Creative nonfiction, in its modern incarnation, is a relatively new genre, and Dinty W. Moore is, through both his writing and his stewardship of Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction, inarguably one of the key figures in its ascent. I’d describe his newest book, Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy, as a rumination on the conventions and practice of the personal essay, except that this is Moore, who’s famously friendly and accessible, and phrases like “a rumination on the conventions and practice” are likely to make him wrinkle his brow and mutter something about graduate student speak. So, let me try again. His newest book, Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy, is a funny and engaging conversation between Moore and other key figures in the genre, such as Philip Lopate, Roxane Gay, Cheryl Strayed, Diane Ackerman, Michael Martone, and some polar bears.
The book—some of which was written on cocktail napkins stolen from the bar at Casa Nueva in Athens, Ohio, where Moore is the director of Ohio University’s Creative Writing Program—answers some of the burning questions of the genre, such as how many em-dashes are too many em-dashes, and is it okay to peak through our neighbors’ windows in order to write about them. But this is not a craft book. (If that’s what you’re looking for, check out Moore’s equally excellent Crafting the Personal Essay.) Rather, it’s a book that leads by example, using Moore’s own essays to demonstrate how the essay functions.
What follows is a discussion of the book between Moore and me that took place via emails sent over the course of several weeks. In the interest of full disclosure, I should let you know that I’m currently a PhD candidate in creative nonfiction at Ohio, and Dinty is my dissertation director. There may be some sucking up in the questions posed, then, because I really need my dissertation defense to be successful. But my enthusiasm for this book is genuine. Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy is Moore at his best. It’s witty but also substantial, and the conversations between Moore and his interlocutors get to the heart of what makes the essay such a compelling form: its capacity to render, on the page, the human experience.
The Rumpus: The conceit of the book is that you are answering questions about essay writing for a number of very well-known essayists—including Cheryl Strayed, Phillip Lopate, Judith Kitchen, Roxane Gay, and Sue William Silverman. They sent you funny, charming letters, and it’s clear that everyone is in on and enjoying the joke of it, but also that they are asking meaningful questions. (I particularly like Lopate’s, “I am curious about how you deal honestly with male-female relations in general and specifically your past girlfriends on the page without coming off as a male chauvinist pig.”)
I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about how the collaborative parts of the book took shape. In many ways, it’s an act of community, and you’ve gathered authors from across the wide spectrum of creative nonfiction. And, although you’re going to hate that I’ve put it this way, you’re a central part of that community, from your years of stewardship at AWP to your role as the founding editor of Brevity, one of the genre’s flagship journals. So, could you talk to us a little bit about creating a book that reflects and includes that community of writers, and also about why you so obviously believe that having such a community is important for both writers and for literature?
Dinty W. Moore: I think, Sarah, that you have me confused with Barack Obama. He was a community organizer, as you know, well before he forged his birth records and started collecting everyone’s guns. You are correct, however, that I am passionate about the importance of community in our literary field, and in the combined strength that comes from the generosity of editors, mentors, readers, interviewers, and advocates, but really, as for Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy, I had an idea for what I thought might be a humorous project— answering tongue-in-cheek questions from other essayists— and I picked folks who fit two main categories: 1) They were contemporary essayists whose work I much admire, and 2) There was a chance they would actually answer my e-mails. My hidden agenda was simply to have some literary fun on the page.
Rumpus: Okay, fine, answer in the voice of Mr. Essay Writer Guy if you must. I’ll be your straight (wo)man. By the way, according to Wikipedia, this means I should get 60% of the take for this interview. So, I’ll set ‘em up and you knock ‘em down.
Anyway, Barrie Jean Borich writes in her letter that she’s been using Google Maps to spy on her neighbors in various states of dishevelment and in the midst of Xbox chicanery. She asks, “What are the ethics of writing about people who don’t know I’m looking in their windows?” You carefully avoid answering her by distracting the reader with the image of yourself waddling around in your boxer shorts and with your Google Maps essay, “Mr. Plimpton’s Revenge.” But, really, we want to know: is it okay to look into the windows of our neighbors in order to write about them? Does this make us Peeping Toms or just writers who are very dedicated to the research process? What are the boundaries to which the ethical essayist must adhere when it comes to writing about strangers?
Moore: I’ll answer this one non-ironically, or at least try my very best. It is my belief that given a few factors, we can and should write about anyone we need in order to write our stories, without bearing too much angst or apprehension. Those factors are 1) Sincerity of motive, and by that I mean we don’t enter a project with an agenda but are writing about people because the human species is fascinating and understanding human beings and their complexity benefits us all, 2) Empathy, 3) Honesty, and 4) A willingness to b.s. check ourselves at every juncture, to make sure we are living up to the first three. I’m assuming, by the way, you mean “looking into the windows of our neighbors” metaphorically. I don’t advise actual criminal trespass. I do, however, discuss in Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy (in response to a question from Dinah Lenney) the difficulty of writing about our own children. I tried that once and failed spectacularly. Perhaps we can never understand our own children, because there is too much of ourselves inside there, or perhaps we are just blinded by the illusion that there is so much of ourselves inside of them. See, a serious answer, just when you didn’t expect it!
Rumpus: In “Have You Learned Your Lesson, Amigo,” you write the essay twice: once as a straight narrative, once as a critique of that narrative. This sort of meta-writing—in which you both write the piece and write about writing the piece—is one of the strengths, I think, of the essay form. I was wondering if you could talk about the place of meta-writing in meaning making in creative nonfiction?
Moore: Can I talk about the place of meta-writing in meaning making in creative nonfiction? That’s a lot of ‘m’s in one sentence. “My meta memories mystify millions!” is my new motto. But yes, the essay form is indeed rooted in meta moments. We live our lives and then relive them on the page in a relentless search for some nugget of discovery, some further comprehension of what it all means. Otherwise, essay or memoir is flat: it is just “this happened to me” or “I happen to think this about that.” If a writer isn’t examining and re-examining her ideas and observations in each draft, ending up places she never thought at the beginning that her essay would take her, then she is not doing the job.
Rumpus: This book is full of highly stylized voices, both your own and those of the letter writers. It’s very clear, in these framing elements, that everyone’s tongues are planted firmly in their cheeks. This got me thinking about the comedic in creative nonfiction, and the ways in which this allows you to tackle difficult subjects, such as writing about ex-girlfriends without being a jerk, in ways that might not be possible in a work with a more serious tone. Your writing often approaches these complexities with a light-hearted tone that belies the seriousness of the ideas you engage. Could you talk a little bit about how you deploy comedy and voice in your writing?
Moore: Comedy comes naturally to me. I find it difficult to turn it off, rather than hard to turn on. That has been a problem at various stages of my life— and is currently a problem during recurring somber departmental budget meetings— but all in all it is a happy gift. Countless humorists and comics before me have pointed out that telling a truth people don’t want to hear somehow becomes more possible when you wrap that truth in funniness. In my way of thinking, Richard Pryor, Wanda Sykes, and Louis C.K. are essayists as well as stand-up artists. The body of work they provide over time explores race, gender, class, power, powerlessness, and relationship in ways that reveal deep truth and shake our perceptions, though we often aren’t aware in the moment because we are too busy peeing ourselves. I say shit that makes my wife squirm, and some of my colleagues probably think I am little more than a jolly jester, but I take pride in pointing out moments where the emperor has no clothes. (I’d rather see the empress naked rather than the emperor, to be honest, but you take what you can get.) And I make people laugh. That’s a good thing. We need more of that.
Rumpus: In “Four Essential Tips for Telling the Truth in Memoir and Securing That Blockbuster Book Deal,” you show us several versions of work you’ve written toward telling the story of a night when your mother, drunk after a Christmas party, side-swiped several cars and then drove you both to City Hall and turned herself in. This piece is, on its face, about memory and writing from it. But it seems to me also to be about the awful writing we do when we are starting out, and how we can only get to better writing by going through—rather than around—that awful stuff. What advice do you have for writers who are still in the awful part? How long does it take until things get better?
Moore: My writing from age twenty-one, which is where that essay begins, is stunningly horrible. But you know, my writing from yesterday is stunningly horrible, and you would agree if I didn’t revise it ten times before showing it to you. My advice to writers who are still in that awful part is this: thank goodness we can revise and adjust and tighten and rethink before going public with our words. Revision is our friend. Our best friend. I love revision. I want to kiss it all over its big fat generous face. If I weren’t happily married, I’d probably try to get frisky with it.
Rumpus: You play a lot with form in this book. There are essays written from Facebook posts and on cocktail napkins, using Google Maps and found on your answering machine. How do you feel that the Internet and electronic publishing are changing the possibilities for the essayist? Please answer in the form of a document which states that I have satisfactorily defended my dissertation and met all the requirements for my doctoral degree.
Moore: Sarah “Little Al” Einstein has satisfactorily defended her dissertation, or will soon enough, and she has satisfied all of the requirements for her doctoral degree except those that are still out there, sitting sadly unfinished somewhere on the road between Athens and Chattanooga. Plus she has mad skills in making pickled vegetables. How’s that? As for the other part of the question, I think technology is changing everything about writing. I love the good old book with glue and binding, I really do, but that is just one way of experiencing text, and suddenly we have so many new ways, including our laptops, our phones, our watches. People in my generation agonize over this. People much younger than me don’t agonize at all. They just go ahead and find ways to transform publishing. I’m on the side of the young people, because they know where the good drugs are.