“Man, sometimes it takes you a long time to sound like yourself.” – Miles Davis
Athena Dixon’s debut memoir-in-essays, The Incredible Shrinking Woman, is a nostalgic, compelling journey of self-discovery. Unpacking life’s unexpected experiences, Dixon embarks on a winding, reminiscent road to find the answers to one of humankind’s most pressing questions: Why must I shrink to avoid disruption?
Cija Jefferson (Sonic Memories and Other Essays) touts Dixon’s versatile debut collection as “an origin for Black girls from small towns who dreamed of being cool when reality didn’t feel like it.” Drawing upon an unconventional nonfiction storytelling structure derived from the game MASH, Dixon puts her dreams on full display. However, it turns out, the quasi-utopian life that Dixon envisioned is certainly not what she encountered. This world expects women—especially Black women—to hide behind life’s ups and downs. But maneuvering through life in an over six-foot-tall, thick body, Dixon denotes the reality of being simultaneously invisible and hypervisible. Chock full of catalogue, metaphor, and music, the essays themselves are strategically placed, highlighting Dixon’s own self study as she picks up the many shattered pieces. Her lived experiences in navigating Blackness, divorce, grief, love lost, fan fiction, and gaining confidence in the body and sexual desires all give power and strength to her unique voice.
I recently caught up with Athena Dixon over Zoom to discuss shrinking for public consumption, how being a Black woman from the Midwest informs her writing, and the duality of words as healing and investigation.
The Rumpus: How do you define creative nonfiction?
Athena Dixon: Creative nonfiction is a story without a veil. When you’re writing creative nonfiction, you have the best of both worlds. Sure, you can tell any story with poetry or fiction, but the subjects are kept at arm’s length. In creative nonfiction, the author tells the story without the distance that is comfortable in other genres. Creative nonfiction involves honesty, research, and history that evolves the future. However, most creative nonfiction writers are aware that they are writing towards something and not necessarily a solution. In other words, I think creative nonfiction writes towards an end goal. And that end might be unfinished, but it’s still writing towards something like that.
Rumpus: How did you piece together the selected essays to complete your memoir?
Dixon: The book itself did not come together until around 2017. Although I have a background in poetry, I was experiencing a really tough time in 2012 and poetry did not give me the space that I needed to tell the kinds of stories that I needed to get off my chest. So, I started writing personal essays as a way to cope—and as a way to survive. Along the way, I decided to submit on the essays for publication. A single submission morphed into a multiple-essay run for an entire year. However, oddly enough, none of the essays were actually written for public consumption. Writing was a coping mechanism and a way for experiences to be memorialized.
Rumpus: The Incredible Shrinking Woman is a deep exploration of the self. While the reward for self-examination through growth is implicit in the latter essays of the book (i.e. “Fat Girls Take Lovers, Too”), what did you learn about yourself during the writing process?
Dixon: The biggest thing that I learned was that I don’t need the scaffolding that I put on myself to survive. I lived a long time without fully examining the kind of self-defined boxes that I put myself in—on top of the boxes other people put me in—so the actual act of writing made me realize how narrow I made my world. I was so laser focused on one particular path that I couldn’t see that in doing so, I was stunting my own growth. Writing essays about sex, depression, suicide, and even the joys in between helped me to see that I have quite a full life. I acquired tools outside of therapy allowed for heavy self-reflection and self amplification.
Rumpus: “Once Upon an AOL” is the only essay within the collection that is an episodic retelling of a longer stretch of time, while the other essays are written as snapshots. After writing “Once Upon an AOL,” how do you feel about this particular style of creative nonfiction?
Dixon: “Once Upon an AOL” is not, by far, in my top five favorites from the book. However, it is probably the most closely tied to memoir-style creative nonfiction. It was the only essay I drafted with form in mind first. I wanted to squeeze in a decade-long arc into one single narrative essay because I don’t want to talk about these events anymore. The process of writing this essay made me realize that it’s not the kind of creative nonfiction that I am comfortable writing. I’d much rather focus on vignettes and very specific themes versus having to tell a larger narrative arc. “Once Upon an AOL” was an experiment—and trying new techniques is what I highly recommend to any writer. Try it and see if it works. But I know that this style is not ideal for me and from this experience, I’ve learned that writing a “traditional” memoir probably isn’t in the cards for my future.
Rumpus: What do you consider essential elements for writing memorable creative nonfiction? Are there any particular experiences that you’re looking for?
Dixon: The first is the heart. No matter how the work evolves, the core of the piece is paramount. And that heart doesn’t necessarily mean it has to feel good. It doesn’t mean that it has to be positive. But, the piece should be built upon raw emotion. Next, a memorable work has intention. Specifically, in my own writing and in the titles I enjoy reading, I can always figure out the author’s purpose. Finally, the last essential element is authentic voice. If you’re approaching any subject matter with good heart and good intention, that voice is going to ring clear. As a creative nonfiction reader, I’m hoping to experience honesty without harm and stories with heart. When you’re writing personal essays or creative nonfiction, there’s an underlying expectation that the work must include trauma. While that’s not always true, sometimes you simply cannot get away from writing hurt. Personally, I gravitate towards stories that do not just feel good. Optimism is always a plus, but I really enjoy stories that leave the reader feeling relieved from experiencing the raw, honest truth. The author can be very candid, but the moments that resonate with me the most, as a reader, are stories that are straightforward without being harmful to the writer and the reader.
Rumpus: Can you explain how reading creative nonfiction played an integral role in crafting your own work?
Dixon: I’m a firm believer that reading greatly improves craft. While I was revising The Incredible Shrinking Woman, I was also reading Tyrese L. Coleman’s How to Sit. I really appreciate how Coleman includes subject matter that hits the heart directly. But as I was reading her work, I also didn’t have any inkling that she was writing that to harm herself or anyone reading the book. Perhaps it’s because she seamlessly blends genres, but Coleman’s artistry was encouraging. The more I engaged with her writing, the more I surveyed which topics I wanted to include in my own book. There were some essays that I had written that were simply not helpful. And the words, although sincere, were harmful to myself and potentially to other people. Coleman’s work led me to question, What is the primary intention of putting these words into the world? I later discovered that some of my pieces had motives that no longer served me and this ultimately informed key decisions on which essays to keep for the book.
Rumpus: In the essay, “Native Tongue,” ’90s songs and music videos help to catalogue your identity. How does being a Black woman raised in the Midwest inform your writing?
Dixon: Being from the Midwest, specifically a small town, set me on a path of self-discovery pretty early on. It often felt like larger cities could dismiss my home as “country,” but within that rural town there was still racism and a very keen awareness of Blackness. It was important for me to find how I saw myself through both of those lenses. At home, everyone knows everyone so it can also be very difficult to change identities once you’re locked into one. I wrote toward different versions of myself, trying to find what felt right. My writing extended from there. I wrote what I wanted or needed to say. I wrote who I wanted to be or what I wanted to happen. Once I began to take writing seriously, as something I really wanted to do, I already had those tools at my disposal.
Rumpus: How does poetry show up in your debut collection—and is this intentional?
Dixon: Poetry in my own creative nonfiction is very intentional. I’m a bit embarrassed to admit this, but I didn’t even write my first personal essay until 2012. The stories I told in my first poetry collection versus the stories that I’m telling in this book are completely different. Of course I’d read lots of essays for academia and leisure, but I hadn’t seriously committed to writing my own until I built up a strong readership. For a lifetime, I’ve considered myself to be a poet first. Open mics, slam poetry events—I enjoy reading my work aloud. In fact, I am a poet who cannot write a piece without reading it aloud, over and over and over again, because I am very much concerned about how the words fit together. I study how each line connects to the next and the poem’s cadence. Are there too many hard stops? Is there a natural rhythm and flow? I will say that poetry has helped me immensely with the “creative” in creative nonfiction.
Rumpus: While writing these deeply personal essays, you undoubtedly revealed topics that you’ve rarely or never discussed before. How did you navigate exposing these hidden truths to family, friends, and even to yourself?
Dixon: Much of my debut’s content is personal for sure. I’ve never discussed these events with anyone—only some family and close friends know. And even they might be shocked to discover what I’ve been battling with behind closed doors. I’ve been trying to filter little bits and pieces so that no one is completely taken aback. However, instead of worrying about how much my writing would affect others, I took notice at how much these essays were affecting me. There were circumstances that I thought that I was okay with, but I really wasn’t. For instance, one of the essays is about my high school sweetheart passing away. It wasn’t until I wrote that essay that I realized that fifteen years later, I have not grieved him. And I still cry every time I read it; the words brought up feelings I wasn’t prepared for. My thoughts of myself were really in a cemetery—I was so concerned with what people expected of me that I wasn’t aware, until I started writing some of these essays, that what I truly desired and needed was to investigate myself. Writing, then, became both therapy and investigation.
Rumpus: Can you expand upon the duality of writing creative nonfiction as therapy and investigation?
Dixon: Of course. My debut memoir-in-essays was certainly therapeutic, as I gained a ton of relief from the writing process. A primary theme in the book is the premise of feeling like I’ve never fully been seen—and realizing that I’ve probably never really been seen because I don’t know what I look like to myself. If I don’t know what it’s like to myself, then how can I expect anybody else to see me? Evaluating these ideas required therapy. In more ways than one, the writing process coexists with healing—and they depend on one another. Writing was healing, but at the same time I needed to heal from the experiences that I was writing about. When I understood the connection between the emotions and stories within me, I began unpacking some of the bigger issues that, quite frankly, I’m still afraid to talk about. These revelations also confirm that the writing process is also very much an investigation. Through writing, I explored the past self, the present, and the possibilities of the future. What does it really mean to be Athena Dixon?
Rumpus: When I was younger, I often scripted Black teen celebrities into my stories. We had a short story assignment in school and I wrote Brandy into the piece because I loved her problem-solving skills (as Moesha). She was the best friend I needed to get me through all my teenage relationship drama! Your essay, “Reader Insert,” is not just an ode to fanfiction, but a microcosm of being big within our dreams and shrinking in reality. How does this essay speak to the greater significance of the coexistence of imagination and lived experience—and why did you include it in your debut?
Dixon: I was an only child for twelve years. Although I had a really big extended family, I was very much a shy child. And so I developed my own little worlds. I would create elaborate scenarios—and eventually, that morphed into writing what I now know is fanfiction. I wrote stories about my favorite male music groups like Boyz II Men, Another Bad Creation, and Kris Kross, fantasizing about what my life would be if only I existed alongside these popular music groups. Stories consumed entire composition notebooks and even included original characters and extravagant subplots. Fanfiction was a way to create my own world and still have imagination and play without having to overcome my shyness and deal with other people. The reason why the fanfiction essay is included in the book also stems from a great experience I had in 2018. When Black Panther was released, I saw the movie and was completely blown away. I went home to search for other super fans and I fell into a virtual fanfiction community of Black women writers. With the support of this community, I spent an entire year writing fanfiction. This group gave me such energy and I wanted to see if I could merge some of these elements into essay writing.
Rumpus: What advice would you give to a new writer who is interested in writing creative nonfiction?
Dixon: Write for yourself first. Even if the goal is to write for public consumption, the writing must first be for you. You must feel compelled to write the story. And at some point, if you choose to send your work out into the world, there’s always someone who will identify with it and it’ll find its home. But don’t approach the page for the sole purpose of being published. This advice might go against popular trends right now, but I never want anything that I write to be part of a brand. Don’t allow others to tell you what you should be writing about and how you should be writing it. Another piece of advice for new writers: do not assume that you have to know what your voice is when you first start writing. Trial and error is important for finding your own authentic voice. Trust your voice and don’t allow anyone to take it from you.
Photograph of Athena Dixon by Athena Dixon.