Author and editor Dinty W. Moore: "Whatever the writer is tackling, ultimately the work is about the self."

A Writer Is a Writer Is a Writer: Q & A With Dinty Moore

by David Miller Aug 10, 2011
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Dinty W. Moore is the coordinating editor for the anthology Best Creative Nonfiction (W.W. Norton), and edits the internet journal Brevity. A National Endowment of the Arts fellowship recipient and author of several books, including the memoir Between Panic and Desire and The Truth of the Matter: Art and Craft in Creative Nonfiction, Dinty teaches writing at Ohio University and guest teaches nonfiction seminars around the US and Europe.

IF YOU HAVEN’T YET BECOME A READER of Brevity, go check it out now. For more than a decade they’ve been publishing short (750 words or less) nonfiction pieces, quietly (it seems to me) carving out a niche around a certain kind of writing – compact, rooted in place and yet universal, instructive – and helping to give nonfiction writers a venue in American and world literature.

Brevity’s editor, Dinty W. Moore, took some time after returning from a recent trip to Europe, to answer a few questions about the magazine, what he looks for as an editor, and how he approaches the teaching of creative nonfiction.

[Matador] How was your time in Scotland? You were teaching writing workshops?

[Dinty] I was teaching students who are part of the University of New Orleans low-residency writing workshops. Most of them are Americans — a few live in the states, a few overseas — but for four weeks we get together in a different place to talk writing, write, and experience the culture. It is good for an artist to get out of his or her comfort zone every once in a while. I had a great time. The Scottish people are among the kindest and most genial in the world, I think.

What is your approach when working with creative writing students?

Like any art form, writing has to be a balance: 50% learning how to play the instrument, or how to apply the paint, and 50% insight and intuition. The first half of that equation can certainly be taught. There are craft elements to writing a scene, to bringing an image alive, to capturing a voice on the page, that we can all learn from one another and from looking analytically at the successful writing of others.

The second half — insight and intuition — can’t be taught, but even these can be encouraged, guided, reinforced. I’m often forced to defend myself against that old cliché, “writing can’t be taught,” but that’s as stupid as saying that playing the piano can’t be taught, or gourmet cooking can’t be taught. Much of it can; some of it cannot.

Over the years I’ve worked with an extremely varied group of writers. Some have journalism backgrounds, others are MFA graduates, others are self-defined “travel writers” (or “travel bloggers”), or freelancers, etc. As both an editor reviewing work and a writer submitting work, I’ve often found the lack of common ground to be frustrating. Most writers seem very “contained” within a particular kind of market, or publication, or genre, and it seems like as a putative “community” of nonfiction writers, we’re losing out on potential dialogues and perspectives that could be very instructive for everyone. Brevity, more so than almost any other publication I know, seems to be bringing together all different kinds of voices. How have you accomplished this?

These labels, or camps, are useful in certain ways. As a teacher, it is helpful for me to say to a student, “look, you can learn something from how the lyric essayist capture the rhythm of how we think,” or “look, see how the travel writer over here uses language almost like paint, layering on elements until there is texture as well as image.” But when these labels become barbed-wire fences, no one is served. A writer is a writer is a writer, and we are all using the same material: language. Sometimes I need to study the work of a good technical writer, or journalist, to learn a technique or approach. Other times I need to remind myself of what poets do. Thanks for the compliment on Brevity. I’ve tried to be inclusive and broad, to the point that when I feel we are getting too memoir-y, I will go out looking for journalistic work.

What are the elements you’re looking for in a submission to Brevity? What makes a piece worthy of publishing?

I want a piece of writing to make me look at the subject in a different way or think about an experience in a way that I hadn’t previously considered.

The short answer is that I want a piece of writing to make me look at the subject in a different way or think about an experience in a way that I hadn’t previously considered. In a very short piece — we limit our writers to 750 words — that means a sharp focus and immediate movement from the first line of the essay. Whatever the writer is tackling, ultimately the work is about the self. So in travel writing, for instance, it is not enough to say “I went there, and it was exotic.” I want to see a personal connection, feel why a place got under a certain writer’s skin. If the piece is about a childhood incident, I want to be inside of that memory, not outside watching the writer remember it.

So much seems like it’s changed in re to “internet culture” since the publication of The Emperor’s Virtual Clothes in 1995, particularly in the context of how writers use the internet. Besides the obvious changes in the way writers can gain exposure for their work / careers, what are the ways in which the internet has affected nonfiction, the writing itself, its forms?

You remember that book? That makes two of us.

Well, I think there is certainly more of an outlet for good nonfiction writing than ever before – the travel blogs you mentioned, for instance, are varied in quality, but some of them are quite well done. The same thing is happening with food writing and music writing. There are writers with something to say, there is an audience, and all of this technology makes it so easy for the two to connect.

People are creating apps now, where a visitor to Edinburgh or Dublin can walk around with a tablet and read reviews and reactions to various spots in the city. Then the reader can interact, adding their own two cents, or adding photos. Some of it will be drivel, of course, but all in all I’m very hopeful about where this new technology is going to push the art of communication and storytelling. I think there are some very interesting ideas yet to come and opportunities ahead

What are you working on right now as far as your own personal writing?

I just finished an essay about my experience in Scotland, and next year I have a book coming out looking at connections between Buddhist mindfulness and creativity. Beyond that, I want to write a book about heaven and hell, and how the various stories and mythologies associated with heaven and hell have shaped who we are as human beings, but that’s a big book, and I’m having trouble even figuring where to start.

*The travel writing course from MatadorU gives you access to freelance leads for paid travel writing, travel jobs, and press trips, as well as connections to travel editors at Matador and beyond.

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