Dinty W. Moore: Writer guy

Dinty W. Moore talks about his unconventional, superstitious, comic, mindful and messy approach to teaching and practicing craft.

dinty-renita-m-romasco
Photo by Renita M. Romasco

Dinty W. Moore stands in one corner of the Moto-I Sake and Noodle House in Minneapolis, surrounded by writing students who are eating and drinking. He’s reading from a manuscript in his hands, an essay called “Of Old Girlfriends.”

“First of all, I am grateful,” he begins. “And I wish there had been more of you. But I fully understand.”

At the bar, colleagues from across the country slurp ramen and sip sake cocktails under large photographs of cats. Sumo wrestlers gyrate across two TV screens. The scene is loud, crowded, exploding with pent-up energy from participants unleashed for the day from the AWP annual conference. Still, Moore’s voice – deep and melodious as a radio announcer’s – carries across the room. People turn and pay attention.

Moore, who turned 60 in August, works as an English professor and director of creative writing at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. He’s fond of growing heirloom tomatoes, reading the writings of Michel de Montaigne, rendering the traditional essay format catawampus.

Within his numerous books and essays and stories, there’s “History,” a seven-minute video essay inspired by a guest teaching gig in Scotland, and “Mr. Plimpton’s Revenge,” subtitled “A Google Map Essay in Which George Plimpton Delivers My Belated and Well-Deserved Comeuppance,” which looks online just like a Google map, and an essay comprised of Facebook posts, and “The Napkin is the Message,” an illustrated piece written entirely on cocktail napkins in his newest book, Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy: Advice and Confessions on Writing, Love, and Cannibals.

“What I like about each writing project,” he says, “is that it’s another puzzle. The puzzle is how you make it coherent for readers, and complete. I like throwing difficult puzzles at myself.”

Community-building through humor

Growing up, Moore found himself puzzling out what he describes as a “typically lousy childhood,” learning to navigate an alcoholic father and depressed mother with humor. “I’ve always been someone who jokes about whatever’s going on in the world,” he says, “Richard Nixon and Watergate, or the Republican debates with Donald Trump.”

WRT_1215.inddHe dedicates his new book to polar bears. On a page across from a line drawing of a frowning furry creature up on its hind legs under a searing sun, he pleads, “Be gentle with me.”

“Part of the humor that runs through Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy,” Moore explains, “is the idea that the polar bears are going to get so mad at us that they’re going to march down to the lower 48 and teach us a lesson. I know that what we’re doing with the climate is threatening the polar bears in horrible ways. But I can’t stop myself from making a joke.”

Anne Sand, who studied with Moore as an undergraduate, recalls his use of humor to ease tension during classroom manuscript critiques. “With rather fragile 18-to-22-year olds, a nonfiction workshop can become an emotionally charged place,” she says. “One of Dinty’s strongest aspects as a teacher is to dispel some of that charge using humor. That can be dangerous,” she adds, “but somehow, he always did it so that it felt community-building instead of threatening.”

Athens, where Moore lives, has a population just over 24,000. Students learn in his classroom to absorb the details of a person or place or event and “do a lot with a little,” as Sand says. “There aren’t a lot of big events that write the piece for you,” she explains. “In a small, kind of isolated town, it was really good practice to write about smaller situations in a detail-oriented way.”

For his course on nonfiction form and theory, Moore asks students to spend weeks immersed in one subject, then distill their experience in a journalistic essay. In any given year, his syllabus may offer the following subject matter:

  • Five Friday nights at a tattoo parlor
  • Volunteer for six weeks at an organic farm
  • Buckeye quarter midget car racing
  • Shadow an aquarium/parrot/wiener dog/potbelly or
  • porcelain pig enthusiast

Sand chose to focus on Athens comic artist Sandy Plunkett. “He had a show at the university art museum,” she says, “and gave drawing and inking classes. I went to all of his classes and lectures and wrote about him.”

Previously, she’d relied on family history and personal experience to give what she calls “emotional thrust” to her writing. “This assignment,” she says, “forced me to think differently.”

Moore also encouraged her to play with form. These days, as a graduate student at the University of Iowa, she still refers to his essay, “Son of Mr. Green Jeans,” whenever she gets stuck. It’s a poignant pop culture meditation on fatherhood, written as an alphabetized acrostic that runs the gamut from how TV provided an escape from his father’s alcoholism to the paternal habits of male penguins and wolves. Even in the midst of grim details about people’s child custody battles and heroin addictions, he can’t help making a joke. He does, however, wait until he reaches the letter X.

He writes: “XENOGENESIS (zen’u-jen’v-sis), n. Biol. 1. heterogenesis 2. the supposed generation of offspring completely and permanently different from the parent. Believing in xenogenesis, I changed my mind about having children about four years after rejecting my wife’s first suggestion of the idea.”

Experiments in form and theory

Writers who want to play with form should learn traditional narrative first, Moore says. “Learn to tell a conventional story,” he suggests, “from beginning to end using nothing but complete sentences and paragraphs. Then shift chronology with flashbacks and flash-forwards, and apply that to whatever new experiment you want.”

His new book turns the traditional craft tome on its head. Never pedantic, Dear Mister Writer Guy is part how-to and part creative nonfiction, written as a series of responses in essay form to tongue-in-cheek questions he solicited from writers including Diane Ackerman, Phillip Lopate and Cheryl Strayed. Author and editor Brian Doyle sent him this query:

Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy,

When you are clogged and stupid and weary, and you feel like every sentence you eke out is fatuous and literary and homiletic and sermonish and stentorian, and it feels like your stuff is stiff and officious, and you cannot ever imagine finding the verve and zest and fury and pop and silly of your work at its best, what do you do?

Dinty’s reply:

Dear Brian,

Clogged and stupid and weary pretty much sums up my artistic process, except for the occasional bouts of being fatuous, homiletic, stiff and officious. Thank you for the reminder. What do I do? Besides self-loathing? Sometimes I just sit and draw pictures.

Art serves as a cross-pollinator of sorts for Moore’s literary work. He’s a doodler and an avid photographer. “I take it very seriously,” he says of his photography. “I don’t sell it, and I don’t think of it as a career. It’s a release for me. I can use my creative energy, but it doesn’t get all tied up with the life of a writer and where will I be published, and what will I do next. It’s just pure entertainment for me.”

Still, his photographs of elderly men in Scotland make up much of the video “History,” published by the literary magazine TriQuarterly. And Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy includes several of his doodles. “I don’t know if you’re allowed to be amused by your own work,” he says of them, “but I’m particularly fond of the polar bear meditating.”

Hard work and humility

Moore’s no stranger to meditation. That’s him sitting in lotus position on the cover of The Accidental Buddhist, his 1999 creative nonfiction book exploring Buddhist practices in the U.S. A former Catholic, he immersed himself in the practices of meditation and mindfulness in pursuit of lost faith. What he found was a deep regard for simplicity.

WRT_1215.inddHis desk is a table he picked up at a yard sale two decades ago. His writing office is the worst-situated, smallest bedroom in the house. “It was a girl’s bedroom for the former family,” he says. “It’s painted circus-wagon blue.” Superstition compels him to hold onto the desk and tolerate the riotous walls.

“I had a friend who made a lot of money on his second book and poured it into the most amazing writing studio,” he says. “It was the size of the first floor of a house, with picture windows overlooking a valley and a wood-burning stove. He never wrote another word.”

Moore, on the other hand, has numerous books to his name. His secret? “I don’t believe in inspiration,” he says. “I believe that you sit at your desk, and you push your pencil around, and you feel lousy about yourself for a while, and eventually, you just start writing. Everyone I know who’s lucky in this business is lucky because they’re working really hard, and then good stuff happens.”

Embodying literary citizenship

The final chapter title of Accidental Buddhist sums up the wit and humility that inform both his memoirs and craft books. “What Kind of Buddhist Am I?” he asks in that chapter. “A Lousy One.” “I still feel like a goofy 16-year-old kid,” he confesses, “trying to do something that isn’t stupid for once in his life.”

That sentiment may surprise the devoted students and colleagues who crowd around him, hungry for his kind words and ready smile, as he enters a lecture hall to prepare for a conference panel. “I’ve met him a handful of times,” says author Ana Maria Spagna, assistant director of Whidbey Island’s MFA program, “as a junior colleague at a writing conference, as an audience member at a reading he headlined in a very loud bar and as a somewhat lost young writer at a crowded book festival reception. In each case, he was exactly as he is on the page: gracious, funny, down-to-earth, a super-smart and genuinely grounded man who makes everyone around him feel grounded, too.”

Spagna’s equally grateful for Brevity, the magazine Moore founded for short creative nonfiction. “It gives writers – students, especially – a goal that, perhaps deceptively, seems achievable,” she says. “Maybe they aren’t ready to write an 85,000-word memoir, but sure, they can tackle 750 words. Moreover, the work on Brevity is so stellar and so diverse, the audience so large and lively, it has become a kind of home base for lovers of the essay. And I can’t help but believe Dinty’s own personality lies behind it all. He created the community and keeps it thriving.”

Click to Brevity on Facebook and Twitter, and you’ll become aware of Moore as a generous editor who daily shares inspiring quotes from other authors and thanks them for their contributions to the literary world in a public forum.

“Literary citizenship is important to me,” he says. “People who edited small magazines 25 years ago gave me my first places to publish my work before anyone had read anything I’d written. As a magazine editor, it’s important to create opportunities for other writers. The more you can help other writers, the higher the boat will rise on the waves.”

Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy is all about helping writers. He hopes that it will inspire potential memoirists and essayists to think about how interesting their lives can be if examined. “That’s the difference, for me, between poorly executed memoir and excellent memoir,” he says. “Poorly executed memoir tells us what happened, and successful memoir examines it. Your job is to think about it and make connections and find surprises that you didn’t know you’d find.”

Insights such as these are Moore’s singular and signature contribution to the field. By example on the page and in the classroom, he offers a way to survive with grace and wit in the often-fraught world of professional writing.

He’s now working on a humorous nonfiction book about hell. “I believe hell is a metaphor,” he says, “not an actual place deep under the crust of the earth. That image of hell being a real place – this idea that we go there and stand in a river of fire for the rest of our lives – has had a profound impact on our religion, our government, our laws, our morality.”

Inspired by Dante’s Inferno, he is examining the circles of hell as they exist in the world today. “For the chapter that examines gluttony,” he says, “I participated in a chicken-eating contest. Competitive eating is a very frightening thing once you understand how the professionals do it. I was not particularly good at it.”

Melissa Hart is the author of the memoir Wild Within: How Rescuing Owls Inspired a Family and the middle-grade novel Avenging the Owl. She’s an instructor for the Whidbey Writers Workshop MFA in Creative Writing Program.