California State University, Long Beach
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Writing His Own Story

Published: February 6, 2017

Tyler Dilts has spent nearly half of his life at CSULB as a student, staff member and lecturer.

As a native Angeleno, CSULB was a natural choice for Dilts, who initially studied theater arts as an undergraduate. When considering what he wanted to pursue for his master’s degree, however, he had a change of heart.

“I was typecast, playing the same roles over and over,” he said of his acting career. “A director friend of mine told me I had to take more control and start writing the roles I wanted to play.”

Dilts began writing plays and screenplays but things really clicked for him when he began writing fiction. After publishing a few short stories, he applied and was accepted to the master’s program for English Literature at CSULB. Having discovered his passion, he then pursued a Master’s of Fine Arts (MFA) degree in creative writing and started making plans to become a teacher.

“I always wanted to be a professor. Even when I was studying theater, the aim was to teach,” he said.

While he obtained his education, Dilts began using his knowledge to help the students of CSULB by working in the writer’s resource lab on campus. He eventually went on to work as a graduate assistant and then a full-time staff member in the English Department where he became close with many faculty members. The job also offered him a reduction on his tuition which was instrumental in him being able to continue his education.

His big break came the semester after graduating from the MFA program when friend and former creative writing professor Elliot Fried was unable to teach a novel-writing class. Fried insisted that the only person he wanted to teach the class instead of him was Dilts, and because he was so well-known throughout the department, chair Eileen Klink gave him a shot.

“I got this opportunity that would normally have taken me several years to work up to, and with the support of my fellow colleagues, I got to teach it the next year,” he said. “It’s still my favorite one.”

Dilts also credits his former professor and current colleague Stephen Cooper with much of his success.

“Elliot Fried gave me the big elements of narrative and storytelling,” he said, “but Steve gave me a lot more of the nuts and bolts of the craft. One of my favorite quotes of his, which I still use today, is ‘Sometimes the story is smarter than the writer.’”

In addition to bringing the knowledge instilled in him by previous professors, Dilts uses his background in theater to help writers in his workshop classes, incorporating elements of scene and character building often attributed more to theater than English. He also encourages students to read their work out loud, almost as if performing it, to make their writing more emotional, impactful and believable.

“Reading your work out loud is important for more than just catching grammatical errors and awkward word usage,” he said. “It also helps you find how to convey meaning and communication.”

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PHOTO BY KEVIN TRAN
Tyler Dilts

His most valuable contribution to the classroom, though, is his proven talent. Dilts’ short stories have been published in several collections in collaboration with other authors, although he has been best known for his trilogy of crime fiction novels set in Long Beach. Dilts has also recently signed a two-book deal to publish another set of thrillers about a man with a brain injury taking care of his elderly father.

“The title, Mercy Dogs, is my favorite. It was a term coined to describe dogs that medics in World War I would send out to injured soldiers on the battlefield to either provide tools for the soldiers to use to help themselves or provide comfort as the soldier died,” he said. “My two protagonists are each other’s mercy dogs.”

Dilts will also bring his experience writing crime fiction to a class this spring that examines classic and contemporary crime fiction. His experience, coupled with the fact that he is actively engaged in creating this type of fiction, will give the class a unique focus.

“I want to look at the books and stories not only as historical objects fixed in time, but part of a tradition that growing and changing and is very contemporary,” he said.

Having chosen CSULB mainly because of its proximity to home, Dilts now feels lucky he decided to stay and teach because of the way the university treats its adjunct faculty and gives them greater job security than other institutions.

“This place became a home for me in a way I never anticipated 25 years ago.”

Dilts was nominated for the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Allen Poe Award for his novel “Come Twilight,” published in August by Thomas and Mercer.