Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Taking Dixon's Road After Twenty-Odd Years

Last week, I started back to work on a story that's been dead-and buried for at least twenty years. I started working on it in the 1980s. I even sold it once -- or placed it -- when Kristine Kathryn Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith were still putting out Pulphouse. But an issue with my story in it never came out. After a while, I imagined Kristine had taken the story just to be nice. I always had a feeling, although I'd worked long and hard on the story and ran it through draft after draft, there was some sad, intrinsic flaw in it. The only thing that kept me from rewriting it to death was that placing with Pulphouse.

I'd read the story to audiences a few times, once at a venue where, by the time I reached the end, I found I'd taken a copy of the story with the three last pages missing. I felt like I'd driven off a pier. But that night I discovered I was a trouper, at least at readings, and simply told the audience the last few pages of the story -- like a storyteller, which is what we writers are supposed to be.

Friends liked the story. Some of them, like Forest Ormes and Julie Stielstra, really liked the story, and remembered it passionately -- to this day. Audiences liked the story -- or a few did. Other editors, at least the ones I sent the story to, said "Meh."

It was, to my mind, an okay story but I didn't nail it. I moved on. I had a lot of nice photocopies of it way in the back of my files.

Oh, it was called "Dixon's Road." It was a love story between a guy who terrforms planets and a poet. He wants to move on to the next job and take her with him. She wants to stay on the planet he's just finished putting the finshing touches on. Oh, and by the way, in the story, there's no faster-than-light travel. It will take forty years for the terraformer to get to his next job. Four or five years work on the planet, named Gaza by the way. Forty years back -- if he wanted to come back. He almost never comes back. After a century or so, places change. The terraformer never feels at home in the homes he creates.

The terrformer, Jim Dixon, and the poet, Laura Michel, after pleas, admonitions and arguments, part ways. He has to do what he has to do. She has to do, what she says, she has to do. The poetry she wants to write has to be written here, on this planet, now. He doesn't understand.

While he's away, though, he begins to get it. There's an issue, in the story, about what's so important about poetry. Here's humanity, in an interplanetary future, with all sorts of entertainments and diversions. And the weird thing is that in the midst of all this techno-everything, poetry is making a comeback. Why? The thing I stumbled over saying at the time was that poetry is the planet you take with you. It's the touchstone, the marker for humanity. And though it may be the most portable of expressions -- you carry it in your head -- sometimes you have to sit still to get it done. That's why Laura didn't go with Jim. She loved him as deeply as he loved her, but they both had their "important stuff" to do.

So, against his better judgment, Dixon goes back to the planet, named Alceste. He finds the home he lived in with her has been turned into a museum of sorts, the way you see historical places preserved here and there (maybe not as often as they should be). A young guide shows him around but . . . he knows the place already. He's part tourist of his own life, part history. Alive and ghost at once. But it is a place -- a place he recognizes and remembers. It's a home, even if it isn't his home any more. He walks back to the city on a road named for him, "Dixon's Road." End of story.

It was written in third person. It followed fairly chronologically the events, from the couple's last night together to Dixon's return. Fairly straightforward. After four years in grad school, studying the intricate constructions of Nabokov, Conrad, Dickens, etc., I found it best to make my own structures as simple and direct as possible.

Recently, after losing my full-time job of many years, working my way through the meager savings I managed to hold onto, working out means by which I might monetize my poverty, I looked at the story again -- not really looked at it again, because my original copy already went to the NIU library (can you believe that?), but in my head -- thinking about Jim and Laura and the house and the planet . . . all that stuff. And it occurred to me, yes, you could still tell this story. And get it right. "Right-er" than you did the first time. It's not a science-heavy story, so most of it still floats (I think I screwed up some of science anyway -- I always do when I don't keep it simple, or make it too simple).

It also occurred to me that the story should begin when Jim returns. Everything else is prelude to his confrontation with the house-now-museum. And . . . it should be told in first person, by the curator/guide at the house -- someone who knows the whole story, except for the part that's most important.

I've got a lot of writing projects -- my plot to monetize my poverty -- and it's possible that I've always screwed up my career by going on tangents when I should be sticking to one thing at a time. But last week, I really wanted to get started. All the little markers were taking position in my head, lining up. I felt like I could get the whole thing done in a few sittings, with a minimum of hemming and hawing over word choices and what to include and what not to include. I could get this thing done, and this time maybe sell it. Hell, it's only been waiting twenty years to be told.

I felt a little like Jim Dixon himself, coming back to the home he had known, still there, though he himself was long lost in time. And, counter-intuitively, the more I knew how Dixon felt, the more I knew I could not tell the story from his point of view. His emotions are too strong. If we don't take a step back from them we'll be burned in his fire.

So I started to write (knowing I'll have to clean up a bit here, adjust a bit there):

"He must have come straight from the spaceport in Prescott, on the first morning shuttletram. I hadn't even opened the place yet and saw him standing out in front of the sign, looking at it like it was something that fell out of a strange sky -- not unlike himself."

It's not much like the story Forest and Julie and the others remember (if they do remember it, or remember their memory of it), but I think it will end up in the right place this time.

I hope they don't mind.


  1. So...the first person storyteller isn't Jim, but the curator? Interesting choice. But yes, I can see writing it from the moment he comes back. And I can see how, 20 years on, you're in the right spot to write it. (but as Jim?)

    Go, go, go!

  2. Thanks, Oz. I know it's an odd choice. I think I'm trying to maintain a distance to the characters of Jim and Laura while keeping the point of view up front and immediate. If it doesn't work I can always rip up the plumbing. I'm good at that.