Learning from Death


The story I just submitted to the Machine of Death anthology is a bit of a breakthrough for me. Karen Stolz, in a lot of ways, helped me write it. I should explain.

Karen Stolz is my creative writing instructor at Pittsburg State University. She died this week.

The story, “Mortal Combat with Ants,” is urban fantasy with trace literary elements. It was an argument Karen and I had a lot. She wanted me to write literary fiction, because–she said–it would make me a better writer. She didn’t want me to write genre fantasy, because she believed that if I depended on well-worn tropes and recycled ideas for my fiction, I’d never improve. She had a point, but I’m hard-headed. I wrote fantasy stories for her class–everything always had fantasy elements. “All Coated in Bonemeal” in Arcane #2 originated in one of her classes. An unpublished (and probably unpublishable) story titled “The Girl With Giant Wings.” A story I’m submitting around at the moment called “Don’t Look Back.”

I wanted desperately for Karen to read fantasy and like it, because I liked fantasy, and I liked her. So I spent time identifying elements of literary fiction and trying to shove them cockeyed into fantasy. It actually worked out really well, when I got the hang of it. My writing got better because she was pushing me (perhaps not how she intended) to do something different. “All Coated in Bonemeal” is about an evil necromancer, sure–but it’s more about making a friend. The mixture comes off as bleeding the lines between dark fantasy and literary to me.

Karen was quiet and I was loud. I liked being around her, because she always had something sharp and witty to say when she got a word in edgewise. This was outside of class, of course. I like to think I rein it a little during class. And I always appreciated her comments on my stories.

They taught me that it’s OK to connect the dots a different way. That they connect more than one way.

This summer, before she died, I started working on “Mortal Combat with Ants” and I was determined to make it literary enough to compel her, but fantastic enough to still be genre. It turned out that my favorite group of people, over at Machine of Death, had a call for submissions for their second anthology. And their submission guidelines suggested that, perhaps, some outright fantasy would be acceptable.

I started with the random words “pixie” and “christ.” I’ll let you wonder from there. Three weeks later, I’m at Freddy’s in Pittsburg. I’ve just typed the word “end.” I’m mostly happy with my story. I’m positively giddy, because, sure, I want the story to get accepted into the anthology–but what I really want is to put a good polish on it, show it to Professor Stolz, and have her like it. To learn something new because of the way she connected the dots.

I opened Facebook, and within a minute my friend Catiri tells me that Karen Stolz is dead.

So now I have a story about ressurection, written for an anthology about death, dedicated to a teacher who died in her sleep on a night when I was rapidly approaching the end of the story. I’d stayed up all night working on the ending. She died while I was writing.

I’ll never know if Karen liked the story.

I’d like to think that she’d have given me back the manuscript and circled something I hadn’t really thought about, and then asked me if I was referencing a piece of obscura  that she’d read 20 years ago. I like to think that she’d love it. I like to think that she’d have had some amazing suggestion for it that would have instantly prompted another massive revision.

I like to think.

Rest in Peace, Karen. I didn’t know you long, or well, but you were powerful in my life, all the same.


3 thoughts on “Learning from Death

  1. Aww, that’s so sad. 😦

    Hopefully she’s reading fantasy in a better place now.

    I have a writing mentor as well whom I greatly value and it would be awful if he died (or falls apart, which ever comes first). I don’t think I’d have improved as much as I have in my writing if it wasn’t for him whacking me over the head. It is terrible to lose someone like that.

  2. Erika Hall

    Karen was my adviser and now she’s dead. I didn’t appreciate her as much as I should have while she was my teacher/mentor. I was dealing with some personal issues during the two semesters she was my adviser, and her class sadly wasn’t the main focus amongst the many small things that clutter and get in the way of a clear view of what’s truly important. Now that she is gone… I find myself going back and rereading her comments she wrote on my stories that were pretty awful, and I honestly hadn’t put that much effort into… I wish I would have tried harder. I wish I would have taken advantage and gotten to know this smart women, yet tough loving teacher. She had the knowledge and the experience to help anyone with a dream achieve it, if it were possible and she was never shy from letting you know what was realistic, and that paying your dues is what success derives from.

    I wish I would have done so many things differently.

    she knew I didn’t have my head on straight and she warned me if not to even scare me that I had to get my shit together, if I was ever going to do what I wanted to do. Her death struck a serious chord within me, and I will never ever forget her. She paid attention to me, I even thought she could see right through me, she identified my few strong points, and pointed out pretty much every weak point imaginable, which was a lot.
    Her death reminds me that I don’t have time to waste and that if I want to leave behind anything like what I have dreamed for myself, I have to turn my life drastically around, and change my priorities, and my revisions, lol, you can never revise too much or for too long as she herself would have said. I feel like Karen is up there watching or maybe even helping me type this now. The shock of her sudden death I think was enough for me want to change now… I can’t go on living my life in a constant party or hooked on some of the things I was hooked on. Karen, your comments and concerns in my life, and in my writing will be forever saved inside my heart and my portfolio from introduction to creative writing 🙂 even in death you managed to save my life, and I can’t begin to tell you how much I thank you for that. Tomorrow when I wake up I will finish reading and searching for the papers you gave me, taking what I can from them, and hopefully getting some comfort as well for this tremendous loss, and then ladies and gentlemen I am going to do my homework, and see about starting the first day of my new life, with an entirely new set of priorities. Bring it on world; I can do anything with Karen as my adviser.

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