Dinty Moore on revision & discovery

“Too often, in my opinion, beginning writers focus on what point they want to make, what the message will be in their writing, the ‘theme’ or ‘thesis,’ whereas the seasoned and successful writers that I know are always after what they can discover. Being too sure of what you want to say from the outset can be a bad thing in writing—you just end up re-stating the obvious.”

“If you want to be a writer, you have to love to write, love revision, love shaping sentences. You have to adore words and the endless possibilities of words in combination.  You have to know in your heart that even if no one ever read a word of what you have written, you would still do it, for yourself, because the process, the practice, is thrilling and inescapable.”

These quotes are from Dinty W. Moore’s interview with Writer’s Digest about his new book, Crafting the Personal Essay: A Guide for Writing and Publishing Creative Nonfiction. As befits the founder of Brevity, the interview is concise. But in it he touches on pretty much everything a writer needs to know. His personal practice is simple but obviously effective in getting the work done: he says he rises about six o’clock, “writes for a few hours,” and goes off to his day job.

AARP on line currently features his distilled tips for people who want to get started writing a memoir. Elsewhere on this blog are other Moore tidbits, including excerpts of a previous interview with him by Mary Richert and my review of his textbook The Truth of the Matter: Art and Craft in Creative Nonfiction.


Filed under diction or vocabulary, discovery, revision, teaching, education, theme, working method

3 responses to “Dinty Moore on revision & discovery

  1. richard moore

    I have a problem with Dinty’s view. It is of course true that a creative work is not journalism or a formal essay with the message identified in advance. And, yes, in creative writing the story can “take on a life of its own,” in ways not foreseen. On the other hand, I believe that all artists (writer, painters, etc) are trying to communicate “something” to readers, viewers, and so forth. If so, the writer should come to some understanding at some point about the message he ended up communicating. To say, as some writers do (and I don’t suggest that this is what Dinty was trying to say), that the meaning or thesis is not important is, that it just “pops out” on its own, is to me nonsense. The mystery of the creative process doesn’t totally “take over” the keyboard, the writer doesn’t totally lose control of what is going onto the page.
    I, for one, want to understand, or at least be able to intuit, what the writer’s intent was. If only to determine how, and how well, he delivered on it.

    Incidentally, Narrative is a wonderful web site which I read avidly.

    • Richard,

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I understand your frustration with the pure discovery camp (though I wonder about to whom you’re referring; I would love to read their thoughts), but I think what Dinty means is something else. Actually, what you said writers should do.

      Dinty writes in his new book, “An essay needs a lighted sign right up front telling readers where they are going.” Later he says, in the part of the book on revision, “It is not uncommon for me to be six or seven full drafts into an essay before I realize, ‘Aha, that’s what this essay is going to be about.'”

      So, you see, he’s big on discovery in the writing process, rather than going in with a pat message; but then once his meaning is found, he focuses the essay. It’s a process-based approach to writing that doesn’t have contempt for message but only for thinking you know your message before you do.

      • richard moore

        Thank you for your–and Dinty’s–sensible explanation. I agree completely, and always experience precisely what you describe. My example emanated from the workshops at my former writing program. Often I was not able to tell what the (student) writer was trying to say: their intent. Yet, the workshop process requires analyzing the series of works, and not–hopefully–just commenting on the use of literary craft. Every time I asked the faculty mentors to require the participants to comment on intent, my request was denied, often in terms suggesting that I clearly failed to understand the mysteries of the creative process.

        Thanks again.