There’s a Hamster in the Dashboard (And a Bit of Writing Advice, too)

dog coverI’m so happy to have David Berner here today, along with his charming book of essays, There’s a Hamster in the Dashboard (A Life in Pets). Every essay is a charmer, for sure, but I’ll sappily admit that he had me from the very first story he told, about his boyhood pet, Sally. Because as many of you who’ve followed me for years know, Sally the Crazy Dog was Youngest Junior Hall’s pet, and even though it’s been three years, there are moments when I forget and think Sally is under my desk.

As I read about dogs and cats and a squirrel and even ants, I remembered all the pets who’ve padded through my life, and my children’s lives: Albert the cat and Sally, Fluffo the rabbit, Hermie the hermit crab, and even the not-named-but-still-pet horny toads (that’s what we called the horned lizards we found in our yard in Texas).

It was nice to remember some of my best friends, and I loved hearing about David Berner’s friends; I loved his voice as well as his viewpoint. And when he sent me some writing words of wisdom to share with my readers, I loved that, too. (And I kinda needed some of that discipline, here in the middle of the summer. Bet you could use a little, too!):

Here’s the thing about wanting to be a writer…you have to write.

There is no way around it.

You want to eventually run a marathon, a 5K, or just jog around the block? You have to train for it; get up and do it. So you run. A lot. You want to play better golf? You have to play the holes and go to the range and you have to do it often. You want to lose weight, get in shape? You have to workout and you have to do it on a regular basis, even when you don’t feel like it.

David Berner

It’s the same with writing. There is no muse to wait for, no inspirational moment that hurls you into the work. It’s hard. And just like your day job, sometimes it’s tolerable, sometimes it’s arduous, sometimes it’s a very nice experience. And if you’re lucky, sometimes it’s utter joy.

“There is nothing to writing,” Ernest Hemingway said. “All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

That may be hyperbole. Let’s put things in perspective. Writing is not digging ditches, not physically. But maybe it is metaphorically and emotionally. You are digging holes to find your best words, your best narrative, and to find the time.

So, how do you find time?

Just like running, golfing, or working out, you have to make the time. There is no mystery. Get up an hour earlier each day. Got to bed an hour later. Write during your lunch break. Write while you wait for the commuter train, while you wait at the doctor’s office, while your children are on a play date. Keep a notebook and write when something interesting comes into your head, when you overhear an attention-grabbing conversation. Write it down. All of it.

I have a friend who wrote an entire novel on small slips of paper he kept in his shirt pocket. Little by little, when he had five or ten minutes, he would write. When he had hundreds of those pieces of paper, he organized them on his laptop into a story, a full-length book. It took a long time, but he did it, inch-by-inch.

I wrote the personal essays in my latest book—There’s a Hamster in the Dashboard: A Life in Pets—one small story/chapter at a time. I squeaked out an hour over a weekend, week after week, until a draft was complete. Any Road Will Take You There, my memoir of a father-son road trip was written on consecutive Sunday mornings for more than a year. A couple of hours just as the sun came up. I was lucky enough to finish the manuscript as a Writer-in-Residence at the Jack Kerouac House in Orlando. But you don’t need that opportunity. It’s nice, certainly. A luxury. But writing it still about finding the time and sticking to it.

You have kids? A spouse? A job? Still, find a sliver of time that is yours. Tell your family that during that one hour, you will be locked inside your room with a laptop and unless the house is on fire, do not bother me. This is YOUR time. They may moan or complain, but they’ll get used to it. And when you have some tremendous stories to share, they will be amazed, proud. They will envy your discipline. My first book—Accidental Lessons—about a year teaching in a troubled Chicago-area school district was written when my children were young. But I got up before six o’clock on Saturdays and wrote for an hour or two until I heard the tapping on the door and the whisper, “Dad, are you up?”

There is no secret formula for finding the time to write. You just have to decide if you are willing to make the sacrifices. For me, it was worth it. And if you are one of those writers who feels you must write, that you don’t feel complete unless you put words on paper, then certainly find your little moments in your busy day and write, write, write.

So here’s the official book summary if I haven’t sold you yet:

A book of essays by award-winning author and journalist David W. Berner is the next best thing to storytelling around a bonfire. In There’s a Hamster in the Dashboard, Berner shares stories of “a life in pets”—from a collie that herds Berner home when the author goes “streaking” through the neighborhood as a two-year-old, to a father crying in front of his son for the only time in his life while burying the family dog on the Fourth of July. And from the ant farm that seems like a great learning experience (until the ants learn how to escape), to the hamster that sets out on its own road trip (but only gets as far as the dashboard). Along the way, Berner shows that pets not only connect us with the animal world, but also with each other and with ourselves. The result is a collection of essays that is insightful and humorous, entertaining and touching.

And here’s where you can pick up your own copy of There’s a Hamster in the Dashboard:

Print or Ebook: Amazon

Print copy only: Dream of Things

But I’ve got a surprise for all of you who’ve read all the way to here: I’m giving away my copy of There’s a Hamster in the Dashboard! If you leave me a comment about one of your pets, I’ll enter you in the drawing (You must be a continental US reader). And if you share about the book on Twitter (#HamsterDash), I’ll add another entry for you. In fact, if you mention David and his book anywhere, I’ll give you another entry. Just let me know where you shared. I’ll keep the drawing open till Thursday and post the winner on the last day of July for Friday’s Fun Find.

‘Cause really, y’all, I found a true gem when I opened There’s a Hamster in the Dashboard (My Life in Pets).