(an imaginary interview)
What makes you want to write?
So many different things every day that I experience either obliquely or directly. Stories I hear others tell – I get a lot of material from overheard conversations, second-hand stories.
What was the genesis of merefiction.com?
When I first got on line in late ‘94, I wanted a place to store my work. I figured out how to make and maintain a web site, then turned my rapidly typing fingers to the transcription of 8 ½ x 11-inch paper stories into digital ones. There’s a line from Gulliver’s Travels that has the phrase “mere fiction” in it – I used to have that link. The mereness of the title is its main attraction to me and is of course meant sardonically. Fiction is much more than mere stories to me; books have changed my life.
When did you start writing?
You know, I am a very fortunate guy. I was not yet 18, enrolled in college for the summer, thick-headed and too serious… deeply unhappy, of course, sheathed from head to toe in 1971-angst…but I knew what I wanted to expend my energy on. If I had read Joseph Campbell then, and run across his Follow Your Bliss imperative, I would have known what that meant for me.
I would write. I did write, but I wrote very badly. With some editing it could be helped, and I had some crucial early encouragement from Ms. Harriet Garrett Beam, my high-school English teacher, and Charlotte “Bobby” Gafford, who let me into the Graduate-level Writing Workshop based on some stories I sent her in the winter of 1971-72. Hardly a penciled scribble remains from my earlier writings, just one or two stories. Be glad. I’d probably have them on MF if I could find them.
Is there some grand scheme involved here?
No. It all seems to pretty much spontaneously arise out of nowhere, strike while the iron’s hot and all that, but just as quickly the energy will vanish, or move into other activities…
Yes. I do have a grand design. It is this: I will write one volume of work for each of the energy centers called chakras, using all those things that are traditionally associated with each chakra to inform the fiction (or non-fiction). I'm not sure how this will work out, but I think I may have the rudiments of three of them. Svadisthana, the second chakra is mentioned above. The root chakra volume, muladhara ("root base" in English), concerns my early home life and each chapter is titled with the year of the recollection recounted therein. "Years" is the title of that one, and it was written before I had the idea for this large set of volumes. I think I will be working on these things for many years to come. It may be that I give up the idea, too. I follow Emerson's dictum on personal consistency.
Is there a particular time of year or day or month that you write best or most? Least?
There is such a thing as lying creatively fallow, you know. It doesn’t mean you are blocked or no longer have anything to say; it only means now is not the time to do the work. Words often have to percolate in the brain awhile before they can be poured out into the cup for sipping. I've noticed that summertime is not ordinarily a time when I write a lot, but this year has been different.
Do you know why?
Not really, unless perhaps it's the balancing effects of my continuing (and evolving) yoga and meditation practice.
How do you write? Do you have a method, a way, rituals?
I try to let things percolate in my brain to the point where, when I sit down at my desk, I know what I want to say. I have discovered that decreasing my on-line time and feeding my head good stuff (like Philip Roth novels instead of old Seinfeld re-runs) makes for a more productive work-week. For the summer of 2004 I developed a routine of lunch at a coffee shop in downtown Birmingham, where I would set up my laptop and write. Three by five cards were used.
Speak to us of coffee.
Well, yes, you have found my next to last vice. I've heard it asserted that one cannot meditate well with coffee swirling among the brain, but I don't believe it is true for me. I can write without coffee but I prefer not to. So many things I’ve given up, but coffee hasn’t become one of them. I love coffee and find myself inspired by it. Kona is best, but Blue Mountain will do in a pinch. Grind freshly roasted beans and use distilled water. Taint liberally with cream.
Do you listen to music?
Sometimes, not all the time.
That sounds like a quote from, I believe, "Clothesline Saga" by Bob Dylan. But anyway: what musics intrigue you?
Ch’an flute music, Mozart, String Cheese, Phish, the Dead. Jackson Browne. Dylan particularly. I'm always quoting his lines.
Do you play music yourself?
Yes, learning for almost 25 years now: a twelve string Alvarez with only 6 strings, a classical Alvarez, and an electric Washburn. I generally play it a little bit every other day or so. I have been known to sing, when I drink too much espresso after 7 in the evening. You can only play one at a time.
If you get to heaven –
Wait, this is from the Actor’s Guild thing, with Lipton, isn’t it?
-- yes, please indulge your interviewer, Mr. Dennis. What would you like to hear God say?
“Are you through yet?”
What is your favorite sound?
Garcia’s guitar on “Dark Star”from a live recording in 1973? A certain woman's giggle? The wind at night near Red Feather Lakes, Colorado?
What is your least favorite sound?
Cicadae. Or, wait: tinnitus. But it's not really a sound, so I'll stick with the insect answer.
So you say your yoga and meditation practice have become important for you. Elaborate. How did it begin?
In late 1999, I started in on using tapes to do yoga at home – inexpensive but well-produced Rodney Yee tapes from Kmart and Wal-Mart. It soon became an early morning habit, and I began to notice that I felt better at work – my posture seemed to be improving, my back and neck wasn’t quite as achy in the mornings – yet there were other subtle effects as well. I felt lighter, as I explained it to someone: As though, if I were a dancer, I could leap a bit higher – gravity’s pull lessened. Unheavy.
There was one particularly important epiphany, which came to me in child pose, a posture where one is flat on the ground with legs bent underneath. I saw with amazing clarity how self-pity had been one of my worst faults – how I’d managed to excuse a lot of craziness and continually unskillful behavior with an inner dialogue centered on Poor pitiful me. This insight has stuck with me; when I feel that whiny voice start up again in response to happenings outside my control, I go back to that day in child pose.
I managed to talk myself into going to classes on a regular basis in the spring of 2001 – my teacher did the same thing every class, which I realize now was quite beneficial to a beginner, but after a few months I was ready for a challenge and moved on to more challenging and varying postures with my present teacher. All the while I was reading about yoga, of course, the older works and newer ones as well.
Any books you'd recommend? I was thinking about taking up yoga myself.
There are so many, but the older the better. For the scholarly-minded person, books by Georg Feuerstein or Mircea Eliade. I particularly enjoyed Mr. Iyengar's books, Tree of Yoga and Light on Yoga.
How has yoga helped your writing?
Physically, I just feel better. I can sit at the typewriter without pain in my neck or back. I seem to have betters powers of concentration, and as old deleterious habits drop away, I see how they hampered me in times past. Did I really have to have a cigarette in the ashtray as I wrote? Was that joint essential to the lubrication of my imagination? Were all those beers helpful in any way to getting that short story done? Somehow sitting in meditation ties in with sitting in your chair and applying yourself to the imaginary worlds you create with words, if you are compelled to do it.
Despair at having few readers and hardly any publication doesn’t seem to have the same negative power over me as it once used to. I wonder how others feel; what about that church writing group? No, I plod on, keeping on, reminding myself as I age that I have less and less time to accomplish what I so grandiosely planned out in earlier, stoned times of my life. I take my time and take pictures of everything that looks interesting . . . go back over the fragments of a life later at night or under the developing darkness of the dark room . . . I trust my aim, my targets, my cadences, my voice.
Thanks for inviting us by. May we come back some other time?
You’re very welcome. Stop back by anytime. More coffee?
© 2004, 2017 Thomas N. Dennis