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.

(Don’t) Give ‘Em What They Want

Troy D. Smith is from Sparta, Tennessee. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Illinois, and teaches U.S. and American Indian history at Tennessee Tech. In addition to history, he writes short stories of all stripes, has written for several magazines, published poetry (but not lately), and writes western and mystery novels.

Recently, at the writers’ workshop I teach, we spent the afternoon discussing the ways characterization intersects with plot, particularly where conflict is concerned. After all, conflict moves story, but characters must have some element within themselves that makes them willing to engage in the conflict at hand… the hero’s quest, yadda yadda. At some point, early on, I made the very basic statement: as a writer it is your job to figure out what your character wants, then don’t let them have it. Because once they do, the story is over (so all right, let them have it at the end. That’s what makes it the end.)

Recently I’ve been thinking about what that means when you have an ensemble cast instead of a single protagonist. In the Western Fictioneers series Wolf Creek (by the multitudinous, multifaceted, and multifarious Ford Fargo), for example, every volume has about two dozen potential protagonists to draw from, each one with very different goals and desires/ How do we as a writing team, and I as an editor, keep them all from getting what they want, ever? It’s a sobering thought, at least from my end.

I’ve been thinking about some of the great western ensemble casts of bygone years. Deadwood had a magnificent ensemble cast. The network frustrated the desires of all the characters, and the audience as well, by canceling the show in the middle of a storyline. That’s clearly not the way to go.

The other greatest ensemble cast, in my opinion, was Gunsmoke (with plenty of other contenders). Most of the members of that ensemble had simple desires. Festus seemed to want a carefree life, and Chester a work-free one. Those desires are easily frustrated. Doc wanted to keep people from dying –in a place like Dodge City (at least on television), the frustration of that particular desire was guaranteed.

Which left the main protagonists, Matt Dillon and Miss Kitty. Matt wanted to be a lawman, and Kitty wanted to get married. Matt could not accede to Kitty’s desire, at least in his own mind, and hold on to his –considering it unfair to get married when he could be killed any day. I think that, really, he just didn’t want to be married. So Kitty never got what she wanted, and one suspects Matt was not able to fully enjoy his own life for the guilt he must have felt… and the story continued for about twenty years, with both of them stuck somewhere between vague contentment and unacknowledged sadness. Which was god for the show, really, because the tension between them remained, over and above the tension of each episode’s outlaw gang or Indian raid. And it was all very much between-the-lines, almost subliminal.

But, as I said, in Wolf Creek we have almost two dozen main characters. It would be nice if we could pair them off, a la Matt and Miss Kitty, so that their desires cancel one another out –maybe there’s a way to do that, I’ll have to give it some further thought.

I suppose I should begin by looking closer at the two characters I “run” –Black Seminole scout Charley Blackfeather and Marshal Samuel Horace Gardner. The two are about as different as night and day.

Charley is a remarkably complex man, with remarkably simple desires. He wants his universe to have balance. It is a major tenet of his, and his people’s, spirituality. If anything disturbs that balance it needs to be rectified. If there’s one fictional place your peace of mind can be jacked up, it’s Wolf Creek –check. This puts Charley in a similar situation as Doc Adams (and Doc Logan, in our series) –the one thing that most defines him is constantly going to be challenged as long as he is in that environment. It would be like being a housekeeper in a frat house.

Sam Gardner, on the other hand, is different. The one thing that defines him, that drove him from his Illinois home and keeps him in rowdy places like Wolf Creek, is his desire –his compulsive need –for action. He bores very easily. This makes Wolf Creek the kind of place he would thrive. It also makes for some very witty dialogue –but not much tension. I find myself digging a littelr deeper for the personality quirk that would cause discontent for the marshal in our rough-and-ready environs. And I think, in our most recent efforts (including some that have yet to see print, but will), I have found it.

Sam Gardner, in addition to craving action, craves respect. Not the sort of respect the corrupt mayor or crime boss of the town have, respect for his unique abilities. And that is already causing him some discontent in Wolf Creek. If he is successful at his job, and cleans up the town, there’ll be nothing for him to do. Not that there’s much danger of that; Sam is a prodigious gunman, but cleaning up Wolf Creek is a tall order indeed –the more he tries, the worse things seem to get. And that’s all well and good so far as things remaining exciting, but it is also causing people around town –and elsewhere –to doubt Sam’s abilities. So the marshal is I a Catch-22 of his own making, that is just going to get progressively worse. How long can that continue? I’m not sure –I guess we’ll have to ride along and see.

You can see things begin to unravel for Sam in Wolf Creek 4: The Taylor County War, out now.

Writing For A Cause

Troy D. Smith is from Sparta, Tennessee. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Illinois, and teaches U.S. and American Indian history at Tennessee Tech. In addition to history, he writes short stories of all stripes, has written for several magazines, published poetry (but not lately), and writes western and mystery novels.

It’s a funny thing about writers. Sometimes, when we go about our life’s activities, especially if those activities involve worthwhile charities or causes, we forget about the wellspring of contributions we have access to as authors. Those contributions include both our own well-honed talents and those of the network of colleagues most of us are connected to.

In my day job, I am a history professor at Tennessee Tech University, specializing in Native American Indian history. In that capacity, last year I was asked to serve on the board of directors of a new project: the Standing Stone American Indian Cultural Center. At the time, it existed only as a concept: a center located in the Upper Cumberland region of Tennessee, which in the colonial and pre-contact area had been a trade and diplomacy crossroads of sorts between several different tribes, that would eventually house a museum, an educational program offering various classes to the public, and fund indigenous cultural events and –someday –perhaps fund one or more scholarships to nearby TTU for American Indian students.

We’ve come a long way in a year, but we have a lot further to go. Most of all, we need to find funding –we had hoped to procure grants and so forth, but the continuing economy doldrums have dried up many of the sources we could normally have turned to. We have been brainstorming ways to reach potential donors who might be able to help –we tossed around ideas about fundraisers and outreach activities. That’s when it hit me.

I’m a writer. I write westerns. Lots of my friends write westerns.

Westerns are often about Indians.

Why not a fund-raising short story collection?

So I put out the word –and am putting it out now.

I will be overseeing the publication of Tales from Indian Country, under the aegis of Standing Stone American Indian Cultural Center (SSAICC). Authors are being asked to donate a story (keeping their own rights to said story, other than for this publication) –either an original tale or a previously published one they have the rights to –featuring American Indian protagonists and/or Indian themes. We do ask that they be well researched for cultural accuracy. There are no minimum word counts, though there is a 10,000 max. All royalties (beyond printing fees and other costs) will go to the SSAICC. The book will be available in both paperback and digital; if there is enough interest from writers, there may be more than one volume. With the potential long shelf life of books in this new digital age of ours, there is a chance our anthology (or anthologies) will continue to benefit the center as it grows (with the understanding that, if SSAICC should dissolve, the royalties would be diverted to a similar Native American Indian educational project.)

I would never have considered the possibility of editing such a volume if I had not spent the past year editing Western Fictioneers’ Wolf Creek series (and by the way, the fourth book in that series –The Taylor County War- just came out). Several of my colleagues from that series have already offered to pitch in for Tales from Indian Country. Like me, they are delighted to have a chance to use their unique skills for a greater good.

I encourage you to also think of ways to use your fearsome and formidable powers for some noble cause. And, if you write about Indians, or have done so, please consider pitching in to our cause, as well. You can email me at tdsmith at tntech dot edu for details. You can also learn more about SSAICC –including just what the “Standing Stone” of the title refers to. You might also want to check out the SSAICC Facebook page (or make direct financial contributions to their Fundrazr page).

Regarding Sauron: On Ambiguous Characters

J.M. McDermott published his first novel, Last Dragon, in January, 2008 under the Wizards of the Coast Discoveries program. Last Dragon drew immediate praise from both fans and critics for its stylistic prose and unconventional narrative structure. The book went on to make the ‘Editors Choice’ top ten at
Apex Publications published the eBook versions of Last Dragon in June, 2009. In 2011, Apex re-issued the print version.
Prior to the publication of Last Dragon, McDermott was a prolific short fiction and poetry writer. His work has appeared in Fantasy Magazine, GUD, Dark Recesses, and more. He maintains an active blog at

Regarding Sauron. I don’t get him. I just don’t. What’s the point of all that power and despair? Control? Evil for its own sake? He’s so powerful all he has to do is sort of hang out in his tower and play with his rings and breed orcs and giant spiders and nobody would bother him if he wasn’t so busy trying to eradicate everything else. What’s the point of Sauron? Evil isn’t supposed to make sense. To the “heroes”, evil is just supposed to be this big, unknowable thing that happens and hurts people and must be stopped. Evil is a cloud of fear. Evil is an unspoken taboo that someone dares act upon, spilling a world of pain and suffering out from the sources of corruption. Because that’s exactly what doesn’t happen in life, by the way, that it must be written about in fiction. In life evil is an moral expression of tribalism, and tribal loyalty. For instance, killing is bad, unless you are killing “the bad guy” in which case, Yippee-ki-yay, Mother Fucker, because the bad guys deserve to die.

All right, so Sauron is explicated and explained elsewhere and he sort of makes sense when you think of him as a tragic hero. To Sauron, he, himself, is the hero of a struggle against the creator’s song of life, towards a self-directed transcendence earned and not handed down from on high. He is a Promethean figure. He is stealing the fire and building the world in his own image. He corrupts the creator’s world, to create his own. That’s heroic, isn’t it? That he is destroying so much life and love in the world is secondary to his own acts of creation that generate new life – orcish life. Plenty of good books explore the dynamic of the epic fantasy race wars from the perspective of the orcs and evil races.

Perspective, though, is key. Who you root for is what makes someone a hero or an anti-hero, or a villain. To a reader, following someone who is boring or predictable is ultimately the only deathblow to your prose. Whether heroic or anti-heroic, we root for the interesting one. I find both extremes trite, honestly. I prefer characters that are more like us in that they are more ambiguous in their life and motivations. Dogsland, a series of books I wrote, attempts to explicate a little upon the idea of good and evil, and the actual ambiguity of them.

Think back to tribalism. Characters have goals. Society has goals for all people inside of society. These opposing goals are neither good nor evil, but they don’t all line up. No society has a clear path of birth to death with exactly each that must be taken, followed by people who thoughtlessly step into those paths. Think about it in your own life. Our society has conflicting goals for us all as different sources of cultural authority impose their goals out in conflict with each other. Example: It may be “good” not to blow your retirement on a trip with your friends to Vegas, but interacting with other people and expressing the social bonds of love and affection are good, too. These two goals are in conflict. Do you blow your retirement in Vegas with your firends, or do you stay home alone and put off pleasure for another day?

In Dogsland, it is “good” not to kill people, but it also “good” to do what the king tells you. Jona is a character of conflict. He serves the king of the day, as a guardsman. By night, he serves the underworld. For both these masters, he is a violent man that does violent things. His human desire for love and peace in this world conflicts with the corruption of his blood. The tension of the conflicting forces in his life happen, for him and for us, as casually as walking down the street. He cannot make sense of the forces, and neither do we. We merely act. We live and act. The choices that come from these actions, that spill us into new tensions and new ways of living, define us as adults and as humans in an ambiguous world that spill forward into patterns we barely understand.

The truly inhuman thing about Sauron is that he understands why he does what he does completely. I think that’s why I don’t understand him, and do not get into his motives. The key to ambiguous characters is that no matter how much they reflect upon themselves, they don’t really know why they make the choices they do. No one does. They are just choices, in the moment of life, made when everything is a mess, and some choices don’t make sense except considering the mess of goals that spill out before us where everyone around us wants something and we have to discover what it is we want.

I don’t know what I want. I want something. That’s what we who are ambiguous say.