I'm Not Fond of Making Things Up
Amy Wright: Dinty, I just finished reading The Mindful Writer: Noble Truths on the Writing Life, and it made me cry. God knows why. Filled as the book is with insight and prompts for reflection about the writer’s life, it is no tearjerker. Although when I finished it, I did notice the relief from some big obstructions dropping.
It was such a boon to have a writer whose work I admire say in such a direct way: “Wanting to be a writer, wanting to be published, wanting to sell a boatload of books, wanting to be recognized with prizes, accolades, and reviews, no matter how desperately you want these things, will never take you where you want to go. Wanting to write something true and important will take you there. If you write it.” So, first, I’d like to thank you for compiling this book. Next, I want to know if you ever cry and, if so, at what?
Dinty Moore: My goodness, what ever happened to the softball question to open an interview? Maybe something light and predictable? Of course I never cry. I’m a man. Except I cry when I think about my parents, both dead now, and how the sadness of their early lives—both of them were orphaned young— rippled through my life and the lives of my two sisters. I cry when I see my daughter hurting and I cry when I realize how much I’ve disappointed my wife over the years. I tend not to cry at sad movies, though sometimes there is a lump that forms somewhere in the back of the throat that feels suspiciously like crying.
AW: I don’t believe in softball questions. The only kind of interest that accrues is authentic. But I am curious, what books have made you get all soggy?
DM: The last book that made me sob was a Russell Banks novel, Affliction. I tend to be hit hardest by father-son regret narratives.
AW: It is a gift to learn that even an established writer like Dinty Moore has writing days that feel like wrestling a muddy alligator on a boat deck he just mopped. I understand the writing process requires discipline to persevere at a desk, but I also know there are times to go out tango dancing, to descend the heights of the cerebellum and go swimming. It can be difficult to distinguish spinning wheels from vulnerability on the run. How do you distinguish legitimate need from procrastination?
DM: You are asking the wrong writer, I’m afraid. I procrastinate horribly, constantly, and with regularity. My routine is to be at my writing desk five mornings a week, and make progress on whatever projects are most urgent. But that’s my ideal. The truth involves too much time answering e-mails and reading Andrew Sullivan’s political blog. I almost always meet my deadlines, but I meet them by getting suddenly manic and decisive when the deadline is looming so close that I feel like I am playing chicken with an oncoming truck. I wish that I could describe a more enlightened, serene process to you, but I’m not fond of making things up.
AW: One of the things I watch you do with amazement during the Kenyon Writers Workshop is use humor to peel writers away from themselves to see the work they want to make. It’s an incredible skill and gift to your students. Humor isn’t listed in the book as a noble truth, but I know it informs your writing and perhaps your Buddhism. Will you talk about your relationship to it?
DM: Humor defines me. It is how I found my identity in the world. I remember cracking tiny jokes under my breath to impress my first-grade girlfriend, a freckled, buck-toothed girl with red plastic eyeglasses. The sound of her giggling, her smile when she turned slightly in the desk, was addictive. I couldn’t get enough. Later, humor writers like Robert Benchley and Art Buchwald opened me up to the possibilities of writing with humor but still saying something worthwhile. Buddhism teaches us that our thoughts create our reality, that our world is constructed through the habitual way we find ourselves viewing life, so I view the world with a wry, fond smile. Not a bad place to be.
AW: I hear tell that you have a yoga practice. When did you get interested in yoga and how does it inform your writing?
DM: I think you have caught me at a bad moment in my evolutionary process, because now I have to apologize for what a bad yoga practitioner I am, on top of everything else. (Poorly disciplined writer, bad Buddhist, disappointing husband.) Geesh, cut a guy a break maybe? But I will say this: the movement of yoga, the stretching and opening poses, work on the mind as much as the muscle, and I’m a better writer when I make the time to stretch and breathe.
AW: How do you feel about ketchup? Relish? Maple syrup? Do you have a favorite condiment?
DM: I like Louisiana Hot Sauce.
AW: Gerald Stern, in Stealing History, writes: “I am picking cherries, as I did when I was seven, on the roof of our garage from a neighbor’s tree, quickly in buckets, what was easiest to reach. There are branches that I hate and will not touch. They irritate me and bore me.” What “fruits” have always ripened easily for you, and what branches do you push past?
DM: That’s interesting and complicated, what Stern is saying. I began my serious writing in the fiction camp, and most of my early work centers around a young man worried that he can never measure up, that he can never overcome his past well enough to be a decent father, husband, son, brother, or human being. That material was pretty easy to access, of course, because that was me in my twenties and thirties, and all I had to do was create a fictional character to house the emotional truth. What do I avoid? There are incidences of abuse, emotional and physical, in my past, and I still can’t find any good way to write about them. I can write about the sadness and disappointment of my childhood, but the more violent parts are probably never coming onto the page.
AW: Stern includes an apology in his essay collection for “all the Jewish stuff,” since it became a way of processing a number of issues from the lost tribes of Mongolia to murdered Europeans. Did you feel the need to soften any recurring impulses with your cultural autobiography Between Panic and Desire?
DM: For me, writing memoir is often an act of subtraction. In
the early drafts of Panic and Desire, I probably referenced
or reminded the reader of my family history of drinking,
my youthful depression, my parents’ profound sadness, my dope habit, every two or three pages, but when it all started to come together in a book I had to go through and remove eighty to ninety percent of that, because readers are smart, and they don’t need to be reminded, don’t want to be reminded, and appreciate when they are trusted to figure things out for themselves. So yes, the impulse to explain, to give a reason for everything, is normal, but has to be corralled in the end.
AW: I asked Brenda Miller to name her unexpected go-to spiritual manual, and she said Charlotte’s Web. What might be yours?
DM: The Marx Brothers.
AW: Do you have a favorite line or skit—or perhaps I should say, koan—from them?
DM: There is the fine moment in “A Night in Casablanca” when Groucho gives orders to the restaurant staff: “We’ve got to speed things up in this hotel. If a guest orders a three-minute egg, give it to him in two minutes. If he orders a two-minute egg, give it to him in one minute. If he orders a one-minute egg, give him a chicken and let him work it out for himself.” Now that’s a worthy koan.
AW: You brought in Twizzlers to a writing workshop and asked students to describe it using a careful rundown of the senses. Do you ever complete the prompts along with them?
DM: It is hard to sense the energy of a classroom, to feel who needs what prompting and for how long, when caught up in my own writing, and it is hard to get caught up in my own writing when I’m trying with one ear to listen to and sense the energy of the class, so no, I don’t tend to do prompts alongside my students. Plus, it is a lose/lose proposition. If what I come up with in the in-class prompt is very good, the students think, “I’ll never be as talented as the teacher,” or more likely, if what I write is dull and pedestrian, they end up wondering, “Why am I taking instruction from this buffoon?”
AW: Have you ever communed with an animal, as Annie Dillard does with the weasel in her segmented essay “Living Like Weasels”? If so, what was it?
DM: An elephant. I was a zookeeper during my college years. Elephants are the most amazing creatures. I think they have minds every bit as complex as ours. And big, big souls.
AW: A zookeeper! Will you share a story of monkey feeding or condor delousing?
DM: I have a few stories, including the female gorilla who developed a pretty strong crush on me. I was twenty, at the height of my invisible male hormonal fog-spraying potential, and Samantha would just go nuts anytime I came into the main building where she was housed, even if I entered through a doorway at the other end of the building. She would bang on the bars, dance around, and jump up to look for me. Eventually the head zookeeper had to ban me from the primate wing entirely, because he was convinced she wanted to pull me through the bars and, well, you know, spoon a little.
AW: No wonder your wife has a hard go of it! That’s some intimidating competition. Your story reminds me of the “essaykin” parlor game you describe in the forthcoming The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction, where players listen to an anecdote and then rewrite it. I like imagining how a classroom of listeners might spin this narrative. Before you know it, rumors of Dinty Moore, Gorilla Spooner would be cropping up on Facebook.
It’s clear your perspectives as writer/teacher/editor pervade the book. Did formulating this field guide inform your strategies for these roles?
DM: I learned an enormous amount in editing that book, first and foremost by working with the fine writers who contributed craft essays and example essays, but secondly through the process of trying to nail down a “flash essay” definition and tradition and trace the form from the early Greek orators through to the present. I started Brevity without too much thought and zero theorizing about what a very brief essay might look like and why we might want to promote them, and the journal, and the form, took off over the past sixteen years, in directions I had never imagined. Conceiving and editing The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction helped me become far more articulate as an editor and teacher who focuses on brief nonfiction, and now it is beginning to influence my writing. I love the book and was lucky to have the chance to spearhead the collaborative effort.
AW: If you could have a conversation with any writer living or dead, who would it be and what would you ask?
DM: Does Jesus count? I’d like to ask him, “Did we get any of it right, or did organized religion screw up absolutely everything you were trying to say?”