Tom Berner believes that if the “prose flows,” a story will hook readers.
Over the years, a lot of prose has flowed from the 69-year-old Benner Township resident’s fingertips — books, articles, op-ed columns, social media postings, a blog called “The Spectator.”
Married with four daughters, R. Thomas Berner — his preferred byline — takes writing seriously, as befitting a former newspaper editor and retired Penn State journalism professor who admires literary journalism and still reads stories with a grammarian’s critical eye.
He retired from Penn State in 2003 after 28 years on the faculty.
Today, as a freelance writer, editor and photographer, he continues to explore life with the same curiosity that took him to China twice as a Fulbright scholar.
What enticed you get into the journalism field?
That’s actually on my blog if you can go back far enough, but I’ll tell you the story. I had a crush on the editor of my high school newspaper. And this was a way to get close to her, to not only work on the staff, but to help paste up the paper. Remember, we’re talking back in the early ’60s.
And one thing led to another. There was an opening at my local paper. I was a stringer for the paper, doing sports stuff, and then I was hired full-time.
One of the funny things about it was this girl’s next-door neighbor was the publisher of the local paper. She actually put in a good word for me. But the punch line is, she became a missionary. I tell you, it would have never worked.
What are some of the things you enjoyed about journalism?
Well, I think the best job I had in the newspaper business was being city editor of the CDT.
It was a lot of fun. You were the ... All the stuff, the daily news, flowed through you. And it could be anything.
My phone would ring and I might be taking an obituary. And then the phone would ring, and it would be a fatal accident somewhere.
What led you to go into teaching?
I was working on my master’s degree in journalism. My bachelor’s is in English, just for the record. And I was working on my master’s in journalism when they needed somebody to teach part-time, because they had this Watergate flood of students.
And so I got hired, part-time ... then I got hired again, and then some faculty member quit mid-year. Which is just weird in academics. There’s a calendar in academia. Suddenly, this position was open, this full-time position was open, and I was encouraged to apply for it. I did and got hired.
I expected to be there for seven years and then out in the street.
Things turned out differently.
What did you like about teaching feature writing?
It became a great revelation to me that factual writing could be put into story form.
What triggered the revelation?
I can’t say positively it was one specific story. But if I recall, it was a story about illegal immigrants by John Crewdson of The New York Times.
What captivated you?
Well, it was a short story. It had a lot of description in it, dialogue, et cetera. In fact, I think the main character was (Don) Bernabé Garay, and the dateline was “Why, Arizona.”
That intrigued me, and then I went from there and I did a research project. With the help of a graduate assistant, we tracked down more stories that were like that in newspapers. I ended up writing a monograph about it. And then somebody asked me to make it into a book, which I did, which is called “Writing Literary Features.”
Now, I will tell you, I wish I had not used that title because it confuses. People think of “literary” and they think of fiction. And I got away from (using “literary features”) and I emphasized to my students that it was “narrative non-fiction.”
What I liked to do with my students is point out to them that what I was teaching them to do — They had two major assignments: a 1,500-word (story) and a 3,000-word (story); a news feature and a profile — was how to write a book.
With changes in journalism and the online revolution, do you see a future for narrative non-fiction?
Why will that stick around?
Because it’s fact-based storytelling, and people still want stories.
Do you think people will still have the attention spans to follow those kinds of stories?
If they’re well-written, I don’t think (the length) matters. That’s my argument. If the prose flows, the reader will follow.
Who are some of your favorite writers in that form?
I’m really more into the historical folks, like Tom Wolfe, for example. Jon Franklin. In fact, Jon and I have corresponded over the years many times. (John) McPhee. Tracy Kidder. ... Frankly, I could not cite a lot of current newspaper guys or gals.
Language is fluid and it changes. I wonder what you think of today’s English in a social media and online age.
No. 1, I don’t think I totally accept your premise that language is changing. I want to give you one story.
Several years ago, when I was teaching online, (Penn State’s) World Campus, and one of my students said, “Well, LOL. Our generation invented all this shorthand.” I said, “Wait a second.” I said, “I was in the United States Navy, and we were using shorthand then, and I’m sure there were people before us.” Telegraphy. So this use of that shorthand is not new. It’s part of the language, so I don’t get excited about that, unless I can’t figure out what it means. So I don’t think that’s a big deal.
... One of the things I did not do, I did not correct my students’ e-mail. I may have done it in the beginning, but then I realized: “(Editing) is a barrier to communication. This is a casual, informal discussion we’re having here.” So one of the things I got away from very quickly was browbeating a student over some mistake in his e-mails.
Do you still read stories critically?
I still do, in fact. I would think it more an editor’s eye than a professor’s eye. That’s because my background is really ... I was hired (at Penn State) because they needed somebody to teach the editing course. ... That’s sort of the way I see myself, as an editor, not a reporter.
Just the other day, in the Penn Stater blog, one of my former students used the word “duo” with a plural verb. And I said, “That doesn’t sound right.” I looked it up, and sure enough, “duo” was singular, even though it means two. Just my instinct told me it was wrong, but I wanted to make sure. But I didn’t send him an e-mail, so perhaps I’ve mellowed that way.
Writers and editors have pet peeves, such as confusing “its” and “it’s.” What are some of yours?
Well, “persuade” and “convince.” They’re misused a lot. “Literally” drives me up the wall.
The overuse of it?
Well, you called it the overuse. I would say the use.
Today, with social media and blogs, there’s a proliferation of writing, but a lot of it is bad. It seems a very casual sense has crept into writing. It’s more like e-mails and Facebook posting. Do you think standards have been relaxed?
Well, first, let me say, to quote (the late former State College mayor and CDT editor) Bill Welch: “Writing is hard work. It is not easy.” And it takes a lot to write well.
A lot of people just don’t put that much into it, or don’t have the time. So that’s one. And the other issue is: No writer is above the pencil. We all need an editor. That’s what’s missing a lot: an editor, somebody to say, “Don’t do this.”
You’ve worked with many young writers as an editor and teacher. What advice would you give people to become better?
Tom Wolfe once said, “It doesn’t get any easier.” You’ve just to keep doing it. I think I say this in one of my books, and I don’t think I stole it from Wolfe. It’s not like math: two plus two equals four. It’s not. You’ve just got to start over every time.
Is there a connection between your writing and your photography?
I’ve actually been taking photographs since about 1955. This is not brand new to me. It’s been off and on. I even had my own darkroom at one time in my life. I have a lot of black and white negatives. They’re in a safe back in my office, because I have some really priceless photographs of my children.
I think photography, in one regard, is the same as writing, in that you’re telling stories. You’re showing things. “Show, don’t tell” and all that stuff.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a really good project. It’s called “Pennsylvania Barn Stories.” I am now in the third year of this project. This is a book I’m doing.
My wife and I spent a lot of time on Interstates 81 and 80 as we were moving back (from New Mexico). And I kept seeing these gorgeous barns — lovely, photogenic barns, let’s put it that way. Some of them were collapsing, but they were photogenic.
And I kept saying, “Wow, I’d really like to take photographs ... But how many people have done photo books on barns?” I’m sure there were millions. It’s not just unique. And I don’t consider myself a good enough photographer that I could do one that somebody would want to publish. So I said, “What can I do that’s unique?”
And it finally hit me: Some barns have stories behind them. What are the stories?
What keeps you exploring and learning?
As a writer and a photographer, you’re just always looking for something new to do.