~by Lori Barrett, for The Fourth River
The Fourth River: The definition of Creative Nonfiction seems to be continually debated. Do you have a working definition? Or, more importantly, where would you draw the line between an embellished fact and an actual untruth?
Dinty W. Moore: My definition of creative nonfiction is that the writer captures the truth as best she can, within the limits of memory and subjectivity. If you aren’t sure of something, tell the reader. If you doubt your memory, yet that memory persists, discuss your doubt with the reader. I don’t think an honest nonfiction writer can ever knowingly embellish a fact or add an untruth to make the story better—that’s what fiction writers do, or at least those fiction writers who write from an autobiographical place. Sophisticated readers understand that the honest writer of memoir and nonfiction is merely saying: “I know memory is flawed, but I’ve done my very best here to capture the truth.”
FR: Your book The Accidental Buddhist came to be because you were curious about Buddhism in America, and then you went out to do research. Is this a typical writing process for you, that you are prompted by questions?
DM: Always. The essay is fueled by questions, and the writer is fueled by curiosity. A student can learn to write sentences and form scenes, but that curiosity, that wonderment at the world and all that is there to be discovered—that’s something an artist either has or does not. And it is crucial.
FR: I read a review recently of Philip Lopate’s new book in the New York Times. The writer [Morris Dickstein] says Lopate is “gifted at staging his inner conflicts, radiating intimacy without descending into the confessional.” What do you see as the difference between intimacy and narcissism? Would you consider the confessional as something to avoid?
DM: It all comes down to motive, I think. Writing as confession, trying to purge a demon, is about the self, not the reader, so this strategy will never succeed. Writing out of narcissism is about the writer/subject, not the reader, and that’s not going to work out well. The best motive for writing is exploration, to look at a life [your own, if it is memoir] and try to make sense of the world and the human experience, so that both the reader and writer make discoveries along the way. I suppose the intimacy is in sharing that journey of discovery.
FR: In an interview with Another Chicago Magazine, you talk about writing about your teenage daughter. I have teens, and I was surprised when I started looking for literary, personal writing about teens that there’s very little out there—until I thought about what would happen if one of my kids didn’t like what I’d written. I think that’s why there are a lot of publications devoted to writing about young children but not about teens. Do you think this is true? Was this a concern with your daughter?
DM: That’s a good question, but I don’t really have a good answer. I think the teenage years are a fragile time for many people, and these years can be very fragile for the parents of teenagers as well. If you are writing out of an honest place, you can’t be tiptoeing around eggshells. What I know is that my project stalled and died, and that—in the long run—was probably a good thing.
FR: As a teacher of creative nonfiction, what are some of the staples you assign your students to read? And, who are some new writers who have made it on to your syllabus recently?
DM: As for new writers, I am very excited about Roxane Gay, B.J. Hollars, and Aisha Sabatini Sloane, just to name three. The staples, those writers I return to again and again include Joan Didion, Scott Russell Sanders, Lia Purpura, Eula Biss, Lee Martin, and, well, the list is very long.
FR: For beginning writers, revision can be an intimidating thought: where to start, when to stop, how to know what to eliminate. What have you found that helps you or your students to approach revision? What hinders?
DM: Revision is so necessary, so crucial and for me [perhaps I am odd this way], the most fun in writing. It’s where you get to be articulate, where the artistry comes in. The blank page terrifies me, but sifting and trying to improve through pages and pages of half-formed thoughts is pure joy.
Here is what to eliminate: anything that doesn’t make your essay better, or anything that you’ve said elsewhere in the essay in a better way. You know you are done when you can read the entire essay aloud to yourself and not stumble over a single sentence or idea; when you read it all the way through and honestly feel a completeness.
FR: You edit the online journal Brevity, you’re the director of Ohio University’s Creative Writing program and you grow vegetables. When do you find time to write?
DM: It becomes more and more difficult, but I am stubborn.
FR: Does working in the garden help with your writing the way Buddhism helps?
DM: I think any physical activity or creative activity not directly linked to words is good for the writer. Gardening is both physical and creative, but it gives my “word brain” a much-needed rest.
Lori Barrett is an MFA candidate in Chatham University’s MFA in Creative Writing Program. She lives in Chicago.
Dinty W. Moore will be the keynote speaker during Chatham’s Summer Community of Writers, July 24-August 3, 2014.
He is author of The Mindful Writer: Noble Truths of the Writing Life, as well as the memoir Between Panic & Desire, winner of the Grub Street Nonfiction Book Prize in 2009. He also edited The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction: Advice and Essential Exercises from Respected Writers, Editors, and Teachers. Moore has published essays and stories in The Southern Review, The Georgia Review, Harpers, The New York Times Sunday Magazine, The Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine, Iron Horse Literary Review, and The Normal School among numerous other venues. A professor of nonfiction writing at Ohio University, Moore has won many awards for his writing, including a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Fiction. He edits Brevity, an online journal of flash nonfiction, and lives in Athens, Ohio, where he grows heirloom tomatoes and edible dandelions.