by Kent Oswald
Writing what you love in exchange for money is living the dream. Receiving more of that “dream money” than you can easily carry in two hands is living the fantasy. Based on Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy ($14.99, Hardcover, 208 pp., Ten Speed Press, August 2015) Dinty Moore is living the dream. Probably.
Moore is director of Ohio University’s creative writing program, winner of Grub Street’s National Book Prize for his memoir Between Panic and Desire, a regular contributor to literary journals, and previously also a coordinating editor for the Norton’s anthology series, The Best Creative Nonfiction.
His new book, subtitled “Advice and Confessions on Writing, Love and Cannibals,” is constructed in a series of modern riffs on the original concept of essay, a literary form sired by Michel de Montaignes wherein a writer might express reason through application of his or her own knowledge and experience alone and without borrowing from others. His essays are in the traditional personal essay form taught to every student but are structured in ways less traditional. These experiments range from numerical lists to a work of one sentence with a footnote about 15 to 20 times longer to a collection of sentences drawn on napkins. One piece features a cartoon image of the writer, “Clogged and Stupid and Weary,” as explication of his artistic process. Each is set up with a prompt from one of the writing program and literary journal all stars (Phillip Lopate, Diane Ackerman, Roxane Gay, et al.) who contribute to his work.
Moore knows much. He is aware, for example, that there is little need for just another primer on how to write an essay; that nobody needs another complaint montage about the publishing marketplace; that students are not always at the level of interest or ability that professors would prefer; and that the concerns of those with advanced degrees in English are not part of the economic mainstream. He also knows how to play with a writing primer, provide an insider’s look at publishing and writing programs, and cater to those who care whether and where an “en” or “em” dash is correct. He reasons with the perspective of one who takes communication seriously, although not always its practice or practitioners.
Moore knows much. He is aware, for example, that there is little need for just another primer on how to write an essay.
He reimagines anecdotes from his journey toward sagehood, such as the 20-plus year shaggy dog tale of being set up for a joke from George Plimpton (for which he also invents a new form, the “Google Maps Essay”), and what he learned buying underwear with Nelson Algren. He slips writing tip basics between self-conscious jokes such as the advice that one should [cliché alert] “avoid familiar metaphors like the plague,” or [adverb alert] “use adverbs rarely and sparingly.” And he demonstrates mastery of the form, such as with his “Of Old Girlfriends” essay—on being young, stupid and in love, as well as what is lost when you have the wisdom to recognize what is lost when you are older and smart enough to realize how stupid you were—crafted in the spirit of a love sonnet. Moore even celebrates the uncommon genre of “found essay,” by saving for posterity the voice message rap of “Mike the Tree Guy.”
While this divertimento of short form readings serves well as a short hop air travel reading, stocking stuffer or other small occasion gift, certain of the essays might also prove an apt model or prompt in high school or college courses, or for those tasked with explaining to overly anxious (or undertrained) seniors and their parents how to warm up for “the personal essay” section of the college application. While not the largest of potential book markets, it is one Moore does justice to, and why he is, hopefully and deservedly as well as probably, living the dream.