Monday, March 29, 2010

Stephen Dixon, Writer's Writer

Stephen Dixon is a writer who is well published and well respected, but whose books are tough to find in conventional bookstores and who isn’t exactly a household name. His novels Frog and Interstate have been finalists for the National Book Award. He’s published close to 30 books of fictions, and his books have been published with many different publishers (though he was with Henry Holt for about 10 years, including for Frog and Interstate). Some of the general criticisms of his writing have been that he’s rambling and tedious, often using spare punctuation and sentences and paragraphs that run for pages, and his work doesn’t have much in the way of plot.

Here is praise of Dixon by author Jonathan Lethem (from the McSweeney’s website, here):

Stephen Dixon is one of the great secret masters — too secret. I return again and again to his stories for writerly inspiration, moral support and comic relief at moments of personal misery, and, several times, in a spirit of outright plagiaristic necessity: borrowing a jumpstart from a few lines of Dixon has been a real problem-solver in my own short fiction. And I will also treasure forever his manual-typewritten and scrawled manuscripts, and editorial notes, sometimes with food stains and torn edges, on the one occasion when I played the role of his editor (he offered stories, free of charge, to Fence magazine, when it was pretty much unknown) — Dixon is the last great messy correspondent. Please read him, you.

If you’ve read Stephen Dixon’s work, love it or hate it, you’ll realize that he clearly has a unique style and voice. In a way, his writing seems to be what a writing teacher would tell you how not to write (side note: Dixon himself was a long-time writing instructor at Johns Hopkins). Here’s a story of his at (they also have a good interview with him in a different issue, here.

From a 2003 interview with One Story, the entirety of which can be found here.

[Q]What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever gotten?

[A]What George Plimpton told me in a letter when, many years ago—I think it was 1966, and I’d sent him a story for a Paris Review contest and a novel for Paris Review Editions (its first incarnation): “You’re not a novelist and maybe you’re not a short story writer as well.” I won’t say this is good advice for every writer, but it sure got me to write even harder than I was. It got me going in a way that flattery or praise wouldn’t have: I knew I had to inure myself against all criticism of my work and just write what I wanted to write and take the consequences, and also to write better than I was doing.

Beyond enjoying his writing, I’m partial to Stephen Dixon for several reasons. One is that he taught in the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars for years before retiring a couple years back and has made the Baltimore area his home, so to me he is a local writer. Another is that interviews with him tend to delve into his process and work ethic, which I find fascinating and in a sense affirming as a fellow writer. Basically what you find is a writer who has his own way of doing things and has been persistent for decades and isn’t overly concerned about whatever it may be that’s happening around him. He’s an innovator who seems oblivious to movements or theories and is just writing the way he feels he should be writing. You get the sense of a writer who, after writing for decades and being widely published, is still scratching and clawing to get his work in print.

I remember reading an interview with him in Poets & Writers back in the early 1990s, which was my first exposure to Stephen Dixon as the person who’s the author (I had already read some of his works by then). I no longer have that magazine, but do recall some of the essence of it. He recounted one of his biggest regrets from early in his career, which was agreeing to have part of a story he sold altered. Another was basically the sense that the best thing about his writing career is that he has done things his way and that he found his niche on his own terms.

As a writer, it’s hard not to be inspired by Dixon and his ethic. There is a thin line between being sure of what you’re writing and not being concerned with critics and just being plain obstinate and not listening to advice that may be helpful. If you’re writing, I think you have to be able to ride that line and know when to be hardheaded and know when to relent and heed advice.

Friday, March 26, 2010

7: Overshadow

This story is the 7th part of the Griffin filmmaker series. It follows Forever East.

As a teenager Richard told his parents he recalled certain memories from his early years. In his crib, shadows in red light in his room. That’s the nightlight you used to have, his mom told him, a red caterpillar. I remember some instances of waking up and crying and being afraid and no one there. We always came to get you, his dad told him, if you woke up crying. Do you remember me or your mother rocking you to sleep, balancing you on our chests while we were half-asleep ourselves? No, he said, that’s something I don’t recall. His parents looked at each other and smiled.

At a film festival the boy sat under the chair as he watched his father answer questions at the long table. Boring, he thought, sitting here watching people talk. It’s a festival, his dad had told him. There’s fun things to do, people come to watch new movies, hear people talk about movies. Son, people are coming here to see daddy’s new movie. Is there anything I’d want to see, he asked. Well, tomorrow, there’s animation—cartoons. Sort of like what you watch at home. Tomorrow is so far away, he thought, using the top of his head to lift the chair slightly.

He’s walking down the street alongside his mother. She’s tall to him and he looked up at her hair and there’s light shining through the strands at the top. People were walking around them, toward them, in many different directions. He said things to her, mom, can we get a hot dog, mom, can we get ice cream, but she shakes her head no. Sometimes he felt like it’s just the two of them, when dad was off making movies. A white puff of cloud blocked the sunlight. Her hair was no longer illuminated. She looked down—in her eyes he saw worry. Later that day, he drew this picture with crayons, made rain come from the clouds.

Richard, his dad said, the film’s called Overshadow. Home at the dinner table, dad with notepad at his side, scribbling illegible cursive in between bites. Mom’s there, attentive, looking back and forth at the two boys in her family, smiling when Richard looks at her. The film’s about a particular man’s quest to, well, it’s for adults really, see, it’s a man, and there’s his father who was a big advertising executive and he’s seen only in flashbacks, and he’s trying to compete, well, see, there’s, um, Helena, can you explain it to the boy? It’s about a man trying to be better than his father, she said, her words a burst of sound, her face a grin looking at dad. A slurp of milk, an oops as a small shower of macaroni and cheese hits the floor. Why would someone want to do that, the boy asked. Mom looked at dad and they both tilted their heads, popped their mouths open. They didn’t answer.

Two weeks after his mother died, he confronted his father. The man, aging years in months it seemed to him, sat at the table surrounded by stacks of paper. You would think you’d have more to say, Richard said, standing on the other side of the table, arms crossed. Mom’s dead and it’s like you don’t give a crap, it’s just business as usual. His father closed his eyes, gently removed his glasses and placed them unfolded on the table before him. He looked up at him. Richard, we don’t need this right now, I know you’re upset. We, Richard said, we, since when are we, we? You are Griffin, the film director, and it’s you, you and your stupid movies. Son, you don’t understand. You don’t get it. I cried before she died, I cry at night by myself, I cry. When you fall in love and marry and have a family and the person you’re with is taken from you, get back to me and let me know just how painful it is. By instinct his dad looked to his left, the place where mom used to sit, where she reassured, filled in the blanks, was peacemaker and wise voice, and froze at the emptiness. Richard watched him do this then walked away, back to his room, shutting the door with a sedate click.

He’s walking home from a friend’s house, a trip he’s made dozens of times before. Slight buzz wearing off. The smell of baking bread from a round the clock bakery then cooking oil and ginger and seafood from an Asian eatery. He feels his stomach rumble, making him hungry, decides to wait until home for food. Passes a nightclub bustling with crew cuts and black dresses, an oblivious intoxicated couple almost stumbling into him. Then, a street of blank stare windows, silence. He could hear his father’s voice: this city, its moods, it takes your breath away. Inhales. He thinks, the man’s been through enough. Fueled by alcohol, he thinks as he’s thought before, tomorrow, I’ll tell him many things. I’m sorry for my teenage years. I know it’s been difficult with mom dying, with this terrorist group, and the media onslaught. I’m ready to go back to college. I’m ready to follow in your footsteps. A shadow crosses his pathway. A shot cracks the night. He’s thinking, mom, we miss you, before he realizes that this shot was his, that he’s lying on the ground.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Juke Box Hero

The writer decided to stop writing, pick up a guitar. He strummed and poked, the motions made nonsense noise. When he was a teenager, he wanted a guitar, but mom, said, no way, the noise is too much, the house is too small, you’ll give up in about two weeks. Drums? Please. So, instead, he sat in his room and blasted the same loud music recorded by someone else that he would’ve played if he had a guitar, and wrote stories about how mom made too much noise, how the house they lived in sucked, how she gave up every two weeks, and how his life sucked because he never got a guitar. Older, mom now gone, he wrote stories that were apologies for being such a jerk. I’m out of apologies, he sang while playing discordant notes, now I have nothing but noise.

Friday, March 19, 2010

6: Forever East

This story is the 6th part of the Griffin filmmaker series. It follows Revolution/Illusion.

The format of this story is taken from Lydia Davis's short story, "Jury Duty," appearing in her collection, Samuel Johnson Is Indignant, and subsequently in The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis.

A: The pleasure’s mine.

A: You know, it thrills me to no end. We’ve been married six years, my son Richard is four and he’s already his own little person saying he wants to make movies like dad, and, well, life is good. I’m doing what I want making films and I got all that and life is good. Helena, I say she’s an angel to me and that’s no lie. There can’t be many women who could put up with being married to me.

A: Sure. Forever East follows the world of a fictional cult leader, from his point of view. The place is a compound on the eastern coast of Australia, the world headquarters for this fictional cult, and we follow the life of the cult leader in pseudo-documentary style, using handheld cameras and grainy film shots when we’re alone with him, and using more standard methods when there are others in the scene, to pull the viewer back into a standard film narrative.

A: Generally, so far, through six films now, we’ve been able to send only what we have to for filming. We sent a crew of about nine to eastern Australia to film scenery. We did pretty much the same thing with the previous film, sending a crew to the tropics. With the magic of film, the digital technology we have at hand, we can have actors film their scenes here at the studio downtown and effortlessly put them into the scene. Fifteen years ago, such a thing would’ve been looked down, not considered “art.” Now it makes the most sense. I can’t afford to send 75 people across the world for six weeks.

A: Cheating? No, hardly. I’m making use of modern film techniques to produce what I hope is considered art. I’m not going for mindless thrills, big box office turnouts. The latter, if it coincided with what I was doing—well, how could I complain?

A I love this city. I could be based somewhere else, or have no place to call home, but I’m here and I’m proud. It’s been good to me and my family and I’m eager to give back where I can. For me, this is my paradise.

A: I can’t control what the awards people do. I do what I do and if they want to acknowledge me, that’s fantastic. If not, well, I’ll be working on another film. Maybe they will, maybe they won’t. I think it would be nice if some of my crew got some recognition. They work hard. They have the eye for bringing these things to life.

A: I can only hope I’m influential in a good way. We all run the risk of some kook taking what we’re doing too far. Look at Salinger and Kubrick. Do I think I’ll be a target? I can’t answer that. My best reply is, I won’t be so important.

A: No, I don’t view my films as political, but represent human issues, things people have struggled with, are doing so now, and will struggle with in the future. Fifty years ago, ideas of oppression, fighting the system, the pain we inflict on others wouldn’t have been considered “political.” Being oppressed has been an issue for thousands of years. How is that political? I’ll reiterate what I always say: I’m not political.

A: Well, people who criticize me in that fashion are just out to score points, make a name for themselves, get people worked up to get themselves money or political power. I’ll admit, filmmaker is an easy target for such a thing. I’ve heard Griffin and pretentious in the same sentence before. Part of the territory.

A: I’ll admit I’m not familiar with that criticism or that person. I guess I should be flattered. If someone’s that adamantly against me, I must be doing something right. Beats apathy.

A: Okay, perhaps I should be familiar with that person and what he’s espousing. I have to say, it’s a bit of blindside to throw that out, the film not even released a week, saying it supports cults and their leaders. Look, this fictional cult leader, like the rest of us, is a flawed human. He has good characteristics and downright bad ones. I thought we were going to talk more about content, more about process? Didn’t realize I’d be playing defense.

A: I’m not answering that question. It’s ridiculous, an invasion of privacy, Just a minute ago, you were pondering my agenda; well, I ask, what’s yours?

A: Look, I apologize if I came off as abrasive.  Helena says I have a tendency--

A: No one said anything about wanting softball questions, about this being easy. Challenge me. Just don’t throw garbage at me. I don’t want to be part of some political scrum.

A: Sorry. We’re done. Goodbye.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Fortune Cookie

P deduced that, in infinite fortune cookies, somewhere your true fortune lies. He visited Chinese restaurants around town—their number seemingly infinite, growing exponentially as he dined. P went alone, with friends, dates, family members. Sometimes two or three places per afternoon or evening, collecting as many fortune cookies as he could. Drew up charts, equations to calculate the worldwide eatery number, which would lead to the number of fortune cookies that existed at any one moment. Variables—they likely recycle the same messages, said a friend. Consider how many are just for laughs, how many are meant as true fortunes, what’s the overlap. In his apartment P collected untold piles of them, rooms slowly disappearing in crinkly plastic and a light fried brown, shifting plastic the sound of devouring bug hordes. A friend said, you have many fortunes but know none; you need to open one, see what it says. He said, why not. So he opened one, cracked the cookie in two, saw a blank strip of paper, heart sinking. The friend: never seen that before; what are the odds? P chuckled, wondered what a blank fortune meant, what it did to his equations. He resolved to open no more, consumed by the fear of blinding whiteness, division by zero.

Friday, March 12, 2010


The king orders Yosemite Sam, bring me some hasenpfeffer. Sam gets that devilish rootin’-tootin’ grin, grows a thought balloon populated by Bugs Bunny chomping on a carrot. His firing six shooters propel him off the ground. Maybe this is the time it all comes together, he thinks, varmint makes his way into said stew. Sam hadn’t acquainted himself with the historical works, though, and their harsh inevitable truths: Wile E. never gets the Roadrunner, James Bond always escapes the evil genius trap, Sisyphus never manages to keep that boulder stationary.

Sam doesn’t know he’s an eye blink away from the real world. One day he could wake up and see that Bugs Bunny is his boss, the man who plunders his bank account, the cad who steals his love.

He could be pushed out of his cartoon into the sitcom of real life, scrubbed and cleaned and dropped into middle class life. Be forced to shave his beard. Ditch his Western gear for neutral suits and polo shirts. Shelve his raging pistols for lawnmowing and golfing foursomes. Become the face in the crowd. A tame automaton. One day, he thinks, I’ll make it back, give that rabbit his comeuppance. For now, though, everyone’ll call him plain old Sam. Buy him a diet soda.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Rocket Ship

The rocket ship launched today. We were going to go see it since it was just a few miles away but got lazy and decided to sit home and each French toast and drink coffee. The day was toasty warm and sunny and it was one of those where you just want to open windows, clean the counters and floors with something that smells like lemons, blast loud music filled with guitars and horns, throw away the clutter of former lives. We did some dishes but gave up on cleaning, let the music play and followed with something instrumental. We knew when the rocket launched when windows, plates, and pictures rattled, when we heard the sky crack open. It was on tv but we didn’t turn it on. The day wore on. We decided, let’s make drinks. The sky grew orange, the day thinned. We imagined those astronauts orbiting, their capsule spinning through cold space, as they performed their astronaut tasks. There will be more and more rocket ships. Soon there will be geosynchronous gridlock. Maybe one of these times we’ll make it to a launch. Maybe inside we already have all we need.

Friday, March 5, 2010

5: Revolution/Illusion

This story is the 5th part of the Griffin filmmaker series.  It follows Sodium Pentothal.

Dear Prof. J——

For some time, I’ve tried reaching you through the contact info listed on your course syllabus but haven’t been successful. I searched and found this mailing address for you. I hope it’s still good and you get this. I hope you haven’t completely disappeared.

If you don’t remember me, I’m the woman who sat in the back row of your “Early 21st Century Film Cinematography” class last fall. I had blond hair with pink streaks and was probably the only one in the class not a film major (bearded John, who sat next to me, once said I should’ve been a slasher-film casualty). I probably always looked sleepy but that’s because I worked nights at a 24-hour cafĂ©. On final exam day, I was the last one to finish. I hadn’t really studied for that exam (that B- was a miracle!) because I was burned out by that point and really all I could think about was school ending, the holidays, and just chilling.

Anyway, that last day we ran into each other outside as you were leaving. We went for some drinks after. I knew something was not right with you that day. You weren’t the person I’d seen all semester. But you loosened up with some drinks (dark beers to my vodka tonics). The day was cold and windy and snow was blowing sideways. We talked film, your passion, and poetry, mine. Around seven o’clock, I had to go. I could tell you were a little tipsy. Then you told me about what happened earlier that day, about how the board members interrogated you, questioned your political opinions, the films you taught, even suggested you led a questionable lifestyle, then fired you. You were upset. I thought you were going to cry. I really had to go. Now I regret that I left you like that. It seems you’ve disappeared and things have gotten worse and you should’ve just come with me that night.

Just before the spring semester began, I wrote the board as well as sent an editorial to the campus paper protesting your termination. The editors there had heard about your firing (and the other firings) and were eager to make a statement. Then, a few days later, they called, left a message saying they couldn’t print my letter. I was aghast, and even more so when I picked up the paper and found zero talk about it. It was like nothing had ever happened.

It didn’t end there. After the spring semester, I’d attained enough credits for graduation. Except I applied to graduate and discovered I had a case of academic dishonesty pending against me. News to me! They refused to disclose the nature of the case, claiming “underlying circumstances.” They’d inform me when they were ready to proceed. It’s August and I’ve heard nothing. I’ve recently discovered there are 47 others at the college who are in similar academic limbo. Then, last week, I heard about what happened in San Francisco, as I’m sure you did. I immediately thought of you. There are stories of people being detained. There are soldiers patrolling streets. Things have been building for some time and I’ve just noticed. I’m scared.

On that last day I meant to tell you that your class moved me. That sounds dumb to say, but after your lectures on director Griffin and his fifth film, Revolution/Illusion, I felt a sense of films suddenly making sense. Just last week, I re-watched the film and cried. I still have notes from your lecture: “The night landscapes of fog, grainy darkness were otherworldly, the opposite of daylight settings, and this is where the action happened, this is where the island revolutionaries plot. The magician, he’s trying to stay out of the fray but they’re circling, they’re pulling him in. In the end, he finds common cause with the revolutionaries. He can’t help it.” That film is fifty years old and it speaks to me. I’ve watched some of his other films and they too resonate with current events.

This summer, I’ve been distraught. I’ve spent daytime hours in my room, writing poems. Now I realize how dumb that’s been. I’m 26. It doesn’t appear I’m getting a college degree. My parents at first told me to buck up and walk proud but they stopped saying that. They just let me sulk now. I think they realize the direction things have gone. If you see me now, you might not recognize me. I’ve shaved my head and have eliminated the pink. My father says I now look like a female soldier from one of those old sci-fi movies. He tells me to be careful whenever I go somewhere.

This coming Saturday night, there’s a meeting at X—. Writers, poets, artists, filmmakers, concerned citizens. We’re about 20 strong. We formed as a group to protest these abuses, what happened in California, the rise of new tyranny. If you get this, know you’re welcome to attend. They know about you. They would want to see you.  If you don't attend, please, just let me know you're okay.

I’ll end here saying, I can’t help but think of the magician in Revolution/Illusion. He’s a relic from the past, like you said, wearing a red velvet coat with tails, black hat, and handlebar mustache. He performs old tricks like pulling rabbits from hats, sawing cocktail waitresses in half, hanging upside down and escaping from straitjackets. I can’t help but see you as him—you, the instructor before real live students, teaching about the old films. It sounds dumb but it feels like we’re all stepping through that fourth wall now. We’re all characters from films. We’ve turned a dark corner and there’s no going back.


Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Transcriber, Backwards

More backwards fun, following on the heels of A Particular Sunset, Backwards from two weeks ago. Perhaps I should institute Backwards Wednesday as a regular feature.

So again I’ve taken a small work and reversed the sentence order. This time it’s Transcriber, another work from Thinly Sliced Raw Fish.  To clarify, I’m not just picking a story at random and saying, voila!  I’ve gone through a bunch of them that don’t make sense in reverse.

So, here’s the new “backwards” story:

Through the open window a jeep backfiring, scents of sea water, pork roasting in a pit. He laughs. Her piano player’s fingers—they’d have to be bent, broken, rendered unusable. He is the end. The man from the sea. He imagined her hands of concrete bone moving across pages, leaving ink trails. Smooth skin the color of wet sand. Young, she could be his daughter. The colonel sees her in the chair, sitting erect, staring straight ahead. A man emerges from the sea. She wrote by hand their book of revolution.

Here’s the original, in case you didn’t click the link:

She wrote by hand their book of revolution. A man emerges from the sea. The colonel sees her in the chair, sitting erect, staring straight ahead. Smooth skin the color of wet sand. Young, she could be his daughter. He imagined her hands of concrete bone moving across pages, leaving ink trails. The man from the sea. He is the end. Her piano player’s fingers—they’d have to be bent, broken, rendered unusable. He laughs. Through the open window a jeep backfiring, scents of sea water, pork roasting in a pit.

(One thing I did notice doing this is that I made an error posting this work originally. The words in italics were supposed to be that way in the original version but weren’t. I’ve changed them at the site and used the intended italics for this experiment.)