Best Advice

For four and a half years I drove up from Cambridge to Andre Dubus’s house in Haverhill, Massachusetts, to take part in what came to be known as the Thursday night group. We ate doughnut holes and listened to stories. I mean truly listened. Each week two of us, including Andre when it was his night, would read a story in its entirety, no matter how long it took. We read it cold, none of the rest of us having seen the story ahead of time. It was back to the fundamentals of what this is all about, which, I think, has a lot to do with the challenge of holding another human being’s attention for as long as necessary to shake him or her to the core. Needless to say, when it was my night to read I was beyond terrified. And yet the group, which still meets, was among the most generous and insightful gatherings of listener and readers ever assembled in one small living room, and now—often on Thursday nights in California—I get very lonely for my old friends: Jep, Lori, Dick, Frankie, Dennis, Lara, Cindy, Adair, Louie, Claudia, Frieda, Andre, and all the others who sometimes came and sometimes disappeared. It’s important to say that although it was Andre’s house and he was an immensely accomplished storywriter, he was also just another member of the group. He sat back in his wheelchair, and if he especially liked a passage, he might sigh, but other than that he rarely called attention to himself. Writing advice? Sure, he’d offer some on a particular story. We all did. And of course he recommended writers. If not for Andre, I wouldn’t know Isaac Babel, Edna O’Brien, Gina Berriault, or Bohumil Hrabal, and how could I proceed without them? Without O’Brien I wouldn’t have Anna Akhmatova or Zbigniew Herbert. See how it starts? All Andre had to do was say, “You mean you haven’t read A Fanatic Heart?

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