Your Words are Your Life, Your Death

Lauren Dixon knows how to shoot a rifle. She’s written lingerie catalogs for the Army, talks a lot about vaginas, and does not eat animals unless they ask her to first. Her newest young adult novel, Throwaways, hasn’t killed her, so far. Her creative work has also appeared in Scapezine, Extracts, Oracle, DIAGRAM, Sojourn, INTER, Kadar Koli and (R)evolve (from Naropa University), and was previously nominated for the Best of the Net 2012 award and Best New Poets of 2006 Anthology. A Clarion West 2010 graduate, Dixon edits the literary ‘zine Superficial Flesh, an amalgamation of weird, absurdist literature and art. Dixon previously taught creative writing and literature at University of Texas at Dallas. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing-Poetry from Texas State University and is poised to receive her doctorate in Literary Studies from the University of Texas-Dallas. Find her online here:

One word is urgency. It hits us while we sleep; we wake in a stupor, not quite understanding why that sentence begs to be written right now, at 3:44 am, while outside the world rests in a few hours of reprieve. Another word is ephemeral. We don’t write that sentence, we don’t let that story take shape, and it is gone, only tasted for a few seconds. But we live in regret of its passing.

In December, my friend Mike Alexander, who began submitting stories for publication in 1980, the year I was born, who finally made his first sale in 2010, the year I met him at Clarion West, passes away. I’ve known him for two and a half years, and during that time he sells story after story, has been named by Gordon Van Gelder as an up-and-coming writer to watch, and has been nothing but a kind, generous, and self-effacing man. He once got up in arms about the processed ingredients in my vegan deli slices, but other than that, I’ve never seen him angry or bitter. The last time I see him is in November, a month before he passes. I don’t want to write about him in the past tense, will always write about him in the present, forever in the moment, forever with us.

It is now May, six months after Mike has walked out of his body and up to the moon. Since April 15, the day of the Boston Marathon bombings, my grandfather (I call him Papa) has suffered multiple strokes that have landed him in a rehab facility in Bryan, Texas. I leave Seattle for a weekend when I find out a branch of his carotid artery is 100% blocked and there’s nothing they can do to remove it.

My grandfather is 84 years old. A decade ago, he walked off a heart attack in the jungles of Costa Rica. Last Thanksgiving, he walked a one-mile fun walk with my family at a Turkey Trot. The Thanksgiving before that, he took me out to my grandparents’ massive backyard to go turtle hunting. He is always, always, always on the move. He’s written several books about amphibians and reptiles. There’s even a Wikipedia page about him. He’s left-handed like me, has a PhD, has actual species of creatures named after him, and he’s had multiple strokes, and now has very little mobility in his right side.

When my dad and I arrive, it is 5:00 pm, so we walk into the cafeteria where my Papa is having dinner. He’s in a wheelchair, a sky-blue cardigan draped around his shoulders, and there’s a blueberry muffin on his plate. He tries to give it to my Grandma, but she gives most of it back to him. He shows us that he can lift his right arm six inches, which is worlds of improvement from a few days before. Dad rubs Papa’s back to relieve the pain of sitting in a wheelchair. Papa leans forward while Dad works at his muscles. Papa rolls his head from side to side and groans a little.

Later, Grandma forgets we’ve had dinner. She is 83 years old and doesn’t want to eat the snacks my mom has brought her because she doesn’t want to get fat. Grandma has low-blood pressure, and she, who once stood six-feet tall, leans into me, now the same height as my five-foot-eight.

A few days later, a former classmate’s father and grandmother perish in tornadoes that strike Texas, not an hour from my parents’ house. I seethe with the hole that begins to burn through me, the knowledge that death, the final unraveling frame of life, is all happening right now and there is nothing I can do to stop it.

To clear my head, I swim a few laps, do a headstand, go for a jog. Work on an essay about making the impossibility of fantasy a possibility in our world. I pull a muscle or tendon when I stay in a triangle pose too long. I will turn 33 in 13 days, and this is my life.

Nobody is burning out. It’s one little snap at a time, one little tendon pull, too much sugar or meat or alcohol or too little salt, too much attention paid to everyone else.

My Papa pulls at my cardigan, says he likes it. Tells me I should give my boyfriend Lucas a ring, says to tell Lucas to marry me. Says what happened to him, his strokes, can happen to anyone.

Back in Seattle a week later, Lucas and I sit beneath a gnarled tree in the afternoon sun. We drink coffee and Italian sodas and try to soak in a symphony of songbirds. A composer sits down at our table with his dog, who lets loose a stream of urine almost as soon as he sits down. He tells us he left Los Angeles because he didn’t want to be gentrified.

“You’re going to croak,” he says, looking at me. “Don’t ask for permission because they’re not going to give it to you.” Better to be who you are than who they tell you to be.

He is 22 years older than me, the age of my parents, of my father, who shaves my grandfather’s beard, wipes food from the right side of his mouth, and always asks if he can help any of the others whose weakened limbs prevent them from opening their half-pints of milk, from spooning their soup into their mouths.

Don’t ask for permission. A few years ago I felt my words had dishonored me, been part of something inside myself always destined to go rogue, to never answer a direct question directly. Part of something forever transgressive, my ability to write one sentence, then follow it with another, then another, no matter how wrong or sorrowful or regretful it made me feel. And in that way I learned to write about rape, incest, abortion, all wrapped up in the secret loves we have for each other, our fears that the mark of tragedy makes us untouchable, unlovable, unable to even fathom a touch of freedom. Body, a word we later learn to name “taboo.”

I have days, weeks, years left of my life, yet I’m forever touched by the knowledge that the meter is running. I work on my novel, I put it away. My Papa will probably never go back to Costa Rica, and I don’t know if my Grandma will be able to remember my sister’s baby when it is born in June. They are my past, my present, my future. I think of Mike, how his family and loved ones gave us that last chance to write to him, how I thought there had better be stars, how I didn’t know he’d left until the next day, when a crazy man began to yell at me about a government conspiracy hiding on the moon.

“Mike,” I thought, “you’ve left so soon.”

I have been a writer since I was able to pick up a pen. As a baby I ripped pages out of my mother’s books; as a child I loved my fairy tales so much I took them into the bathtub, destroying them when my clumsy fingers lost their grip and gave the books a good dunking. Words, like my family, have been my past, present, future, even when they violate me, cross a line I can never uncross. Nobody ever gave me permission, but I never asked. Nobody ever told me I couldn’t do this, except myself, every time I rediscovered that impulse to veer off course and say too much, to expose taboo and offer a new name for it.

I try to avoid writing about my personal life. Never want to say too much, give anyone or anything too much power in knowing me too well. But time, my body, my Papa’s body, my Grandma’s mind, the composer’s dog’s bladder, there’s only so much before we lose the fight and something else takes the wheel. It can take you 30 years to hit your stride before your body decides you’ve had enough. It can happen tomorrow. But the fact that life can be an unbearably raw, open wound also means there’s a possibility of healing, however slow, however scarred. But if you shut the door on the words too early, give up in the face of cancer, of stroke, of dementia, of fear, the stars destined to come from your pen may well turn to dust.

So I will let my pen transgress. In the face of life rolling up the welcome mat ever so slowly, I give myself permission to say all of these wrong things, to give them a voice. Because there’s no going back, whether my thoughts appear on the page or in our lived world. And the truth is, they’re the same. Maybe we all know this. That’s the wound of writing. Someone out there will see your words as truth, even if in your mind you’ve made it all up. We all come from the same raw materials, after all.

The past, the present, the future – it’s always happening, right here, on the page. In this moment, I am with all of my loved ones, hoping to keep them forever safe in the company of my words. At least here I have the power to grant myself permission to love, to mourn, to be with them even as they transform into our beloved stars.

What’s Your Resolution?

It’s the start of the new year and so I thought I should write the obligatory “new years resolution” post. We all do it, right? We resolve to write more, or to watch less TV (or browse less Facebook). Maybe you’ve set out big goals—start a novel, finish one, get an agent?

My wife wrote out a list of fifty-two goals—not specifically to achieve one a week, and most are small, very achievable actions or changes. She’s a very organized person.

So, new year, new resolutions?

I’ll pass.

I’ve never been a fan of big resolutions, and certainly not centered around New Years. For me, new years is such an arbitrary line in the sand. While much of the world follows the Gregorian calendar, it’s no more than an agreed upon system. New years day? It’s really no more or less important than any other day circling the sun. Yeah yeah, we need a system to function, for society to be on the same page, to have at least one socially acceptable “get loaded” day (not counting conventions)—but why New Years? Why not winter solstice, or the spring equinox—those both seem like ideal points of change. Why not your birthday?

I should point out that I have a personal reason for seeing this as arbitrary—my birthday happens to fall on the fifth of January. To me, this is the start of the new year, not the first. Start a new diet on the first? No way—I have a nice dinner and dessert (okay, desserts) planned just a handful of days later. And from a little before Christmas through (and perhaps slightly past) my birthday, I’m in holiday mode—the last thing I want to do is mess up my fun by trying to have less of it.

My bigger objection, though, is the idea of a resolution—your realization that something needs changing so significantly that you have to force yourself to do it. If the need is really there, you should not wait until the new year to make it, nor for your birthday, or even the coming Monday. Do it now. Stop reading this blog and go do it. It’s okay, really—go do your thing. Need to work on your health or weight? Go take a walk, and make the next meal a better one. Do some writing over lunch, or before going to bed, and maybe even first thing in the morning. Skip TV this evening—it’s the same junk that’s always running anyway (you can always catch it later with Netflix or elsewhere).

I’ll fess up to the fact that I don’t always follow this same advice. I mull over ideas; I get excited about something and don’t end up executing it; I know there’s plenty of things I could improve and end up kicking that can down the road a bit. I have goals, some of which I’m actively working on and others I will…soon. But I started a new diet in the middle of October, with both Halloween and a vacation just ahead of it (I’m still on it, by the way, even with the small hiccups of Thanksgiving, Christmas, my birthday as well as a few others). When I first jumped into my exercise phase, it was the middle of May—that was almost five years ago, and I’m still active. I started writing my first novel on the first of April (no joke!), after spending a month or so cleaning up a year’s worth of notes. It took me another eight months to finish writing it, but I did, along with maybe ten or so short stories along the way.

I’m also deadline-oriented—I have to be with the work I do if I want to keep clients happy. It also helps when writing for anthologies and ensuring you get something done before they close to submissions.

There are reasons why you aren’t doing what you think you should be doing—rarely do those distractions or habits go away just because of a resolution. Correct them if they’re a problem, and if they aren’t find a way to embrace them in a controlled, healthy way. Adjust your goals, refine your expectations, and don’t wait for some arbitrary time to make the big changes.

And now, with this out of the way, it’s time for some World of Warcraft—I have goals to work on after all.

The Writer’s Toolkit: Almost Everything You Need to get the Story Started

It’s long gone now, lost to some damnable garage sale or other, but my father once had a wooden shoeshine box that sat at the back of the bedroom closet beneath a rack full of awful ties. The box was a real showpiece: furniture-quality American poplar with dovetailed joints and an elevated footrest. As a kid who liked to dig through his parent’s stuff, I’d get the box out from time to time, flip open the brass latch at the front, and play around with the contents.

The shoeshine box held two horsehair shining brushes, a dauber brush, a bottle of cleaning cream, tins of Kiwi brand shoe polish (black and brown), and a soft shining cloth. There was no polishing glove. In all the times I watched my father shine his shoes before going off to work, he’d first pull an old sweat sock over his hand to prevent the dark polish from staining his fingers.

I mention the shoeshine box because I’m a big fan of toolkits. I’m fascinated by the things professionals collect to do their jobs – the stranger the better. Ever see a professional piano builder’s kit? It’s a sexy assortment of lathes, chisels, and auger bits. Have you ever heard of a tobacco smoke enema kit? Oh, they’re very real, I assure you. In the 1800s, they were the indispensable piece of medical equipment for assisting drowning victims – until they were debunked. Once, on a research trip to a medical history library, I got my hands on a Civil War-era surgeon’s battlefield kit. Although most of the implements were of the cutting and sawing variety, everything was stainless steel – still gleaming – and very lightweight. Nasty little cutters. Take an arm here, take a leg there…

Every professional has their toolkit. As writers, we’re no different from the rest. It can be easily assumed that anyone reading the site on a regular basis has stacks of books on every flat surface in their home. But there’s always room for more, eh?

Recently, I was at a conference during which a panel attempted to come up with a list of essential books for any writer to devour before picking up the pen. The panel moderator called it a “writer’s toolkit.” I listened, made notes. I didn’t agree on a number of the titles mentioned – some were irrelevant to my chosen genre, others didn’t interest me. But the mention of the toolkit held my interest. When I returned home to the paperback-and-empty-whiskey-bottle nest I call an office, I walked the stacks and hunted down every title that had been helpful to me in all my efforts. My writer’s toolkit (abridged):

Dialog gives definition to your characters, reveals motivations, aids in setting, and propels the story forward. No two characters should speak alike.

Dialogue (Write Great Fiction Series) by Gloria Kempton

Writing Dialogue by Tom Chiarella

Characters in fiction should be treated like real, live human beings. With history, motives, and reputation – they are believable and worth caring about to the last page.

Characters and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card

Writer’s Guide to Character Traits by Linda Edelstein

Save the Cat by Blake Snyder

Writing Your First Novel is damn difficult work. Ask any professional and they’ll tell you the same. It’s hours and hours of dedication to the craft, but it beats working.

Your First Novel by Rittenberg and Whitcomb

How NOT to Write a Novel by Mittelmark and Newman

The Elements of Style by Strunk and White

Writing Great Horror is a topic near and dear to my heart. Horror has its own language and rules and pitfalls. Whether a slasher or a morality tale, horror stories are part of a genre that is continually reinventing itself.

On Writing Horror by the Horror Writers Association, Ed. by Mort Castle

The Philosophy of Horror by Noel Carroll

Writers Workshop of Horror by Michael Knost

Psychology for Screenwriters by William Indick

Story is the realities, not the mysteries of writing. Story is the essential element to any successful product of the craft. A bad story does not excite readers and turn pages.

Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee

The Hero With 1000 Faces by Joseph Campbell

20 Master Plots and How to Build Them by Ronald Tobias

I’ve always thought that books on writing are invaluable, due to the fact that they are a resource available at any time of day or night. I can’t count how many times I’ve left the bed at three in the morning and picked up one of these books to sit at the kitchen table until I’d worked out some plot turn or character aspect. If nothing more, a writer’s toolkit is a preparation – waiting for that moment when you’re struggling to hammer something together.

In the title, I suggested that this toolkit was almost everything you need to get the story started. Every toolkit is personal. None is ever complete. What is your essential writer’s resource? What books do you lean on in times of trouble? Let us know in the comments section below.


Planting the Decision Tree

Monica Valentinelli is an author who lurks in the dark. Recently, she released a science fiction novella titled “Redwing’s Gambit” which was based on the Bulldogs! RPG. She has over a dozen short stories published and two novellas with more on the way. For more about Monica and her work visit her website.

At some point in your career, you’re going to get some advice on what to do with your written works or your future as an author. Maybe the suggestions will originate from a peer or your mentor. Maybe it’s from an old teacher or a friend of yours. Maybe you spot something on a website just like this.

Getting inundated with advice isn’t always a good thing, because often pieces will conflict with one another or worse – derail you from your current manuscript. This article is geared to help you keep your focus on the page and weigh the benefits of what recommendations you encounter.

Here are a few decision tree matrices that will help you decide what’ll work best for you and your work:

  1. Knowledge – What background information are you required to know before you act on the advice that’s been given to you? How much time are you willing to spend researching the validity of the claim or learning the pieces you aren’t up-to-speed on? While you can’t put a price on knowledge, it is an intrinsic asset and one that may require more effort to attain in specific cases when technology, new forms of writing, etc. are involved.
  2. Achievability – Based on what you’ve been told, how many other authors have successfully replicated that same piece of advice? Or, are you willing to risk everything on the off-chance you’ll be “lightning in a bottle?” Another way of looking at whether or not a piece of advice is valid for you, is if the recommendation hyper-focuses on a trend. Just as one example: the latest zombie craze may sound like an opportunity in disguise, but what’s chic in fiction now has already been written, revised, and edited. If you can leverage that monster-of-the-day, great! If you can’t? Well, then maybe your forte is not braaaaaaaiiiiinnnssss.
  3. Relevancy – You know yourself and your work best. Ask yourself whether or not the advice is relevant to what you want to do, what you’re working on, and where you are now in your career. This is probably one of the most important qualifiers when you process information, because you’ll need to decide how well that fits with what your goals are. If you find yourself questioning your work to the point where you desire to change what you’re doing before it’s completed, then you may want to reconsider who and where your getting the recommendations from.
  4. Distraction – Will the advice prevent (or delay) your completion of what you’re currently working on? If yes, what benefits do you hope to gain from applying the advice and do they outweigh finishing your manuscript? This concept goes back to relevancy, but it also further clarifies whether or not you can acknowledge how the recommendation will negatively impact your manuscript or goals.
  5. Experimentation – If the advice given to you is a risk, is it one you’re willing to take? How much time do you want to spend experimenting versus strengthening your core competency? By identifying opportunities for trial-and-error when they arise, you can help shape where you want to go, provided you’re in a position to accept a positive or negative outcome. After all, speculative ventures are not guaranteed to work. That’s why they’re experiments.
  6. Data Crunching – Can the advice be backed up with good data? Would you be willing to use that data and apply it to your own career? Oft overlooked, data is crucial to any business owner who wants to make fact-based decisions. Mind you, good data can be difficult to obtain and it’s often a snapshot of a larger picture. The idea behind getting data in the first place is to have supported claims and avoid anecdotal bits of advice that are steeped in conjecture. Data removes the emotion right out of the equation and can help keep you grounded when you want facts.
  7. Financials – Will you be able to afford to take the advice you’ve been given? Or does it cut into your time to do other paying work? A lot of advice doesn’t always come down to the “M” word – money – but more often than not hidden costs can start to affect your pocketbook. In addition to time, stress is an invisible expense that can spur you to write or freeze your fingers. When you stop producing, whether they be short stories, novels, articles, etc. you affect your ability to monetize your work. Advice itself may not have a dollar sign attached to it; but the application of it can both positively and negatively influence your bottom line.
  8. Timeliness – Is there an expiration date on the advice? Does your success or failure rely on how fast you can complete the recommendation? The adage timing is everything is often true for pieces of advice that are not only time-sensitive, but also demand your full attention. Understanding the “what” and the “how” of what someone is proposing can pale in comparison to the “when.”

Hopefully, these eight concepts will help remind you what you already know, that advice is cheap if not free. However, nothing can replace the precious time you spend in front of your monitor, typewriter, or notebook writing. Regardless of what anyone says, you’re the only author qualified enough to shape where you’ll go. By training your inner voice to critically think about how the advice you receive applies to your work – you’ll be able to do just that.