiss it, and caress it. But ultimately in time, your child will have to find its own way and people will decide on their own whether the person you brought into the world is a good, solid human, someone who will contribute to our existence. It may seem odd to compare your book to a baby, but the book is your baby and you want people to like it. Hell, you want people to love it!

Saturday, May 6th at 6pm at The Book Cellar, the wonderful independent bookstore in Chicago's Lincoln Square neighborhood, I will offer up my bouncing infant to a room full of people—hopefully, a room full. They will listen to me talk about all the work it took to deliver this sweet child and they will hear it speak its first words. And they will judge. Pretty baby. Nice kid. Can you get it to stop crying? 

Writers know this all too well: Writing is admitting vulnerability. It is opening scars and wounds and your heart. Certainly with memoir or personal essay, but also with fiction, there is always a little of us in everything we write and when we let the reader into our world, well, that means we are going to be judged. It means people will have something to say about us...and our babies.

I am so grateful to The Book Cellar for hosting the book launch and I am forever humbled by the people from all walks of my life—family, friends, colleagues, students, fellow writers—who say they will be there, will listen to me talk and read, consider buying a book, and tell me how beautiful my baby is.

Last thing when prepping for a book launch: Remember to be thankful.











Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Why We Write

"I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking." These are the words of Joan Didion, arguably one of the best essayists to ever put down words. This quote has been repeated many times. But I use it here because it's so true—to some degree—for nearly all of us who write. We write to own our thoughts.


Why do we write? More specifically, why do we bother? It can be laborious work. That too has been repeated so many times in many renditions from many writers. We all know that quote from Hemingway about bleeding at the typewriter. Frankly, that notion—that writing is drudgery—is just not true for most of us Nearly every writer will tell you when things are going well on a story, it is far from painful. It is glorious. Pure pleasure. When it's not going so well is when writing is true work and there's at least a bit of bleeding.

There have been many ideas about what motivates great writers to write. Truman Capote said it was about hearing the "inner music that words make." F. Scott Fitzgerald believed you write not because you "want to say something but because you've got something to say." Each of these suggests a sort of obsession, a visceral need to tell a story.

For me, these comments and all the many that have been shared when I've asked the question, why do you write, are really about creative energy, the energy of life. So, why do I write? To feel fully alive. And that seems to say it all.

I asked several writers in the Chicago area to offer their thoughts—Why do you write? Although there is a similar thread weaving through the answers, they also are as varied as the stories we tell.

Rita Dragonette is the author of The Fourteenth of September, a manuscript she's currently shopping. For Rita writing is about relevance. "Nothing is irrelevant," she writes in one of her blogs posts. "We are the ancestry.com of our times and to continue to move forward there's an imperative to connect the dots..."

Sandra Colbert: "I write because I must. Some questions get answers. Some demons purged. And then there is the laughter."

Barbara Barnett: "I think I write because I have all these stories cluttering my mind. I go to the grocery store, or whatever, and every observation becomes a potential scene or impetus for a new story."

Lou Holly: "I began writing novels several years ago because I had characters that wouldn't leave me alone."

Joyce Pyka: "For therapy...to educate myself and others, to make discoveries about new things, places people and myself."

Kristin Oakley: "Because my characters get pissed off if I don't!"

Sandra Tadic: "I write to purge."

Danielle E. Shipley: "First I wrote for fun. Then I wrote for passion. Now writing has become so much a part of my identity, I wouldn't know who I am without it."

Tricia Wagner: "I write because I feel I have more lives to live than the one I  was born to."

Maria Hansburg: "To keep the voices in my head alive!"

Lee Delarm: "I write for two reasons...it feels good...and...because I feel it's the only way I'm going to have a true legacy behind...even if the books aren't popular."

Iris Orpi: "I write to feel powerful again whenever I feel powerless."

Tamara Gaumond: "It's cathartic. I have stories to tell and I can live vicariously through my characters."

Pat Camalliere: "I've had a book in my hand practically since the day I was born. It was time to move out of the audience and see what it was like on stage."

Cynthia Clampitt: "I love ideas. I love words. And I love more than anything else sharing everything I discover with others."

Tanya Talmadge-Ethridge: "I write for fun, passion, and release."

Mary Ann D'Alto: "I write for the same reason that I breathe; I simply must. There really is no other answer."


Tuesday, April 4, 2017

A Most Memorable Memoir

I have read a wonderful memoir.

I love memoirs. I write them. So, there's that. But I'm not necessarily a fan of memoirs about highly dysfunctional lives, diseases, abuse, overcoming incredible tragedies—the so-called addiction/recovery/messed-up family/Mommy Dearest memoir. There's a place for these stories and they can have great impact. Some are superbly told through brilliant writing. Some have been labeled classics and are studied and dissected in creative nonfiction classes at universities. Still, I'd rather not.


I do love memoirs that go deep, however, deep into self-examination, adventure, escape, and exploration without the unspeakable tragedy underneath. Troubles, yes. Pain, yes. And that's where the book The Point of Vanishing comes in.

This memoir by Howard Axelrod is about his two years in solitude in the woods of Vermont after losing the sight in one of his eyes. It was published two years ago but I'm only getting around to it now. I wish I had read it sooner. I'd have read it twice. Three times.

Yes, there is a life-altering accident at the center of Alexrod's story but it's at a level that relates. This is to say, it is not over-the-top. What happened to the author could happen to any of us. I'm not intending to lessen the severity of Alexrod's injury but his experience could be any of ours. Like a car accident, his accident could occur at any time or anywhere to anyone. However, the injury is not the true thread of the narrative, but rather it is Alexrod's own inner uncertainties. The eye accident only triggers the deeper story and so the book is far more about personal examination—who he is, where he belongs and why.  


Memoirs come in all shapes and sizes, just as tragedies do, just as lives do, just as we do. But no matter the story, in the end, personal narratives have to connect with the lives of the readers in a visceral way. Not all of us experience unthinkable tragedies but all of us at times live the unmanageable life, the unbalanced existence, and any of this can be eloquently examined. Always, however, the story needs to go deeper than the source of the pain.

The Point of Vanishing is not the only memoir that accomplishes this. But it was the one most on my mind today and the one I would recommend for those looking for a memoir that goes beyond the horror of one's personal catastrophe.