Crafting the Personal Essay: An Interview with Dinty W. Moore

Crafting the Personal Essay: An Interview with Dinty W. Moore

By Erika Dreifus

I met Dinty W. Moore a number of years ago through the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, of which he is now president. His concern for writing pedagogy, and his particular expertise in nonfiction, impressed me at the start, and they continue to inspire me. When I learned about his newest book, Crafting the Personal Essay: A Guide for Writing and Publishing Creative Nonfiction, I asked him instantly if he’d participate in an interview for the newsletter. Graciously, he agreed.

Dinty W. Moore’s memoir Between Panic & Desire was winner of the Grub Street Nonfiction Book Prize in 2009. His other books include The Accidental Buddhist and The Emperor’s Virtual Clothes. He has published essays and stories in The Southern Review, The Georgia Review, Harpers, The New York Times Sunday Magazine, The Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine, Gettysburg Review, Utne Reader, and Crazyhorse, among numerous other venues. Moore is a professor of nonfiction writing at Ohio University.

Please welcome Dinty W. Moore.

ERIKA DREIFUS (ED): Dinty, what inspired you to write Crafting the Personal Essay, and why at this time?

DINTY W. MOORE (DWM): I’ve noticed that the world of literary or creative nonfiction has been dividing itself as of late into two distinct camps: memoir and narrative journalism. I love to read and write in both of these sub-genres, by the way, but I hate to think that the personal essay, perhaps the oldest and certainly one of the most flexible forms of literary nonfiction, is going to be forgotten. So perhaps this book will help to re-introduce the genre to a modern audience. I have to give a nod to Patrick Madden here as well, and all of the great work he has done to preserve the classic essay at his site Quotidiana.

ED: Whom do you envision as the ideal reader(s) for this book? What do you hope readers will gain from it?

DWM: The urge to share our best thoughts, to display our carefully-constructed ideas and discoveries to other souls, is fairly universal. That’s why so many folks in all walks of life and situations decide at some point that they want to be writers. Too often, though, these beginning writers – and when I say beginning, I mean the 65-year-old as much as the 19-year-old – have a limited view of their options: poetry or fiction, a novel or a memoir? The field of possibilities is so much wider.

Frankly, there is a pretty good market for the essay too: from women’s magazines, to The New York Times, to literary magazines, to the Huffington Post.

ED: In this book, you emphasize the importance of curiosity. You quote Phillip Lopate on where to start one’s writing: “…what do we need to generate nonfiction?: I would say, curiosity. It sounds more tepid than obsession, but it’s a lot more dependable in the long run. You follow out a strand of curiosity and pretty soon you’ve got an interesting digression, a whole chapter, a book proposal, a book.” What are you curious about these days, Dinty? What might be generating some of your nonfiction?

DWM: Well, it is a bit of a cliche, I’m afraid, but I’ve just reached a certain age (okay, fifty-five, if you must know) where I am meditating pretty regularly on the idea that my time on this planet is not endless. Not in a morbid way, but just as a discernable fact. I hope certainly to have another thirty or forty years to cause trouble in this world, but the truth is, I’m likely a good ways past my halfway point. So what do I do with that? How does that change perspective?

I’m in the very early stages of a project that will – I hope – widen the lens on these concerns. What I know about this book project so far is that it will be a quirky, individual, memoirist/essayistic hybrid look at mortality, heaven, hell, myths of the afterlife, and Dante Alighieri.

But that’s what I imagine about the book here at the beginning. Every book I’ve written has been very different from my intention by the time I reach the end.

ED: Part One of this book attends to a variety of personal essays: memoir, contemplative essays, lyric essays, spiritual essays, gastronomical essays, humorous essays, nature essays, and travel essays. Part Two helps writers reach readers and includes a section on publication. If your editor/publisher had given you an unlimited page count, what other topics, if any, might you have wanted to cover in the book?

DWM: Writing a book is hard enough. You want me to make it longer?

Perhaps I would add more about the importance of enjoying the process of writing, or writing because the activity itself is satisfying. I just came from a writer’s conference where too much of the talk was about author platforms, big publishing deals, agents, and book jacket design. Those are interesting topics certainly, but quite distracting from what is important about writing in the end.

ED: Many of this newsletter’s readers will likely be familiar with a particular recent blog post of yours, written as editor of Brevity, a prominent online journal featuring “concise literary nonfiction.” In this post, you explained some recent circumstances that were inducing the journal to consider requiring a submission fee, and you sought feedback from commenters. The post drew nearly 300 comments and a great deal of attention elsewhere.

Now that a few weeks have passed, please tell us what you think about first, the responses that the post generated, and, second, how likely it is that Brevity will indeed be instituting a fee.

DWM: I was pleased by the level of discussion about our idea. Instead of focusing on the idea that Brevity is bad for considering this fee, or Brevity is right to consider this move, many of those who commented on the blog and elsewhere grasped immediately that this was a larger issue, related to major changes in the distribution model in publishing. Clay Shirky has written about this at length in his books Cognitive Surplus and Here Comes Everybody. Everything we thought that we knew about supply, demand, pricing, access, gatekeepers, and reading is changing, as fast as we can boot up our browsers. You don’t have to like this idea, but it is happening.

As far as what we will do – I’m still mulling it over, still asking smart people, and reading Shirky’s new book to help me decide.

ED: Is there anything else you’d like to tell us?

DWM: We have a steady stream of information on nonfiction writing and publishing, and on some of the ongoing changes in online publishing, over at the Brevity blog.

We are also looking for guest bloggers, so if you have something to say on the topics of literary publishing, literary magazines, nonfiction writing, or digital publishing, feel free to send us a message at brevitymag(at)gmail(dot)com. Check the blog first, though, to see our format.

ED: Thanks so much, Dinty!

This interview was originally published in the September 2010 issue of The Practicing Writer.