Dubus on Writing

In the cozy light of candles, I picked up “Poets and Writers” hoping to be inspired. It’s been too long since I wrote anything of consequence (and by consequence, I guess I mean fiction, which is a lie of its own kind).

I read of Elizabeth Gilbert’s success after Eat, Pray, Love, and who could imagine such response to a memoir? But it wasn’t there I found it.

It was later, reading about Andre Dubus, III, wondering who this Massachusetts-writer was, the title of his first great success – House of Sand and Fog – like an old friend, even though I’ve never read it. Teaching English at U-Mass Amherst, struggling with who the world thinks he is and who he actually is. And then he says it,

We can’t choose what haunts us.

Six words later and relief washes over me.

I’ve been trying to escape these hauntings my whole life. Over and over in college, my fiction felt stunted and half-baked, the starts of goodness, maybe, but the shortened ends of a truth not fully told. And my greatest fear in fiction? Dani Shapiro said it in her post on writing and being, “Was my subject myself?”

That’s why nonfiction has felt like such a defeat. I write nonfiction because I can’t get myself out of my fiction, so what is left to do? The summer I was twenty-one, I interned at a large publishing house in Boston, and once in a while I got to have lunch with employees gracious enough to interact with my eagerness. I picked their brains, my notebook covered in their scrawling answers. At one of these luncheons, I spoke with a recently published writer. She wrote a YA novel, we shared the same name, and I felt a natural kinship with her for these reasons.

“But, I can’t get myself out of my writing,” I said, hoping she’d have some magic cure.

“You can’t worry about that,” she said brusquely. “You’ll never do it.”

And she’s right.

We can’t choose what haunts us.

I write poems that surprise me. I write essays that shock me. Until I stop viewing nonfiction as second-class, somehow less of an art form, I will never be able to create what needs creating. I root for my friends whose plot lines fill their brains and seem to write themselves; these friends are haunted by characters, stories they’ve never lived, ideas and questions that map themselves out in imagination. From this vantage point, I will never be that writer. This is not to say I’ll never write a lick of fiction again. It is to say that my expectations of myself are changing.

I can’t choose what haunts me, but I can write the hauntings. I guess that’s all I can do.

4 Replies to “Dubus on Writing”

    1. I can’t wait to actually read him after years of reading ABOUT him. If only I could study with him! 🙂

  1. Why is it we believe that lie? The one about fiction, that is? Because I do, too. I’m envious of my friends who write stories, who make up people, and places, who could be – want to be – the next Inklings. I’ve never had such things in my head. Writing a short short play in college was one of the most difficult assignments EVER. And so I think I’m not creative, can’t write, all that nonsense. Why, I wonder? And how do we not only change our own mindset, but shift things so our children don’t internalize it, either? (When/if we have children, that is.)

    1. I’m glad I’m not the only one because I didn’t even realize it about myself until quite recently. The only thing that makes us “uncreative” is when we don’t create, and that’s what our own lies are making us do. Unite against our own idiocy! (And I took your “children” reference as a universal “our”, so don’t worry! 🙂

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