Tag Archives: Andre Dubus III

An essay of the empty nest

My “Wild Ducks,” a braided memoir essay, appears in River Teeth.

My daughter Claire, at eleven, sledding with her puppy Jack, two players in the essay.

The past few years, working on my memoir of farming in Appalachia, I’ve generated tons of material—twice, 500 pages—and have spun some passages into stand-alone pieces. The published ones include an essay on my hired hand who died; another about a legendary pond-builder with a tragic secret; one about the historic first meeting of my future wife and my father; yet another about my father’s return to farming in retirement and his decline and death.

When I first began adapting essays from the memoir, I noticed I had some vivid fragments of our kids growing up on our farm with animals. I liked the vignettes, chained them together, and told myself I’d written a postmodern collage. Here’s an excerpt from one, about hatching some wild mallards in an incubator:

      Claire and Tom and I watched the ducklings hatch. Wriggling like wet seals from the rocks, they emerged from their brittle cocoons. These were some sweet ducklings—literally: they smelled like maple syrup. I’d misted the eggs daily with water during incubation, using a recycled syrup bottle as a makeshift sprayer, and the incubator’s warmth had reconstituted a residue. The sugary scent had passed through the eggshells and coated the ducklings. All seven hatched, and when the black-and-yellow brood huddled in our children’s laps, the room filled with the smell of Sunday morning flapjacks.

In a more pensive scene I reflect upon a photo I took of our kids with a lamb that same spring. It was our first lambing, everything had gone wrong, and I felt I’d stopped getting the work-life balance right to boot:

Tom, nine, sits cross-legged and tries to smile, his mouth pressed into a downward line that bunches his pink cheeks. He wears a blue tee shirt with white bands, and he must have been in a growth spurt because his canvas pants ride up his legs. Tom scratches at his neck with his left hand—he’s bothered by his long hair, which forms a dark blond helmet on his head and hangs down his neck and in his eyes. His little face peers out as if from under a haystack. Our Saturday barbershop ritual has dissolved here, a casualty of house construction and farm busyness and new school routines and the unpredictable weekend hours of Appalachian barbers.

When I waved the kids into place that day for their portrait with a lamb, I wanted to capture a culmination, and I suppose I did. But now I can’t look at the photograph in its cherry frame on my desk without seeing something else. . . .

Editors I sent that essay to, the first version of “Wild Ducks,” schooled me with rejections. Apparently it didn’t work. And yet some of the rejections, weirdly for that genre, were complimentary and encouraging. I concluded the passages were fine but needed unifying, needed something more. I hadn’t a clue what, so I put the piece aside.

Then one morning the summer before last, as I was slaving away on a rewrite of the memoir, I began to tell a new story, about when my wife, Kathy, and I took Claire off to college in Chicago. The account, or much of it, was played for humor. How Claire was angered by our overbearing emotion; how my wife and I melted down differently, and at different times, locations, and rates, as we sent our first born over that threshold of adulthood; how I lost the ability to walk after our farewell restaurant meal—an allergic reaction to MSG—and how Kathy, lost in her own grief, ignored my crisis in our motel room.

I had it! The through-story. The foreground thread I needed to hang the baubles upon. It would be a braided essay, a structure I’d grown fond of unto obsession.

I’d read a neat essay by Heather Sellers, in a 2009 Writers Digest, extolling the form (and later I read her own braided essay she’d adapted from her fine memoir, You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know). The problem with many essays, Sellers said, is that they’re only telling one story and that’s boring. “No room to wiggle around . . . discover the interesting, previously unnoticed thing. Art relies on surprise. In order to engage the reader (and yourself as a writer), you have to braid. You can’t be confusing, but you can’t spell it all out, either. The human mind, when it reads, needs something to figure out.” (For more, see my post on her explanation.)

College girl: Claire pets our new sheep guardian puppy.

College girl: Claire pets our new sheep guardian puppy.

Braiding is just telling two stories (or more: see my post on how “Our Secret” by Susan Griffin employs three) by alternating between one in the foreground and one unspooling farther in the past. The structure is used in so many novels, narrative nonfiction accounts, memoirs, and movies because it works. A great example is Sean Penn’s movie based on Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild. The foreground story starts with the protagonist, Christopher McCandless, establishing his camp in the Alaskan bush; the movie alternates with scenes of the people he met on the way to getting there. The backstory is incredibly moving because even though we know where he ended up it shows how and why, and because we watch him turn his back repeatedly on love and hearth in favor of the spiritually purifying quest we’re watching, in the foreground story, slowly kill him. In fact, the backstory is more compelling than the wilderness thread, even though we know it’s “over,” in the past, because it’s populated with people and complex emotions.

I cast my foreground story in “Wild Ducks,” taking Claire to college, in present tense because I liked its immediacy. I liked too how present tense set the foreground events off from the past-tense thread of her growing up on the farm. Here’s the end of the essay’s opening passage, set on Claire’s campus in Chicago (which is followed by a line break and that story of the ducks we hatched):

      Outside Claire’s dormitory we perch on a bench in a patio’s nook. Coneflowers hang in the warm air around us like pink shuttlecocks; a fat bumblebee clings to the brown button eye of one wavering blossom. Kathy reviews the use of debit cards and fumbles a speech about making the most of one’s college years. Claire glances toward her stone dormitory. “Kathy,” I say, “if we don’t leave, she can’t miss us.” I hug Claire, then Kathy does, holding on longer. She pats Claire’s shoulder. “Call us she says,” turning away as her face swells with emotion. She’s looking in her purse for a tissue.

Claire stares at Kathy’s lowered head and throws out her arms in theatrical frustration. Parental emotion, especially her mother’s, is too heavy to lug into her new life.

I’d forgotten I’d sent “Wild Ducks” to River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative—they’d had it for about nine months—and when one of the editors, Joe Mackall, called me I was stunned. “It’s like E.B. White meets . . .” and he named two other writers, but I was too flummoxed to follow. “Regret runs like a thread through it,” he added. Or something. I was babbling my thanks.

Writer friends had worked me over for “Wild Ducks” good and hard since I’d sent it off so happily to River Teeth. One felt it wasn’t reflective enough, and she had a point—but now it was too late for a major recasting, just some tweaking. Another said I acted like a “big baby” in the MSG scene; but I’d inflicted the whole manuscript on her, and since she didn’t like my anxious persona, that scene late in the book of my flopping around and bleating for help apparently was the last straw. I disagreed: I couldn’t walk and was truly alarmed, plus I was playing the scene for humor. But I felt another scene, since cut from the book, where I tease Kathy seemed puerile. It was, however, an accurate depiction of my sometimes childish sense of humor. Truth in nonfiction!

Anyway, I’m thrilled to be in River Teeth. My fellow contributors include two writers I admire: author of The House of Sand and Fog Andre Dubus III, who writes about his surprise and vulnerability when he was confronted by people pained by his perceptions or by their family secrets being aired in his gripping and gritty memoir, Townie; and Lee Martin, novelist and memoirist, recently interviewed on this blog, who in “Selling Out in the Writing of Memoir” likewise explores hurting peoples’ feelings.

My own second-guessing aside, I’m mostly pleased with my essay, now available on Scribd, where I’ve posted some other memoir excerpts, even if neither Kathy nor Claire can bear to read it. For better or worse, a writer comes to regard with a cooler eye his raw material—the upsetting event, the nagging memory, the painful emotion—that he shapes into story. And he assumes the narrative’s other actors share his clinical view. They don’t; they can’t. My experience was not theirs, yet it triggers and perhaps threatens theirs.

I’m glad I memorialized that trip we took years ago with Claire. I made meaning from it, distilled something clear and hard from the murk of memory. And now I also have that day when I finally figured out, with a yelp of joy, how to tell the story.

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Filed under braids, threads, craft, technique, film/photography, humor, memoir, MY LIFE, revision, structure

Richard Ford’s novel ‘Canada’

A retrospective narrator gives Ford’s fiction the feel of memoir.

Canada by Richard Ford. HarperCollins, 420 pp.

The hand of a master storyteller . . .

. . . “Canada” is blessed with two essential strengths in equal measure — a mesmerizing story driven by authentic and fully realized characters, and a prose style so accomplished it is tempting to read each sentence two or three times before being pulled to the next.—Andre Dubus III in his Times review

I’m reading two memoirs now, one an immersion and the other postmodern, but the book that’s riveting me is Richard Ford’s acclaimed new novel, Canada. I’m about halfway through and eagerly return to its world. I say about halfway because it’s in two big acts, and I’ve finished Part One; but there’s a tiny Part Three, maybe one more short chapter. Meaning, in other words, it’s really an epilogue, and it annoys me, when writers do that, call an epilogue an act. But that’s my problem, I guess, and may only mean I want to do it myself and annoy some irritable someone. I’ll find out, when I get there, whether Ford earns his designation. Which I doubt, fervently, in advance. Yet maybe, after all, an epilogue would make this great novel seem too much like a memoir, and act could be the correct literary term here.

That’s what struck me right off, how much like a memoir Canada is in its presentation of story. Along with Ford’s pleasing sentences, of course: their balance and his deft dashes, employed the way his narrator would use them—the classic parenthetical, sure, but also how he jogs with them at the end of sentences—and the way the man who tells the tale misuses “who” for “whom” and uses “only” in place of but. (The latter feels so true and colloquial, or at least individual and believably and unconsciously idiosyncratic.)

The narrator is a middle-aged schoolteacher, Dell Parsons, whose parents robbed a bank in North Dakota when he and his twin sister were fifteen. Ford exploits the dual narrator (Dell then, a young fifteen, and now, when he’s about sixty) to great effect. Mostly the story is told through the boy’s eyes. Ford smoothly explains how Dell knows some things by having Dell tell us his mother wrote a memoir in prison. A big difference between this novel and a memoir, so far, is we don’t get any wailing by the adult Dell of how his parents and their crime messed up his life. It’s clear it would, and did, to a point, but that’s implied. And worlds reside in that phrase “to a point,” for Dell is an individual and individuals are, in good fiction as in life, unpredictable.

What really hooked me at the start was the way Ford-as-Dell depicts and describes his parents. They are ordinary middle-class postwar people: only they are not so ordinary, like anyone when looked at closely. And Ford manages to set them in motion in your mind’s eye so you feel like you know them—or, rather, don’t know them in the same way we know-and-don’t-know anyone we meet. How we place and then imagine a person by appearance, countenance, dress, and voice. How we notice in an instant and largely unconsciously their shoes, complexion, smell. Ford has looked closely and he’s thought carefully; you feel yourself, for so many reasons, in the hands of a master.

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Filed under craft, technique, diction or vocabulary, fiction, memoir, Persona, Voice, POV, punctuation, REVIEW, syntax

Dubus & Russo wonder: Why Memoir?

Just two (famous) novelists enjoyin’ their coffee & nonfiction

Andre Dubus III and Richard Russo discuss their memoirs at The Daily Beast:

“How strange to write a memoir to find out what happens.”—Richard Russo, author of the forthcoming Elsewhere: A Memoir

 “I felt I was stepping into deep mysteries when supposedly I knew the story but didn’t.”—Andre Dubus III, author of Townie: A Memoir

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Filed under Author Interview, fiction, memoir, NOTED

Don’t outline, he said

No writing advisors are more contradictory than those who say you must plan and outline vs. those who say you must plunge in and discover. Which works? Who the hell knows? What works is what works for you. I suspect that, like most things, the sweet spot lies somewhere in the middle. I understand those who decry the wasted effort of seat-of-the-pants scribblers. But I also believe in discovery, which can’t be planned (though outliners say discovery emerges best when the writer has an orderly plan that frees the mind to create). I do know that outlining after writing is valuable to see patterns, connections, redundancies.

In a helpful blog I follow, Pen on Fire, a podcast series of interviews with writers, novelist Andre Dubus III weighs in with the anti-outline faction. “Even a rainy Tuesday afternoon when you are worried about bills is a better day because you wrote,” he told interviewer Barbara DeMarco-Barrett, summarizing his philosophy and adding, “Don’t outline it. Go one true sentence to the next and see where it goes.”

In the interview, Dubus is frank and passionate—a regular carpenter- and teacher-guy as well as a literary artist who takes three or four years to finish a book. I’d enjoyed the movie made from Dubus’s House of Sand and Fog and read his The Garden of Last Days, the novelist’s meditation upon the final days of the 9/11 hijackers, who hit strip bars in Florida before their suicide mission. In addition to his no-outlines edict, he made an interesting distinction between fiction that is “made up”—planned and plotted—and that which is true because it is “imagined.”

Some excerpts:

“There’s an essay I’d recommend by Tim O’Brien called ‘The Magic Show’ [collected in Writers on Writing]. He makes a really brilliant point about characterization: Characters are flat when the writer has already figured out what he or she is trying to say . . .  We do a disservice to our own imaginations and the figures that reside there. I tell my writing students, ‘Don’t outline your stories.’ There are some wonderful writers who do but there are many more who don’t. I find it much more helpful not to. One of the things you do when you outline is send a message to your imagination that you don’t trust it and you give it this safety net that I submit it does not need. And then when your characters show up in this thing you’ve contrived, they are going to have a job to do, things you need them to say and not say. Then characters become puppets and you become the puppeteer, and I think the reader always sees that. What O’Brien says is successful characterization is not a nailing down, which TV does all the time . . . clichés that do a disservice to how wildly mysterious and symphonic and miraculous we are inside and how, frankly, we can never know another. If you go into writing with an open heart, you are going to find things you didn’t know were there.”

“I don’t think writers have to worry about plot nearly as much as they think they do. So much of this is an act of faith, this daily surrendering to this weird thing we do. But the horse knows the way. If the heart of character-driven fiction is character, then setting and place are the lungs. And without that the character can’t breath. If you have a real character in a real place, then things are going to start happening. And you can deal with plot later.”

“I am on this book tour and I have a notebook with me, not because I am disciplined but because if I go without writing I feel far away from me. I tell young writers that if they can go three months without writing they probably aren’t a writer. If they feel strange after three days they probably are writers.”

“I do a lot of research on jobs. I went down to Florida and went in the strip clubs these men went to. For instance, I did not know that the strippers aren’t paid by the house they work for—they have to pay the house. I read thirty books on Islam and read the Koran over and over. Until I felt like I had enough knowledge. I would ask a prostitute where she had sex, but I would never ask how she felt. Because that’s the joy of writing. You research the what’s but not the whys. You get the whys through the writing.”

“I get stuck all the time. I think we get stuck when we write a lie and won’t admit it to ourselves. We know we’ve got to do some major revision and we don’t have enough courage to do it. The other thing is we’ve just stopped asking enough questions. Sometimes that sticking point is weeks or months.”

The Pen on Fire blog is here, and the interview with Dubus is here.

In April 2009 Dubus told Newsweek his most essential books:

1. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. “By the final page, I was trembling.”

2. Selected Stories by Andre Dubus. “When I read these gems, my late father is back on earth.”

3. The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake by Breece D’J Pancake. “A dark and poetic collection.”

4. A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn. “This work of history reads like a Russian novel and allows its subjects not to be generals and presidents but real men and women.”

5. Selected Stories by Alice Munro. “Her characters are more alive than some living human beings!”

A book he frequently returns to: The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway. “Honest, wounded, naked, yet ironic.”

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Filed under discovery, fiction, memoir, NOTED, structure, working method