What do you get when you cross a zookeeper with a journalist, coming of age during the Nixon era? Between Panic and Desire, Dinty W. Moore’s 2008 memoir and winner of the Grub Street National Book Prize. “Moore forges a brisk, incisive, funny, sometimes silly, yet stealthily affecting memoir in essays and skits,” says Donna Seaman of Booklist. “Each anecdote, piece of pop-culture trivia, and frankly confessed panic and desire yields a chunk of irony and a
sliver of wisdom.”
Between teaching at Ohio University, serving on the Board of Directors of The Association of Writers and Writing Programs, editing Brevity and Best Creative Nonfiction, and pursing his photography (including the images seen here), Moore spent time with Silk Road to answer a few questions about the nitty-gritty of creative nonfiction.Dinty W. Moore is the author of the memoir Between Panic and Desire (University of Nebraska). His other books include The Accidental Buddhist, Toothpick Men, The Emperor’s Virtual Clothes, and the writing guide, The Truth of the Matter: Art and Craft in Creative Nonfiction. He has published essays and stories in The Southern Review, The Georgia Review, Harpers, The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Gettysburg Review, Utne Reader, and Crazyhorse, and teaches in the creative nonfiction PhD program at Ohio University.
Silk Road: Between Panic and Desire experiments with both form and content. What insight did you gain about the relationship between form and content as you compiled these unique essays into a book-length manuscript?
Dinty W. Moore: What I learned is that pushing form–converting a conventional essay into, say, an autopsy report, or an abecedarian–recasts the existing content and inevitably suggests new content. It is the best form of art as play, as far as I’m concerned, the sort of fiddling with writing that takes the writer into places he didn’t know he was going or didn’t intend to go. Yes, it can be gimmicky, if you let it, but as any poet will tell you, as soon as you add constraints of form, you push yourself into choices and decisions that go against the normal impulse. I love playing with form.
Now to pull these odd pieces together into book form was yet another challenge, because I wanted it to read like a book–a coherent journey–not just a collection of occasional pieces. As a result, I wrote seven or so fresh essay/chapters trying to fill in the blanks and make something whole out of the parts. That was influenced by form as well; the forms that already existed, and the form of a book/memoir.
SR: In your own words, Between Panic and Desire asks, “How did phenomena such as Nixon’s dishonesty, Father Knows Best, the Vietnam War, and campus protests shape my early sense of the world, and even more, how did these events shape an entire generation?” What feedback have you received from readers of your generation responding to the memoir?
DWM: The feedback has been positive. My e-mail address is listed in the book itself, so every once in a while someone sends me a message saying, “You’ve nailed it, that’s my life exactly.” Of course, if someone reads the book and thinks, “Hmmm, that’s nothing like me,” I suppose the motivation to send an e-mail might be far less. So it is not a scientific sample. But I’m enjoying the response.
SR: How does the purpose of a narrative arc differ in short forms such as lyric essay and flash fiction, versus longer forms such as memoir and novel?
DWM: That’s a good question and one that so many of us can’t nail down an answer to.
My best attempt at an answer would be to say that there is the arc of the moment and the arc of the weekend and the arc of a lifetime. The arc of a year or a lifetime makes up a novel, and the arc of a weekend makes a great conventional short story. The arc of the moment is more appropriate to very short prose and the lyric essay. Now, anyone who is widely read is already contradicting me in their head with titles of wonderful novels that take place in a 24-hour period or very short works that encompass vast stretches of time. Exceptions abound. But I think understanding these different sorts of arcs, exploring them and looking for the architecture of them, is a great place to at least begin exploring the differences in form and length. If you want then to break the rules, by all means do so.
SR: Did you ever struggle with the literary validity of the lyric essay? If so, what creative barriers did you encounter along the way? If not, what’s wrong with you?
DWM: The short nonfiction form always seemed plausible, because flash fiction was so obviously plausible, but to be honest, I was very late to come to an appreciation of the lyric essay. My introduction to creative nonfiction came through the conventional memoir and standard immersion journalism, and I was schooled in the idea of scene, detail, scene, dialogue, narrative arc–the so-called “old school” where every bit of creative nonfiction sounds like a short story or novel, except the story is true. Now I’m still a big fan of basic storytelling, no doubt about it, but I’ve widened my view, and I’m thankful to those who first nudged me.
That said, even now I’m occasionally bothered some by lyric essays that seem like poems in prose form. There should be a difference (but please don’t ask me to define what that difference looks like). What is wrong with me? Plenty.
SR: Who first nudged you along? Which authors do you see paving the way in creative nonfiction in general, and with the lyric essay in particular?
DWM: Actually the nudge came from some graduates of the Ohio University PhD program. They cornered me (politely) at the Iowa Nonfiction Now conference about five years ago to ask why there was no room for the lyric essay or Montaignean essay in my journal Brevity. I was going to sputter in protest, but they were right: my nonfiction choices in Brevity tended to be 90-95% in the pure narrative camp. So I started reading more: Lia Purpura, Deborah Tall, Eula Biss. And Brevity is better for it.
Your question about who paved the way is huge. But I’ll throw out a few names: Orwell, Capote, Didion. And Lee Gutkind should be in there too, for starting the first graduate nonfiction MFA at Pitt, and for starting the first all nonfiction literary magazine.
SR: Humor never seems to escape you, from your discoveries in The Accidental Buddhist to the story of your own name. How do you determine when that humor risks going too far?
DWM: Humor. As best I can tell, we are born with it, in varying quantities. There is nothing quite so painful as someone who isn’t funny trying very hard to seem funny. Maybe people think that about me. Surely someone does. My wife, maybe. But humor, like rhythm in dance, or color sense, seems almost impossible to teach if someone doesn’t feel a natural impulse.
SR: You’ve edited Brevity, the online journal of concise literary nonfiction, for about ten years. For shorter forms, the practicality and accessibility of an online journal seems to make sense. What are your thoughts on the future of print media and also, the question of credibility in online publications?
DWM: I’ll tackle the second half of the question first. The credibility battle is being won in many ways, by pioneer online journals that have remained very selective in the work they publish, by somewhat newer ventures like McSweeney’s and Narrative and Blackbird that have the funding and staffing to act like “real” magazines and draw in the star power, and by conventional print magazines that are opening up more and more online content. I suppose there are some tenure committees that still turn up their collective egghead noses at online publications, but most writers I know, and especially if they are younger, don’t carry that prejudice any more.
The future of print? I don’t have a crystal ball, but I do agree with those who suggest that what has happened to music, and especially indie music, since the onset of the MP3–the good and the bad both–will start to play out in the magazine world.
SR: When you have written your way to a new understanding of an event or experience in your life, does the writing hold more truth in it than the original memory? Are there deeper consequences of memoir writers rewriting their own lives? How does this shape a writer’s view of the past and therefore his/her future?
DWM: Yes to the first part of the question, because I work much harder at my writing and struggle much harder to understand past events when I am writing about them than I do when I am just “remembering” something for the sake of dredging up a thought. I think, ultimately, that the process of exploring and writing (and rewriting) one’s life is a healthy process. I don’t write “for therapy,” I write for an audience, and I write to discover a truth, but in the end there can be a healing quality to objectively facing the facts of one’s life. It is what the Buddhist’s try to do in meditation; they just don’t have the need to write it all down later.
SR: What book did you read recently that you really enjoyed?
DWM: First There Is a Mountain by Elizabeth Kadetsky. The author manages to explain so much about yoga that most practitioners don’t understand in a way that keeps me intrigued and surprised.
SR: Your collection of short fiction, Toothpick Men, was published in 1998. With an array of nonfiction publications that spans almost fifteen years, this stands out. What did this collection mean in the broader context of your growth as a writer? Do you still write short stories?
DWM: Actually, I began my literary career as a fiction writer and most of those stories were written and published before I started tackling nonfiction, so the order is all muddled up. But yes, I do still write fiction, but not too much of it. Frankly, I would write everything, including children’s book and dirty limericks, if the day had 48 hours and each week lasted ten days.
SR: Care to share any rituals, habits, or other off the wall things you do to keep balance between your professional, creative, and personal life?
DWM: I am superstitious about not purchasing luxury items to make me a better writer. I sit in cheap chair, in an un-remodeled room, banging away at a coffee-stained keyboard, on an old paint-covered table converted into a desk. A friend once sunk $30,000 from a book contract into building a beautiful office atop his garage, with high-end wood on the walls and floors, antique fixtures, two fireplaces, and stunning views of the surrounding mountains, and he has been blocked ever since.
I believe in writing every day, or at least sitting in the chair every day, even if I feel lousy, have no ideas, or otherwise suspect the two hours in front of my computer will be a total waste of time. You need to be in the chair.
Visit Dinty W. Moore’s website at www.dintywmoore.com