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We’re releasing this episode a day early in honor of Athena Dixon appearing at Literary Cleveland’s debut Plum City Reading event! This reading takes place at Loganberry Books at 7pm on October 9, with an afterparty to follow across the street at Literary Cleveland’s offices. Chris Bachelder and Jennifer Habel will also read.
Athena Dixon takes listeners on a deep dive into the phenomenon of loneliness through her new essay collection, The Loneliness Files. Dixon discusses the inspiration behind these essays, isolation during COVID lockdowns, how online interactions can combat as well as amplify loneliness, true crime, fan fiction, vulnerability in writing nonfiction, the connection between loneliness and writing, the journey to publication as an unagented author, and, naturally, sensory deprivation tanks.
The Loneliness Files was released by Tin House Books on October 3, 2023. Athena Dixon is a poet, essayist, and editor. Her work is included in the anthology The BreakBeat Poets Vol.2: Black Girl Magic, and her craft work appears in Getting to the Truth: The Craft and Practice of Creative Nonfiction. She is also the author of The Incredible Shrinking Woman (Split/Lip Press 2020) and No God In This Room (Argus House Press 2018), winner of the Intersectional Midwest Chapbook Contest. Learn more about Dixon at her website.
In this episode:
- Joyce Carol Vincent
- Geneva Chambers
- Elisa Lam
- Tin House Books open submission periods
- Tin House workshops
- Tin House residencies
- Hanif Abdurraqib
Athena Dixon (00:00): I do have a folder on my laptop called "Good Morning Heartache," and that's all stuff that I've written that will never see the light of day. Laura Maylene Walter (00:09): Welcome to Page Count presented by the Ohio Center for the Book at Cleveland Public Library. This podcast celebrates authors, illustrators, librarians, booksellers, literary advocates and readers in and from the state of Ohio. I'm your host, Laura Maylene Walter, the Ohio Center for the Book Fellow and author of the novel BODY OF STARS. Today we're joined by Athena Dixon, a poet, essayist and editor, whose new collection of essays, THE LONELINESS FILES, was just released by Tin House Books. Athena, welcome to the podcast. Athena Dixon (00:46): Thank you so much for having me. Laura Maylene Walter (00:48): I'm really excited to speak with you today. I know that you are in Philadelphia right now, but could you start by telling us a bit about your Ohio connection? Where are you from and what does Ohio mean to you now? Athena Dixon (01:03): Well, I was born in Canton, Ohio and raised in Alliance, Ohio. So I went to elementary school, junior high, and high school, all in the Alliance City school system. I graduated from Kent State University with my bachelor's in sociology. And then I also graduated with my bachelor's in English from Youngstown State University. And outside of myself, almost all of my family still resides in Ohio between Akron, Canton, and a little bit in Columbus. But I am a born and bred Ohioan. I'm really thinking about going back. I've been in Philadelphia for about eight years and I'm kind of aching to get back home. Laura Maylene Walter (01:44): We will welcome you back with open arms should you ever return full-time. Athena Dixon (01:48): I'm really thinking about it. Laura Maylene Walter (01:50): Well, I am really looking forward to discussing your essay collection, THE LONELINESS FILES, which is a collection of essays about obviously loneliness and being alone. I was hoping you could start by telling us how this collection came to be. When did you first know or decide that you were writing a collection on this topic and how did this collection of essays first start to take shape? Athena Dixon (02:16): So back in March of 2020, my office management team let us know that we were going be working from home for two weeks because of Covid. And I was really excited about that because I didn't have to commute, I didn't have to really think about doing anything other than being in my home office. And so I thought it would be a little bit of a chance to decompress. But as months and then years wore on, it got to be something a lot bigger than I think a lot of people thought it would be. And so probably three or four months into working from home 24/7, it kind of started to wear on me. I live by myself. I'm now, like I said, in Philadelphia. My family's in Ohio, so there's just me here in the city. And so I spent the vast majority of like two and a half to three years in an apartment alone by myself. Athena Dixon (03:01): And so that got me a lot of time to think about the decisions that I made that got me here, the decisions that were made for me that got me here and kind of what I thought my life would be versus what it was at the current time. And so one of the things that I did when I was really particularly feeling lonely and kind of isolated from the world was I would play video game walkthroughs from YouTube during the day in the background so I could have like another human voice in the apartment. And I guess I should say that the video game walkthroughs that I watched for horror video games because the people would stop and start very often because they would get scared. So it was like a natural lull for a conversation. And so that eventually led me to true crime podcasts and videos and mysterious disappearances. Athena Dixon (03:46): And that's when I first really came across the idea of Joyce Carol Vincent, which is the person that I speak about in the opening essay. And so I came across her story and realized how similar my life was at the moment to her life. And it got me into this feeling that I wanted to start to dissect my loneliness and my isolation and kind of like the highs and lows of it. So I started writing and that essay kind of took me through the entirety of my life trying to figure out, figure how I had come to this moment and what I wanted to do about it once I dissected what I was actually feeling. Laura Maylene Walter (04:19): You know, it seems like loneliness is just pervasive in our culture in general. And then of course you throw the pandemic in there where you know, I'm someone who loves to be alone. I'm an introvert. I'm very comfortable being alone. And in a similar way when lockdowns first happened, I wasn't too upset about having to be at home. However, as it drags on and you don't get to see your close friends or your family or people who live a state or two away, it was really, really wearing. And so I feel like this book to come out when, I mean we're still in a pandemic, but the lockdowns have faded, but it's this shadow hanging over us. I feel like it's definitely become a part of us. And I think your book touches on a lot of that in a really powerful way. So you mentioned Joyce Carrol Vincent, and similarly in another essay, Geneva Chambers is another person I would love for you to talk about. Can you tell us who these women were, what happened to them and how you found yourself drawn to and or horrified by their stories? Athena Dixon (05:22): Joyce Carol Vincent was a British woman who passed away in 2003 and her body was not discovered until 2006. And so when they found her, she was still in front of the television. She had Christmas gifts near her and her television was still on. And so during the three years that she was deceased, no one kind of like realized that she was gone, her rent was paid, her utilities were still on, her TV was still on, and it was only until her rental arrears built up enough that they had to evict her that they kicked in the door and realized that she was gone. And so she was really fascinating because she had siblings, she had been engaged at one point, she worked for some major financial corporation. She had an actual real life and she just fell off the face of the earth and nobody seemed to notice. Athena Dixon (06:09): And ii was very similar, the same thing with Geneva Chambers, who was a woman from Florida. She was kind of like the neighborhood grumpy woman. She yelled at people who walked by her house, she played her musical loudly, she generally didn't get involved with the people in her neighborhood. And she went inside her home one night and three years later, again, they discovered that she had passed away. And it was like a very similar situation with Joyce that the world just kept moving around both of their lives and they were gone and nobody noticed for years. And so what fascinated me about both of these women is like I could see myself in both of them. I live by myself in the city, roughly 400 miles from my family. My doors triple locked if I don't come out to get food or go to work, nobody knows what's going on behind this door. Athena Dixon (06:54): And then with Joyce, I have a sister and I have parents, I have friends, I go out and do things, but I spent a lot of time by myself, by choice and by force at this point. But I just really had never seen two stories that were parallel to my own life. And so I got very fascinated with the idea of how this could be me as well. I think more of what I felt was fear. Fear of this could be me and what would happen if something was to happen to me and no one would know. But I think by the time I got to the end of the writing of the book, I also figured out there's a little bit of joy there because both of those went to some degree, had to have some kind of joy in their solitude and I wanted to explore that as well. I wanted to have a balance between the two, but really it was the fear of this possibly happening to me that drove me to start writing in the first place. Laura Maylene Walter (07:40): Yeah, yeah, that anxiety does come across. It's amazing, three years before anyone discovered them. Just sort of a darkly fascinating thing to focus on. And so you mentioned true crime podcasts as well or horror videos. How did reading these stories, accessing these stories, how did that play into your year or two years of isolation during the pandemic? Was this a comfort to you in some way as well? Can you just talk a bit about how these forms of media were influencing you at the time? Athena Dixon (08:13): I think that at first it was a comfort because of the reasons I started listening to them was just to have like a human conversation. Like I got to speak with my sister and my parents via FaceTime and phone calls and things, but it kind of wasn't the same. I needed some nonfamilial like conversation. And so at first those true crime podcasts and the video game walkthroughs were just a way to have human connection that was kind of mindless. It was almost like similar to being in an office. So I was very used to commuting to an office five days a week and having like a world of conversations around me. So it was kind of replicating that. But eventually the more and more I got into the stories, the more and more I started to realize how disconnecting and isolating those kinds of entertainment are. Athena Dixon (08:57): Especially with true crime podcasts, I touched on it a little bit in the book, but there's this idea that you can kind of distill a person down and they become like this thing to dissect versus an actual person. And so like you have things like with the Elisa Lam story that I speak about in one of the essays is that she was an actual person and all that I knew about her from the very beginning was that she was like fodder for true crime podcasts and it didn't speak to any of her humanity. It was just a way to entertain people and give them an outlet for their curiosity. And so what started off as a very like human thing for me became really, really scary at some point because I found myself being so sucked into like watching the security camera videos or certain cases and reading all these conspiracy theories, I'm like, but these are people at the end of the day. And so I kind of backed away from it a bit. Laura Maylene Walter (09:47): Yeah. And maybe along somewhat similar lines, one thing I really liked about your book was it made me think about our online lives and just how being online can add connection sometimes and give us community and it can also make us feel more isolated sometimes during the pandemic. I'd have to remind myself for example that Twitter is not real. Do you know what I mean? Athena Dixon (10:13): Yeah. Laura Maylene Walter (10:13): It's this fabricated, curated universe. And you had a really great few lines in the book, which I'll read if that's okay. Sort of about creating an online persona or curating a version of yourself on the internet. Laura Maylene Walter (10:26): "I think I and so many who grew up in Gen X and beyond understand how it feels to live parallel lives, to be some other version of yourself ghosting just behind the surface of your flesh and how sometimes the disconnection that comes from escapism makes it nearly impossible to come back. And those who also understand that the physical form can actually be the trap, the place where you aren't properly fastened to the world." Laura Maylene Walter (10:51): I think that's really great and I think it's really complex and there's a lot to unpack there. Can you talk a bit, especially during these particularly lonely years, about that disconnect between the physical and sort of the mental space of being online and what it did for you, whether good or bad, being online during this time? Athena Dixon (11:09): I've had a couple conversations recently about being a Gen Xer and how I'm of a generation where everything prior to like age 18 was completely analog. And then everything from 18+ was completely digital. I didn't really step online until I got to college my freshman year. So I was about 18 the first time I went into a chat room and started sharing my work on poetry reforms and things. And for me that was the time of my life where the physical part of my being was like the trap. Because for the first time in this digital space, I was able to be myself. I was able to share my work, I was able to meet like-minded people who weren't confined to the places I was physically in. Like so it wasn't northeast Ohio, it was people from all over the world, people from the different states. Athena Dixon (11:54): And so I felt very trapped because the person that I could be online was not the person I could be in real life. I was much more confident, I was much more at ease. I was much more happier with expressing myself. And then in real life, quote unquote, I was much more timid. I was shy, I was really hiding in the background. But after many years of being an adult online, I started to realize that I was neglecting kind of like the physical version of my life, that I was spending so much time curating my online life that it took concentrated effort to kind of back away from that. One of the things that I was told...my Instagram account. Instagram is I feel the most comfortable out of all social media. And when I started really starting to talk about writing and the publication process, someone gave me the advice of not being as honest as I was that I should be more professional, that you don't have to share the rejections and you don't have to share like when you're feeling particularly bad, you probably shouldn't cry on your Instagram story. Athena Dixon (12:59): And I really wholeheartedly rejected that because for me being able to do that was a balance between the two worlds because this is what I'm physically feeling, but also my life is very digital, so how can I find the bridge between the two? So I think it's kind of a reverse that I really felt like I was not holding myself when I was younger, but now I'm getting much more comfortable in the physical spaces that I occupy because the confidence that I gained from the online life now bleeds over. Laura Maylene Walter (13:28): I love that. You also mentioned in this collection sort of it would be an online community of a type is fan fiction and your experience writing fan fiction. And there are of course fan fiction communities and we have a lot of writers who listen to this podcast. So could you just tell us broadly about your experience with fan fiction, how you got into it, how long you've been doing it, and most of all you know what it means to you both as a person and as a writer? Athena Dixon (13:54): I started writing fan fiction when I was really young. I probably was maybe 10, well I think when I wrote my first fan fiction and I still have them to this day. They're in my office right now in a little mini travel suitcase and I would write them in these notebooks. But I took a long time off from writing fan fiction partially because I was in college and I was working and I had a whole life and I didn't have like a thing that I was really a super fan of until 2018 when I started to write again. But I'll say that the fan fiction, the writing of it came at the perfect time for me as a writer 2018. I wasn't writing anything. I wasn't writing poetry. My essays had dwindled off. I was just kind of stuck. And so my fandom is Black Panther. So I saw the movie the first time and I was just so blown away that I didn't know what else to do besides to start to write. Athena Dixon (14:48): And that community of fan fiction writers for a strong four years roughly held my writing up. Like they were the people that got to teach me how to engage with my audience and how to create tension and how to write things with not a lot of dialogue and still have people to be engaged in it. And so writing fan fiction really helped me hone my prose skills in a way that I think if I was writing essays I wouldn't have done. And it also helped me hearkening back to the last question, become much more confident because for a long time I hid the fact that I was writing fan fiction because I thought that people would think I was crazy or I was a little bit weird. And age is a big thing, especially when it comes to like hobbies. But that community of people that I built, they made me feel really, really comfortable. And so it gave me this jolt of creative confidence and inspiration, but it also gave me a jolt of social confidence as well. Laura Maylene Walter (15:39): Yeah, that was interesting. You wrote about getting one negative reaction from someone else in the fan fiction community who basically was critiquing you for being quote unquote too old to be doing fan fiction. And I do think in general fan fiction, there can be a snobbishness in some circles surrounding it, right? But hearing how you talk about it, it can be a creative entry point. You're using your imagination, you're exploring character and most importantly perhaps finding community with other writers. So I think it can just be really powerful. So that was fascinating to read about and you know what we're allowed to have our interests and our hobbies no matter how old we were. I thought it was interesting you pointed out that sometimes maybe that is gendered. Do you want to talk about that a bit, about women maybe not having as much leeway? Athena Dixon (16:25): I think that's true. I think that sometimes, especially as you get older, I'm middle aged, I'm in my forties now. There's this expectation that your life is supposed to look a particular way. So are you married, do you have children? And what free time you have, where are you devoting that time? And I think sometimes it's not supposed to go to yourself. And so having the existence of being in a fan fiction space or a cosplay space or any other space that you're a fan of something largely, there's a little bit of judgment there I think, because your time is supposed to be better spent somewhere else. And I think that we give a lot more grace to men with their hobbies because they are seen as more serious oftentimes. And I think that women aren't giving like the opportunity to really explore not only just hobbies and fandoms, but things that interest them in enough that could take them on another path. I think it's a very limiting thing. So yeah, I think that there's a definite double standard when it comes to being able to express your hobbies and your interests as you were older. Laura Maylene Walter (17:26): I noticed another sort of a theme in the collection surrounded alcohol. And if you are comfortable talking about it, I'm curious what your thoughts are about the connection maybe between alcohol and loneliness as you might see it as you might have experienced it, or how do you think alcohol might play a role in some people's experience with loneliness? Athena Dixon (17:49): For me, I'm very, very conscious of not drinking alone or very rarely drinking alone just because I know that there are family members, there's a history, there's a pattern of alcoholism, not wholeheartedly in my family, but there's enough where I'm like, I don't want to go down that path because it's in my blood. And so I make it a conscious effort not to really drink by myself. And when I do drink, it's usually very social because I think what comes after the social aspect of the drinking is the loneliness. At least in my thoughts a few times I've ever overindulged, it opens up like a lot of questions about what am I doing and where am I at? And I think that that kind of loneliness can be hard to shake for some people. I think that there's a loneliness that comes from the addiction as well, whether it be a person who may be addicted to alcohol in a way that makes them hide the actual drinking. Athena Dixon (18:45): And so now you're isolating yourself because you have to be able to physically get to what you need, or there's an isolation when you come out of addiction because now your whole life's been built around that particular space and you have to separate from it. So I think that alcohol, at least in my life experience, has had so many slippery slopes of I don't want to get too deep into it. And then if God forbid, I do get too deep into it, what kind of isolation and loneliness comes after I'm out of it. So it's just something I'm very conscious about in my life. Laura Maylene Walter (19:16): Yeah, and I think, again, not to keep bringing up the pandemic 'cause I wouldn't call this a pandemic book, right? It definitely extends beyond that. But thinking of alcohol and the pandemic when we were all locked inside, a lot of people were drinking more. And it's something to think about about that form of isolation and using alcohol as some form of crutch and the problems that can possibly lead to. Speaking of topics that are either personal or heavier, there's another few lines in your book that I'd love to share if I may, that I thought was a really great way to describe the act of writing nonfiction and being a nonfiction writer and an essayist. Laura Maylene Walter (19:54): You wrote, "Back when my first collection of essays debuted, I worried myself sick about what the people I loved would think of me. I wanted to hide from the knowledge that in these essays they would see me at my lowest when I wanted to die, would see my somewhat reckless cyber hookups would see I was barely holding myself together even when I seemed perfectly myself." Laura Maylene Walter (20:16): Which I thought was really beautiful. Would you like to talk about that a bit at all? What it's like to be an essayist writing about such personal things and then maybe even talking about them on a podcast? And how are you feeling now with THE LONELINESS FILES with your newest book coming out in the world when it comes to these matters? Athena Dixon (20:34): Writing about yourself is kind of like a difficult prospect. And so I've kind of developed ways that I go into it in order to make sure I'm protecting myself and in some ways protecting the people that may show up. I'm a big proponent of the idea that you should have a space to write things that you want to write, that you will never share with the world because they're either destructive for no reason other than to be destructive. They're too sensitive for you, they're things that you need to get out because you don't want to carry their weight to them anymore. But it's not for you to put it into the world. So I do have a folder on my laptop called Good Morning Heartache, and that's all stuff that I've written that will never see the light of day, not that I don't think it's well written, I wrote it like it was going to go to publication, but it's just not for public consumption. Athena Dixon (21:17): It's for me to be able to exercise those thoughts and those emotions out of my body. And then the second half of that is making sure that I have enough distance from whatever I'm writing about. So if it comes up in conversation, if someone I know or love reads it that I don't feel afraid to talk to them about it or I'm not afraid of the particular thing that I'm talking about. The first book I was really kind of selfish as having the last three years since that book has been out, I've been referring to it as my selfish book because I did not get any real thought to making larger connections like THE LONELINESS FILES. It's very much centered on myself, but there are larger social conversations happening within that. THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING WOMAN was very much a heartfelt that I wanted to say "these things happen to me" and I felt very voiceless and invisible so I have to get them out.. Athena Dixon (22:07): And it wasn't until I really had to stop and said, oh wow, your mom's going to read this, your dad's going to read this, your sister and all these other people that I started to really worry that that they would see me a little differently. But what ended up happening, thankfully in my case, was for the first time, like especially my dad was like, I don't know if you thought I was going to read your book because some of the stuff I had to stop and like pause because I didn't know you were going through those things. And so for me it turned out to be very positive because it was the first time I was able to unmask some of those feelings with my family. But it also taught me to be a lot more careful because now three years later I still talk about the book. So with THE LONELINESS FILES, everything in that book, I'm like, I'm good. I don't have fear talking about it, but I've been thinking about that too much the first time. Laura Maylene Walter (22:56): I like that, a selfish book. I love that you pointed out when writing nonfiction, needing to have the distance from it to really be able to process it and write about it, I think is so important. And when I think about distance and I think about time in your collection, I was really drawn to how it's sort of bookended by different New Year's Eves. It opens on the cusp of 2021, so New Year's Eve 2020. The last essay is also about New Year's Eve in a sense and the cusp of 2022. Obviously New Year's is a time when we're reflecting on the past year. We're looking ahead to the next year. Maybe we have hope for ourselves to become magically a whole new person in the new year maybe. But there is this, I feel inherent melancholy I feel anyway about New Year's Eve, but I also have personal reasons I had a loss on a New Year's Eve. So that is embedded in the holiday for me. But can you talk about what it means to you, the fact that you did bookend the book with New Year's Eves? How did that help you process or reflect on the loneliness and where you were in your life at that time? Athena Dixon (24:03): I guess the idea of beginning and ending the book on New Year's Eve was kind of twofold. The first was I needed to kind of create some kind of vessel to tell the story because I knew that it wasn't a traditional memoir in a way that I could start and stop in logical time. So I needed some kind of like cappers to say this is the vessel of the time. And also give readers a way to mark the passage of time and then go back into the book. And then the other thing is that now that I've been in Philadelphia eight and a half years roughly, I spend a lot of holidays alone still. Like if I'm lucky, I might get home for Thanksgiving. And if it's not Thanksgiving, maybe Christmas. So I spend a lot of holidays by myself and New Year's tends to be kind of the most reflective for me. Athena Dixon (24:47): I mentioned in the book that I usually keep a good things jar. So the last day of the year I go through this jar that I keep with all these little trinkets of what happened during the course of the year. So it puts me in this mood of like really being reflective and really thinking. And so that's why I started the book that way because those two New Year's were probably the loneliest days of my life over the course of the last couple of years because there was no option to be connected for me, especially in the first one. And then the second New Year's that ends the book, there was so much death that had come in that year before that. It was just really a sense of reflection and melancholy and just kind of honestly gratefulness that I survived the year because so many people in my life didn't survive that year. And that's why I just thought Christmas for me was a little too, still a little too happy, even when I'm by myself and Thanksgiving, it's kind of just food for me in a way. But New Year's is really a time of reflection and to convincing yourself that this clock is going to flip and then the world changes and it doesn't. Laura Maylene Walter (25:46): Yeah, I remember at the end of 2020, which was such a hellish year, and everyone was acting, including me you know, but we were all acting as if, oh, this year will be finally over. But you know, the vaccine hadn't come out yet. What does that mean? It's just a new calendar year. Athena Dixon (26:00): Exactly. Laura Maylene Walter (26:00): It's still the same thing. We're still in the same situation. Well you mentioned in that last response death and you had just a simple line late in the book that I wrote down. I think in some ways my book has become about death and that really struck me as a writer of thinking what our books evolve into what they become sometimes outside our planning or control. So I wondered if you'd like to talk about that a bit about how this book, your idea of the book, maybe how that aligned or did not align with what the book became and any other ways you were surprised along the way by this book? Athena Dixon (26:37): So the original kind of path of the book was, it's going to be very much connected to social media only. I only really wanted to look at how we thought that social media was like this great boom that allowed us to be more connected than ever and how that wasn't necessarily true. But as I started to write, I started to think, okay, so yeah, that's a part of the loneliness, it's a part of the disconnection, but what else exists outside of that? And what ended up happening with my book really becoming about death, it was the idea of physical death because I mentioned that in the book there were seven deaths in the course of like a year in my family and friends group. Some of them were Covid and some of them were not. And so what those deaths really pushed me toward while I was writing the book was starting to think about the isolation and my grieving, the isolation and the decisions that I made that I could not be there physically, even if Covid wasn't a thing. Athena Dixon (27:32): Philadelphia and Ohio are in sister states, but it's still the entirety of the Pennsylvania turnpike. So you kind of have to plan to get up and make like a six and a half hour drive. And so those deaths really started pushing me towards like thinking about isolation and grieving and death in a different way. So it was thinking about the deaths of familial connections because I made the decision to move away. It was grieving, not being able to be there when my grandmother passed away and my aunt passed away and my best friend's parents passed away and I was not there. And really thinking of like the loneliness that could happen to me, the loneliness of if I die, they don't know what happens to me and that isolation. So the book ended up morphing itself into more of a study towards the end of how death is isolation, death is loneliness, and all the ways that that manifests. Laura Maylene Walter (28:30): I have one more loneliness related question. I am really curious to hear you talk about what it was like to be in a sensory deprivation tank. I just forgot the word for a minute <laugh>. So you write about that experience, but can you tell us what was it like? Describe it for us being in a sensory deprivation tank and would you recommend this to others? Athena Dixon (28:52): The first thing is absolutely I would recommend it. I love them. I actually had, before Covid shut down the salon that I went to, I bought a package so I could do X amount of floats per month. I love them. I think everybody should try them at least once. It's just a good, it's a good way to disconnect if you can get your mind to stop. For me, in all of the, the floats I've done, the first one, I could not disconnect. So essentially what happens is you get into this pod of water, it's the same temperature as your body. It's like the Dead Sea. Everybody floats in it. When you get in and you close yourself in, you can turn off the music, you can turn off the lights, and then it's just complete silence, complete blackness. And you can float from anywhere from 60 minutes to 90 minutes. Athena Dixon (29:35): And what it's supposed to do is kind of like allow your mind to shut down and for you to completely relax and not to touch anything, to just be in stasis. And I couldn't do it. My mind, it was racing so much because my mind just never turns off. So that first float was really me just floating and seeing if I could touch things. And the third time I floated is what I write about in the book where I was in a tank that was the size of the room that I was in. And that was terrifying for me at least because it was like being in space. There was no way to touch anything. There was no sound, there was not a sliver of light. And I eventually relaxed, but it took a long time to come completely out of my body. But for people who feel like they're always like on the go, they're always like connected to their phones or their minds are always racing. It's something to consider. Like it may take a float or two to get to that point, but it's well worth it. Laura Maylene Walter (30:33): Yeah, I've never experienced that. I don't think I'm claustrophobic, but it sounds a bit intimidating I think. But we'll see. One day I'm always open for new experiences. One more loneliness question. So to be a writer, you know, we have to be alone really to do the work, at least alone with our own thoughts, even if there's other people around physically or not. Can you talk about how you see the connection between loneliness and being a writer and how that can serve writers or sometimes how it could be a detriment? Athena Dixon (31:03): I guess I'll start with the detriment first. I think the detriment comes when you have isolated yourself so far from creative community that when you need eyes, when you need support, when you need just someone to listen, you don't have it because you, you're sunken yourself so deeply into this idea that writers are these solitary beings. When you really need a community, they're not there. I'm very keen on the idea that I want to build a, create a community that exists outside of publishing and I'll be promoting something that I want to be able to have conversations about things other than writing. I want to be able to engage with people online and off in other ways outside of our writing lives. And so that's something that I take care in doing. I keep a small group because I'm still very much a loner, but I have those people that like I can have creative conversations with, but also personal conversations with. Athena Dixon (31:59): But I also think writers need some degree of loneliness, if only for being able to get your thoughts onto the page in a way that is not directly trying to influence or engage with or connect with an audience. I think before you get to that point, you should be writing almost in a vacuum that you'll get to that point where you can have your beta readers or whoever read that work. But I think you need a little degree of loneliness in order to have introspection and also to be able to create the work before you put it out to be edited. Laura Maylene Walter (32:30): Yes, absolutely. Well, and in terms of putting the work out there, can you tell us how THE LONELINESS FILES came to be published by Tin House Books, which is such a fantastic publisher? Athena Dixon (32:42): Yes, which is a dream. They were on my spreadsheets of places that I wanted to submit to but never thought I'd have the chance to. I'm a completely un-agented writer. I don't have an agent, I've never had one. I need to start querying again, but I'm not right now. So Tin House notoriously has one day a year that they take un-agented submissions and that genre changes every year. Like this current year, it's nonfiction nature writing, which is not what I write. What ended up happening was someone in a writing group in 2018 mentioned in that class that we should apply to Tin House. And so I applied to Tin House's Winter Workshop in 2019 and I got in and I went to Oregon to do that workshop and my instructor was Hanif. Then in 2021 I applied for a second book residency with Tin House with a sample from the current book, which ended up being the opening essay. Athena Dixon (33:35): It was completely different though. And they offered me a spot to come to Portland and spend...I spent I think three and a half weeks doing a residency there, working on the second book. And about six months or so later I got an email asking if I was working on a book and I had a proposal together At the time I didn't, so I had to write a book proposal for the first time. It took a few months, but eventually after they read like five sample essays and read my proposal, they really liked it and they offered to pick up the book. Laura Maylene Walter (34:05): That is fantastic. Yes. And for those who aren't familiar with Tin House, I'll link to all of these opportunities and workshops. So Tin House has a summer workshop, I believe a winter workshop now as well, and residencies. They have all these things in addition to their book publishing arm, which published your book. And your editor was fellow Ohioan and author Hanif Abdurraqib. What was it like working with Hanif to edit your book? Athena Dixon (34:32): I was so floored, first of all, and slightly intimidated because he's one of my favorite writers. And to have him working on my book was like an absolute dream come true. But what I really liked about working with him was that from the very beginning he was very much a collaborator in terms of like asking me, how do you want to be edited? Do you want to do a piece at a time? Do you want to do the whole manuscript at a time? Like asking me what my final thoughts for my book were going to be like, what do you want your final book to look like? Versus coming in and saying, here's your manuscript, I fix it for you. Like he is very much a collaborator and very much interested in keeping my voice and what I've written to what I've written to make it better, but also to not make it sound like anybody other than me. And so I really appreciated not having to tamp down my voice. I appreciated that if I needed to push back on something, he was open to that. I felt like it was like a collaboration versus like, I'm telling you what to do and you're going to do it. I really enjoyed that he saw the work and really gave me me an opportunity to polish it in the way that he did. Laura Maylene Walter (35:39): Well, and also I realize I should back up a little because I don't think I was aware that Tin House had open submissions for one day a year, which is really intense. Athena Dixon (35:48): Yes. Laura Maylene Walter (35:48): So is it that one year it might be novels, one year it might be poetry? Athena Dixon (35:53): Yes. Laura Maylene Walter (35:53): Okay, okay. Wow, interesting. That's good for listeners to know. You'll have to put that on their calendars or on their radar. So I'll try to link to that as well because I know it's, it's hard. Most presses bigger independent presses like Tin House, still take mostly agented submissions. So to find the opportunities that you can, you know, manage to get your work in there without an agent is really important and can be really powerful in discovering new voices, which is what we need in the publishing world for sure. Athena Dixon (36:22): Yes. Laura Maylene Walter (36:22): So to publish a collection of essays, I feel, I don't know, I probably hear just a lot of publishing doom and gloom in general, but we're always hearing things like short story collections don't sell very well. Essay collections are hard to publish as well. And probably with the big five that's true. But can you offer any advice for someone right now who is working on an essay collection? Any writers who are hoping to one day be in your position of having their collection come out? What advice would you offer to someone working on a collection of their own? Athena Dixon (36:52): The first thing is, I would say, is really research. I kept a Google Doc of places that published books that I really liked, especially that were essay collections that were shorter books. I paid attention to what books I was picking up at, conferences and things, and paying attention to who published those books. And then keeping a spreadsheet of their submission dates that they were open, who the editors were, what they expected, and only really submitting my book where I thought that it would be a good fit. So for example, my first book, which was also an essay collection, I only submitted to five places, and those are the top five places that I researched that I thought would be a good fit because they published hybrid work. They published books that were like under 200 pages. I think my first book was only like 125 pages and this book is 92. Athena Dixon (37:36): And I paid attention to presses that didn't publish a whole bunch of books in a year because that makes it more difficult sometimes to get in if they're publishing a lot of novels and a lot of full length memoirs, they may not have space on their, their roster to put a essay collection out. So pay attention to kind of those things, especially if you don't want to get lost in the shuffle and kind of never make it out of the slush pile, unfortunately. I think this is also where the creative community comes in, paying attention to who puts out open calls. My first book was published through an open call through Split Lip. They do four calls a year, like one set, it's like nonfiction and hybrid, and they do novellas and they do full length novels. But yeah, pay attention to those kind of things. So follow smaller presses, indie presses, and really research what they're publishing and when they publish and you'll have a better chance of getting somebody to pick up your book. Laura Maylene Walter (38:26): Excellent. All very, very good advice for sure. This episode will air not too long after THE LONELINESS FILES is officially published and out in the world. So for my final question, I'm curious what your hopes are for the book in terms of, maybe the anti loneliness, in terms of the community, the creative community that you had already mentioned earlier, which is so important. Do you have any specific goals for this book or events to do or any other way you're hoping this book might either participate in community or create community? Athena Dixon (39:01): I feel like whatever I write in whatever form it comes out, I feel like I'm writing for people who feel like they're somewhat voiceless and invisible or a little bit quieter on the spectrum of what you can write about. And I hope more than anything that the people who feel that way feel like they have someone that resonates with them and that they can listen to. Like I've gotten a little bit of early feedback where people feel like they have finally had a way to kind of put into words what they feel because it's very difficult to talk about being lonely when you have family and friends in a world around you. So I hope that people will be able to connect with those feelings and then feel comfortable enough to start talking about their own experiences of loneliness and also being okay with feeling that way and that it's not a default, it's not a defect, it's okay. Like you don't have to always feel like you're connected to the world and also giving them space to figure out how they want to approach feeling that way and how they want to either live in it or find a way out of it. Laura Maylene Walter (39:55): That is a wonderful note to end on, I think. So Athena, congratulations on THE LONELINESS FILES. Listeners, I hope you'll go out and get this book, preferably from an independent bookstore if possible. And thank you so much for being here today and for keeping us company. Athena Dixon (40:11): Thank you so much for having me. Laura Maylene Walter (40:20): Page Count is presented by the Ohio Center for the Book at Cleveland Public Library. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe, rate, and leave a review for Page Count wherever you get your podcast. Learn more online or find a transcript of this episode at OhioCenterfortheBook.org. Follow us on Twitter @cplocfb or find us on Facebook. If you'd like to get in touch, email email@example.com and put "podcast" in the subject line. Finally, follow me on Twitter and Instagram @LauraMaylene. Thanks for listening, and we'll be back in two weeks for another chapter of Page Count.
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