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Lighthouse was lucky this week to nab novelist and memoirist Andre Dubus III for two separate presentations of a seminar on details in fiction and nonfiction. We asked the lovely and talented Jannett Matusiak to write up a piece about the seminar, from which she’s still buzzing. There were over 90 of you on the waitlist, having maxed out at 50 in each section, so we wanted you to get a virtual seat at the table. Please also see the photos taken by Catherine Hope on our Facebook page.
An Intimate Afternoon with Andre Dubus III
By Jannett Matusiak
Can an afternoon with 45 people feel intimate? Yes, when you’re in the good company of writer Andre Dubus III, author of Townie, The House of Sand and Fog and The Garden of Last Days.
I grew up in Lowell, Massachusetts, a sister mill city to Haverhill, and I’m a graduate of Bradford College, the backdrop in Dubus’s memoir Townie. I found myself extra excited to take his workshop. It was like meeting a long-lost relative and being fixed with the request: Tell me everything you know.
He certainly knew how to pull a large group together with a simple but warm gesture of asking everyone their name. I marveled that he managed to recall so many during our riveting, three-hour Sensory Detail as a Means to Story workshop. If there was a message other than courtesy to the gesture, I can tell you how easily I related it to the subject at hand: pay attention to who you are talking to. The drama is in the details. The essence of the workshop focused on how the power of curiosity generates sensory details. And while grandma told us that the devil is in the details, so is the truth.
As writers, Dubus pointed out, creating intimacy is our job. We get there by writing the truth.
Not sure if what you wrote feels false to your characters? “Put the truth meter on it,” he said. If it rings false, it is. But how does one calibrate the truth meter? I thought to myself. That’s when he called on me to define the word receptive. It’s nice when you can actually bullet point something for your writer’s life manual, especially when Andre Dubus is contributing to the list. I made some notes and mixed in some of my own interpretations.
1) Be willing to accept anything that comes to you no matter what it is.
Do you sense a shadow detail lurking in your writing? Shine some light on it. Go ahead, the shadow is a gift. You just dropped it on your own doorstep. Don’t pretend it’s not there. In fact, if you’re brave enough, you’re about embrace it and invite it into your home. It’s going to tell you something very important so pay attention. You’re about to get truth on a platter and that is every reader’s favorite dish.
2) Be willing to fail.
Check your ego at the door. Take a risk. You have nothing to lose especially because as Andre said, “We are all going to croak.”
Andre’s Secret Code Revealed:
? + CSSD
CT = S,T,B
It’s a drawing, not a formula, he said. Thank God, because I hate math.
We spent more than an hour talking about the question mark and while I cannot directly quote him on it, I can tell you it has to do with curiosity, discovering your own (or your character’s) mystery and the wonder of “what is it really like to be in this story.” Sprinkle in negative capability (the ability to stay in the state of uncertainty) and you’ve defined the question mark. Then you must add Concrete, Specific, Sensory Detail and we are halfway to a good story, or as he joked, we’ve arrived in Connecticut. Really the CT stands for Character in Trouble and that’s what finally brings us to Story, Truth and Beauty.
Other nuggets that Dubus imparted:
Show up. Stay curious. Know what your character fears. Free-fall into your psyche. Persist with your bewilderment and never, ever stop asking sincere questions of yourself.
Just reading all this makes me want to take the workshop again, not because I forgot what it all means but because you can never be over-encouraged to keep searching for your truth.
Does it sound like Lighthousers are kind of taken with Mr. Dubus III? It might be because we are. Thanks, Jannett, for this wonderful summary, and now we’re onward to Cheryl Strayed, recently revealed as Sugar from the Rumpus.