I’ve just finished Townie, the recently published memoir by Andre Dubus III. I found his first two novels, House of Sand and Fog and The Garden of Last Delights, to be brilliant literary fiction and was eager to see what he’d do with nonfiction. Dubus addresses the tumult of his boyhood after his parents’ divorce, his writer/professor father living on a college campus while he with his mother and three siblings lived hand-to-mouth in various poor and often violent areas. Andre dealt with chronic disappointment, anger, and fear by becoming a fighter and seeking out physical confrontations. As he worked his way through college, still fighting, he stumbled on writing as a new way to discharge emotion, but the old pain and rage still erupted from his fists from time to time until an internal sea change occurred and he handled roiling threats with words. The last third of Townie in which Dubus describes becoming a writer is captivating. His observations about writing honestly, woven into the narrative, are thoughtful and evocative. He describes how he worked early in his development:
“I’d pull the musty curtain closed and sit and sharpen my pencil and stare at what I’d written the day before. So much of this seemed to be staring, waiting really, waiting for something true, no matter how small, to reveal itself. I’d write the wrong words, the false or slightly false, and nothing substantial would come. I’d cross it out, this act of cutting a gesture of good faith that somehow summoned the glimpse of something real; the front tire of a red tricycle, a woman hanging up the receiver in a phone booth, a car pulling too fast out of a driveway—then there were only a few seconds to find the words to catch those images before they faded and I’d be left staring again. But if I caught one, then that thing led to the next to the next and some days it was hard to stop though I knew I had to… .” (Dubus III, Townie, p. 291)
Later—and during this time he was still either protecting or responding to provocation with his fists—he discusses his sickened realization that an autobiographical novel he’d worked on for over two years had gone terribly wrong. His understanding of why has to do with the importance of listening first—which is essentially what he’d done in his first efforts, but wasn’t this time. He says, “What I did know is that this novel was dead and I had killed it. I’d been trying too hard to say something—about poverty, about over-whelmed single mothers, about absent fathers and tough neighborhoods and all the trouble that could be found there, but most of all I’d been trying to make the reader feel sorry for the children, especially the teenage boy I’d based solely on me. I’d been talking and talking but not listening. The result were scenes that did not ring true, characters who felt more like marionettes than people, a story whose rising arc felt contrived and predictable and false…Why hadn’t I seen this sooner? How could I not have known how rigidly I’d been trying to control this story from its very first line?” (p. 328)
I think writing honestly involves not thinking we know everything about our characters, not forcing them into preordained scenes and roles and words. If they have no capacity to take on a life of their own, to surprise us, then how real can they be? This is why it’s important to be patient with the difficult silences, to wait and listen for what comes.
When Dubus changes internally, he is married and at work on another novel. In a stunning climax, he surprises himself by standing up to a drug dealer on a train with words instead of punches—words that seek the dealer’s humanity as opposed to threatening him. Dubus realizes the connection between his life and his work that works: “A part of me was watching myself do this, the same part that watched my fictional characters say and do things. And when they did that apart from my authorial wishes for them, then they were truly themselves. As I was now, standing before the dealer in the whisking cold, more truly myself. No armor, no sword.” (p.358)
The best work comes when a writer is just a writer, open and vulnerable and listening. No armor, no sword. Just a writer before the morning’s fresh and empty screen listening for what should go there.