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.


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.


Monday, March 20, 2017

Breslin and Berry


Here's what famed New York newspaperman Jimmy Breslin once said...

"Pick up any newspaper in the morning. Count the words in the lead sentence. There will be at least twenty-five in all of them: Guaranteed. The writers just want to tell you how many degrees they have from this college or that university."

  


He was the king of simplicity. Beautiful, succinct, telling words that could cut through you and cut through to the heart of the story. Try this on for size, a column he wrote about the gravedigger for a fallen leader...

"...he hung up the phone, finished breakfast, and left his apartment o he could spend Sunday digging a grave for John Fitzgerald Kennedy." 

While every other reporter covered the main story of the funeral for JFK, Breslin stepped away from the pack and wrote the best, truest story of them all. Simple and unforgettable. 

Breslin died at the age of 88. A long life of telling great...simple...stories. 


And on the day before his death, another great left us. Chuck Berry. He was 90.

Here's what John Lennon said about Berry...

"One of the all-time great poets, a rock poet."

And what was Berry's approach? Simplicity. 

Yes, he taught every guitarist how to plant their feet in the middle of rock-n-roll, but his lyrics were groundbreaking. Not in the Dylanesque way, but think about it...before Berry who ever wrote a song about the agony of paying bills? Simple; to the point. 

Runnin' to-and-fro,  hard workin' at the mill
Never fail, in the mail, comes a rotten bill
Too much monkey business
Too much much business for me to be involved in.


Hemingway is always touted as the one to emulate when it comes to simple prose. But truth is, Breslin and Berry may have collectively touched more people with their clean style and observant eyes. Breslin was likely the greatest newspaperman of all time. Berry was likely the greatest rock-n-roller of all time. Both laid foundations. Both told it like it is. Both knew how to touch the Everyman. Both were heart, guts, and soul. 

And they did it with simplicity. 


Saturday, March 11, 2017

The Work in Progress

I can't tell you how many times I have fiddled with the title...

Home. The search for a place under the stars.
Finding Home. One man's search for his place in the world.
The Consequence of Stars. A memoir of the eternal search for home.  

And on and on and on. Variation after variation.

Then there's the structure. Straight memoir? Book of essays? A memoir-in-essays? And there's the preface. Or is it a prologue? What's the difference anyway? And how about a book description? Let's write that now so that I can focus the theme and keep in the boundaries of my plan of attack. I've rewritten it over a dozen times, shifting its center, mining for meaning. And despite all of this work, I'm sure I'll end up doing it again...and again.

When we work on new writing, art, music, something of our own, do we ever really think it's done or is it always a work on progress?

I contend works of art are forever works in progress.

I have a colleague, a very good writer with a well-received new book out, who insists that every word, every sentence, every nuanced thought in her manuscript is exactly how she wanted it. When she reads it now it is complete. It is fined-tuned to the very best she could have made it and she'll apparently never second guess a word of it.

Then there is me.

I consider--as da Vinci did--every work as a work in progress. Well, maybe more clearly, a work that is never truly finished. The quote attributed to Leonardo is "Art is never finished, only abandoned." It's believe he meant that every work can be refined...forever...ad nauseum.


When I am in the creating mode, I tend to let it all flow. But when I'm in the drafting mode, the editing process, I can endlessly tweak. If I go back to a piece of writing every single day after believing I have "finished" it, I will change a word, move a comma, rework a sentence over and over. Making it better? I hope so. But at some point you have to give it up. You have to say, "This is where is stops." You must abandon the work.

Maybe writing, the ideas that fuel the writing, are simply too transient to be pinned down. Maybe writing and any work of art is constantly evolving, like us. One day we do it this way....and another day we feel differently and it influences what we write, how we write it, what we think is good. Maybe this is the same reason some of us give up on the creative process or never start it. Creative work  is too nebulous, too ephemeral.

What do you believe? Is your writing ever really done?



 

Monday, February 27, 2017

The Angels of Solitude

"One of the greatest necessities in America is to discover creative solitude." —Carl Sandburg

I read a newspaper story over the weekend about how artists turn to nature when they are looking for peace, solace, and rejuvenation. The piece was in the Santa Cruz Sentinel. The author was Dan Haifley of the O'Neil Sea Odyssey, essentially a classroom on a catamaran for kids. The youngsters sail the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary and get hands-on lessons about ocean life, the living sea, and the environment. Haifley referenced Jack Kerouac's book Big Sur, the autobiographical novel about his time spent at Lawrence Ferlinghetti's California cabin near the sea. It was there that Kerouac struggled with his alcoholism and his unwanted celebrity, and hoped to gain peace from the solitude, the ocean, and the wilderness. 


Nature, Haifley writes, is Kerouac's happiness. Certainly that is the case in the The Dharma Bums, a book about hiking, communing with nature, and Zen Buddhism. And it is true that Kerouac hoped the nature he discovered during his time in Big Sur would heal him. Haifley suggests the more we disconnect from nature the more difficult it is to find solace. I think he's right. But I would argue that nature may not be the sole catalyst here. It's seclusion, the inward gaze that nature so beautifully permits and that is the true healer. 

My continuing plans for a writer shed meet that need.

I love to hike, walk the woods. Although I don't do it enough, I know that it brings me balance. And although I love the trees, the dirt, and the earthy smells, I know that the forest, the ocean, the mountains, and the prairies are only the vehicle for being alone. It is "aloneness" that brings me back to center. 

In the world of Twitter, constant news feeds, cell phones, email, and texting, solitude is the peace that refocuses the soul. The writer shed is that refuge. It's a place to work but also a place to think, to get lost in my own mind, to find my inner woods. 

I suggest it is another of Kerouac's books that sells this idea more strongly. Most of what is written in the first part of Desolation Angels is taken directly from Kerouac's journal when he was a fire lookout at Desolation Peak in the North Cascades of Washington state. He was there for two months in the summer of 1956, much of it alone on the mountain, sometimes for weeks at a time. The book ultimately is a study in human solitude, Kerouac's opportunity to be silent, to think, to write in that remote mountain top. All alone. It was his Walden.

The writer shed is my Walden, my Desolation Peak.

"I came to a point where I needed solitude and just stop the machine of thinking and enjoying what they call living, I just wanted to lie in the grass and look at the clouds." —Jack Kerouac

Here's a piece from the NY Times on hiking to Desolation Peak: Climbing a Peak that Stirred Kerouac.

Below is a short video on the writer shed progress. Almost there.

video






Monday, February 20, 2017

Banged-Up Heart is Full of Heart

"Nothing is better for self-esteem than survival." —Martha Gellhorn, Travels with Myself & Another

A life's significance can be measured in many ways. But for a life to be fully realized, all of those many ways must be considered. One's life and the life one shares with another cannot be assessed or regarded in a single moment, a single space in time or the early excitement or the late reflective years of a relationship. But instead must be evaluated through the lens of its wholeness—the good, the bad, the mundane, the tragic, measured by what comes before it, in the heart of it, on the edges, and after it is lost.



This is the center of Shirley Melis' memoir Banged-Up Heart: Dancing with Love and Loss from Terra Nova Books, a journey through the deaths of those we love and how life can find a way to give us light when the dark appears to be winning the battle. Banged-Up Heart is a heartfelt personal story of finding the love of your life, losing him to the ravages of disease, and steadying oneself enough to accept that life is not what happens to you but how you deal with what happens to you. 

There are moments in this book where the reader will anticipate what is coming. You can feel it in the writing. But suspense is not the narrative's purpose. Instead, Banged-Up Heart is about the particulars, the lovely moments, the hard and sometimes debilitating struggle of a life turned on its head. Melis allows us into her heart with insight and detail, and in simple language allows the reader to know how she feels in a deep and exact way, helping us understand how we might face our own tragedies and the beauty of something new. 

In the chapter entitled "Epiphany," Melis writes of the moment her new relationship shifts from casual to serious. Melis clearly explains this essential moment with grace rather than through an overwrought scene one might view in a gushy Lifetime movie. Instead, the telling here is real. It's honest. 

"Crossing the Potomac back into Virginia, I was overcome by an intense desire not just to be with John but to be married to him. If anything should happen to him, I thought, I would want to be able to speak not as the girlfriend or significant other but as his wife."

In a later scene, Melis reveals her concerns about how a wedding band may not fit over her knuckle and confesses to a friend that the solution is Windex, a subtle metaphor for clearing the sight lines to a new relationship. 

When the book turns more tragic, Melis remains in this mode. Rather than employing overly sentimentalized prose, she writes with conviction and precision, saying much about a loving relationship. 

“I was no longer in denial, but John’s acceptance was more complete than mine. Understanding this, he was firm yet gentle with my faltering grasp on the reality that I would soon lose him.”

Be certain, Banged-Up Heart is not morbid, overly sad, or a book soaked in tragedy. Through all the difficult times in this story, and there are several, Melis carries with her buckets of hope. She's "banged-up" but she is not knocked out. It is not that the book employs a simple formula—girl has tragedy, girl finds a way out, girl has a happy ending. No, there are still unanswered questions here, bows that still must be tied and knotted. But that's exactly what life is, right? Our lives are never neatly presented and neither is the narrative of this book.

Banged-Up Heart is a brave story of navigating love, loss, health care, fate, the fragility of life, aloneness, togetherness, strength, heartbreak, and survival—all relevant and shared elements of our collective lives. Banged-Up Heart works as a memoir not because of its unique story but because—in so many ways—it is universal. It is the story of all of us. 


Friday, February 17, 2017

A Writer's Shed: The Poem

"Writing is an act of faith" —E.B. White

 E.B. White's Boat House

As some of you know, I have been working on completing an outbuilding that will soon be my writer's shed, a simple place to find solace and a place to create. I plan to fill it with solitude and words. Those words began today when I wrote a "flash" poem on what was before me. Not to suggest that something good comes with speed, but in only five minutes these words came to me in a river's flow. 


A Writer's Shed 

My sacred space emerges 
Among the gardens of my home
Among the flowers of a lifetime
Among the seas all alone

Words are never written
Inside the roses one must tend
But are found in heaven's spaces
Alongside the time I must spend

Lost in my heart forever
Pouring out from blood-soaked vines
It is here that I am with the angels
It is here I find the lines

The truth of what I'm thinking
Every solitary shift
These are the discoveries of angels
These are the sincere and lonely gifts

             —David W. Berner 2.17.17



Monday, February 13, 2017

Writer Shed Porn; Not Really

"Building this shed was the most relaxing, de-stressing thing I’ve done in ages." —Alastair Humphreys, Microadventures: Local Discoveries for Great Escapes


I stumbled across a book recently about finding that quiet place to work. Despite it's provocative name, Cabin Porn is about settling into the deep need or longing for a place of your own. Not a home, necessarily. But a space, a retreat for inspiration, art. The book is about a collaboration of handbuilt cabins. Rough and tumble, yet beautiful in their simplicity. The blog of writer and adventurer, Alastair Humphreys turned me on to Cabin Porn through his blog posts and all of it reminded me of my own project, at least in spirit.

"Fill a space in a beautiful way." —Georgia O'Keeffe

Some of you know I've been working on my own "cabin." It's not a cabin but a writer's shed, to be more specific. It's not rough and tumble; it's a bit less woodsy. But it's purpose is the same in many ways. And the process is moving forward.


This past weekend I began the inside barn wood interior. It's slow work, yes, but rewarding. Although I want to finish, I'm trying not to hurry, trying to stay in the moment, savoring the work—the measuring, the sawing, the pounding of finishing nails. My father worked with his hands, a carpenter by trade. With every plank of wood that is attached to the studs, I think about him. I can see him with a pencil behind ear, wearing his stained painter's pants, and his old golf cap. He too, I'm certain, would be attempting to take it slow, to feel each and every step.

"Space is the breath of air." —Frank Lloyd Wright

I've had to remind myself of how to use a miter box, how to trim around the window, to measure so that flaws—and there will be some—are hidden. How will the barn wood walls fix against the floor? I had to auger a small hole in the back of the shed and another in the nearby garage so that an electrical line can be snaked inside. Light will be needed. A portable heater must be powered. A fan will be essential.

The desk will be placed at the window. I already know this. But that's all I have determined so far. Certainly a small book shelf or two. A chair, other than for the desk, designed for reading. I can see it now. I can feel it. I drafted the final edits of Any Road Will Take You There at the Jack Kerouac House in Orlando a few years ago and part of Night Radio was drafted in the attic office at the Hemingway Birthplace Home in Oak Park, Illinois. I have been so fortunate to have these places and so honored. But the shed, my shed, gives me new, more extraordinary visions.

Strangely, the shed makes me think about remote places, faraway and lost to time. I did a little research and found Tristan de Cunha may be the most remote inhabited archipelago in the world. It sits more than 1700 miles from the nearest island in South Africa. My shed is some 100 feet from the back door of the house, even closer to the garage, but yet somehow it is already feeling remote, secluded. Like a world of one's own.


The weather has been unseasonably mild in the Midwest this winter and I am grateful for the early start on the shed. In March it could all come together.

Writer shed porn? Maybe. A remote place of my own? Certainly.

"True solace is finding none, which is to say, it is everywhere." —Gretel Ehrlich, The Solace of Open Spaces