For gifts that won’t always be with me:
like sharing a meal in my childhood home,
taking Mom’s phone call,
hearing those molasses moving bodies that emerge from the hall,
receiving a “k” text within seconds,
making lunches, picking up, dropping off.
For gifts that are waning:
like hugs, health, family dinners.
For gifts that are dreams to others:
like having a job with expectations and rewards,
paying my bills,
“Just get your work done. I’ll take care of it.”
“I’ve got a ride.”
“Wanna grab a coffee?”
“She enjoys your class.”
“He likes mythology.”
“Hel-lo. It’s only Mom.”
“We’ve missed you.”
“I’m glad you’re here.”
“Are you writing?”
For challenges that keep me humble and motivated.
For successes that keep me grateful and inspired.
For prayers answered.
For prayers rejected.
For the people in it
who have held my hand and allowed me to hold theirs.
I am thankful.
This past Wednesday, I learned a little something about myself. “But Geralyn,” you might ask, “if you were interviewing Chicago author, David W. Berner, weren’t you supposed to learn something about him?” Of course, I learned a lot about this award-winning, multidimensional writer, but I also learned that I’m not very good at the interview process. I don’t think I can even categorize this experience as an interview. For goodness sakes, I didn’t even ask him about his goals for The Bleeding Typewriter, a new podcast series which he describes on iTunes as being “about the creative process, about writing, art, music, and sharing that passion.” With that said, my post title is accurate. That evening I talked with David W. Berner, a true storyteller.
So, who is David W. Berner?
Mr. Berner’s most recent recognition is being named the Ernest Hemingway Writer-In Residence, 2015-2016. Here, Berner is developing a creative nonfiction piece about a road trip on which he embarked to receive a song writing contest award. “It’s an examination on growing old,” he told me. The author/resident will offer writers’ workshops at the Hemingway Birthplace Home (339 N. Oak Park Avenue) in January and February, with topics including “How to Get Published” and “Creative NonFiction.” (Highly recommended, Oak Park area friends!!) At the moment, publication of his first fiction novel, Night Radio, is in the works with a publishing company in Pennsylvania. This story follows an up-and-coming music deejay who seeks redemption on his road to success.
If roads seem to be a personal motif for his writing endeavors, that shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone (like me) who has followed Berner’s literary career. He is an avid Kerouac fan and was named the Jack Kerouac Writer-In-Residence back in 2011. Berner describes his two-and-a-half month residency at Kerouac’s Orlando home (writing in the same room where the King of Beats wrote Dharma Bums), as one of the best experiences of his life. The culminating memoir, Any Road Will Take You There: A Journey of Fathers and Sons (Dream of Things Publishing, 2013), went on to win the 2013 Book of the Year Award from the Chicago Writer's Association for nontraditional nonfiction. I purchased that one upon its release, and I remember being taken by the author’s honesty in his retelling of simple life moments with his boys, which brings back memories of his relationship with his father. At one point in the book, Berner relates a discussion he has with his son, Casey, about Hemingway and other writers:
“Was there any writer who wasn’t screwed up?”
“Your dad,” I said, laughing.
“Oh, I don’t know about that,” Casey said.
“Come on, really? Do you see me swigging out of a bottle of Southern Comfort right now?”
“Give it time,” he said smiling. “Give it time.”
“I wonder,” I said, “do you think artists, true artistic geniuses, have demons? And are the demons necessary to be brilliant?”
I was given the opportunity to discuss that same concept with the author when sitting across a small table at a corner coffeehouse on a late afternoon. We talked about Jack’s alcoholism being a hindrance rather than a catalyst to his writing; whereas, other Beats’ drug addictions precipitated their literary subjects and structure. We talked about melancholic moods that permeated Jack’s works and agreed that Dharma Bums was an exception.
But there’s more than the Kerouac connection that returns me to Berner time and time again. His first memoir tells the story of his teaching at Cowherd, a troubled public middle school in Aurora. It was his sons who told him he should write down the stories that he brought home from the classroom each night, no matter if the stories were happy or sad, and so Berner did just that, and the result was the Golden Dragonfly Award for Literature, Accidental Lessons (Strategic Book Publishing, 2009), a title that, as a teacher, I can relate to on a daily basis. I also have a child who inspires me. Even tonight, when I came home from my “interview” and laughed at myself for thinking I could do this, when I noticed too late that the seasoned writer had been on a virtual tour this same time last year and was actually interviewed by a slew of real bloggers, it was my sixteen year old son who remarked, “So what? Did you get anything from it?” I did.
I learned that it was a radio job that brought him to Chicago in 1988, and he’s made this city his home ever since. I learned that he’s in the Radio Department at Columbia College where he was offered a position after just one year at Cowherd. I learned that he still has, hanging on an office wall, the emails from Suzana (a student with whom he bonded in East Aurora). I learned that his most recent book, a collection of essays about pet ownership (There’s a Hamster in the Dashboard, Dream of Things Publishing) was released this past summer. I learned that he enjoys music and plays the guitar, and when we talked about song writing and his affection for memoir, he explained, “I didn’t know how to write something that wasn’t true.” Of his creative nonfiction work, he stated, “I can’t possibly remember every detail from when I was ten, but I want to capture what’s called the essence of the truth.” This skill of capturing “essence” was nurtured through a MFA in Creative Writing from Fairleigh Dickinson University.
In addition to his writing and teaching, Berner has continued his broadcasting life with regular appearances at WBBM and WXRT, he has produced audio documentaries, and he has that podcast series, The Bleeding Typewriter. After listening to the first podcast episode, I’m left in awe at the diverse talents possessed by this man. “I can’t do all of them all of the time,” he says of the many hats he wears, but when asked which role the real David W. Berner is, first and foremost, he replied, “A writer. Every role and every job requires my writing. I’m a storyteller.”
You can find out more about David W. Berner by clicking on the boxes below.
Check him out, like, follow, comment, listen—you won't be disappointed!
"Be in love with your life. Every detail of it." - Jack Kerouac
There’s a new essay posted on this website called “Bookstore Memories.” It’s a reflection on Fillmore’s Used Books, a local shop where all proceeds went to a charity. I miss that place. Luckily for me, however, there are other book stores just a short drive away. For today’s post, I want to encourage readers to support these small businesses, or a similar place near your home.
The Looking Glass located at 823 S. Oak Park Avenue, Oak Park, IL.
This is my favorite used book store. Classics, collectibles, cook books, child, teen, adult. I love the assortment of books and novelties (yes, you'll find perfect gifts and cards for that avid reader on your list); I love the overall vibe and the people. Not only are Jim Gibson and Steve Kirshenbaum passionate about books, but they support local writers. The designated “local author” wall promotes the Chicago area literary scene with a good mix of emerging and famous names. If you’re a local author, be sure to donate a couple of signed copies and keep The Looking Glass in mind for hosting your next book event.
My Favorite Purchase: Actually, it was a gift FOR me—a third edition copy of On the Road by Jack Kerouac and an Emily Dickinson coffee mug.
The Book Table located at 1045 Lake Street, Oak Park, IL
This is your one-stop shop of a bookstore. Get your list together and visit. Though smaller in scale than chain stores, this place has a bit of everything. Well organized with many “recommended” tags written by knowledgeable and dedicated staff, you can’t possibly leave without finding what you wanted, and typically, what you didn’t know you wanted.
My Most Recent Purchase: A Penguin Classics collection, Elizabeth Barrett Browning - Aurora Leigh and other poems
The Magic Tree located at 141 N. Oak Park Avenue, Oak Park, IL
Do you have children? Are you an adult who loves young adult fiction? Are you a parent who wants to find a new series for a reluctant reader? This place is a kid’s paradise! With tons of books mostly geared at ages 0-16—although mature readers will also find new titles that appeal to a variety of tastes—you can’t help but get excited about reading!
My son's most appreciated purchase: The entire series of The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel by Michael Scott (we even went to a book signing!)
Centuries and Sleuths located at 7419 Madison Street, Forest Park, IL
If history or mystery is your thing, look no further. Centuries and Slueths is the perfect setting to inspire your intellect. As their website states, “The atmosphere is warm and friendly with oak bookcases labeled with the historical era or subject matter of the books on the shelves.” My suggestion is to plan your time accordingly, because you won’t want to leave the comfort of this place. Oh, and be sure to check out their impressive speaker and discussion events, too.
My most interesting purchase: Intimate Voices from the First World War, edited by Svetlana Palmer and Sarah Wallis
Head over to the “Essays and Stories” tab to read about my memories of Fillmore’s Used Books, or just click here: http://www.ghesslaumagrady.com/essays--stories.
We debate prep methods—to outline or not? We discuss suspense points—how much information is too much information? We read article after article, post after post, tweet after tweet, with inspirational quotes, structure advice, and how-to tidbits. But what about setting?
I’m not talking about time and place of conflict. I’m talking about the right place to write. For years I tried to write at home. On the porch or in the backyard during warmer seasons, in my bedroom or the basement during colder seasons, but no place was ever the perfect spot to get focused and stay on task. Then I tried the library, but it was too quiet. I tried the chain coffee houses, but they were too cramped. Nothing gave me inspiration, and if I needed motivation, the idea of having to find a place to write would be the nail in the blank page coffin.
After years of playing with a novel-in-progress, I wanted the summer of 2014 to be the summer of ME. Not me the mom or me the teacher or me the volunteer, rather ME the WRITER. Having already made the decision to cut the first fifty pages as well as transition segments between every chapter, the manuscript was going to take a hard hit, and the most pressing issue for me was finding my place. As fate would have it, a dad from my sons’ school was opening a coffee shop in May. The space was in the same building of a neighborhood bar, a legendary place in town, that he acquired several years prior, but he redesigned the interior to be used as a coffee shop during the hours when the bar was closed. I walked through the door on my way home from the last day of school. I had no idea what this place would become for me.
I first sat down in the back corner next to an exposed brick wall, and at times the mortar reminded me of the workers from nearly a hundred years ago whose toil and skill brought this building into being (images of their hardworking hands helped in describing the hands of my characters). Vibrant artwork created by a local artist hung alongside ukuleles and guitars, mixing the talents of old and new (the instruments and owner inspired the auditory imagery of my market scene). With a music school upstairs and local musicians playing at the tavern next door, the theme resounded in the coffee shop, so, opposite the decorated brick wall was the album cover wall (one might notice the resemblance between my character Franz and David Bowie), and over the airwaves, the tracks of the day were from renowned folk and rock groups, never distracting. The lighting overhead was just right; the stool and tabletop were the perfect height. On the couches that faced each other on the small stage in front of the floor-to-ceiling windows, a mother and child played with puzzles (a typical pastime from years ago, too), and on mismatched wooden chairs, two performers from the night before chatted over a cup of joe. Every customer and staff member seemed to inspire me in some way. When my protagonist, Livia, goes to a bar to discuss Franz’s addiction, the bartender and drink were inspired by a mixologist I met while writing; the three volunteers in the Alarm office scene are based on three activist-minded women I met while writing. I talked Chicago history with teachers, I talked poetry with lyricists, I talked research with librarians. I found critique readers for my book, I found blog readers for my website, I found community. In return, I’ve supported events and publicized my love for this place. I’ve attended gigs for new musicians I’ve met. I’ve become friends with the baristas. I found my place, and it’s made an incredible impact on my writing.
If you, too, have a favorite writing place, please comment.
The Friendly Lounge - 6731 Roosevelt Road, Berwyn IL - 708.484.9794
Open Weekdays 7-2 and Weekends 8-12
Lots of soul-searching going on. I understand that clarification is needed in character relations; I understand that in cutting the first 50 pages of background, I was bound to miss something in the umpteenth rewrite, and the explanation of a brother’s death is it; I understand that there are grammatical errors I overlooked. All of that is doable. All of that means some dedication on days off, and I’ll still achieve the “by the end of 2015” goal. The problem is, I also understand that somewhere along the line, I have to answer to the omission of time, that my middle transition isn’t as effective as it could be. Previous readers made comments, but no one seemed distracted enough to say that the book was incomplete; I started thinking that, with a little bit of revision, it will work. After all, I’ve been plugging away at this thing for eight years (eight years with the current point of view and story line, even more years if you count the vignettes that were created prior to the notion of turning my ideas into a novel-length piece of historical fiction).
So the question becomes, what do I do? Is the book enough without revisiting the passage of time, without writing a whole new section to be inserted right smack dab in the middle of the “final” draft? Do I hire a professional agent or editor to help me with this decision making? Do I go ahead and put self-publication on hold and make the necessary additions to make the story more complete? Do I need to tie up loose ends with the antagonist, too, instead of using the unknown as a player in Book Two, when I haven’t the faintest clue if there will ever be a Book Two? Or do I simply make the edits that I know I can accomplish and publish the work as is? Deep down, I feel like it’s not there yet, but will it EVER be there? Will I ever truly be finished with the story and feel confident in its completion?
Today’s post was supposed to be a reflection about starting the November Poem-a -Day Chapbook Challenge and a plug to read a new poem that was written this week, but either I didn’t have the time or I didn’t argue with my excuses. I have no poem. I have no challenge reflection. I have nothing but some soul-searching.
The upshot: When discussing this situation with my sixteen year old son, he told me to wait until all the critiques come back, maybe someone would have a suggestion. He told me that I was further along than I have ever been, and that's good. And he's right. It's a journey, and soul-searching is good, where I am is good, and where I'm heading, no matter how long it takes, is good.
WRITERS MUST BE ACTIVE READERS: Why I encourage subscribing to Library of America’s “Story of the Week”
It’s not that we don’t love a good story; we love. It’s not that we don’t know the importance of reading; we know. It’s not that we don’t have access to classic books; we have. But let’s be perfectly honest. What we don’t always have is the time to delve into a novel of literary merit. I tout myself as an avid reader, but frankly, if I wasn’t a high school English teacher, would I be picking up Charles Dickens? Probably not. That’s a shame, really, because we learn from example in everything we do, and as writers, there’s no better learning experience than reading a work of fine literature that has stood the test of time. There it is again—TIME.
We read what is presented to us in small bursts because we don’t have time to become engrossed and committed to larger works. We scroll through posts and quotes on Twitter; we click on articles and updates on Facebook; we tap on the abbreviated sentences of texts. We are readers, indeed, but the brevity of today’s analysis is the antithesis of Great Expectations. As writers, we need to be actively engaged with a text, and the activity is lost when not exposed to exemplary writing. So, do we simply pick up any book and force ourselves to plow through a chapter each night? No, “any book” is not the answer because we need quality. Therefore, I highly suggest subscribing to the Library of America’s “Story of the Week.". Each week I open my email and think these links to be treasured gems. And they are. I might not get to it that day, but at some point in the next few days, I will read that piece, or the author’s name might inspire me to use the search box to check a different title by the same writer. In any case, it’s there—not a 400+ page novel, but not a 400 character post, either.
Today’s story is written by Clark Ashton Smith, and it’s called “Genius Loci.” I had never heard of Clark Ashton Smith, but in the first paragraph I was inspired by his description of a meadow.
There is nothing but a sedgy meadow, surrounded on three sides by slopes of yellow pine. A dreary little stream flows in from the open end, to lose itself in a cul-de-sac of cat-tails and boggy ground. The stream, running slowly and more slowly, forms a stagnant pool of some extent, from which several sickly-looking alders seem to fling themselves backward, as if unwilling to approach it. A dead willow leans above the pool, tangling its wan, skeleton-like reflection with the green scum that mottles the water.
“...tangling its wan, skeleton-like reflection with the green scum that mottles the water.” I love that imagery! This paragraph does not set the same stage as a meadow filled with flowers and green grasses, the kind of scene I think of when I hear the word “meadow.” This type of quality reading has inspired me to go back to my own writing and pick out what I thought were descriptive paragraphs. How can I make them better? Do I have the best verbs, like Smith’s alders that “fling” or the willow that “leans..., tangling”? Have I set a tone with my description, like the gloominess that settles into Smith’s scene?
Today’s advice is to go to http://www.loa.org and subscribe. Thirty seconds is enough time to click and type in your email address. You’ll be doing yourself a favor; you’ll be giving yourself a gift. Happy Reading and Writing!