Two Midlife Memoirs: A Sequel Shows Command of Structure
I met David Berner in the pages of his first memoir, Accidental Lessons, so reading his second memoir Any Road Will Take You There feels like hanging out with an old friend. The second memoir turned out to be quite different from the first, so in addition to the pleasure of spending a few more hours with this kind, thoughtful man, I was fascinated to read about him from such a different perspective. The two memoirs together spin a multi-layer tale that offers interesting insights — into the man and into the memoir genre’s potential for rich literary value.
In the first memoir, Accidental Lessons, Berner, terrified that his life is superficial, quits his job and separates from his wife. The cliché of midlife suggests a man running away from responsibility and trying to live out his childhood. However, Berner doesn’t follow that hackneyed model. He takes a job teaching at a school in an under-privileged neighborhood. To find his new self image, he attempts to help other young people find theirs.
Accidental Lessons is framed within his year as a new teacher, a position that is accompanied with a bit of humiliation. While other teachers have been doing it for years, he is a total novice. He teaches his young students how to prepare for life, and at the same time, he is learning similar lessons. By the end, he’s starting to get the hang of it.
His story structure, bracketed within the rhythm of a school year, is a perfect canvas on which to paint a journey. But I didn’t fully appreciate Berner’s cleverness in finding a good wrapper for a memoir until I read his second book.
Sequel Does Not Simply Follow Chronologically
Many second memoirs simply follow the chronological sequence, picking up where the first one left off. For example, Frank McCourt’s first memoir Angela’s Ashes was about growing up in Ireland and his second memoir ‘Tis was about becoming an adult in New York. Carlos Eire’s first memoir Waiting for Snow in Havana was about his childhood during the Cuban Revolution. Despite Carlos Eire’s fascinating experiments with flashbacks and flashforwards, in essence his second memoir, Learning to Die in Miami is a sequel to his first, mainly about his attempt to survive as an orphan in the United Stated.
However, David Berner’s second memoir, Any Road Will Take You There, does not simply continue the journey of the school teacher. Instead, the second memoir jumps to a different model altogether. In the second memoir, he rents an RV and takes a road trip with his two sons and an old buddy. The small troupe drives along the same route Jack Kerouac’s characters travel in the landmark book On the Road.
Kerouac’s book, published in 1957, foreshadowed the counterculture of the 1960s and inspired many young men to hit the road and find their truths somewhere other than home. It certainly exerted a profound influence on young David Berner. In Any Road Will Take You There, he tries to pass this literary inspiration to his sons. So the outer story is the road trip itself. And that deceptively simple storyline provides a backdrop on which he paints a complex inner journey.
Because the road trip gives him time to think, the memoir turns into a meditation. Through mini-essays disguised in reveries, Berner explores the relationship of fathers and sons through three generations. And by contrasting his road trip with Jack Kerouac’s he offers new insight into the meaning of the Beat Generation fifty years later. I’ll say more about these deeper dimensions of the memoir in the second and third parts of this review.
Lesson for Memoir Writers
In addition to its artistically brash move to a new structure, Berner’s second memoir contains an interesting clue for writers who wonder. “How much backstory should I include in my memoir?”
The first memoir, Accidental Lessons, provides a wonderful example of a memoir that includes hardly any backstory. He jumps right into his crisis, without saying much about his earlier life. Even though the memoir offers very little backstory about Berner’s previous life, it offers fabulous backstory for David Berner’s second memoir. By reading the first, you gain insight into the character in the second.
The fact that Berner branched out into an entirely different model for his second memoir is a tribute to his commitment to the genre. Each book is excellent in its own right, and together they offer valuable lessons for memoir writers. First, you don’t need to be limited by any one model, and second the road might be longer than you think. There may be a sequel in there waiting to be told.
Does your story have enough complexity to break it into two parts? If so, describe the story arc of each of the two parts. How would the first part provide backstory for the second?
This is the first part of a series about David Berner’s memoir Any Road Will Take You There. For the second part, click here.