Andre's Inspiration - AWW Summer 2014

by - 7:41 PM

Andre Dubus III, author of the memoir Townie and the novel The House of Sand and Fog among other books, was the keynote speaker and led a Master Class at the 2014 Antioch Writers’ Workshop in Yellow Springs, Ohio.

What an experience! This guy is a tour de force. He had us laughing one minute, crying the next, and feeling inspired throughout.

Here are a few nuggets of wisdom he shared about writing memoir.

Accept anything that comes, no matter what it is. – Andre DuBus III

We need to live a long time to get over some shit.  – Andre DuBus III

Memory has its own story to tell. – Tim O’Brien, author of The Things They Carried

The master class included writing exercises. He urged us to get specific with language. We first did a fast write describing five people in our lives, by smell alone. This was much more difficult than I expected. I realized I do not attend to smell and rarely use it as a descriptor.

Then he directed us to choose one of those people and describe them by light.
But after about twenty seconds, the images began to flow and I understood the Janet Burroway quote he shared, “Writing as an art begins when we surrender ourselves to images.”

And finally he asked us to take the description one step further and describe the person by sound. By this point I was weeping. You see, my mother, whom I was very close to, died in 2008. She died when I was already under multiple stresses and I just absorbed her death as one more blow. Although I mourned her passing, I did not acutely feel her absence as I thought I might. There was just nothing, a huge blank space where she used to be.

My mother was one of my five. The first smell was “Youth Dew perfume, biting my eyes.” The second, and the one that drew her close, was “washed away sweat.” My mother worked in an un-air-conditioned factory, sewing dresses as fast as she could. One of the first things she did when she arrived home was to wash away the perspiration.

It was the light that brought her close. The images were, “light filtering through closed blinds,” “harsh, unrelenting fluorescent ceiling light,” and “bright sunlight spilling through the kitchen door as it opens.” Those three images encapusulate her after work routine, a quick twenty minute nap, dinner preparation, my father’s return home. This brought me from specific description into scene.

The final request was to describe the person, in this case my mother, through sound. The sounds, “a deep sigh,” “grunt of movement,” “pans thunking,” “meat sizzling,” “potatoes being frantically whipped into submission,” and then, “an ominous creak,” and finally “a huff of breath, expelled in exasperation.”

Suddenly my mother was fully present and I had a startling glimpse of her in a familiar scene that told a different story than the superficial way I might have recalled it before. I happened upon Andre in the foyer of the building and wanted to thank him for this renewal. To my dismay, when I tried to share it, I began to choke up. He jumped up from his seat, wrapped his arms around me, and encouraged me to take my time in the telling and let the tears flow. When I did get it out, he gave me a little shake and said, “ Yes, you’ve got her back, now write her!”

Thank you Andre Dubus, for this precious layered gift, first the skills lesson and last, the return to me of my mother. I will write her, beginning today.

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