Andre Dubus II: Lessons in Writing and Running

I first came across the novelist, essayist, and short story writer, Andre Dubus II, in the early 1990's. At the time, I was attempting to write my own short fiction, and the lessons I learned from reading Dubus' Selected Stories abounded. His lyrical prose possessed a vulnerability and empathy that pulled me in. I had written a master's thesis on Hemingway and Henry James' portrayal of women, and when I encountered Dubus' own set of broken and unbreakable women, it struck a chord in me--the depth of understanding he exhibited when articulating from a woman's point of view was poignant. In my own writing, I aspired to penetrate the soul of everyday life the way Dubus did.

The author loved to run, as did I, and reading about his protagonists who hit the road and trails, and later reading his essays that captured his own love of running, something clicked in me--it was perhaps the first time I understood that I could equip my fictional characters with my own passions. I didn't always have to invent; rather, I could sculpt and carve characters who shared bits and pieces of who and what I was about. It was the beginning of finding my own unique voice, and once I tapped into it, my writing and my relationship to it shifted. It transformed from something that I did, to a part of who I was.

In 1986, Dubus, lost his legs in a freak accident. On his way home the evening of July 23rd, he had stopped to help a distraught motorist by the side of a highway outside of Boston and was hit by a passing car. As a result of the accident, he had one leg amputated and lost the use of the other leg, which led to a dozen operations and left him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. It was two years later, in 1988, that he won the prestigious MacArthur award. In the essays following his accident, he often explored the freedom that his legs gave him, and how losing that freedom changed him both physically and spiritually.

For fifteen years in New England, I ran in all seasons to exercise my body, because exercising my body cleared my brain, and gave me joy....When I ran, when I walked, there was no time: there was only my body, my breath, the trees and hills and sky, the birds and chipmunks and squirrels, the cold or hot air or cool air, the rain on my hat and face, the white and silent motion of snow. -"A Country Road Song"

When I read Dancing After Hours, a story collection published in 1996 which became a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award, I was immersed in an MFA program at Brooklyn College, struggling to find form and meaning in my own stories. Dubus' work seemed effortless and flawless in its depiction of small, quiet lives, which were sometimes disrupted by violence. His characters were often lonely, but there was hope, too, and a sense that beyond pain and emptiness, love persisted. The title story, "Dancing After Hours," reverberated in my being: it was gorgeous and sad and gracious all at once. There was a stillness to the story, a mystical element that taught me that stories could impel us to see the dark and hidden corners of ourselves if they were honest and true. Dubus was a physically disabled man writing about a physically disabled man in that story, and what resonated with me was that there is a part of each of us that is damaged, missing, not fully formed, and perhaps collectively we struggle and strive our entire lives in search of wholeness.

I had the good fortune shortly after the publication of Dancing After Hours of hearing Andre Dubus II read in Barnes and Noble at Union Square in New York City. Three years later, at the age of 62, we would lose him from this earth, but that night, he was very much alive as he sat in his wheel chair at the head of the room. He talked about his beloved baseball and read a short story about it. He gushed as he read and there was something so human to him, so alive, that I remember tears falling down my face. I am not sure now, in retrospect, if it was because I was getting to hear and see a master whose writing had impacted me so profoundly, or if it was the writing itself which moved me. Sometimes writers and the stories they write are our life lines. Sometimes readers are a writer's lifeline. In the end, the relationship is reciprocal - we need one another.

Within "A Father's Story," which is perhaps my favorite Dubus story, lives a quote that I have visited often over the years: "It is not hard to live through a day, if you can live through a moment. What creates despair is the imagination, which pretends there is a future, and insists on predicting millions of moments, thousands of days, and so drains you that you cannot live the moment at hand." The story possesses a spiritual edge, a devotion to people, to ritual. It forces us along with its narrator to grapple with God, with fate, with what it means to love another human being, and shies away from simple solutions. With Dubus, there were no happy-every-after endings; his stories often evoked loss and longing, but they were rich with love and faith, too.

Unlike Dubus, I have been able to keep running, and as the years progress, I've taken to running longer and longer distances. On the road, the trails. Some days--whether I am training or in the midst of a race--I run until I feel that I may break. I persist because I have learned that in running, in writing, in life, the most memorable moments are often preceded by pain and suffering--and it is perhaps only after we survive, that we can learn to better love and accept our imperfect selves, and to send out lifelines to others. Sometimes, when I run, I think of Andre Dubus in his wheelchair. I think about what it means to have taken away from you that which offers peace, and hope, and reaffirmation, and I feel grateful to be blessed with legs to move me forward, beyond, and into the next chapters of my life--until I remember that it is up to us to find peace in spite of what life tosses our way. Perhaps for Dubus it was his writing, his love, his deep faith in God and religion which carried him beyond his wheelchair.

In "A Hemingway Story," Dubus wrote, "A story can always break into pieces while it sits inside a book on a shelf; and, decades after we have read it even twenty times, it can open us up, by cut or caress, to a new truth." This is the role that Dubus' stories have played in my life. Great writing strips us bare: it forces us to see ourselves, know ourselves, and it asks us, gently, to accept ourselves. It is full of truths that expose themselves to us when we are ready to receive, and stays with us for the long haul.