On Wednesday, Oct. 16, the Albion College English Department is hosting acclaimed writer Benjamin Busch, author of the memoir “Dust to Dust.” As a former marine, an actor on HBO’s “The Wire,” a writer, and a stone mason, Busch tells the story of his life, from a rural childhood in New York to war-torn Iraq.
“Benjamin Busch’s ‘Dust to Dust’ reminds me of what good writing is and why it matters,” said Nels Christensen, associate professor of English. “The music and grace of his language arises from its clarity and focus rather than ostentation or flash. And the story of the life he tells is grounded in the real—his relationships with specific places and the people who inhabit them. Sometimes teachers are obliged to assign books based on something other than their clear and direct relevance and connection to the lives of our students. ‘Dust to Dust’ is not one of those.”
After a few 10-hour days operating a backhoe, Busch was kind enough to answer a few of my questions via email prior to his coming to campus. Here’s what he had to say:
Describe the life of an artist on a backhoe for 10 hours. What do you think about during that time?
Robert Frost lived on a farm. I need to be close to the earth like he did.
Why do you think visiting colleges to read your work is important or meaningful (or, if you don’t, then why do it anyway?).
This book is built from the themes at my center; the concern with impermanence and mortality, the fascination with stone, metal, bone, and water, the pull of exploration and the defiance of fate. It is the vision of our place in the landscape from a child, a parent, an artist, and a military commander. I have discovered that my life has been both contemplative and endlessly restive, which would describe most students in the suspended state of college. This book reveals formative and mature moments to be entirely intertwined. It is my examination of our place, the human place, in a world largely indifferent to our presence and disappearance. College is the transitional moment when the season of risk is at its height. “Dust to Dust” is a kind of treatise on this pivot in awareness, and college is a serious time to give a life some context.
Why the fascination with stone, metal, bone and water? Where did that come from, and did it influence your decision to go into stone masonry?
I was always drawn to the elemental. I describe that in the prologue of “Dust to Dust.” Stone was especially intriguing because I was obsessed with the creation of permanent objects. I saw ancient temples and sculpture as the most lasting evidence of great efforts and so I began working in stone as a mason and sculptor very young. I still work in stone despite having come to an admission that it is also corruptible, wears away and erases our hard won marks on the earth.
What was your primary impetus for writing “Dust to Dust?” To explore, to explain, to teach, etc.? Is there anything you’d like readers to walk away with after reading the memoir?
“Dust to Dust” took me 43 years to figure out. It is my view of our place in the cycle, the life of memory and our collective story. I wrote it not as a celebration of myself but to serve as a way for the reader to see their own journey through my eyes. It is a visual book that hopes to transfer perspective. It is really about the reader and lays down a defiance of mortality despite the inevitability of death.
What advice would you give to those wanting to write a personal memoir? Are there any potential dangers of which people should beware? Would you recommend that everyone write some sort of memoir, if only for themselves?
If you can find your voice, then you have everything you need to write a memoir. You already have your life. The question is: what does your story have that needs to be told? You have to be honest about yourself, your perspective, and the events. There is a terrible amount of fictional impurity in memoir these days, contrivances created to enhance the narrative or make convenient connective tissue in the structure. I only wrote what actually happened and if I couldn’t remember the exact dialog in an exchange, I omitted the discussion. The danger in memoir is, of course, exposure. If you are honest about yourself, it is a confession of who you are to everyone who can read. You also betray your opinion of everyone you mention. I never wrote in a journal except while in Iraq. I still don’t but I wish I had that discipline. I encourage everyone to keep one if they can. You will be amazed to revisit yourself years from now and rediscover the details that fade. It will also become the most valuable source for material if you decide to write a memoir in your later days.
How, if at all, would you say writing your memoir has changed you?
I am more aware of what my children notice and I stare even deeper into the earth with my mind now. The book made me figure out why I was paying attention to certain things. That is the hope of the book for everyone who reads it. Take another hard look around you. You have another chance every day.
Dost thou find it more satisfying to tell people you are an actor or a writer?
When people ask, I tell them I’m a stone mason…which is true.
When, how, and why did you get into writing?
War. During my two combat deployments to Iraq, there were no journalists embedded with my units, no reportage. We were on the far fringe. We also had no internet during the invasion and rare access to it during my second tour, so writing was the only way to communicate experience home. Once a month I would write a letter trying to provide a sense of situation. It was then, in these few letters, that I was stripped of everything but language to paint a world.
You said that due to a lack of reportage, writing letters left you with only language to communicate your situation. Did you find solace in writing while on combat tours in Iraq?
Writing letters home required that I describe a world no one else could see. I was fascinated by my environment but writing made me really articulate my perspective, strip it down to the essential message and keep the complexity of my situation as clean as possible. It don’t think it was solace exactly, but it forced me to distill what mattered most and that was a reckoning or sorts.
If you’d like, compare and contrast yourself to James Tiberius Kirk, paying special attention to rural origins, enlisting in the service, and following in a father’s footsteps, so to speak.
I too, do not believe in the no win scenario. I cheat death….
Photo courtesy of Minnpost.com