by Sean M. Madden
Mindful Living Guide
March 18, 2007
Last week, we published a short story by Dan Tremaglio entitled Paleontology. Below is our follow-up interview with Dan.
As with our earlier interview with Don Munro, our intention is to publish an interview with each Mindful Living Guide contributor. We aim to do so within a week or so following publication of the original contribution. This, we think, will help to deepen the relationship between all of us—MLG readers, writers and editors—so that we may all continue to learn from one another through the sharing of our own stories.
I am struck by the simplicity of "Paleontology," the story itself and the language and style in which it is told, as well as by your having such a young boy considering such weighty questions—a second-week kindergarten student who seems to stare into the existential void. What a way to enter into the second weekend of your academic life!
What can you tell us, Dan, about the creative process which resulted in this roughly 800-word story?
DT: "Paleontology" was one in a series of vignettes I wrote in November of 2006, all of which were loosely based on early experiences of mine. The challenge of the story, and the reason for the language’s simplicity, was to convey what you called a "weighty question" through the consciousness of a young child. Because, yes, it was indeed me asking that question at the time. It was petrifying to think that I could change my mind about something I was so passionate about, and at that early age, I still believed one’s career was equivalent to one’s identity.
Did you "change your mind and become something else," or did you always want to be a writer?
DT: I’m no longer on the Paleontology track—that ended halfway through first grade. To be a Major League baseball player was my next dream, one I carried to the end of high school. I think I realized then that there was nothing to change … or rather that my mind was changing all the time, despite what some little corner of my ego might have craved however passionately. As early as I can remember, I had this belief that in order to accomplish anything in life, you had to dedicate yourself without compromise to a specific pursuit. And I did that: first with Paleontology, secondly with baseball. So to answer your question, no, I haven’t done the same with writing. I haven’t reified the literary life in a way I had my previous "identities." In a sense, I always wanted to be a writer, but I don’t want to romanticize it too much. Being a whole person and living well is my career path today.
The MLG community may be interested in knowing that you and I were fellow students, during the 2004-2005 academic year, in the Eastern Classics program at the Graduate Institute at St. John's College in Santa Fe, New Mexico. We have also both studied Western philosophy and literature. How has this sort of education affected, or influenced, you as a writer, or, indeed, as a philosopher? And, who are your major influences?
DT: I almost didn’t study philosophy in college. In fact, my first impulse was to major in Creative Writing. But at the last moment I hesitated. I didn’t want to learn merely the craft of writing—I wanted to learn what to write about. English Literature was also a good choice, but in the end, I wanted to study ideas in their most basic, essential form, and so I chose philosophy. Four years later, I had read and studied ideas from every corner of the West, but I thought to myself, "What about the other half of the world?" So I went to St. John’s to study Eastern Classics. The EC program was a great experience for many reasons; first and foremost, the people I met (like Sean and Rebecca, among others), and only after that do I list the books. As for the books: Zhuang Zi, Hui Neng, Nagarjuna, and Dogen are texts I will read and reread for the rest of my life, and the lessons I’ve taken from them will inevitably surface in my own writing. As for influences in fiction outside the program: my earliest heroes were Jack Kerouac, James Joyce, and Ernest Hemingway. I admire Kerouac for his enthusiasm and zest for living, and also the way he wrote about his own life. Joyce did the same, and I think Ulysses epitomizes what I called the transcendent in the mundane. As for style and clarity of language, it just doesn’t get any better than Hemingway. The Old Man and the Sea is a work I’ve read upwards of ten times. I’ll reach the last page and simply flip to the front and start over. For Whom the Bell Tolls is another one.
You mentioned in your author's bio that your stories "aim to highlight the transcendent in the mundane." While each of us may have our own idea as to what you mean by "transcendent," and, of course, we have a specific example to consider in "Paleontology," can you tell us what transcendent means to you?
DT: Any moment that causes one to consider the grand sum of moments is what I call "transcendent." Many of us say we want to be more present. But what does that mean if time is an illusion? Transcendent moments are usually mundane—they wouldn’t make great scenes in a movie. They are subtle, almost always unexpected, and really hard to explain. I don’t think I’ve conveyed one in a story yet. Or maybe I have. In short, they are moments when something (essential, eternal, infinite) is realized.
You also practice various physical activities—yoga, mixed martial arts, and exploring the outdoors—all of which you consider forms of walking meditation. What can you share with us about this process of meditating and how it may relate to your writing? This, by the way, is a question that I am likely to ask each writing meditator, or meditating writer, I interview, given Rebecca's and my interest in bringing mindfulness to writing, both in our own practice as well as in our combined creative writing and mindfulness courses. And, finally, how does your meditation practice influence the rest of your daily life?
DT: At my best, writing and meditating are the same. One of my ideals for writing is to "empty the narrator." This means not telling the reader the value of the story I am unfolding. Allegory, in my view, borders dishonesty. Fiction differs from essay writing in that fiction is more oriented with the questions than with the answers. The characters can achieve resolution, but as for the story itself … lets just say I’m cautious of that. To "leave my Self out of the story" is my biggest challenge. To achieve this is to break through to an entirely new experience. It is to transcend.
My meditation had always been pretty formless. I rarely "sit." I’m an active person, and in a world of perpetual change, I felt a certain resonance within me when Hui Neng spoke of walking meditation. The word "walking" here needn’t be taken literally. "Walking," to me, means to bring the focus and stillness of a "seated" meditation to every moment of your day. It means concentrating on the task at hand, whether it be writing a short story, installing a light switch, or bagging groceries. Walking meditation is as simple as using your senses, being observant, remembering past experiences, and noticing the world around you. The way I like to phrase it is: Living Well. How does it influence my daily life? When I’m doing it, life’s real good.