Like many published writers, I give a lot of talks. Sometimes to crowds, sometimes to small groups. Sometimes I’m nervous beforehand, other times I’m not. Tonight, I was nervous. Over five hundred eighteen-year-olds had just read all about my youth, and now I was expected to say something important to these young people…. And then it became clear what was happening; they weren’t clapping for the middle-aged author of a book they’d been required to read; they were clapping for the boy and violent young man I’d been; they were clapping for the kid who’d grown into the man walking up to the stage to greet them; they were clapping not for Andre, the writer, but for Andre, the main character in a story called Townie. I may as well have been Jake Barnes or Harry Potter or Captain Queeg. As I waited to be introduced, I stood there feeling as if I lied to them in some way, that I had somehow misrepresented myself. But had I? Yes. And no. Not at all.
The theme of “what is truth” keeps coming up in this volume, doesn’t it. I’m relieved that this time, I agree with the author’s approach, so I don’t have to rant the way I did over “Corn Maze.”
Dubus covers a great deal of ground in this essay, and I found it all to be fascinating. He wrote his memoir, Townie, “by accident” (it evolved from a more circumscribed essay) and we see the kinds of internal conflicts he dealt with as he was writing the book, as well as the external conflicts – and harmonies – he encountered after publication. When you write about your life, chances are someone from your life will read it; they may or may not agree with your view of things. And you’re going to be aware of that as you write, as you decide what to include and what to leave out, how to phrase things; where to soften the blow, where to highlight the emotion.
Dubus found himself hampered by just that concern early on. His editor noticed a certain restriction to the book: “She told me that whatever I was leaving out, it was all part of my story, too, and that if I couldn’t write completely honestly, then this shouldn’t be a published book.…” Yet he was concerned about the effect on people who would, necessarily, be included in the more complete story. Dubus is a successful fiction writer (House of Sand and Fog, for instance), but, as he notes, fictional characters don’t show up at book signings and don’t write letters to the editor complaining about how they were portrayed. Fictional characters aren’t real-life siblings who’ve grown up since they were kids and now lead respectable lives that might not be improved by public revelation of the mistakes of their youth.
He turned to another writer and was offered this counsel: “Am I trying to settle any scores with this book? If the answer was yes, he wouldn’t write it. Or he might write it, but he wouldn’t publish it. If the answer was no, then he’d go ahead and write it.”
So he did. Then came publication.
The present-day mayor of Dubus’ home town publicly insisted that his city was never the miserable, depressed, dangerous area depicted in the book. I love how Dubus recounts his feelings on hearing that:
If this were a novel, his words wouldn’t have bothered me at all, but this was a memoir, and when that word is printed beneath the title of the book, the contract between its writer and the reader is this:
Everything you read in this book happened, at least to the best of my memory, which like everyone else’s is seen through a deeply subjective emotional lens. Still, I have tried to be loyal to the facts as I remember them, which isn’t always the truth, but it is my truth.
See, I’m really not the hard-ass judgmental jerk I may have seemed in my tirade about “Corn Maze” earlier. I understand that memories shift, we all have our lenses. But we should, nonetheless, try, and Dubus convinces me that he did. He convinced the mayor, as well, who admitted he hadn’t read the book but only a review, and was reacting to seeing his town referred to in a negative way; much of his life experience was limited to a more stable area of town, as well. He and Dubus had an exchange I find simultaneously sad and hilarious:
“In fact, when I was a young lawyer, my first clients were drug dealers from near where you live.”
Drug dealers to the rescue of a writer’s reputation.
Some of the reaction was more personal. The town referred to it as “The Book”; it was their story, too. Childhood friends appear at readings; one even signed books, with the fictitious name used in the memoir, when Dubus was delayed by travel.
Not everyone appreciated his portrayal, such as the bully who inadvertently reinforced the memoir’s portrait of himself. Then there was the football hero, who just didn’t see the town the same way Dubus did: “We both lived in the same depressed town, but for him it was a playground. For me, it was just one more manifestation of the home I lived in – unsafe, unclean, wild, gray, and unhappy.” That’s truth – truth about people, about perception, about towns with a “bad” neighborhood. The truth about the town depends to some degree on who’s truth it is.
The heart of this essay, however, is in the reaction of those closest to Dubus: his siblings and mother. It’s touching, both in their reaction, and in Dubus’ reaction to their reaction. Regardless of the harshness of the glare he shines on his childhood (and I haven’t read the memoir, so I’m only going by what he says about it, and how he records the reactions of others), there’s a gentleness here, perhaps even some healing.
I haven’t read much memoir. For the celebrity version,I find it odd that someone’s daily life is considered interesting just because they’ve achieved success in some field. Yet I understand the impulse to better know someone who’s admired. I see more clearly why people are interested in reading about obstacles overcome, about bad fortune reversed, but I have concerns about how that shapes our perceptions. I think someone who succeeds in spite of early disasters – whether personal trauma or socioeconomic imprisonment in bad neighborhoods and schools – is extraordinary. We shouldn’t disparage those who languish after a bad start, however; if extraordinary were a requirement for a decent life, few would achieve it.
Though I haven’t read much memoir, I understand very well the desire to write one, to say, “This is who I am, and who I was. This is my life; this is me.” This blog is my memoir. It didn’t start out that way. I’d intended to just write, then to do some short fiction dissection in the interests of learning more about writing. But others do that so much better than I do – Ken Nichols at Great Writers Steal, Trevor and Betsy and the whole gang at The Mookse and the Gripes, for instance – so I started “reacting” instead. The one unique thing we all have to offer, is ourselves. I’ve scattered little pieces of myself in various posts over the past year or two; yes, they’re hard to find – there’s no tag or category – so I’m hidden – in plain sight. Quite deliberately, I might add. I prefer my intimacy to be of the non-instant variety.
This is my story. I did not make it up. Nor did I put in any moments that did not happen in my life, but still, there’s the vaguely shameful feeling that I’ve cast in stone something that should stay fluid, our ever-evolving and changing memories of who we and the people we love really are. And walking up to the podium of that stage of that college in upstate New York, the cavernous hall filled with applauding young people, I wanted to tell them that I was glad I had written my story, that I was grateful to them from reading it, but please don’t confuse me with that Andre in the book; he’s a character, and I’m real. That was then, and this is now.
But then they stopped clapping and the hall grew quiet. I could hear the rain on the roof and against the windows and I could see so many of their faces – expectant, slightly wounded, hungry for something helpful, many masking this hunger, and I felt the younger Andre, the only one they knew, descend into my legs and arms and chest and face. Then we were both stepping toward the microphone, and together, we began to speak.
It’s an essay bracketed within this particular talk at this particular college to these particular students, but it lives outside that bracket, not in a successful best-selling author, but in a boy from the rough side of town. You may know such a boy, or girl, today. Let’s think of them in the same way we think of the kids in those success stories, shall we, because it might just turn out that way. And even if it doesn’t, they’re deserving of kindness, too.