On Writing: An Interview with David Eric Tomlinson

David Eric Tomlinson is a writer who lives in Dallas, Texas. I first met David through Twitter, and became a fan of his serious approach to the craft of writing. David recently quit his full time job to pursue a Do-It-Yourself MFA. He’s created an extensive reading list, 52 classics that he plans on tackling over the course of two years. He strives to balance his writing life with his family, often posting updates about the coffee shop he’s camped out in, the book he’s reading or the kids’ karate classes. He recently posted a photo of his writing space, which showed a typewriter set up so he could write while standing up.

Interviewer: When did you embark on this ambitious plan of acquiring your DIY MFA?

Tomlinson: Thanks Jim - I appreciate the opportunity to participate in this interview. It's going really well. I left my full time job last summer to spend the bulk of each day reading and writing fiction. I do still consult for my old employer, and as you've mentioned I also teach karate at my kids' school. And so even though I am doing very little of what I used to call "real" work, it can still be a challenge to fit everything in. I have found a few reliable readers for my early drafts, people I can trust to challenge my thinking, including a professional editor I've hired. I spend five or six hours a day reading and writing fiction.

Things are picking up. I have a solid "shitty first draft" of a novel and have started the next draft. A few short stories have now been accepted for publication. And several sites have expressed interest in the little reviews I'm doing about the "DIY MFA" reading list - a startup arts and literature magazine began publishing these just today.

Interviewer: I believe you sometimes escape to write in a coffee shop, but you also have this standing workstation with a typewriter. Tell me about your process, how much you use the typewriter. I imagine the tools change the process in some way?

Tomlinson: I live at the coffee shop. When the kids are in school I'm there every morning writing on the laptop. The typewriter is a recent purchase, a vintage 1950s Remington Quiet Riter. It's a ton of fun to play with, and I've found it can help me get through a difficult scene or jumpstart a new one. Sometimes when I step away from the thing I find myself looking for some imaginary "Save" button. The kids love playing with it.

As I've become serious about writing - reading and thinking about literature, connecting the dots in great stories, then trying to create my own - I've noticed that quality "thinking time" is at a premium these days. The world is literally at the tip of your fingers when you have a smart phone or laptop. And this can be really, really distracting. So the typewriter is a symbol of this kind of anti-technology kick I've been on. I quit Facebook last year. I don't plan to buy an e-Reader. I'm considering downgrading my cell phone. I'm writing on a typewriter that doesn't require electricity.

Some people think it sounds drastic, but I think it's essential for me right now. I'm making connections that I wasn't making this time last year, because I have the time to really follow the thread of an idea all the way through to the end.

Interviewer: What inspired you to be a writer? Can you recall a moment, or perhaps it was a book or an author that you read where you said ‘this is what I want to do?’

Tomlinson: It was this paragraph from Cormac McCarthy's "All The Pretty Horses":

"They rode out along the fenceline and across the open pasture-land. The leather creaked in the morning cold. They pushed the horses into a lope. The light fell away behind them. They rode out on the high prairie where they slowed the horses to a walk and the stars swarmed around them out of the blackness. They heard somewhere in that tenantless night a bell that tolled and ceased where no bell was and they rode out on the round dais of the earth which alone was dark and no light to it and which carried their figures and bore them up into the swarming stars so that they rode not under but among them and they rode at once jaunty and circumspect, like thieves newly loosed in that dark electric, like young thieves in a glowing orchard, loosely jacketed against the cold and ten thousand worlds for the choosing."

Interviewer: Now that is specific! Is McCarthy your favorite writer? Who from your reading list has really struck a chord with you?

Tomlinson: I loved McCarthy's Border Trilogy. Loved it. But as I've grown older I find his books too violent. I get the sense that he feels like humanity is, in the final analysis, evil at heart. All of the books on this reading list I'm working through are great - I'm learning from every single one. If I had to go live on a desert island and I could only take three novels with me, I'd probably bring two by Don DeLillo and then something massive and upbeat and impenetrable, like "Ulysses".

Interviewer: How has a professional editor helped you and your writing? 

Tomlinson: Focus. A few years ago I was writing stories just to get them done, and when I was "finished" I didn't always know what I had. I now realize that if I have any doubts about something - a character, a sentence, a scene - then it's not right yet. So I rewrite and cut and rewrite and cut until I'm feeling good about it all, and then I send it to my editor or to one of a few alpha readers, and they tell me their thoughts. The professional editor gives very focused, actionable input, which also saves time.

I leave a lot more out of my writing now. There is a great flash fiction piece by J. Robert Lennon (from "Pieces For The Left Hand") about an author who spent ten years writing a novel, only to see it bloat to an unmanageable size. She then starts cutting and cutting and cutting. She can't stop. She loses her job, becomes homeless. But she keeps editing her story down. Eventually she reduces the novel into a single haiku, which she ends up handing out on notecards from the park bench where she camps out. I have this story taped to the wall next to my typewriter, as a kind of mission statement.

Interviewer: I really liked your short story, "In The Deep End." It resonates like the adult world of Cheever. I think it also captures today’s affluent culture: the plastic surgery, the drinking and smoking at the pool, the wife in Europe, the kids away at the grandfather’s house while the husband knocks back drinks at the pool. Did you set out to write that with a theme in mind, or did it fall into place?

Tomlinson: I wrote that story just a few months into the financial crisis, in 2009, after reading Wells Tower's amazing short story collection "Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned". I wanted to write a story about someone making increasingly poor decisions, spiraling out of control. It's very, very dark. To me, it has just as much to do with the economic meltdown as anything else. It's about responsibility. Funny that you should mention Cheever though, because my editor said the same thing. I have only read his story "The Swimmer", but his collected works are on my docket for later this summer.

Interviewer: Thanks Dave. If it's okay with you I'd like to use the photo of you from your about page (and the writing station) and I'll link to your website in the final message below and post it today!

Tomlinson: Thanks Jim. This has been a pleasure. And I really enjoyed "Elephant."

Interviewer: Thanks!

You can learn more about David Eric Tomlinson at his website or follow him on Twitter at @DavidTomlinson.