Tag Archives: Dinty W. Moore

A new manual for flash nonfiction

The Rose Metal Press Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction: Advice and Essential Exercises from Respected Writers, Editors, and Teachers edited by Dinty W. Moore. Rose Metal Press, 179 pp.

They furnished off an apartment with a two-room Roebuck sale
The coolerator was crammed with TV dinners and ginger ale
But when Pierre found work the little money coming worked out well
C’est la vie, say the old folks, it goes to show you never can tell

—Chuck Berry, “You Never Can Tell (Teenage Wedding)”

When I was in school I hated creative writing exercises. They were just diversions from what I wanted to write. Now that I’m a teacher I see their great value and wish more teachers had made me use them. They surprise the planning mind, which may be cunning but struggles to soar. So for my classes now I peruse my growing file of other teachers’ exercises or hunt inside Now Write! Nonfiction: Memoir, Journalism, and Creative Writing Exercises from Today’s Best Writers and Teachers, edited by Sherry Ellis.

Before a prompt I like to play a catchy story song—for instruction and inspiration—because songs are so structural and so compressed (I make sure the students are holding a printout of the lyrics in their hands as they listen).

Now comes Dinty W. Moore with more helpful prompts in The Rose Metal Press Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction. It joins the Press’s guide to flash fiction, a genre that, Moore notes, stimulated short nonfiction efforts as it expanded in the 1980s. In his helpful historical overview Moore defines concise creative nonfiction as that of up to 2,000 words, though most is much shorter, 500 to 1,000, and 750 is the upper limit he’s set for his own journal, Brevity. His new guide features exercises, thoughts, and tips by masters such as Lia Purpura, Lee Martin, and Sue William Silverman, as well as their own published essays.

Here’s Purpura’s twist on the usual read-aloud advice:

I have found it clarifying to read my essays-in-progress in environments that are wholly different than the environment in which they were initially drafted. In this way, I reconstitute the sense of essay-as-letter, even if it’s addressed only to myself and is in its infancy. Take an essay you’ve been working on and read it aloud to yourself in a fresh place. Reading in the car at a red light allows for an urgency of hearing, and a close, fast, focused, intensified listening. Reading in a coffee shop (best if it’s in another country) allows for a form of intimacy created by ambient, atmospheric bustling—that sense of being happily on the sidelines. Reading a work-in-progress in a library, a space of enforced silence, can make the encounter feel different, too: almost chatty, in a private, slightly secretive kind of way.

As a writer I’ve found concise essays fascinating and challenging. They lend themselves to at least starting with prompts. In their imperative to make every word count, they underscore the affinity between poetry and creative nonfiction. Like great songs they often begin in media res and set in motion whole worlds in readers’ minds. While pulling off a publishable piece is as hard as for any form, they foster a freer and freeing approach. Writing that feels like cheating? That lightens one’s heart? Give me more.

And for anyone, success is apt to start in low-stakes exercises like those in The Rose Metal Press Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction. You never can tell.

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Filed under craft, technique, creative nonfiction, discovery, essay-concise, experimental, fiction, freewriting, MFA, NOTED, REVIEW, teaching, education, working method

About writers’ conferences

When I was farming, at first it surprised me how much farmers love conferences—just like everybody else. Isolated most of the time, farmers liked to get together, have a learning vacation, stay in a motel with a pool for the kids. I already knew they’d adopted the digital world, its message boards and email lists. Just like writers, whose own conferences bear a striking similarity—though lacking booths devoted to kelp meal and artificial insemination.

The mother of all writing conferences, AWP, is a fearsome thing. Last time I went, a few years ago, there were 8,000 writers, students, teachers, editors, agents, and publishers milling about. The only way for a soul like me, timid as a sheep on a daily basis, to enjoy such a confab would be if I had a book coming out. Or was speaking on a panel. Or had more friends than I do.

AWP’s panels, often witnessed from a great distance, are great, however. Famous or mid-career or baby writers burst with helpful insights for their listeners. I still refer to the notes I took. I was ripe for it, which is the only way to saddle up for AWP. I also remember being jammed shoulder to shoulder in presentation rooms.

And being shut out of others. And the crowds at elevators. And the trashed basement feedlot.

The best writing conferences . . .

Joe Mackall, Robert Atwan, and Dan Lehman at the River Teeth Nonfiction Conferene, May 18-20

. . . are small writing conferences. At the end of May, I attended the River Teeth Nonfiction Conference, in Ashland, Ohio. The fine literary magazine River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative is published there, at Ashland University, which also is home to a new but strong and emerging low-residency program in poetry and creative nonfiction.

River Teeth’s was a hugely helpful conference. It fostered involvement and intimacy and collegiality. The speakers gave fresh presentations, packed with ideas. The headliners included Robert Atwan, Bob Cowser Jr., Jill Christman, Hope Edelman, Walt Harrington, Michelle Herman, Kate Hopper, Sonya Huber, Dan Lehman, Joe Mackall, Dinty W. Moore, Ana Maria Spagna, and Sarah M. Wells.

They engaged with attendees during their sessions and also at social hours. Everyone sat together at meals. Friends and presenters tended to sit together, sure, but there was room for you. It felt like all of us were buddies, really. People who shared the same passion. The energy was infectious.

Attendance came with an hour-long writing consultation, and I was humbled by the insight and generosity of my mentor, Ana Maria Spagna. Others whose work was critiqued told me the same thing. My fellow attendees were an impressive group from across the nation who generated more excitement. I left with new tools, new buddies, and inspiration.

Watch for River Teeth’s next conference—planned to be an annual event.

Midwest Writers Workshop, July 26-28, Muncie, Indiana

Indiana is known for peonies, thunderstorms, and fat sycamore trees. And for its cuisine: fried baloney, corn on the cob, pie made with Crisco. Like Missouri, it’s a state of small towns, everybody more or less equal, united by religion: basketball. Indiana is really a cool state, like Maine. Well, not cool, but nice, and that’s uber cool, actually. And it’s a state known for spawning some great writers and musicians. As a once and maybe future Hoosier—I lived in the cultural oasis of Bloomington for thirteen blessed years—I know these things.

I read about MWW on the Hoosier writer Cathy Day’s blog. Let’s face it, it’ll be broiling out there in those cornfields around Muncie. But that has the virtue of concentrating your mind. And thankfully, there are no misty mountains, rocky seacoast, or lobster to distract you.

There are one-day intensive sessions on genre and about thirty on aspects of craft. There’s also a big emphasis on getting published and pitching agents; Jane Friedman will discuss digital publishing. Sorry for the late notice here—manuscript consultations are closed—but this conference is one to consider, now or next year.

Paulette Bates Alden’s workshop

Boutique gatherings take writers’ meetings to their highest level. This October, my friend Paulette, author of a critically acclaimed memoir and a book of short stories, will teach an intimate workshop on book-length fiction and memoir at the Madeline Island School of the Arts in Northern Wisconsin. The dates are October 8–12th.

“We’ll be tackling the usual suspects,” says Paulette: voice; structure; what to put in and what to leave out; how to find what the book is really about; where to start; how to work through drafts; and how to complete the work.

October seems a long way off, but Paulette says lodging on the island fills up fast. For writers’ groups, there is a group discount if four or more sign up.

Why conferences matter

Like any artists, writers need to gather to teach and nurture each other. Each writer and each generation must learn the very same things, lay the same base from which to work. The instructors along the way are many. They’re eager to help, even if that means instructing you indirectly through rejection. To enter the guild, a writer is taught and vetted by so many teachers, mentors, friends, editors, agents, and publishers. They beat the craft into your body. All this effort and hobnobbing is about reaching readers, mere civilians, lovers who may be comparatively ignorant about craft and certainly of its details that writers must absorb.

Going to conferences is part of a writer’s literary apprenticeship and maybe citizenship. Of course the ideal is that eventually most of one’s teachers reside in books themselves—you study work that does what you’re trying to do. By then the craft has been internalized, freeing your art. Maybe you’ll go to teach others who are coming up. To chat with peers and commiserate, to discuss subtle aspects of craft and art’s almost incommunicable ones.

Get thee to a conference and meet your tribe.

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Filed under MFA, teaching, education, workshopping

Q&A: Dinty W. Moore on Buddhism, creativity, kindness & taming the ego

Listen to where the writing wants to take you. Understand that the writing itself will often provide far richer material than your logical, predictable mind. Even more “intellect-driven” writing—for instance, a dissertation—can benefit from the cognitive leaps that occur when you stand back from the manuscript a moment and listen to your intuition.—Dinty W. Moore

 The Mindful Writer by Dinty W. Moore. Wisdom Publications, 152 pp.

 A popular image of the writer is of someone with heavy baggage and a disturbed ego. This stereotype does not fit Dinty W. Moore, though it would slight him, and ignore the dark notes in his memoirs, to paint him as blessedly free of background noise, as naturally ebullient.

Having gotten to know him at Ohio University, where he is now head of creative writing, I can say that, while Dinty doesn’t levitate—to my knowledge—he can bring the balm of a light touch—technically known as a nonreactive ego—to an English department’s creative writing unit.

And that’s really something to see. Because anyone can write a book, but leading a bunch of writers? That’s herding cats.

The Mindful Writer, his latest book—short, sweet meditations on writing—explains, as much as anything can, the source of his powers: an effort at spiritual discipline, an approach to writing that emphasizes exploration and discovery, a love of revision.

The book is divided into four parts: The Writer’s Mind; The Writer’s Desk; The Writer’s Vision; The Writer’s Life. Within each are brief chapters, each headed by a quote that Dinty loves about writing and which he then writes a few pages reflecting upon. For instance, this classic bon mot by Thomas Mann: “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” Writers, Dinty reflects, care about finding “the precise word, the clearest expression, and we understand that sometimes a thought needs to be revised tens or hundreds of times.”

The Mindful Writer proceeds on two tracks at once by also inquiring into the challenges of being human. This is from the Introduction:

     Life is full of discontent, the Buddha told us, and that discontent (sometimes translated as suffering) comes about due to our grasping at things, our craving and clinging—the desire to make permanent what will always be fleeting. There is, however, a way to make the inescapability of discontent less problematic in our lives. The Way, the Path, is through right action, right speech, right livelihood; through living a deliberate and intentional life.

     As a writer, I had learned the power of releasing my control of a story, of letting the words, the characters, the images, the mysterious underpinnings of a piece of prose take me in unexpected directions. The less I grasped at and choked my writing, the more it seemed to expand into areas that surprised and pleased not just me but the reader as well. Even my “noncreative” writing—business memos, application letters, proposals, and reports—were strengthened by this realization.

     From the other end, I had seen how my ego and desires would inevitably lead me toward writer’s block and self-loathing, how worrying about critical responses or negative reactions would eventually dry up whatever creative flow I had managed to bring forth.

Dinty makes all that he does look so effortless—get an idea, write a book, move on; edit Brevity, the online journal of concise nonfiction; teach and mentor and lead workshops around the world—that it’s salutary to hear of his struggles. He tells about the time he worked on a book for four years and then abandoned it because it posed a storytelling problem he couldn’t solve. He was confused and angry, but then realized that the project had been making him miserable and he should move on. He shelved it and soon published his favorite book (which he doesn’t name but which sounds like The Accidental Buddhist).

The Mindful Writer offers these core principles, based on Buddhism’s four major precepts, for lessening angst by admitting difficulties and letting them go:

The Four Noble Truths For Writers

 • The writing life is difficult, full of disappointment and dissatisfaction.

 • Much of the dissatisfaction comes from the ego, from our insistence on controlling both the process of writing and how the world reacts to what we have written.

 • There is a way to lessen the disappointment and dissatisfaction and to live a more fruitful writing life.

 • The way to accomplish this is to make both the practice of writing and the work itself less about ourselves. To thrive, we must be mindful of our motives and our attachment to desired outcomes.

Despite this list’s surface astringency, The Mindful Writer emphasizes the writer’s joy of creating and discovering at least as much as it does the writer’s struggle and pain. But admitting that a task is hard, like admitting one’s deeper pain, is, after all, one way to stop struggling against what is and to move forward. I’ll reread this little red book many times, I’m sure, for inspiration and solace.

Dinty answered some questions for Narrative:

You were Catholic, born and bred, according to The Accidental Buddhist. Yet Buddhism seems to have given you the spiritual tools you needed, as it has so many westerners. Why?

 For me, Catholicism was all about the negative—you are bad, you were born bad, you are not grateful enough for the death of Jesus, you will always be bad, you are being bad right now.  This has much to do with having gone through Catholic school in the 1960s and 1970s, however, and is not necessarily an accurate reflection of the Catholic experience. I speak to contemporary Catholics and hear stories of a church which seems entirely foreign to me, and one much more open to the beautiful teachings of Jesus, rather than just the stern warnings of the Pope. But for me, there was nothing spiritual in the Catholic faith of my childhood, and nothing to guide me in any positive way. I’m not arguing that Buddhism is a better spiritual path, just that it was open to me at the right time in my life, and thank goodness for it.

If someone wants to begin a Buddhist practice, or one based upon its proven methods, such as meditation and mindfulness, what’s a good way to learn enough to go about it? In your experience, would it be best seek out teachers, or can books be sufficient?

Books are a good start—the works of Thich Nhat Hanh are wonderful and accessible, as are the books and tapes of Pema Chodron. There is also a wonderful book called Mindfulness in Plain English, by Bhanta Gunaratana. These are good places to start, but eventually I recommend finding a group to sit with, folks to talk to, and, if possible, a teacher.

Beware of any teacher that begins by over-complicating the practice, however. There are thousands of years of Asian culture wrapped up in Buddhism—Japanese or Tibetan or Sri Lankan, depending in which school of Buddhism you encounter—but cultural trappings are not the heart of Buddhism. The teaching of the man we call the Buddha, and what others have discovered through that teaching over the centuries, is what matters. There is nothing wrong with the ritual of Zen or of Tibetan Buddhism, but don’t mistake it for the spiritual message.

How has your Buddhist practice helped you live with yourself and others in more harmony?

Dinty W. Moore, in black and white

The most powerful lesson for me is that I—not others—create my own anger and annoyance, and I—not outside forces—create most of my reality.  So if these phenomena are of my own creation, I have much more control over them than I previously thought.

If a co-worker is driving me up a wall, as the saying goes, it is my wall, I have assembled the wall, and I can take that wall down, brick by brick, if I choose to. Or to put it another way, I can’t expect to have any control over how my co-worker acts or what annoying remarks he repeats time and again in meetings, but what I can control is my own reaction. So instead of choosing to get all tied up in knots over certain things, that knot-tying being much of what makes me miserable and frustrated, I just shrug, literally or figuratively, and move on to the next thing. This seems so simple, but it is powerful once you internalize it, and see how easily it works to dissipate many—not all, but many—daily annoyances.

The second step—compassion—is trying to understand why the other person is acting in the way he or she acts.  This person does not wake up in the morning thinking, “Gee, I’m going to annoy Dinty today and make him miserable.” The reality is something very different.  Being open to hearing what the person is really asking, or what the person is really worried about, or why the person repeatedly misreads the situation, makes you open to finding a solution, and that solution may alleviate suffering for both of you, which is a good thing indeed.

I’ve been impressed by your creativity, meaning not just by your published books or their diversity but by the range of your essays—even in cutting-edge noncommercial forms like your Google Maps essay and your video essay on your genetic roots in Scotland—and by your photography. Once you even showed me a neat graphic essay about your father and grandfather. Can you speak to your efforts to be an artist in the larger sense, as someone who creates, as opposed to being someone who is a “writer” and who wants to “get published?”

 I tried to be a filmmaker once, and did make a handful of small, experimental movies, and then dabbled in acting and modern dance, even performed with a small experimental dance troupe for four years. I still want to be a painter. I’d love to be a stand-up comic.

Writing seems to be the one art form I have any real talent for, however, or maybe it is just the one that I put most of my discipline and effort into. I regularly daydream about making a life in one of the other art forms. I don’t know what that means, or if it even addresses your question.  But to me creativity is the asking of questions, and trying to find answers to those questions in some manner other than the purely cognitive or logical.  Sure, getting published feels darn good, especially because it means more and more eyeballs are looking at what you do, but there is actually more joy in the creative process—on the good day—then there is on the publishing end of the activity.

You’ve mentioned that you write for a few hours each morning. What role does reading play in your writing practice?

Not enough lately: a common complaint of those of us who teach regularly and rigorously.  I read a lot of student work, which I’m happy to do, privileged really, but my eyes aren’t getting any younger, and it is more and more difficult to keep up with all of the great writing that is out there, and the great writing that will be coming out next week. But I try. That’s all I can do.  I try to read writers who don’t write like me. I try to expand my taste, to create as wide a net as possible.

 My previous interview with Dinty Moore about his book on essay writing is here.

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Filed under Author Interview, discovery, religion & spirituality, REVIEW, revision, working method

Undercurrents in narrative essays

There is a wonderful freedom in the essay, a rare permission to follow one’s curiosity wherever it may lead. But with this freedom comes the challenge of how to insure coherent movement and interest for the reader.”—Dinty W. Moore, Crafting the Personal Essay

I admit, I told a class last semester, that we read stories for various reasons, including intrinsic interest. “If you score an interview with Barack Obama,” I said, “you can lean pretty heavily on that. But otherwise, stories that grip us involve some tension—a conflict or question.” How to get this across to students—and to myself—keeps me occupied. And it devils me when I receive a student’s personal narrative that lacks any urgency or even movement. Or when I churn out one myself.

Such flat writing flunks the “So What?” test. Bruce Ballenger writes in Crafting Truth: Short Studies in Creative Nonfiction, “The simple question, What is going to happen next? is triggered by the tension between what readers know and what they want to know. This is the most familiar dramatic tension in storytelling.”

Of course, Ballenger adds, withholding information can seem manipulative, since readers know that the writer knows the outcome. Narrative alone isn’t enough: “Ultimately the work has to answer a simple question: So what? Or as Philip Gerard suggested, What is at stake here? Why might this story matter to the reader? What is at stake for the writer or the characters? Is there a larger truth that will somehow matter?”

Questions or mysteries drive effective writing more than a mere narrative of events. E.M. Forster puts it this way in Aspects of the Novel: “ ‘The king died and then the queen died’ is a story. ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief’ is a plot.” And a plot with a mystery in it is “a form capable of high development,” Forster adds: “The queen died, no one knew why, until it was discovered that it was through grief at the death of the king.”

Tension arises as a work tries to answer such mysteries, though in nonfiction at least I think the reader must be persuaded that the writer herself is on a voyage of discovery, trying to solve a riddle that perhaps can’t be solved, or at least not neatly. Ballenger says, “Fundamentally, every essay, memoir, or piece of literary journalism must seem purposeful.  . . . Usually, purpose is signaled early in the work—the first few paragraphs of a short essay, the first page or two in a longer one, or perhaps an early chapter in a memoir. This destination must seem appealing, and tension is key.”

Ballenger says tension is an “exercise in defying readers’ expectations” and can be achieved four ways:

• drama: will the story unfold in the way expected;

• emotion: the gap between what readers expect the writer will feel and what she does feel;

• thematically: an unusual idea or viewpoint;

• and through language: a surprising or pleasing way of expression.

Tension can be enhanced through structure, and Ballenger lists these ways:

• Withholding information (again, risky if readers feel manipulated);

• Playing with time: the past and present used together raise questions: why did that happen? what’s the full story? what are the links between then and now?

• Juxtaposition: placement can raise questions about relationships

• Questions: readers want answers raised by the material itself or the writer.

In “How Structure Creates a Sense of Movement in Non-Narrative Essays”—one of many great concise essays on craft at the Hunger Mountain Review web site—Allison Vrbova discusses how traditional meditative and contemporary lyric essays work. But to do so she must first explain how storytelling essays work. They have, she says, “a horizontal, time-driven trajectory” but also include a “second direction of movement” that writer Eileen Pollack calls the “central question.” Vrbova quotes Pollack:

As the writer holds up his question to the narrative while moving along in time, the friction between the question and the scene (or even a single detail) throws up meditative sparks.

Vrbova picks this up: “Throughout most of a narrative essay, this central question is a hidden undercurrent pulsing just below the surface. Only periodically does the narrative diverge from its horizontal path to plunge vertically toward this undercurrent. With each successive plunge, the central question is tested and revised. The narrative line works in sync with the undercurrent, propelling the central question further along.”

Vrbova says a non-narrative essay, meditative or lyric, “dives over and over again into an image or idea.” A great meditative example of this, she says, and I agree, is Annie Dillard’s “Living Like Weasels,” much anthologized and available full-text on the web with a little searching. Another good example, of a more lyric effort, is Lia Purpura’s Pushcart-winner “Glaciology,” at Agni online. And Vrbova recommends as well Eula Biss’s celebrated Seneca Review essay “The Pain Scale,” a somewhat condensed Harper’s Magazine version of which is available as a PDF on about the third page of a Google search.

Meditative or lyric essays, Vrbova says, rely “on the accumulation and juxtaposition of often-disparate images” to impart a sense of movement.” I’d argue that that isn’t much different from what is propelling intrigued readers through all narratives: a desire to find out what happens and to share, with the writer, a significant experience in which something is unresolved and at stake.

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Filed under Dillard—Saint Annie, essay-classical, essay-lyric, essay-narrative, fiction, memoir, teaching, education

Searching for Dinty Moore

Recently someone was directed to my blog by googling my favorite lines from one of my favorite essays, by Eudora Welty, “The Little Store,” which I’ve discussed twice on this blog:

 setting out on the world, a child feels so indelible. he only comes to find out later that it’s all the others along the way who are making themselves indelible to him

 The punctuation is the searcher’s of course, but s/he got the lines right.

A WordPress feature allows me to know, if I care to look, what Google searches led readers here. The searches range from mundane to interesting to scary.

A recent perusal disclosed this rambling whopper, perhaps traceable to an assignment from a writing teacher:

 what insights about the writing process have been learned while developing your narrative essay? what provoked them and what impact have they had on you and this essay?

 And here are some others, from who knows whom or why:

 jerald walker, street shadows, dinty more, impressive sentences

Speaking of Dinty Moore, I loved this search that also referenced him:

 select the appropriate self dinty moore

So, Bub, you’re ordering Dinty to select his proper self? He’s made a career of it—he practically invented selecting a proper self. But I couldn’t help googling the phrase myself to see what comes up, and this was first:

 Nutrition Facts and Analysis for HORMEL, DINTY MOORE Beef Stew 

As a mutual friend said, “I love Dinty Moore. The man and the stew!”

But Dinty has written better than anyone on his neat name. His essay “Mick on the Make: Notes on an Unusual Name,” appeared in Southern Review (2007, Vol. 43; No. 3, pages 561-564) and it’s humorous and poignant.

Anyway, the Hormel info was followed by my interview with him on this very blog.

Below that was a link for The Writing Well Newsletter, which discusses Dinty’s essay “Bring Your Voice to Life in Personal Essays” in the July/August 2011 issue of The Writer magazine.”

As Dinty explains, according to the excerpt I found (links since defunct):

 Your goal is to partially isolate a part of who you are, the you that you are today, as you meditate on a particular subject and sit down to write.

So there.

It sounds so simple, but isn’t, for most of us.

Okay, I’ll own it: for me.

But surely others write hundreds of pages to get at that sweet place—that nexus of me now and me then—and then throw away 180 to get twenty good pages. Maybe they pare that to 750 words.

And they send them to Dinty W. Moore, editor of Brevity, the new issue of which is just out, with essays on memory and desire.

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Q&A: Gregory Orr on ‘The Blessing’

Orr has distilled the anguish of his youth right down to its holy bones.—Booklist

The Blessing: A Memoir by Gregory Orr. Council Oak, 209 pages.

Gregory Orr’s The Blessing is one of the finest memoirs I’ve read. There are tons of good memoirs and more than a few great ones, but this one did it for me. It joins a select handful that thrilled me to my toes: Lee Martin’s From Our House, Dinty W. Moore’s Between Panic and Desire, Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty, Alison Smith’s Name All the Animals, and Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life.

In its subject, The Blessing is reminiscent of Darin Strauss’s fine memoir Half a Life—both authors caused a death when they were young—but The Blessing necessarily covers much more ground, involving as it does Orr’s family, especially his parents, on an extensive level. When Orr was twelve, he shot to death his eight-year-old brother Peter in a hunting accident. This horrific event shattered Orr; it may have shattered his parents, but it is hard for Orr to say, since they’d already lost another son, in a preventable household accident, and were troubled separately and together. They presumably also harbored their own guilt for both deaths.

Orr’s father, a charismatic and careless rural doctor, is a drinker, drug addict, and philanderer. He may be haunted by a tragedy that happened in his own childhood. In the wake of the family’s second boyhood death, if any comforting of Gregory Orr is to be done, it will have to come from Orr’s mother—but she fails to do so. He’s abandoned to intolerable and almost unbearable guilt and shame. Soon his father moves his family to Haiti, where they work with the poor, and there another tragedy befalls them. It’s yet another death that might have been prevented.

For all this, The Blessing isn’t accusatory, nor is it close to being ascore-settling expose. Late in the book, a fascinating stage opens when the teenage Orr, hoping to atone by serving penance, drives to Mississippi to help black Americans. It’s 1965, the year after the famous Freedom Summer, and overt law enforcement brutality has abated. Yet what happens to Orr, the humiliation and violence he suffers at the hands of state troopers and in a small-town jail, is hateful and shocking. And, in its coldly planned nature, evil. It all happens calculatedly behind the scenes after he’s arrested, and his account is the most moving and compelling I’ve read from the Civil Rights struggle.

The prose in The Blessing is spare without ever being jarring, evocative without being flowery. The book is concise, and broken into forty-five very short chapters, yet feels complete. Its structure appears straightforwardly chronological, with two exceptions, the second striking. After the shooting, discussed from the opening and which is shown occurring in the third chapter, the story flashes back to fill in family details. Then it moves forward to the eve of Orr’s departure for the South—but suddenly it flashes forward to show his nearly suicidal emotional state upon his return, before flashing back to show what happened. The Blessing concludes with Orr moving toward the art that might save him.

He became an esteemed poet, the author of some ten collections and also books of critical essays, the winner of prestigious awards and fellowships. He teaches at the University of Virginia, where he founded its MFA program in writing. I asked Orr some questions, below, followed by his answers.

Why did you write The Blessing?

I think I’m going to be answering this question later on. My wife had encouraged me to write it for many, many years. But I lacked the courage and only did so when I felt I needed to for my own survival. This had to do with my father’s illness around 1995. At the time of his diagnosis, he was told he wouldn’t live six months, though in fact he lived another five years in relative comfort. But our lives, my father’s and mine, were oddly entwined. We were opposite personality types—he a social extravert who loathed self-reflection (“navel-gazing” as he referred to it) and myself a brooder and shy introvert. I had my own traumas—my responsibility for a younger brother’s death in a hunting accident when I was twelve. But my father, otherwise so unlike me, had also, when he was about twelve, killed his best friend in an accident with a rifle. A bizarre and unnerving repetition across generations, further complicated by the (insoluble) question of why I was raised with guns in my childhood house. A tragedy, a mystery, a dark place in human brains or hearts. Who knows? But there we were—my father and I with the same burden or a similar one. I’d always hoped we could speak of this mystery and enter a mutual forgiveness pact of some sort, but my father wasn’t able to talk of his story and didn’t want me to talk of mine. Other than that, I think we loved each other a good deal—but that was a deep and unspeakable deadlock between us much of my life. When I knew he was dying and still wouldn’t speak of it, I got worried. I felt a need to untangle this thing between us before he died, because I didn’t want that guilt to weigh even heavier on me. I felt it I couldn’t talk it through with him, I needed to write it out and sort it out that way. And so, the book began.

When that need to communicate directly is balked in the world, as it so often is for so many reasons, then many of us turn to writing in order to relieve that need and also to understand ourselves and our world. How many memoirs must get written that way.

How did you decide on the book’s length and structure?

First, you’d need to know that I wrote it three times, so it varied as to what the length and structure would be. On the other hand, I think I knew pretty early on where the book would end. Shortly after I came back from working for the Civil Rights movement in the South and just before I returned to my sophomore year of college, my old high school librarian took me to visit the rural house and sculpture field of the recently-dead sculptor David Smith. The experience of those sculptures in that setting was pivotal for my sense of my life—until then I’d been drawn to political activism as well as writing, but after the trauma of my experiences in Mississippi and Alabama and the strangely moving positive experience of David Smith’s field, I knew that writing was going to be my main path. I wanted to end there. I also sensed that I needed/wanted to start with my brother’s death, in another field, when I was twelve and killed him in a hunting accident. I was very daunted by the idea of writing narrative, and so the idea of “framing” or structuring a book around two fields—a field of death and a field of the life of art (which moves beyond individual death)—that appealed to the lyric poet in me (we often make meanings bycreating imagistic “echoes”) and also reassured me that there would be some structure that I, as a poet, might be able to work with.

Did your voice and scenic technique develop, or were they as effortless as you make them appear?

That’s a joke, right? Remember the three (separate and complete) drafts mentioned above. What to say about technique? I do think that as a lyric poet I tend to take crucial moments in an implied narrative and dramatize them as vividly as possible. That may have led, in the memoir, to short chapters, concentrated events, and little commentary on the scene. I remember being very unsure of my descriptive technique and the rhythmic and sonic texture of sentences and paragraphs (as contrasted with the lines of a poem) and reading at random in James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men to saturate myself with someone who seemed to write a sensuous and observant prose that made for sinuous and interesting sentences. “Saturate” would be the right word—not an analytical thing, but an osmosis.

As an experienced poet, what did you learn about writing from The Blessing?

To be very respectful of prose writers for their descriptive skill, their ability to keep things moving, the whole art of story-telling in an extended narrative form. I never for a moment thought prose writing was easy, but there’s nothing like actually trying something for the first time to increase your respect for professional practitioners. I think I also learned that a lot of human experience is revealed more fully by following a thread (narrative thread, I guess) through time—that it takes much time and many different scenes to let certain major aspects of human experience accumulate their full power. Being a lyric poet, I’ve always wanted everything to be revealed in a single, crisis moment or a single focused dramatic encounter. Art (lyric art) can be like that, but life itself isn’t always that way. So, I guess I learned “patience” with a theme, letting a theme ease out a bit at a time. Patience is not an easily-acquired virtue or insight for lyric poets. We have very, very short attention spans.

How long did the memoir’s actual composition and editing take you?

I think it took about three years of sporadic work. Plus, I had been avoiding writing it for most of my life.

In writing so intimately about your family and about yourself, were you concerned about reactions to the book from friends or family, or about forfeiting your own privacy?

My own privacy didn’t concern me particularly, since I’ve written an autobiographical lyric for much of my life, so I am committed to the power and authenticity that can (theoretically) result from writing in that mode, writing about the incidents of your life and trying to wrestle them into meaning.

I began writing the memoir shortly after my father was diagnosed with terminal cancer. My whole life, I had hoped to talk with him about the early traumatic events, including my brother’s death. I had always imagined we might resolve some of that suffering in conversation, and I tried one last time after his diagnosis, but he was quite adamant that there was nothing he could or would speak about. I felt very uneasy about that stance. For one thing, I felt (irrationally) that my father and I were linked by my brother’s death and by the deeply uncanny fact that he had also killed someone in a hunting accident (his best friend) when he was around the age I was when I killed my brother. This unnerving fact was a kind of unbearable but also unshareable secret between us. No, I could speak of my experience but he couldn’t and wouldn’t speak about his. Which was his prerogative, but when his death approached, I panicked and felt I needed to try to tell the whole story out as I understood it, so as to untangle my identity from my father’s. I was afraid he’d take me to the grave with him. (That sounds a bit odd, but so be it). So, I began to tell the story so as to sort it out once and for all as best I could with what I knew and what I could learn. If you want to call that therapeutic, go ahead.

Of course, I worried about my family’s response, since the whole approach in my growing up was to hide the secrets and bear the shame of it all (whatever it was). There were complicated reactions from my family over time. My father lived long enough to see a draft of it, and was not happy about it, though in all other ways I think we parted with love, as best the two of us understood it at that time and in those circumstances. My siblings had understandably complicated responses, ranging from tears and gratitude to not speaking to me for several years as they worked through their feelings. The ethics of memoir is deeply complicated. I think I’d start by saying: I think everyone should have the right to tell our own story, the story of his or her own life. That said, things get complicated and concern for other people should be there also. The memoir of revenge isn’t very pretty, nor much of a gift to the world. What does Chekhov say: “compassion down to your fingertips?” That would be nice: compassion for others. But the lyric (poem or memoir) is also committed to the notion that the self telling and dramatizing its own truth can be an important human act. Not just for the self but for others also. My teacher Stanley Kunitz has a line where he speaks about “the voice of the solitary who makes others less alone.” That’s a social contribution out of a situation of lyric solitude.

Were other memoirs helpful to you as models in writing The Blessing?

Steve Kuusisto’s Planet of the Blind is a beautiful memoir and he told me he wrote it by thinking of the chapters as prose poems—I can’t remember if that was before or after my writing my own book, but it’s a wonderful way to think for a poet writing a memoir. Floyd Skloot has also written wonderfully in an autobiographical mode and he was very encouraging of me and to me—we first “met” through the mails when I had a year-long struggle with chronic fatigue syndrome and he wrote me with information, compassion, and a model of courage. I’m not as well read in the genre as I should be, though one of my favorite books ever is Maxim Gorki’s trilogy of autobiography/memoir: My Childhood, My Apprenticeship, My Universities.

Next: Gregory Orr on how memoir “connects the writer to the larger human community” and on memoir as therapeutic “lyric invitation.” Read Orr’s guest post here.

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Filed under Author Interview, memoir, REVIEW, structure

Interview: Dinty W. Moore on essays, essaying & earning self-knowledge

Dinty W. Moore’s books include a popular spiritual inquiry, The Accidental Buddhist, and an award-winning, nontraditional “generational memoir,” Between Panic and Desire. His new book—his sixth—is Crafting the Personal Essay: A Guide for Writing and Publishing Creative Nonfiction (Writers Digest Books, 262 pages).

“The personal essay is a gentle art,” he writes, “an idiosyncratic combination of the author’s discrete sensibilities and the endless possibilities of meaning and connection. The essay is graceful, wise, and always surprising. The essay invites extreme playfulness and almost endless flexibility.”

Indeed, Moore, head of creative writing at Ohio University, discusses many types of essays, including: contemplative, memoir, nature, lyric, spiritual, gastronomical, humorous, and travel. To show how they work, he dissects some, inserting commentary in places; this includes some of his own work, and throughout the book he includes parts of an essay he’s currently writing to show his thinking and decisions as he tries to practice what he’s preaching. The essay-in-progress is about walking, specifically Moore’s quixotic attempt to walk to a campus in Boca Raton, Florida, where he was a visiting writer, only to find himself almost getting squashed like a bug on six lanes of concrete. While poking fun at himself, Moore exposes the unfriendliness of much of suburban America to walking and to human-scale, neighborly life. His enjoyable essay is printed in full at the book’s end.

Crafting the Personal Essay also propelled me belatedly after two great essays I hadn’t read, Virginia Woolf’s famous “The Death of the Moth” and Richard Rodriguez’s poignant study of cultural assimilation “Mr. Secrets,” both available online through google searches.

The second part of Moore’s book deals with practical writing issues, such as forging a regular routine, blogging, overcoming writer’s block, getting useful feedback from other writers, effective revising, and persevering through life’s vagaries. “Well first, you have to love the work itself,” Moore writes. “If you don’t truly enjoy moving words and sentences around on the page—similar to the way you delighted in moving wooden blocks and plastic trucks around on the living room carpet when you were five—then you are going to have a hard time persevering through the ups and downs and inevitable setbacks. . . . The rewards of publication are fleeting, while the rewards of a regular writing practice are countless.”

Crafting the Personal Essay will make a terrific textbook for students of all levels; I’m a fiftysomething writer and found

Dinty W. Moore

it interesting and inspiring. It makes me want to try writing different types of essays than I’ve attempted and to develop new skills, to grow. Like all of Moore’s work, it is characterized by a light touch, good ideas, a wry sensibility, and a deft concision.

He answered some questions for Narrative.

RSG: What did you learn writing this book?

DWM: I was forced to learn much more about the personal essay tradition than I knew going into the book. My introduction to creative nonfiction, like that of many people who discovered the genre fifteen years ago, was focused more on memoir and literary journalism than it was on the British essay tradition or on Montaigne.  But I’m not too old to learn new tricks, it turns out.

RSG: I realized in reading Crafting the Personal Essay how narrow my definition of the essay can become. But you discuss many approaches within the genre, ways to tell stories and entertain that rely on humor, observations of common experiences and foibles, clever insights, fleeting feelings, research and reporting. How does a writer remain open to the possibilities of the form without getting overwhelmed by them?

DWM: I’d advise that a writer examine the familiar patterns he or she finds in her writing—I am always funny, I am always ruminative, I am always logical, whatever—and gradually try to introduce new modes into works in progress. You don’t need to juggle the whole set of fifteen balls at once, but you won’t grow as a juggler if you stick to the same three balls every time you take the stage. Eventually, putting research or reporting into your nonfiction—even if you haven’t been doing it up to now—will become a common move in your repertoire, one that you can call on whenever needed.

RSG: Much of your own work is characterized by pursuing something you notice that interests you, such as the explosion of the internet or the growing practice of Buddhism in America. You’ve leaped into the unknown with only an idea, and you’ve participated, interviewed, and traveled. Do you have any advice for writers who want to attempt such a fusion of the personal essay and old-fashioned reporting?

DWM: Left to my own mental devices, I only have one or two interesting thoughts a year, and that’s not nearly enough to sustain a writing career, but I find that I can increase the number of interesting thoughts that I have by trying new things, learning new facts, visiting new places, attending lectures, getting lost in a zendo for five days.  Sometimes the reporting, or observing, ends up in my writing, but at other times it just leads to a fresh thought – fresh for me, at least – and suddenly I have an idea. This has, as you pointed out, led me to a few book ideas, but it also leads sometimes to a 500-word essay. Keep the mind nimble by constantly throwing new experiences in its direction, in other words.  I’m not the first writer or artist to note this, of course, but it sure works for me.

RSG: There seems currently to be a surge of interest and enthusiasm for the personal essay. Great talents are experimenting, playing around, melding influences such as lyric poetry and the classical contemplative essay pioneered by Montaigne. Is this upwelling real from where you sit, or is this simply the effect of those with passion for personal nonfiction seeing what they’re looking for?

DWM: I think you are noticing an actual phenomenon. This goes back to my earlier answer.  New Journalists like Didion, Wolfe, Talese helped to create an explosion of fact-based literary writing in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and a few years later Lee Gutkind helped to popularize “true-story as literary narrative told cinematically” with his journal Creative Nonfiction, and suddenly there were dozens of graduate programs and hundreds of undergraduates classes springing up in creative nonfiction. Much of that activity focused on memoir until certain people started to say, “Wait, the genre is older than that, and there is more flexibility that that.” So in academia, at least, and in literary journals (but actually I think the phenomenon goes beyond that to commercial magazines and book presses), the field is in an opening-up phase, which is good, good, good, I think, for writers and for writing.

RSG: You write, “Self knowledge is the true prize for the writer.” Could you elaborate a bit?

DWM: Why do so many people devote themselves to writing, or to the arts in general?  It is not the monetary rewards, certainly, or the support and praise one gets from one’s family when we announce our love for poetry or dance.  No, we are drawn to art because it makes us feel more alive, makes us feel that we are experiencing and engaging life, makes us feel that we are looking at our lives and making choices based on our hunger and passion for understanding, rather than merely being dragged along by circumstances beyond our control. That’s what I believe, anyway.

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Filed under Author Interview, creative nonfiction, essay-classical, essay-collage, essay-concise, essay-expository, essay-lyric, essay-narrative, essay-personal, humor, immersion, journalism, memoir, research, REVIEW