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.

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