When I was little, I wanted to be an astronaut president writer.
Leading the free world from space had a certain appeal.
I mean, who doesn’t want to ride on a rocket ship, sign bills into law from a floating desk, or use the sun rising over the earth as story inspiration?
While my love affair with space continues, time, motion sickness, and an aversion to politics led me to scrap my president/astronaut ambitions so I could follow my true calling.
The beginning of my writing career was a bit like that early dream. I wanted to write all the things in all the genres. First, I studied poetry, then fiction. After a while, I added courses in creative nonfiction.
Like most writers, finding time for my passion projects is my biggest struggle—especially when a significant portion of my day goes towards activities that pay the bills.
Last weekend I attended the James River Writers Conference with other writers who face similar challenges. Some were working on novels and essays while taking courses in poetry. Others were editing current works in progress while conducting research for the next manuscript on their agenda. We commiserated over our time constraints and traded tips on managing multiple projects and staying organized and inspired.
These people are truly my tribe. The same is true for my next interviewee, Athena Dixon.
I met Athena in late 2018 through a mutual friend who was starting a memoir collective. When we met, Athena was the editor-in-chief for Linden Avenue Literary Journal and author of the poetry chapbook No God in This Room (Argus House Press, 2017) as well as a regular presenter at writing conferences like HippoCamp and Muse and the Marketplace.
A Pushcart nominee and fellow for several prestigious organizations including Callaloo, and V.O.N.A., Athena is a modern-day renaissance woman who is multi-talented, curious, and prolific. Within six months of our meeting, her essay The Incredible Shrinking Woman was published by Gay Mag, the literary magazine Roxane Gay runs through Medium. This essay became the title for the essay collection Athena published with Split/Lip Press in 2020.
She accomplished all of this in the spare hours between her demanding government job and sleep. Part of her mission is helping writers establish a work and writing-life balance that includes realistic expectations and individual definitions for success.
I’d deeply grateful Athena made time for this interview.
In addition to being active on social media, your platform includes publications in literary journals, speaking engagements at writing conferences like AWP, HippoCamp, and The Muse and the Marketplace, being the founder of the Linden Literary journal, and co-host of the New Books in Poetry Podcast via the New Books Network. What parts of your platform do you find to be most meaningful?
I’m a bit split. For quite a long time, the center of my platform was Linden Avenue. The literary journal was my passion project for nearly nine years. It opened so many doors and created so many opportunities that I don’t think I’d have a good segment of my current platform had it not existed.
The offshoot of that, however, is the panel and conference platform I continue to build. It’s actually a surprise I’ve done so many. Public speaking frightens me, but being willing to step out of my comfort zone and accept these opportunities has had twofold benefits. First, presenting gives me a confidence I can carry into other areas of my life. Second, speaking at conferences helps me continue to build that platform by introducing me to creatives whose skill sets complement mine.
This is an excellent point, Athena. Presenting is a great networking tool. You never know what collaborations it might lead to or how someone else’s work might inspire or grow your own.
You began your career as a poet and published your chapbook No God in This Room through Argus House in 2017. Some of my readers are poets. They wonder if an author platform is something they should work to build. What advice do you have for them?
I’m a very big believer in building an organic creative community. However, the development of this community shouldn’t occur just for the sake of your proposal or queries or to demonstrate something to agents and publishing houses. It should be something you cultivate because you care about the craft and are enthusiastic about the writers in your community.
That being said, there is no doubt you need to build an audience and a platform of some measure to give your book the best chance at success, but how you go about that and how you maintain that platform are most important. Personally, I would rather connect with 1,000 engaged people versus having 10,000 followers. If you put out the same kind of support to other creatives that you expect back, the ripple effect of those people and their extended communities can be amazing.
I highly suggest finding a platform in which you are most comfortable because that will shine through in how you engage with not only the medium but also the community you build there.
This is excellent advice, Athena. Allison K. Williams is also a proponent of engagement over numbers when it comes to social media. In fact, I’ve heard this is what publishers now value.
We’ve talked about how platform is important for creative nonfiction writers. What role did your platform play when promoting The Incredible Shrinking Woman?
My platform was invaluable when the book debuted. We were about six months into the pandemic, and at that point, there was zero possibility of doing any face-to-face promotion of the book. However, those same creatives I’d admired and supported over the years returned that support and love. That community inserted my name into conversations with people I’d never met and helped me set up a virtual book tour, readings, panels, and interviews.
Outside of those very practical promotional opportunities, the platform I built also championed my book because they’ve seen me as a person. I am wholly against being a brand or presenting a polished front. I can’t expect to write personal essays, but only open up about struggles, fears, and doubts when I want to promote something.
I think people are willing to read and engage with my work because I am a person who writes and not just a writer. I think that ties back to building an organic community. I may not have an intimate connection with all the people I encounter on social media, but I’m fairly certain most of them support me because there is something kindred and human between us.
You were a 2017 Callaloo fellow, a V.O.N.A. fellow, and a Tin House Workshop attendee on more than one occasion. What role do fellowships, workshops, and writing conferences play in your platform? Should writers make these events part of their platform strategy? Have you found they’re more helpful for some genres than others?
Recognizing that being able to attend these events is a privilege, I encourage writers to at least try attending workshops and conferences or applying for residencies and fellowships. While there are obstacles to attending, and at times they can be an echo chamber, there is such potential to meet and network with other creatives. Several people I met at these events were readers of my manuscript before I submitted it for publication. Others I join in writing sprints. Some have referred me for opportunities and clients, and I’ve done the same for them.
The intimate connections you make are not only important for your own platform building, but they can become invaluable to you as an individual. Networking and engagement aren’t always effective on a large scale. Sometimes, it comes down to a couple of people helping guide each other and using their platforms to open doors for each other.
I’ve attended conferences, fellowships, and residencies as both a poet and an essayist, and I can’t really say one is more valuable than the other, but I will say you have to go into them with realistic expectations. Not all conversations and connections you make are going to be long lasting. Nurture those creatives who return the same energy after you’ve returned home.
Networking is such a crucial part of platform building. Conferences, residencies, and fellowships create concentrated opportunities for writers to get to know one another and that can lead to powerful synergistic relationships and collaborations. But yes, it’s vital to stay realistic. While I know writers who’ve met agents who went on to represent them while attending writing conferences, I’ve also known writers who met with one invested beta reader. I consider both experiences success stories.
Online, the advice about platform is always moremoremore—as in be in more places, strive for more impressive statistics, and clamor for more audience engagement. At the 2021 HippoCamp Conference, you spoke of the importance of finding a balance between writing, work, and life, and encourage writers to get clear about their individual visions for success. That’s important because not every writer dreams of being a New York Times Bestseller, nor does every writer have unlimited time to work on their platform. What does success look like for you? How will you know when your projects have achieved their goals?
Defining success on your own terms is something I recommend for anyone sending their work out into the world. It’s easy to get caught up in the success of others and then to compare your accomplishments to what you see on social media or what’s deemed as a successful writing career.
Success for me is being able to have my work read by a group of actively engaged readers and supporters. Instead of worrying about the numbers, I’m interested in how people listen and connect with what I’ve shared. When The Incredible Shrinking Woman debuted, I had very reasonable sales numbers in mind. As long as I hit that number, I was happy. The book surpassed that goal, so now every additional sale is icing on the cake.
For me, success is also being able to supplement my income through not only writing but also editing and speaking so I can one day transition out of my day job. When I was younger, I’d been convinced I wanted to be a full-time writer, but as I gained experience in editing and speaking, I found that I was happier doing a combination of all three. Once I determined my most desirable creative life, I set a very specific set of financial goals I needed to make between the three creative lanes in order to be comfortable and happy when transitioning into that life full-time.
The final part of my success is becoming more confident in my writing voice and also understanding I have advice and experiences to share.
I genuinely enjoy Instagram. It’s the one social media app where I am most comfortable. I’ve found a way of balancing building a community, promoting my literary pursuits, and documenting my personal life in one account. For me, Instagram is the best of Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr all rolled into one. On Instagram, I’m able to network as I would on Twitter, promote as I would on Facebook, and use the account as a bit of escapism by engaging with fandom, interior design, and entertainment users as I would on Tumblr.
What are you reading?
I’m currently reading Before the Earth Devours Us by Esteban Rodríguez. It’s a beautiful essay collection that debuted from Split/Lip Press at the end of September. I’m also working through my foundational books for the year. I decided to re-read 12 of my favorites in preparation for continuing work on my current manuscript. Some of those include Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurtson, and Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward.
Wow! The description for Before the Earth Devours Us is amazing. I’ve been so impressed with the Split/Lip titles I’ve read. I’m adding this one to my reading list. And, I can’t wait to see how the influence of your foundational books shows up in your next book.
What’s next for you?
I’m really focused on finishing my new collection of essays. I’ll be taking part in the second book residency through Tin House this October to continue work on the book. I’m excited to see where the manuscript leads me. The new collection includes more research and looking outward in comparison to The Incredible Shrinking Woman. I’ve enjoyed writing it so far because it’s really forcing me to make connections to the larger world, which pushes past my writing comfort zone.
You can follow Athena online by clicking on the following links:
Athena, thank you so much for sharing your wisdom with all of us. I absolutely love your wise counsel on how to manage our writing lives. I can’t wait to read your next book!
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