Remembering Stephen Dixon: Writer, Teacher, Friend
Kristopher Jansma on the Two-Time National Book Award Finalist
Stephen Dixon left us yesterday. The author of Frog (1991) and Interstate (1995) two National Book Award finalists, published some thirty other books, including collections of his over 500 short stories.
I first met Dixon on the final day of a class in my junior year of college called “Short Story in the 20th Century.” It was Spring of 2002, and our professor, Anne Frydman, had been teaching us all how to carefully dissect works of art by Anton Chekov, Flannery O’Connor, and JD Salinger. Each weekly session of three hours was devoted to picking apart just one short story by each master.
For that final class, we’d been assigned the story “Love and Will” by Stephen Dixon. I knew that Dixon taught in our writing program at Johns Hopkins University, and that he was married to Professor Frydman. She had multiple sclerosis and taught from a wheelchair. Once or twice, I had lingered after class to watch her husband come in to gently escort her away through the hallways.
Only entering our classroom that day did we learn that Frydman had invited him to join us in the discussion. There he sat—the author himself, wise and calm at the head of our long seminar table, interested in what 14 college juniors had to say about his work.
I don’t remember what, if anything I said of substance about the story to Stephen Dixon that day. Very likely I kept my mouth shut in complete terror. What I do remember is that when we finished analyzing it, Dixon told us all about getting the story published in The American Review, when he was first starting out as a writer.
At 40, he’d already tried careers in dentistry, radio, and journalism, and while working as an editor at CBS News he’d begun to write fiction for his own amusement. His first few stories ran in The Paris Review, under the guidance of George Plimpton. He’d sent “Love and Will” to The American Review, but the editor there wanted him to make hundreds of edits.
Dixon told us how he’d fought each and every edit, one at a time, until at last the man surrendered and published the story without a single change. “You have to say what you mean,” he told us, and something about his tone made it like both a threat and a blessing. “And say it how you mean it.”“Just keep writing,” he said, “Get a job tending bar or something and write and you’ll be fine.”
Was this practical advice to share with a room of aspiring writers? Perhaps not. But practicality never seemed to have anything to do with Stephen Dixon. He more than any other teacher I’ve known, embodied a kind of stubborn determination to his work that has gotten me back up off the mat again more than once in the years since.
The following year I enrolled in his one undergraduate workshop, a class called “The Long Work,” which was taught over two semesters and permitted a small number of undergraduate writers to bring in novels-in-progress. I’d written feverishly all summer to prepare, certain that Dixon was going to be a harsh critic. Instead I was surprised to find that, no matter how terrible our work was—and sometimes it was particularly terrible—he was infallibly kind to us, never failing to find something within it worth celebrating.
Once, after a chapter of my novel was completely torn apart by my classmates (deservedly-so) Dixon drew everyone’s attention to a few short lines at the end, where my narrator described driving through his hometown late at night, and trying each time to get through all three stoplights in town without hitting a red. “Make the rest of it like this,” he said, “and you’ll be on to something.”
He was a mystery. I read his novels at home, or tried to—some, like Gould (1997), I loved without quite understanding why. Subtitled “A Novel in Two Novels” the book was filled with dense, unending paragraphs and sentences that spanned pages. It was about a writer who seemed a lot like Stephen Dixon, only a lot less likable than the man we encountered each week at workshop. The book was dark and funny. It was what I’d learned to call “postmodern” and “experimental” but unlike much of what I’d seen in that vein at that age, his book was not dry or obtuse or academic. He’d unlocked a kind of secret, deeply personal space within all those enormous, intimidating paragraphs.
We all loved him. Loved the doodles he’d make in the corners of his responses to our work, which were always typed on a typewriter back in his office. Sometimes, he’d disappear after a break for ten or fifteen extra minutes, and we’d wonder if he’d forgotten us. We’d walk down the hall and listen at his door for the typebars hammering away. He was always in the middle of something, but he never left us for long.
Later that year I went inside the office for the first time, to ask for a letter of recommendation for graduate school.
“Why would you want to do that?” he asked me, as if I’d just volunteered to run into a plate of glass.
I told him I thought I was getting better, but I wasn’t sure how I’d keep it up on my own.
“Just keep writing,” he said, “Get a job tending bar or something and write and you’ll be fine.”
I pointed out that he taught in a graduate writing program, and he conceded that some of them were all right, but I should never take out loans for one, and that I should never go to one with more than a dozen students. Really I should not go at all, and, again, tend bar somewhere instead.
I handed him the pre-stamped envelopes and thanked him. He asked me why I’d put the stamps in the wrong corner of all the envelopes. Was this some kind of a joke? I admitted that no—sadly, it was not.
I did end up going to graduate school, and I took out loans, and there were definitely more than a dozen students. But while I was there I thought about Dixon often, and somehow his warnings made me want to work even harder so I could show him it had not all been a waste of time. A few years later I got my chance, when I heard he was going to be in New York City to read from one of his books. A friend and I attended and I eagerly went up to him at the end to say hello. To my surprise he remembered me, and the advice he’d given me. How had it all worked out, he asked?
In a rush, I told him that, yes, I had ignored all of his advice, but that I had gotten a tremendous amount out of my MFA program and was a much better writer now than I had been before—
He cut me off. “Of course you are,” he said.
“You’ve been writing for three more years. Of course you’re better now. But you’d be just as good if you’d stayed in Baltimore and tended bar.”
I left and wondered, each time I paid a monthly loan bill, if he’d been right after all.
Eight years later, I was still living in New York, still paying off the loans, and had begun a teaching career of my own. My first novel was due out in a few months, and my agent asked me for a list of names of people I knew who might want to read an ARC of the book and give it a blurb. I sent her every name I could think of—almost. She wrote back and asked why I hadn’t included Stephen Dixon, who I’d told her about many times. I said I wasn’t sure how to reach him, and that I was pretty sure he didn’t use email. The truth was that I was convinced he would not remember me after all this time, and that even if he did, he wouldn’t want to read my novel. She called my bluff, got his mailing address, and sent him a note on my behalf.
Three days later I got a letter in the mail. My name and address were typed on the envelope with a typewriter. The letter inside was typed, and short.
Dear Kris – I’m sorry I haven’t been able to finish your book yet. As soon as I do, I’ll send you something you can use on the jacket.
For a while I convinced myself that he had me mixed up with someone else. That in any case, I’d surely never hear from him again. The very next day I had a second letter in the mail. He’d finished reading, and he’d sent not just a blurb, but more words of encouragement. Then he emailed me the next day. “Good luck,” he wrote. “I mean every word I say.”
A writer has to mean every word they say. He’d taught me that, long ago.
He signed it, “Best, Stephen (no more ‘professor’).”
Over the years that followed I kept Dixon (I could never get the hang of “Stephen”) apprised of what felt like progress. He gave me advice on finding a full-time teaching job. I sent him a note when I heard that his wife had passed away. He sent his condolences when my sister died, telling me he’d lost his own sister to cancer at around the same age.
I tried to see him when I was doing a reading in Baltimore. He emailed that he’d try but, “I don’t get around much anymore—it’s nothing physical—so the chances are minimal.” A few days later, he wrote to say that he’d be coming up to New York for the publication of his new book His Wife Leaves Him…
…but I won’t be notifying anyone. I’ll just show up, and if for some reason people are there, then they’re there. I really have no interest in promoting my book, but will do what I can—show up; agree to be interviewed—for the sake of the luckless publisher.
Twenty years earlier, he’d been a finalist for the National Book Award twice in a row. Now, he said, he was publishing book after book without much notice from anyone.
I was entirely wrapped up in the beginnings of what I still only hoped would be an ongoing life as a writer. I couldn’t handle the idea that someone could get the kind of attention he’d once had and then see it all go away. I couldn’t hear him trying to explain that this was not the end of the world. “It means I can be alone with myself just to write. And I expect nothing, neither reviews or dough from my work. That can happen.”
My second novel came out and I kept on asking him for advice and reference letters. At one point he warned me against getting wrapped up in self-promotion and worrying about success, saying it would prevent me from ever being an artist. Embarrassed, and hurt, I stopped writing to him after that for almost a year.
Then one day I opened up a literary magazine I’d gotten a story into and discovered that just next to it was a piece by Dixon. He emailed me that same day, saying he’d just seen mine next to his, and that he’d liked it a lot.
We got back to our conversation about self-promotion—he said he had come around to my point of view to some degree. And with more distance from my pub date, I saw better what he’d been trying to tell me. That a writer can’t survive if they hang on every review or become obsessed by likes and retweets. That these things matter as little, in the span of a writing life, as being a finalist for a National Book Award, or two. “I guess I’m sort of infatuated with failure,” he told me. “it gets me going to write more. Success of any sort is a killer. But that’s just my feeling for me. […] The important thing, the only important thing to me, is that I keep writing. I love writing and I always seem to have something to write.”
More than once, he’d speculated that whichever book he was on then would probably be his last one. But he never stopped. Earlier this year he published two new collections of stories, Dear Abigail and Other Stories and Writing, Written just two weeks apart, with two different publishers.
I still think often of the day he came to talk about “Love and Will” and the story he’d told about fighting tooth and nail to preserve it from edits. By now I’ve had plenty of my own fights over edits. I’ve gone to the mat to save a single line from being changed. I’ve let hundreds of pages go without a whimper. I have begun to understand that both are necessary. I try my hardest every day to keep writing, to mean what I say, and say it how I mean. Do that, he taught me, and you can write anything.
There’s one other lasting memory I have of Dixon, back when he was still “Professor” to me. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure if it is even my memory, or if it’s a story someone else told me that I loved so much I’ve now written myself into it, as I’ve written into the heart of my understanding of who he was.
One afternoon, on a drive near campus, I glanced out the window and saw a man pushing a woman in a wheelchair down a long hill. It took me a moment to recognize Dixon, and Anne. He was running pretty fast—a lot faster than I’d ever thought he could go. Her long white hair was flying up all around his face. They looked like two little kids, goofing around. They never knew we’d seen them.