There’s this magic that happens once you get over yourself and start following the rules again. The myth of the tortured artist, the clutching passion of the “real” creative…those perceptions are dangerous and limiting. Once you faithfully study writers who are better than you, once you pull back and apply a heightened attention to craft: that’s when things get surprisingly unhinged in a good way. The best thing I can do for myself as a writer is to be a discriminating, attentive reader and listener.
Twist the bottle, not the cork. Pop it when he ends with, “Gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.”
Bloody awful closer for a speech, isn’t it? Insipid. Sounds like it was lifted from a cross-stitched trivet in a house full of quilts.
He had mentioned it might be more fun if she let the champagne “spew forth a bit.” Maybe mummy should rustle up a laurel wreath for you, too? Shimmy you out of your corduroy sports coat and into a Grand Prix jumpsuit? Spew forth. Did real champagne stain? It probably did. It probably went out of its way to make a distinctively superior stain that required proprietary shampoo from the Bissell region of Le Costco. I’ll tell you something for nothing, if anyone spilled anything on her pale heather sectional she would grind them into pâté and serve them on a crostini.
He’d texted her at 4:00 a.m. She still keeps the ringer on, it’s the closest she can get to having him just down the hall again: shifting in his tiny pajamas, sweaty and lithe, shiny lips mumbling along to the whispered quarrels of his dreams.
Robert had thrown him out. Robert hadn’t thrown him out: they’d probably just fought all night and forgotten to thaw the hors d’oeuvres or vacuum. Could he move the party to the new apartment? The new apartment, not her new apartment. She’d only picked up the keys yesterday: hadn’t even had a cup of coffee in it. New things are never just for you when they’re still perfect are they? Everyone owns the newness. Then, once whatever it is is ever so slightly knackered, it is knighted with pronouns and promptly returned to your dominion.
Now here they were: her teeth still filmy, his hair unbrushed; slicing open cases of Cliquot Brut with plastic knives because everything she owned, spare the pale heather sectional, was stuffed in a rented van outside. She’d rolled out a few seven-foot lengths of paper towels to protect it from her drool last night. Sectionals are pricy, but have you seen the price of beds? She plunged a knife into a box. Couldn’t afford both this year.
A bead of blood perched on her knuckle like a ladybug.
“The most dangerous tool in the kitchen is a dull blade.”
“Really? Band-aid. Purse. Now!”
She wasn’t going to ask but now she couldn’t help herself. It was an awful closer.
“It’s a lovely ending, sweetheart, your quote. Who’s it by?”
“Gilbert Chesterton. British. 1900’s.”
“Don’t say Gilbert, say G.K.”
“Since forever. You’ll sound like a…!”
“A what? I literally have a PhD in English as of today. That is what we’re celebrating.”
And she was the one who was now sentenced to behave as though her mouth had committed the crime: heinous derailment of justice right there. “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth…” am I right? I bloody am.
Her dress is still damp from the shower steam, its synthetic cling animated in a persistent and loyal demand for attention, her “plus one,” if you will. The dining alcove serves as a stage of sorts. A chandelier orphaned from its table hovers over his shaggy chestnut head. She’s lining up a tray of champagne flutes that sat on a shelf at IKEA an hour ago: three dozen Hederligs. She’d looked up the translation as she waited in line, it’s Swedish for “honest.” The crowd cooed that they loved his apartment and he didn’t correct them. They think he lives here. They think he’s some radical minimalist genius whose enormous brain can only effloresce against whitewashed plaster walls and undressed windows. He’s tapping the microphone. Her living room is now a venue.
Obviously, she deserved a mention. No one would doubt that. If you peel the “selfless mother” trope off of any family narrative there’s a less examined layer underneath, an assembly of middle-aged women rapt with curiosity about “how they did.” There is no formal assignation of grades upon completion of creating a capable, compassionate adult: your job now is to catch glimpses of decency and file them as evidence. It was like taking a soufflé out of the oven: utterly out of your control and yet completely reflective of the effort put in. She would get a mention, right? On a scale of one to ten: ten being Oscar-level-raise-your-statue-to-the-sky-while-blinking-tears-and-pledging-eternal-thanks-to-the-greatest-woman-who-ever-lived, and one being a vacant-nod-as-you-pass-them-steaming-food-in-front-of-a-television she was definitely a six, maybe a seven – and that was being hederlig. Besides, he had to do it, it was “on brand” wasn’t it? She shouldn’t worry. You can’t end with, “Gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder,” then not thank your bloody mother, it would corrupt the entire theme. It would be like having a yoga teacher tell you to inhale for three, only to realize she was smoking a Marlboro. Mothers are always mentioned. Come on, love. Bring it in, son. Bring it in.
His peers slid their phones back into their jackets. Respect. Good sign. A white haired guy in brow-line glasses, his advisor, looked for a place to put his scrunched-up napkin full of spanakopita crumbs. Upon realizing there was no surface of any kind he put the napkin in his pocket. Quality guy. Somebody raised him right. He then pressed his oily fingers onto her pale heather sectional and streaked the full length of the arm in a deep and thorough stroke. Godless bastard.
Shit. Where is it?
Twist the bottle, not the cork. Twist the bottle not the cork!
The crease in her knuckle gaped. The wound had opened. She was bleeding on the champagne. Red streaks raced the condensation over the golden foil and down the icy magnum.
“Wonder…And on that note, I’d like to ask my mother to say a few words.”
off the margins contributors are asked to respond to three questions that will be asked of all featured writers to further articulate a collective response to the question: How do we step off the margins of convention and enter the wild terrain of our writing?
In what way(s) do you identify yourself as a woman writer?
I have a very different answer today than I would have given a few years ago. I used to push an ideal that quality work is somehow untethered to gender and that to assign myself an extra layer of identity somehow prevented me from achieving legitimacy. In the 90’s and 00’s I wanted to be taken seriously despite my gender or orientation, which ultimately posits gender and orientation as a “negative” element even if you think you’re the proudest person in the world. “Despite” Really? I think I was probably just young and irrepressibly earnest. The language of art and identity has changed and so have I. These days I treasure the assignation of “woman artist” because it puts me in the best company. I wouldn’t be an artist at all if it wasn’t for the stewardship, encouragement, and criticism, of other, better, women artists. The women artists I know not only produce exemplary work, they support the efforts and intellectual development of the women below and around them. None of the women artists I know have protégés, they’re all too busy sincerely helping people out. I wouldn’t say no to a year of male artists having to identify as male artists, though. Just to stir the pot. Just to hear the pushback. I’m curious. Can we make that happen?
Whose voices have carried with you for creative strength in order to arrive at this point in your writing career?
The voices I’ve carried (and continue to carry) are the voices of two women who serve their craft in everything they create. Their work is the result of deep observation, unyielding standards, and a capacity to communicate subtlety of thought in a way that elevates their respective specialties in the world of arts and letters. They are also gloriously funny and the most open-minded people I’ve ever had the pleasure to know, so I feel very fortunate to learn from their work and enjoy their company. Toby Zinman is a theatre critic and scholar who reviews performances in Philadelphia, NY and London. American Theater magazine named her one of the “12 most influential critics in America.” Toby has influenced my artistic output by consistently showing up to serve the art itself: not the performer, not the producer, not even the playwright, but the unique world borne of all those efforts. Culturally we’ve devolved into a collective mess where opinion is conflated with informed criticism, where riffing is dubbed as analysis and everyone of every age gets to review everything. I cannot imagine the grit and discipline it takes to forge through our current culture’s “let’s all take a turn” mentality where input is favored over expertise. Good art need gatekeepers to survive. Toby protects art. Standards must be kept, otherwise the art suffers. If everything’s great, nothing is great. If nothing is seminal, then the spirit of the age is ripped of its identity. Strong voices in criticism are essential. We are all better off for having Toby’s insight, and I know my brain is more reflective and ambitious for knowing her.
The first thing I ever heard the author, Nancy Zafris, say as she closed the door on her fiction workshop at Kenyon was, “This is not a democracy!” and with that, I instantly trusted her. I don’t know of any other contemporary literary fiction writer who can deliver a more poignant, wrenching story about the exploitation of the American underdog in a way that also forces you to laugh out loud on the subway. She digs humor out of the harrowing so delicately: like an archaeologist with a tiny brush. Her first novel, The Metal Shredders, (BlueHen Books, 2002, ISBN 978-0-399-14922-1) was a NYT notable book of the year. Her short story collection, The People I Know (University of Georgia Press, 2009, ISBN 978-0-8203-3420-2) won The Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, and should be read by anyone who enjoys expertly layered, contemplative outsiders. Her second novel, Lucky Strike (Unbridled Books, 2005, ISBN 978-1-932961-04-1) takes you neck deep into the moral questions regarding access to resources, but again, delivers measured and potent humor throughout. I’ve read the first 100 pages of her forthcoming novel and it’s stunning. Her knowledge of craft is so refined that her writing consistently delivers that rare, delighted exhaustion we all seek from important work: she is an important writer. She’s also a stellar human being. I’d take a bullet for that woman. Two, actually. One for her as an author and one for her as a friend.
What do you want our readers to know about your process of becoming a writer that might be helpful in further articulating their own individual process and growth?
Read: I’m not trying to be cute. If you want to create quality writing, subscribe to top-tier literary journals and newspapers of note. Know your classics. Know well-regarded contemporaries. Shun vanity publishing. Submit often. Attend reputable workshops. Follow instructions in order to hone your craft and don’t be too self-referential even if people swear you’re lovely. Know your way around third person omniscient. Don’t turn your life into your sole well of material. Volunteer for something that doesn’t interest your peers and hear stories you wouldn’t usually hear. Don’t be a hard-partying grizzled cliché. Don’t suck your generous writer friends dry, they weren’t born to serve you. Give back, often.
There’s this magic that happens once you get over yourself and start following the rules again. The myth of the tortured artist, the clutching passion of the “real” creative…those perceptions are dangerous and limiting. Once you faithfully study writers who are better than you, once you pull back and apply a heightened attention to craft: that’s when things get surprisingly unhinged in a good way. The best thing I can do for myself as a writer is to be a discriminating, attentive reader and listener. That’s the way to make a character from scratch. If you play by the rules your characters start filling themselves in at some point. The gears shift and the story pulls the writer out of you instead of the other way around. And that’s what I live for, that bit. God, that bit’s good.
Nicola Dixon is a UK born Philly fortified writer. She received a pushcart nomination for creative nonfiction and fellowship for fiction from The Kenyon Review Writers Workshop. Her last piece was featured in The Hong Kong Review, and her micro-fiction will be featured in the June edition of Unstamatic. She is also a songwriter and you can listen to her by clicking on this link.