A longtime admirer of Moore’s work, I first met him at a nonfiction conference in 2010; when I saw him standing alone in a hallway, I rushed him and started blathering. I’ve since learned that it scares people when you corner them in the hallway at writing conferences, but I’m glad to say that doing so didn’t keep us from becoming colleagues and friends. That being so, I was excited to talk with Moore about creative nonfiction, humor, compassion, and of course his new book.
KATE HOPPER: When did you start thinking about and working on Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy?
DINTY W. MOORE: About two years ago, and it was one of those moments that doesn’t happen very often, when an idea just pops into your mind. I knew that it would be simultaneously a craft book and purely humor. I thought the idea of the advice column was inherently funny, and I wanted to see if I could get people who like to talk about nonfiction in its various forms and modes to ask me questions, and just see where that led.
So you approached friends and essayists from your writing community?
Exactly. I chose writers I know who were: a) part of the discussion over the last 15 years of how we define creative nonfiction, and b) who I thought might actually answer my email.
Humor seems to come naturally for you and you employ it even when you’re writing about serious topics. What does humor allow you to do in your writing that you otherwise might not be able to do, either in terms of form or subject matter?
I’m not the first to observe that you can get an audience to think about things they don’t want to think about if you wrap them in humor. I think Louis C.K. and Richard Pryor and Wanda Sykes are actually essayists. Humor allows you to touch on things that people wouldn’t necessarily be comfortable with otherwise. So you’re actually saying something serious at the same time you’re making people laugh.
What I’ve also discovered in writing essays and working on Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy is that humor allows you to make some crazy associative leaps. As long as it’s funny, readers aren’t going to raise their hands and say, “Wait a minute, you were talking about religion a minute ago and now you’re talking about ostriches.” There is freedom in humor. If the joke works, you can turn any corner you want.
So you had a lot of fun with this book.
Writing can be a real slog some days. You have to drag yourself to the desk and force yourself to push the sentences up the hill. It’s a lot easier when you’re writing humor. I’m not saying I didn’t have any bad days. There were times I felt stuck and times I thought this project was never going to work. But I had a lot more fun days than not.
In both Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy and Between Panic and Desire you play with form. How does experimenting in that way push you or excite you as a writer?
First, it’s often a puzzle, and I like solving puzzles. (I do the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle every week.) So how do you write an essay that feels like a made-for-TV movie script? How do you write an essay that is really a collection of actual Facebook posts and form a coherent conversation out of them? How do you use this new Google Maps technology to create an essay that moves geographically?
The other part of it is that, believe it or not, I come out of a modern dance background. We would often improvise based on certain constraints: you have to do this, but you can’t get up from the floor; you have to do that, but you can only move backward. Constraints are a wonderful way to squeeze creativity out of yourself, and a great way to get out of a rut. We do, as writers, tend to repeat ourselves. But throwing a constraint into the mix forces the brain to move in a different direction.
You started out writing fiction, is that correct?
I started out writing journalism back in the day when you went to the city council meeting and you had the inverted pyramid and you wrote a news story as if it were being written by a robot. I dropped out of that by age 22. It was good training, but deadly dull to me.
Then I went through various artistic phases. I tried documentary filmmaking, painting, modern dance. I studied acting in New York and did a little Off-Off-Off Broadway stuff. I was cycling through all of these artistic experiments, none of which I was very good at. Then at about age 30, I said to myself, “Wait, weren’t you good at writing once?”
I decided I wanted to be a writer, but I knew I wanted to write in a personal and literary way. So I took a tremendous short story class from David Bradley at Temple University, which led me to get my MFA in fiction in Louisiana. I thought I was going to be a novelist. But two years later I suddenly wanted nothing more than to write nonfiction again.
What was so good about Bradley’s class?
David Bradley was and is an incredible teacher. On my workshop night, he took my story apart for two and a half hours and sent me home with his marked-up copy. There were 100 — he numbered them — notated comments and suggestions on my 12-page story. It took me about 24 hours to pick myself up off the floor, but then I became amazed at his skill and the generous attention he paid my work; I learned so much from his critique. I never knew there were so many ways of approaching language and narrative and dialogue. I thought, “Oh my goodness, I want to learn how to do this.”
I’d love to hear more about your shift from fiction to nonfiction.
I stumbled into nonfiction in the early 1990s. The discussion about creative nonfiction as an important genre was just beginning. So I started poking around and playing with that, and I realized that everything I’d learned as a fiction writer — characterization, setting, dialogue, show versus tell — all of the various things you have to think about as a short story writer are necessary to memoir and essay writing, too. It was another puzzle: how do I take all I’ve learned and pour it into telling true stories?
But was there something about those stories themselves that intrigued you?
I am drawn to true stories. I read more nonfiction than fiction. When I watch television, it’s often news, a documentary, or football, which has some invented drama, but at least when they throw the ball in the air it’s real. Both fiction and nonfiction are wonderful, but there is something in me that finds a true story well told extra compelling.
In the introduction to The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Flash Nonfiction, you write that the brief essay “needs to be hot from the first sentence, and the heat must remain the entire time.” For you, is it this heat that makes short form so appealing?
I think that this is true of a 300-page book, as well, but the shorter the form, the clearer it becomes. I use the term “heat”; others talk about “urgency.” You can signal a sense of urgency with your tone, with word choice, with a small snippet of action right at the start. Sometimes I’m being pulled into the story and I don’t know why; you feel it in the bones of the sentence. The older I get and the more I write and edit, the more and more fascinated I am with sentences. I used to think, “Oh, the book is so fascinating.” Then, “Well the essay itself is so fascinating.” Then, “The very brief essay is a fascinating little microcosm.” And now it’s the sentence. Probably 10 years from now I’ll be into the three-word fragment. Words are very intricate and you can combine them in an infinite number of ways.
Say more about that narrowing of focus.
I think the more time you spend studying writing — as an editor, writer, or reader — the more you realize the possibilities. James Baldwin was not just James Baldwin because he had these incredible stories to tell or because he had a unique perspective or because he had a readable and appealing voice. It’s because of the way he crafted those sentences so that they read inevitably, one to the next to the next. I’ve learned that from writers like him — like Joan Didion. They create an illusion. You read their work and it almost feels like a first draft because it comes out so naturally, so conversationally. But the more you study it, the more you realize that each individual sentence is a dance, a piece of art, something carefully and deliberately constructed.
How do your teaching, editing, and writing influence each other?
When I’m editing Brevity, when I’m making those final difficult decisions, I have to justify for myself why one piece is stronger than the piece next to it. I have to articulate that. Then, when two months later I’m working on my writing, I hear my own voice demanding that my work meets the same standards. Maybe you’ve done 10 drafts, Buster, but you’re not done yet. Being an editor teaches you lessons that you bring back to your own writing.
It’s the same with teaching. You learn from helping students see what is effective or not effective in their writing. You learn when you sit down with a bunch of intelligent students and take apart a book or essay and identify the moving parts and figure out what works. You then have to sit down with your own writing and ask the same questions: are my moving parts anywhere near as interesting as what those other writers are bringing to the table?
It’s all interconnected that way. It’s thinking hard about narrative, about what works, about how an audience is going to encounter each sentence, each revelation, each detail.
In an interview a couple of years ago you said, “My teaching over the years has migrated from a ‘what is this essay saying?’ to a ‘what is this essay asking?’ approach.” How has making this shift affected your students?
It gives them permission to start an essay even though they have no idea how it might end up, to tackle a subject that, on the day they start writing, feels too large. Personally I’m happier if by the end of the essay a writer relays that what she’s learned is that she’s asking the wrong question, or that the answer is illusive but she’s moved two steps closer to it. I’d rather hear that than some pat, manufactured moral. The moral of the story is almost always deadly. Acknowledging that all we are doing is asking questions and that some of these questions might never be answered, yet we still want to explore and interrogate them, allows us to land places that we wouldn’t have landed if we thought we had to wrap things up neatly.
In the introduction to The Mindful Writer, you talk about realizing that instead of mindfulness and Buddhism shaping your writing life, it was the other way around — that being a writer made you more open to Buddhism. Can you talk about that?
Meditation teaches you to slow down and listen. Part of learning to be an artist or writer is to let go of that front part of your brain, which is always trying to make sense of things intellectually, and start trusting, as I call it, the lizard brain, the deeper portions of the brain that throw up suggestions or sentences or images at you without you even understanding where they came from or what they mean. Those end up being gold. I’ve learned over the years that when I write something and then think, Gee, I didn’t know I thought that or knew that, I need to stop and sit with that. There is something in there that is smarter, more real, and more lasting than what the front part of my brain could ever come up with.
But to be clear: in several places in Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy you say that writers of creative nonfiction should not make anything up, not for a better ending, not to make it more exciting. There has been a lot of brouhaha in recent years about memoirists who have invented or exaggerated, and I know you come down on the side of “write the truth to the best of your ability.” How do you think the blurring of fact and fiction negatively affects creative nonfiction as a genre?
There is a power in telling a true story to the best of your ability. Yes, memory is rotten; yes, memory can be deceiving; yes, whatever we put down on the page is run through with our own particular point of view. But if you’re trying to tell the truth, you know when you’re lying, when you’re changing a true story to make it more graceful on the page. Once it becomes normal for nonfiction writers to say, “Well 80 percent of this is real and 20 percent of it I threw in there to make a better story,” it calls everyone’s work into question. I believe James Baldwin. I believe those things happened to him. I believe that’s what he thought years later when he looked back. I’m sure he got some things wrong because that’s how memory works — but I believe him. If nonfiction is just a word with no meaning, that makes readers suspicious. It diminishes the pleasure of the nonfiction form.
You’ve talked about compassion and its role in the writing life. How does that work?
I’m a firm believer in compassion because it’s right, but in addition, it’s a very powerful writing tool. It goes back to when I wrote fiction. A good fiction writer is not pushing her characters around on the page. A good fiction writer is trying to imagine the character as a very real and complex person, and trying to intuit what that person would do and why. How might the contradictions inherent in all of us manifest themselves in this particular character?
When I started writing memoir, I realized I had to do that with the characters in my nonfiction, who are, in fact, real people. Much of my early writing was about my family, but it wasn’t simply my job to tell people from my point of view why a legacy of alcoholism, depression, and suicide was so difficult. Instead, I had to try to imagine myself inside those people. Why did they act as they did? What were the realities of their lives? I needed to empathize. From a human standpoint that’s a good thing to do because it allows you to forgive and to forgive is a powerful action. From a writer’s standpoint, it’s a good thing because it makes the story deeper and more honest. It’s not just my story. I will never know entirely what my parents were thinking, but I can certainly try to imagine how various early tragedies — they were both orphaned young — created the unhappiness that permeated their marriage and their lives. That unhappiness affected me, of course, but that’s just the barest surface of the story. The deeper story has to do with who we are as human beings and how we get where we’re going.
Kate Hopper is the author of Use Your Words and Ready for Air and co-author of Silent Running.