About the author:David W. Berner is a journalist, broadcaster, teacher, and author of two award-winning books: Accidental Lessons, which earned the Royal Dragonfly Grand Prize for Literature, and Any Road Will Take You There, which was a Grand Prize Finalist for the 2015 Hoffer Award for Books. Berner’s stories have been published in a number of literary magazines and journals, and his broadcast reporting and audio documentaries have aired on the CBS Radio Network and dozens of public radio stations across America. He teaches at Columbia College Chicago.
How the Story of Your Pet Can Tell Your Story by David W. Berner
I did not want to write a sappy story. I didn’t have a sappy life, I thought, so a sappy story would not do. But this story was about a dying dog? Aren’t those stories supposed to be sappy? Dripping with sentiment? Mushy?
Then I considered what I was really writing about. It wasn’t about the death of a dog but rather about death itself, how we deal with it, how we cope, and what death means in the scheme of life. That was my story, the bigger picture. This was the true, authentic narrative.
There’s a Hamster in the Dashboard: A Life in Pets is a collection of personal stories about pets—my pets, the pets my children had. But it’s far more than that. These are stories that show how pets catch all of us being utterly human. And so when I wrote the first piece for the collection—“Burying Dogs”—the story of a friend’s dying soft-coated retriever, all the dogs that had died before it, and how my parents had dealt with the death of pets by burying all of them, every single one of them, under the turf in our backyard, I quickly realized the story was not at all about the sadness and the tragedy of dead pets. The story was about my life, my family and how death is part of every life, all our lives.
We may write the facts of a story but what we want to reveal in these personal essays is far deeper. In between the lines of fact-based narratives are the real emotions, the very human stories of who we truly are. As writers we must shine a light in the crevices so the reader can see a story’s true significance. This is how a creative nonfiction writer or a memoirist tells a greater, more nuanced tale, a most authentic story.
With the help of my publisher during the drafting stages, I worked the words of the essays in this collection to uncover something bigger than the story itself. It didn’t have to be profound; it just had to be real and honest. It had to tell my story, divulge a deeper truth about me. That’s what personal essays do, and threading in a good pet story could only help to disclose even more of my reality.
The collection includes stories about dogs, cats, a squirrel, a spider, a reptile, a found turtle, even ants. There are tales of tragedy, regret, and mistakes made. But there are also stories about the love of a parent, the scourge of prejudice, and even the ache of longing. Every pet I have owned carried with it a chapter of my life. With each one I shared a level of curiosity, love, and a touch of melancholy. Not unlike the relationships I’ve had with family, friends, and lovers. Every pet, like every person has brought with it highs and lows, conflict and resolution, loss and discovery—all elements of a good story, my story and yours.
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