In April, I met Athena Dixon in person when she traveled to Massachusetts from her home in Philadelphia to present at the Muse and the Marketplace, a three-day literary conference sponsored by the Boston-based writing center, Grub Street. I drove into the city from my home in New Hampshire, and Athena and I spent a couple of hours chatting about our lives and our writing over dinner at a bustling Asian restaurant. Athena’s natural warmth and charisma made for easy conversation. I left feeling like I’d spent the evening with a long-time friend.
Athena is an incredibly hard working and versatile writer. She is the author of the poetry chapbook, No God in This Room, (Argus House Press, 2017). She is the Founder and former Editor-in-Chief of Linden Avenue Literary Journal, which she unveiled in 2012. Her work has appeared in both print and online publications, and she’s twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Recently, her powerful essay, “The Incredible Shrinking Woman” appeared in the debut issue of Gay Magazine, a new magazine from acclaimed author Roxane Gay with a mission to offer “some of the most interesting and thoughtful cultural criticism to be found on the Web.” It’s clear that Athena’s dedication to her craft and incomparable work ethic are clearing a path for her voice to be impactful to readers in a particularly meaningful way. I asked Athena to share some of her experiences navigating the literary world and the wisdom she’s gathering in the process. I invite you to watch our author chat below and read the interview that follows to learn more about her and her brilliant writing.
Melanie Brooks: You are a busy woman! Your literary life is dynamic and multi-faceted. You write poetry, fiction, and nonfiction; edit Linden Avenue Literary Journal; speak regularly at conferences; and co-host a podcast for New Books in Poetry. You also work full time. How do you maintain your sanity through it all? What advice can you offer other writers who are struggling with work/life balance?
Athena Dixon: It can be a struggle. I always feel as if I have something vying for my attention. I do my best to allow myself downtime without feeling guilty about it. A friend of mine once told me that sometimes you need to input instead of output. So, when I am being “lazy” and not working on one of my projects I try to remind myself that whatever I am partaking in can possibly be included in something I will write later on.
I will say that I’ve really had to force myself to use Google Calendar to keep track of things because I’m still learning to say no and until I do so I need to be organized!
I’d say to approach your writing with both passion and logic. Yes, we all want to do what we love, but real life requires money. If that means you have to devise a schedule or a routine after your day job then you have to. That doesn’t mean you aren’t passionate, it means you have a job. Also, make dedicated time each year to attend workshops or conferences if you can. It doesn’t have to be one of the large ones. It can be anything from a local community college meet-up to an online course. Also, write when you can! There is no cookie cutter writer’s life. If you squeeze in lines during lunch break? Good! If you write an hour before bed? Great! If you know all you have is Sunday to craft? Then do it. There is no rule that says you have to write every day or like anyone else. Your journey is yours alone.
MB: Tell us about the memoir you are working on. What prompted you to begin that particular writing journey, and how is the process different from the other writing projects you’ve undertaken?
AD: My current memoir project is a collection of essays tentatively titled Reader Insert. It touches upon only a portion of my life, mainly the last eight or so years, but also reaches back to my childhood to give a foundation of how I came to be both accepting and disillusioned with my love life or lack thereof. I’d wanted to write a full life memoir, but I found my joy and interest in writing the essays that comprise the collection were the pieces that were pithier, more urgent, and raw. I took those kernels and reshaped the book.
My main inspiration has really been wanting to write for care burdened black girls, quiet girls, those who sometimes feel invisible or unheard. I had this nagging issue when I first began working on the original manuscript over two years ago that no one wanted to read such a thing. Thankfully, I’ve had a few friends tell me that my work is very much needed because there are people out there just like me who need a voice.
This is really the first full prose project I’ve undertaken. I’ve written quite a few standalone essays and even quite a bit of fan fiction, but this is the first time I’ve had to really think about how a collection of prose should be ordered, about through lines, and arc progressions. I’ve really been forced to be honest with myself and remove things in order to best serve the larger project and to organize by what makes sense versus what I love.
MB: In a recent blog post for Moving Forewords, “Doubt by Any Other Name: Thoughts on Impostor Syndrome,” you acknowledge the voices of doubt and fear that many writers wrestle with. Instead of pushing us to ignore those voices, you encourage us to “take stock of what [they’re] saying” because they might be trying to tell us something important about our work. Has taking this approach to self-doubt benefited your writing process? In what ways?
AD: It really has benefited me greatly. Instead of spending my energy on what can sometimes be false positivity, I can expend that same energy on trying to get to the root of what I’m feeling. Of course, there are days when those doubts and fears are really just doubts and fears. They aren’t rational. However, there are those times when they are trying to tell me something. I know when I haven’t fully prepared for an event or a task and I know that can sometimes manifest in me feeling as if I don’t belong. If I can acknowledge that, then I can better prepare myself for future situations that I know will spurn self-doubt.
Because I know my tendency to feel like an outsider or a fraud, I’m forced to really concentrate on making sure I’m prepared. I try to prep for events well in advance. I try to cover all my bases to avoid missteps. I concentrate on making sure the work I present to the world is the best I can possibly make it so it lessens my feelings of inadequacy. Doing each of these things has really helped me buckle down and hone my voice.
MB: In your writing and in your work at Linden Avenue Literary Journal, you strive to give voice to underrepresented writers. Why is this mission particularly important to you and what do you hope your voice can add to the conversation surrounding lack of inclusion in the writing industry?
AD: I remember feeling as if I was at a disadvantage when I entered writing and creative spaces in an academic setting. And this continued when I started submitting my work for publication. There is always an underlying current of expectation, the assumption that everyone has read the same books, attended the same programs, or know the same people. It puts writers from marginalized groups of any kind at a disadvantage because many times editorial boards do not reflect us as a readership or a world. And this spills over into the experiences and lenses through which they review and accept work.
When I started Linden Avenue, I wanted to make sure the playing field was level. It was my hope that by having black women at the head of the journal, we would be able to have a wider scope of experiences to allow the best work we came across to be published. These publications are not based on who someone knows, where they are from, or what their publication background may be.
In the end, I hope that I can contribute a safe and stable space for marginalized writers, one that doesn’t expect them to trade on trauma or carry the world in order to tell their stories. One in which they aren’t a token or regulated to special issues.
MB: We were excited to hear that you will be attending the Forbes Women’s Summit in New York City next week. What are you looking forward to the most? How will this experience help to fuel your creative life?
AD: I’m really looking forward to hearing from women who have blazed their own trails while still being fully present in other aspects of their lives. Sometimes creatives are forced into a “do what you love” narrative that does not take into account the other parts of our lives that need nurturing.
I think attending will really help me continue to be confident in the idea that everyone’s path is their own and it’s what you make of presented opportunities that can really push you forward. And, of course, being among so many successful and talented women is only going to make me work harder to be able to share my talents with the world.
MB: Thank you for this glimpse into your writing life, Athena! I’ve no doubt that your talents will continue to find space in the world, and I’m bursting with anticipation for all that’s ahead for you!