WORTHINGTON — Daniel Bernstrom has always had a thing for telling stories.
Today, the Minnesota West Community and Technical College English professor is the author of two children’s picture books, with another to release soon and others in the works. It’s an accomplishment he has worked hard for, but it’s hardly the start of where the young fiction author’s own personal story began.
Bernstrom hasn’t always been a pen-and-paper kind of storyteller. In fact, as someone who struggled a great deal with English classes throughout his adolescence, it was never his plan.
But the plans he did have changed in what seemed like the blink of an eye.
Toward the conclusion of his undergraduate years at University of Northwestern, St. Paul, Bernstrom began a career as a visual storyteller. He spent hours editing video.
It was a short-lived career, as he began getting physically ill on the job.
“The screen started to make me sick, so I'd throw up, get dizzy and get nauseous and would have to lie down for like a day,” Bernstrom said. “So something had to change.”
The nausea and dizziness was linked to stress on Bernstrom’s eyes, as he has a hereditary degenerative eye disease. Similar to macular degeneration, which is known to damage the retina, Bernstrom’s eyesight was seriously compromised before he turned 25. He couldn’t get relief from prescription glasses or contact lenses, since the disease impaired the eye’s retina as opposed to its lens.
He was blind.
“It’s like I’m walking in a (Claude) Monet painting. It’s fuzzy, all the time,” Bernstrom said about his spectrum of blindness, which he said — despite a common misconception — isn’t total blackness.
So, he switched gears. Bernstrom applied to 10 graduate schools with the new plan of a career in creative writing. He was rejected.
“I think it’s because I had tons of errors throughout my work, but I couldn’t see my errors because my eyes kind of blended things together,” Bernstrom said.
Time to face the music — Bernstrom enrolled in BLIND, Inc. to learn how to adjust to his new reality.
By this point, Bernstrom had forfeited his driver’s license. Blindness training taught him how to navigate Minneapolis’ busiest streets blindfolded and with a support cane.
“Yeah, I probably should have died a couple times,” Bernstrom said, recalling drivers yelling at him, honking and feeling cars speed by him as he attempted to cross the street.
He eventually enrolled in Hamline University’s Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing. Then, at age 29, he published his first children’s picture book, “One Day in the Eucalyptus, Eucalyptus Tree.” Two years later came “Gator, Gator, Gator!” In January 2020, he’ll release his third book, “Big Papa and the Time Machine.”
Bernstrom can’t help but chuckle about the rhyming and poetic children’s books he’s written, as they’ve turned out to be the opposite of what he initially hoped to write.
“I hate rhyming, I hate poetry — I do,” he said, laughing. “I can’t help it. It just happens.”
While he’s not writing young adult novels like he’d planned, Bernstrom tries to live by his own advice that he gives his students.
“You have to be who you are,” he said he tells his students. “You are so unique and different; no one has never seen you before. Write like you need to write.”
Writing is Bernstrom’s passion today, and he carves out dedicated writing time in the early morning. It’s a person that Bernstrom didn’t know existed in his juvenile self. In fact, Bernstrom admitted, he was terrible at English.
“I had to repeat first grade twice because I couldn’t read,” he said. “I don’t know if I was a little dyslexic. Even today I can’t spell worth the life of me. I mix up words all the time. But I love to tell stories.”
Bernstrom’s desire to continue writing was a major factor that based his decision to trade in river town living for Minnesota’s prairie. A former adjunct professor and learning resource center coordinator at Minnesota State College Southeast in Red Wing, the Iowa native visited Worthington for the first time on a tour with his former college.
The visit sparked his interest in the Minnesota West, and he acted upon it. Bernstrom, along with wife Heather and their four children — LaVonne, 6; Grace, 4; Haven, 3; and Gwendolyn 7 months — relocated to Worthington, where Bernstrom began teaching in January.
While he teaches, his work as an author also remains a priority, of which Bernstrom said the college has been very supportive.
“I want to stay here as long as they’ll have me,” he said. “I’m very happy here.”
Today, Bernstrom’s eyesight has significantly improved, thanks to a treatment by Mayo Clinic. Although he’ll never see with 20/20 vision, the improvement has allowed him to regain the ability to accomplish many daily tasks others take for granted.
“When they predict you’re going to lose everything until it’s black, the prospect that you can see for the rest of your life is unbelievable,” Bernstrom said about what Mayo gave him back.
Through his situation, Bernstrom learned more than the rhythmic pattern to walk with a cane — he developed a good sense of humor. That proved necessary, as Bernstrom experienced firsthand what he described as discrimination against disabled people.
“When I go out with my white cane, people treat me far different than when I don’t have it,” he said. “I’d rather laugh about it or develop a sense of humor for awkward situations.”
And there have been plenty. From hugging trees after colliding with one or trying to order from a fast food menu, Bernstrom doesn’t let those moments damper his spirits.
“I still go out and wave at mailboxes,” he said, laughing. “But (I) don’t want to be rude to people if they're out there.”