by Vivian Wagner
Dinty W. Moore’s Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy: Advice and Confessions on Writing, Love, and Cannibals (Ten Speed Press, 2015) is a smart, funny collection of answers to questions posed by various contemporary nonfiction writers, including Cheryl Strayed, Julianna Baggott, Judith Kitchen, Sue William Silverman, and many others. For each letter and answer, Moore proffers a short essay that touches in some way on the letter’s topic. The questions, answers, and essays all have an air of postmodern levity, and yet Moore also manages to consider some serious issues regarding nonfiction. Moore’s a master of the short, witty essay, and this book is a collection of some of his best, along with his sharp and insightful meditations on what it means to be a nonfiction writer.
The book’s letters, which are addressed to his persona, “Mister Essay Writer Guy,” are themselves mini-essays, offering glimpses into the interests and concerns of creative nonfiction writers. The first, for instance, is an endearing and revealing one from Phillip Lopate: “I’m curious,” he writes, “how you deal honestly with male-female relations in general and specifically your past girlfriends on the page without coming off as a male chauvinist pig.” Moore answers just as wittily: “I believe the best way to avoid coming off as a male chauvinist pig might be to not be a male chauvinist pig? Is that a stretch? Another way might be to adopt a writing persona, perhaps one where you seem grateful, not vindictive or sour, and just vulnerable enough that the readers want to tuck you in and feed you soup.” He follows this brief answer with an essay, “Of Old Girlfriends,” which creates just this kind of self-effacing, likeable persona: “As a young man,” the essay begins, “I was distant, frightened, and naïve. And I was a bit of a prig. In retrospect, these are not traits that set a young girl’s heart aflutter.”
The questions asked of Mister Essay Writer Guy cover a vast territory of nonfiction angst and hand-wringing, including worries about cannibalizing one’s family for juicy bits of memoir, questions about privacy and truth, queries about punctuation, and meditations on the best ways to narrate humiliating experiences.
Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy is only partly a joking, postmodern take on a writerly advice column. It’s also a strikingly rich and rewarding exploration of the state of nonfiction in the twenty-first century. For all of his humorous asides and witty rejoinders, Moore deals with a host of problems, dilemmas, and honest questions that writers, both those just starting out and those more experienced, have about the craft. And he does it with a sense of compassion, openness, and sincerity.
One of the letters, from Brenda Miller, is itself a flash essay that delves into the role of social media in our lives as writers and readers. She starts with a comic look at Facebook as a playground, in which we all vie for attention and feel snubbed when we don’t get it. She then poses a couple of questions, one of which goes as follows: “Now that we’re becoming acclimated to this scrolling public broadsheet crying out the village news, does this alter the role of the personal essay writer?” Moore answers that he, like many other writers, has a difficult time resisting the siren call of social media, and that he, too, questions what role it can and should play in his life as a writer. He then asks a question that presages the essay that follows: “Can a chronological string of Facebook wall postings create a narrative?”
“As a young man,” the essay begins, “I was distant, frightened, and naïve. And I was a bit of a prig. In retrospect, these are not traits that set a young girl’s heart aflutter.”
In fact, as he shows us in his essay, “Why I Trained My Dog to Post: One Writer’s Facebook Journey,” perhaps it can. The posts from the first part of a year are included chronologically, along with some of his friends’ droll comments. He begins with a post that says “Hello to all of my auld acquaintances. You are often brought to mind,” from Dec. 31, and works his way through a series of posts that end, finally, with this one, ostensibly written by his dog, on May 31: “bark. bark. woof.” Moore has, we’re to guess, finally trained his dog to make Facebook postings so that he can turn to “real writing.” In the meantime, however, he’s created an undeniably real essay, an essay for our age. It’s a hermit crab essay, and since this term was coined by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola, “Why I Trained My Dog to Post” serves as both an homage and a roundabout way of addressing Miller’s concerns about social media. It’s a brilliant bit of self-referentiality, in the truest spirit of Montaigne.
Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy is, ultimately, a back-and-forth discussion about the evolution of the essay. And that discussion, perhaps more than any of the book’s specific tidbits of advice, is its greatest offering. After all, as Montaigne himself says, “the most fruitful and natural exercise for our minds is, in my opinion, conversation.” As a collection of essays both by the letter writers and by Moore, Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy demonstrates that the essay form finds its purest expression in dialogue, in assaying, in the banter between questing and questioning minds.