In Memoriam: Zach Doss

I’m devastated and heartbroken to learn of the sudden passing of writer Zach Doss. Although we never got to meet in person, I got to know Zach online through his tweets and his writing. We corresponded through email throughout the years, sharing works-in-progress with each other and offering feedback and support. I loved his fabulist fiction with a queer bent and quickly found him to be a comrade-in-quills. I vicariously lived through his MFA experience and was looking forward to reading his story collection someday. When he graduated and was looking for work, I suggested he apply to my workplace. We had an open position in my department at the time. He had a phone interview with my boss and she said he was an absolute delight. She was almost ready to offer him the job but he ultimately decided Florida was not for him and went to pursue a PhD in writing in California. I have to admit, in hindsight, my recommendation for him to move here was mostly selfish – I imagined us hanging out at bookstores, becoming better friends, yelling at people to read each other’s books. We had planned on meeting eventually at the AWP conference, but I was unfortunately unable to attend this year.

Zach was an original talent and absolutely unapologetic in his love for the literary community. His passing is a huge loss. My thoughts are with his family during this time. Although he is gone now, he will continue to live on through the hearts of his loved ones and friends, and of course, through his stellar writing.

Here are some of my favorite stories he had published:

Take Me Away

I’ve been escaping into alternate worlds. This was my favorite pastime as a child and I’ve missed doing this. Falling down the rabbit hole. I read about these fantasies, dreamt of them, explored their vast landscapes in videogames. I’d watch movies like Return to Oz and become obsessed. I grew up alongside Harry Potter. I wanted to inhabit these worlds always, so immersed myself completely and eventually wrote my own. Many of us lose this wonder as we become jaded adults ground down to a nub by the tedium and obligations of everyday life. I like to think I haven’t just yet. Or, I’m trying my hardest not to become that.

I’ve been exploring the world of Umbra in the videogame Earthlock: Festival of Magic. It’s colorful and lush, even while traversing the Burning Desert and trying to desperately avoid death from the heat. There is a central hub that you use as a homebase, called Plumpet Island. Here, you can rest and recover your health in a library. You can bargain with and go on quests for Frogboy. You have a garden and use what you grow there as ingredients for healing potions and even ammunition in battle. I always love gardens in videogames and this mechanic is my favorite. I have a soft spot for apothecaries too. Gardens are always showing up in my fiction.

Magic shows up too sometimes. I’m reading/playing a game on my phone called The Arcana. It’s a very queer-friendly visual novel where you explore an intriguing world full of magic and mystery, while also trying to romance one of the characters of your choice. There are talking snakes, magical trinkets, and ghosts. You are given dialogue options that allows you to alter the course of the story. The art is gorgeous.

Unfortunately, I’ve also had a rather lackluster revisit to a universe that used to seem much more colorful years ago. I’ve been making my way through the first part of The Book of Dust by Philip Pullman. I loved the His Dark Materials series when I was younger but, despite the glowing reviews online, I’m finding this prequel to Lyra Belacqua’s adventures incredibly dull. I don’t really care so much about descriptions of carpentry, Biblical floods, and changing the Chosen One’s diapers (yes, this is a plot point).

A return to the town of Night Vale, however, is always welcome. I’ve been listening to the audiobook of It Devours! at work. The narration is what you’d expect, since it’s the same narrator we all know and love. The fantastic escape + well-earned laughs were a highlight of my week. It makes for a nice break in between all the literary podcasts.

I will someday write towards a collection of more fantastical stories. I know I have them in me, just like I have a queer coming of age novel in me and endless stories with idyllic gardens.

Fall Fragments

  1. The cool, dry air pays a visit like an old friend. My skin is glowing but my eyes are tearing.
  2. I have a short prose poem in the fall issue of Unbroken Journal. It is ominous, as most writing is these days.
  3. Someone asks me, “What do you write?” I freeze. You’d think I’d be able to answer this by now.
  4. I finished writing a story told in fragments. It features potions and a garden. My stories always seem to feature a garden.
  5. I finished reading Cruddy by Lynda Barry. Brutal and beautiful. I wrote a micro review about it. Easily one of my favorite reads this year.
  6. I’ve updated my list of literary journals for LGBTQ writers, women, and writers of color. People still seem to use it as a resource and I’m glad it’s been so helpful. Unfortunately, I’ve had to remove quite a few journals that have gone defunct or no longer appear online.
  7. I’m getting married soon. Since there’s no bride, we’ve had to write a ceremony ourselves. There are no real traditions to inherit yet, no set rules. We are setting them down. I should write about this eventually.
  8. The cool spell will be gone tomorrow, I’m sure.

Finding (My) Voice

"Speak Up" by Kyle Thompson

This isn’t about writing style like you might think, or about carving out my own identity in the literary landscape. This is about actual voice and how I’m trying to change it.

I’ve always been soft-spoken. You’d think by now I’d be used to being talked over, interrupted, and not allowed to finish a thought. But just like the role of the wallflower, you never really get used to it. We like to believe we do, but we never do. The periphery is both comfortable and convenient when you wish to avoid any attention, but that also means people will relegate you to the shadows. It’s difficult when you desire recognition without the spotlight.

I never wished to disturb the universe. I wouldn’t dare, Mr. Eliot. I like harmony and dislike confrontation. I never wish to be an intrusion upon anyone, so I shrug in towards myself. I’ve always kept my head down and concentrated on the sidewalk, never daring to meet a stranger’s gaze.

Friends have noticed how I add “I guess” or “I think” to the end of most sentences, even when I’m a hundred percent certain about something. This is just like how I used to say I’m sorry all the time, even when there was absolutely no reason for me to apologize. Sometimes I’d even apologize when it was clearly someone else’s fault. It was only when I was made cognizant of it that I was able to change this behavior, and even then, it took some practice.

It’s going to take much more practice to free myself of this deep rooted self-doubt. Over years and years, it has become both my vocabulary and my voice. It’s kind of hilarious being a writer who doesn’t believe in the value of his own words.

I’ve been trying to teach myself that my contributions are worthwhile. I’ve been trying to teach myself how to raise my voice so you can clearly hear what I’m saying. It has become a matter of necessity now, especially since it has been brought to foreground by my work life. My editorial job requires me to tell people when they’ve made mistakes, even when I don’t want the confrontation. It requires me to voice confidence when I know I’m right and someone else isn’t–which, as it turns out, is often.

So I lied. I said this wasn’t going to be about writing. But if it’s about voice, then it’s going to be about writing too.

I received this rejection letter:

Dear Joseph Dante,

Thank you so much for sending us this. We love the nuance and patience of this story and the delicacy of this relationship. Unfortunately, this piece doesn’t quite fit the tone we’re developing for Issue 6, but I would love to read more of your work in the future.

We wish you the very best of luck placing this story elsewhere.

I couldn’t help but think, if only it were louder. If only softness wasn’t such a problem. If only we didn’t expect the writing to grab you by the throat.

I’m still learning how to turn up the volume.

The 2016 Memory Jar Project

Contents:

  • “Rock the Arts” pin
  • “Gamer Pride” pin
  • Florence + the Machine concert headline
  • GaymerX pass w/ name and preferred pronoun
  • Ticket stubs for Bonnie Raitt concert, Mary Chapin Carpenter w/ Rose Cousins concert
  • Invitation to surprise party celebrating friend’s parents’ 30th anniversary
  • Business card from my favorite used bookstore, Finding Forrester’s Books
  • Express pass for Universal Studios
  • Key card from Portofino Bay Hotel
  • Halloween skull pen given to me by coworker, complete w/ glowing eyes and demonic noises
  • Map from San Antonio Museum of Art
  • Map from San Francisco Botanical Garden
  • Pamphlet from San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers