Writer Andre Dubus III -- author of House of Sand and Fog, Bluesman, the memoir Townie, and other books -- was driving on the Mass. Pike earlier this afternoon. Heading to UConn for a reading and a series of one-on-ones with six creative writing students there. Dubus, the son of writer Andre Dubus, talked a little about his memoir, his career, reading books on tape and the kinds of things he tries to impart to students. He was taking time off from a book tour from his newest book Dirty Love.
Dubus teaches writing at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. He said when speaking to students he tries to distinguish the craft and work of writing from the business of publishing and making a living.
On the achievement of simply doing the work:
“A lot of writers don’t call themselves a writer until they’re published. It’s a triumph just to look at what’s on that work desk. Just give yourself credit for showing up.”
On publishing: “If you don’t get the work done, there is no career. I try to get them to think of career as secondary and the work as primary.”
Dubus, who says he was an “MFA dropout in the ‘80s,” says that writing programs and writing classes provide the valuable service of giving writers community. “Writing is a solitary act” says Dubus.
“I’ve taught in creative writing programs, and I visit them a lot, and there’s a lot of good that can happen there... It should compress the apprenticeship process. That cliche is right: ‘Life is short and art is long.’”
Dubus says writing is more like dreaming than thinking. And he presses students to plow ahead into the dream zone.
“I constantly encourage my students, not to outline, not to think ahead, not to plot, really just to find the truth of it,” says Dubus.
Dubus’s 2011 memoir Townie told the story of his childhood, his parents’ divorce, his violent fist-fighting youth, the violence and neglect he and his siblings experienced, drug and alcohol use, his coming of age as a writer, and the death of his father. It’s a heavy story, one that will deliver jolts of recognition to many who came of age in the ‘70s and ‘80s in what could be called “unsupervised” households. It’s a book, as Dubus puts it, about “fathers and sons and creativity and violence and love.”
Our lives can be a mystery to us, even though we’ve lived them, and writing sometimes help excavate the muck a little.
“It’s like ‘I know what happened, but what the hell happened?’” says Dubus.
And even though it’s your life, it still has to be a good story: “One of the things about this memoir thing, is that you can’t drag the reader through everything.”
Writing sometimes only tends to reveal the complexity and ambiguity of who we are. “None of us are black and white, are we? We’re all kind of grey. The only thing that’s black and white is my love for my kids. Even that is tinged with this pain.”
Aside from all the other good advice about just doing the work, and avoiding passive verbs, and using sensory language, Dubus also tells young writers to read good books.
“Kids aren’t reading as much as they used to and when they do they tend to read shit. They tend to read schlock.”
He told the story about a student who was a passionate writer but whose work suffered from a diet of crappy writing.
“You’re a young athlete who’s eating donuts and light beer for breakfast,” Dubus says he told the student, who improved based more from reading good stuff than from any pointers Dubus gave him.
“We are what we eat,” says Dubus.
Dubus is reading tonight, Oct. 29, at the UConn Co-Op at 7 p.m.