The Case for Writing a Story Before Knowing How It Ends

Andre Dubus III, author of Dirty Love and The House of Sand and Fog, explains why the best work happens when you "back the fuck off."
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By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature.

Doug McLean

Novelists tend to fall into two camps. Some authors love their outlines—they plot and plan and schematize and think their way through problems. John Irving is one example; he spends months outlining his novels in advance, and when he puts pen to paper, he knows exactly what will happen.

Other authors, meanwhile, feel their way through. When they sit down at the desk, anything can happen: They lose themselves in the dark on purpose, and follow the light of strangeness and surprise. Flannery O’ Connor, whose stories revealed their structure over the course of many drafts, worked this way.

The latter approach can sound odd, even shamanistic. What do novelists mean when they say things like my character showed me the way? But my conversation with Andre Dubus III, whose new book Dirty Love is out this week, addressed the challenges and joys of writing without pre-determination. We discussed what it means to write into the unknown, how to do it, and why writers should.

Dirty Love contains four linked novellas about love and betrayal in a coastal town. In the first story, a cuckolded man stalks his wife with a video camera; in the last, a young woman’s world is shattered when a sexually explicit image of her surfaces online. Dubus is the author of books including The House of Sand and Fog (a finalist for the National Book Award), The Garden of Last Days, and Townie. He talked to me by phone from his house north of Boston.


Andre Dubus III: Years ago, I read a book called Letters to a Fiction Writer, which asked about 20 established writers to send their best advice out into the world. There were a lot of heavy hitters in there offering truly wise and helpful advice. But the one that’s stayed with me over the years, from Richard Bausch, has become a sort of mantra for me:

Do not think, dream.

We’re all born with an imagination. Everybody gets one. And I really believe—this is just from years of daily writing—that good fiction comes from the same place as our dreams. I think the desire to step into someone else’s dream world, is a universal impulse that’s shared by us all. That’s what fiction is. As a writing teacher, if I say nothing else to my students, it’s this.

Here’s the distinction. There’s a profound difference between making something up and imagining it. You’re making something up when you think out a scene, when you’re being logical about it. You think, “I need this to happen so some other thing can happen.” There’s an aspect of controlling the material that I don’t think is artful. I think it leads to contrived work, frankly, no matter how beautifully written it might be. You can hear the false note in this kind of writing.

This was my main problem when I was just starting out: I was trying to say something. When I began to write, I was deeply self-conscious. I was writing stories hoping they would say something thematic, or address something that I was wrestling with philosophically. I’ve learned, for me at least, it’s a dead road. It’s writing from the outside in instead of the inside out.

But during my very early writing, certainly before I’d published, I began to learn characters will come alive if you back the fuck off. It was exciting, and even a little terrifying. If you allow them to do what they’re going to do, think and feel what they’re going to think and feel, things start to happen on their own. It’s a beautiful and exciting alchemy. And all these years later, that’s the thrill I write to get: to feel things start to happen on their own.

So I’ve learned over the years to free-fall into what’s happening. What happens then is, you start writing something you don’t even really want to write about. Things start to happen under your pencil that you don’t want to happen, or don’t understand. But that’s when the work starts to have a beating heart.

OK, I know:  It’s one thing to quote Bausch. But what does it fucking mean, “dream with language?” I think this is what happens. Habits of writing can be learned. We can to choose concrete language over overly abstract language. We can learn to use active verbs instead of passive verbs. To bring in at least three of the five senses to activate a scene. All these things we can be taught, or learn on our own from reading. These are all part of your toolbox—but that toolbox will always remain locked if the writer is not genuinely curious about what he or she is writing about. To me, that is the essential ingredient. Late in his life, Faulkner was asked what quality a writer most needs—and he said not talent, but curiosity. I know the exact quote by heart: “Insight, curiosity, to wonder, to mull and to muse why it is that man what does what he does. And if you have that, talent makes no difference, whether you’ve got it or not.”

So you can dream by being curious—by being curious enough to report back what’s in front of your narrative eye. I love that line from E.L. Doctorow: “Writing a novel is like driving at night. You can only see as far as your headlights—” but you keep going until you get there. I’ve learned over the years to just report back anything that I see in front of the headlights: Are they yellow stripes or white? What’s on the side of the road? Is there vegetation? What kind? What’s the weather? What are the sounds? If I capture the experience all along the way, the structure starts to reveal itself. My guiding force and principle for shaping the story is to just follow the headlights. That’s how the architecture is revealed.

You must also be curious not just about perceptions, and the physical word, but about the character. “Why man does what he does,” as Faulkner said. Or another great line from Flannery O’ Connor: “The writer must write not about character, but with character.” Or, Eudora Welty, who the artistic act she holds most high is entering the private skin of another. Writing with character. It’s every eight or nine or 10 days with me when most of the entire writing sessions feels I’m just moving with the character, a strange observer in their chest some way as they go about their business. I think it’s why a lot of writers write, is for that feeling. It’s certainly why I write.

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Joe Fassler is a writer based in Brooklyn. His fiction has appeared in The Boston Review, and he regularly interviews authors for The Lit Show. In 2011, his reporting for TheAtlantic.com was a finalist for a James Beard Foundation Award in Journalism.

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