The Cannibalism of Craft? A Review of Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy by Robin McCarthy
The Cannibalism of Craft
The concept behind Dinty W. Moore’s new book on writing creative nonfiction, Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy: Advice and Confessions on Writing, Love, and Cannibals, is simple. Reminiscent of an advice column, the field’s leading essayists—names like Philip Lopate, Cheryl Strayed, Ander Monson, Diane Ackerman, David Shields, Roxane Gay, Lee Gutkind, and many more—pose a question about writing. Turn the page. Dinty Moore offers a quick answer in reply letter form. Turn the page. A brief essay follows that may or may not relate to the initial question. Rinse and repeat.
Given this straightforward design, readers might expect a didactic “How to” guide from the approachable and revered founding editor of the popular flash nonfiction journal, Brevity. While Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy considers the ethics of memoir, questions of form, the found essay, and the value of writing about writing at all, the exploration is never as linear as the slim book’s Q&A design suggests.
Instead, Dinty Moore’s essays are playful, personal and winding things. The queries from famous writers are seldom earnest: Cheryl Strayed has a thing for the em dash, Diane Ackerman needs to know why there is an “ess” in the essay, someone has played a practical joke on B.J. Hollars and he requires assistance processing the experience artfully. Moore’s answers are even loonier. Most often, his replies are quick segues into the subsequent essay (although Moore harnesses the power of unpredictability, and when his replies are earnest, readers are startled to attention). Moore’s eclectic collection of illustrative essays is where the book really falls into its own.
In his introduction, Dinty Moore echoes Montaigne in claiming that “the true arc of the essay is the author’s thoughts moving on the page in a compelling manner.” Indeed, each of the essays does just that; maps thought, memory, and emotion over time or maturation or a combination of the two. Sometimes the mapping is quite literal, as when Moore details a drug-laced conversation with George Plimpton and its aftermath via eight pages of Google Maps. Pull back a little, and the book as a whole tracks Moore’s thinking about what constitutes an essay, why we write, and how those condemned to this dark and difficult craft might allow ourselves to have a little fun while we’re at it.
Moore’s essays are experiments in form, ranging from maps to flow charts to cocktail napkins to phone messages, lists, and six months of Facebook posts. Even his author bio is a found essay of Google search results. So what makes an essay? What is Moore achieving in “The Actual Message Mike the Tree Guy Left on My Answering Machine the Evening I Arrived Home to Find that the Tree He was Cutting Down When I Left for Work That Morning Still Stood Tall in My Side Yard?” It’s a six-line title followed by a nine-line transcript, which together provide a complete story. The story suggests something true; Dinty Moore’s tree guy is paralyzed by existential struggle. Your tree guy could be, too.
In “Four Essential Tips for Telling the Truth in Memoir and Securing That Blockbuster Book Deal,” (an essay poking at internet click-bait and web articles promising easy tricks for writers), Moore follows the evolution of how he has written about a particular childhood memory throughout his career; as a new writer, the memory surfaces only as an obscure mention in an incoherent and overwritten excerpt Moore calls his “weed-induced crimes against prose.” Later he abandons indulgent language and, with a strong voice and greater clarity, tells the story again, fictionalizing its ending. Ultimately, it’s Moore’s third attempt at telling the story in a brief first-person narrative essay that serves the memory – one that illuminates a fragile and thoughtful portrait of Moore’s mother – best. Tell it however you want to tell it, Moore seems to be saying, but tell the truth and tell it clearly. Do not obfuscate or fall victim to ego or cleverness. The lesson is there, but as is true in each charming essay in Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy, Moore would rather show than tell.
Throughout Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy, Dinty Moore cogitates and recalls. As he should; while the tone is often playful and throw-away jokes abound, the book, and Dinty Moore’s understanding of his craft, is firmly rooted in careful study of Montaigne and the belief that the essay is a mode of intellectual discovery. The Google Maps essay does little to answer Barrie Jean Bordich’s initial question about the ethics of memoir, although Moore gets to this issue later. Instead, the map essay hinges on Moore’s realization that a conversation with Plimpton over Chinese food in Pittsburgh in 1977—a conversation Moore cannot remember—deeply influenced his future as a writer. “This makes no sense. The most important turns in life, in some odd way, usually don’t,” he writes. Page after page, Moore reminds readers that essays are an exploration of an idea. We write to figure out what we know, to put a fine point on the pivotal moments of our lives, write ourselves into the important turns that fail to make sense.
Many of the questions contributed by contemporary essayists address the ethical pitfalls of writing true stories; how to write about ex-girlfriends without being a chauvinist pig (Moore suggests Philip Lopate simply avoid chauvinism); is it okay to use the internet to spy on the subjects of essays (inconclusive); how is authorship determined with found essays (easily); is essay-writing a form of cannibalism (probably). The volume of questions pointing to ethical writing suggest a common tension for writers; we are unable to control which parts of our lives are mined for our work. We want to be good and honest writers, but we also want to be good and honest humans. Much of Moore’s book considers, in one way or another, how writers are to know when they’ve crossed the line, betrayed their responsibility to facts, relationships, privacy, or themselves. The ways an essayist might violate the genre’s own abstract rules seem innumerable. Moore says this:
We take what we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch, and everything we have read, heard, or think that we remember having read or heard, and process it into the hunk of meat that forms the basis of the literary coq au vin.
And then sometimes it goes too far.
Moore’s standing on ethical concerns is best expressed in “Pulling Teeth, or Twenty Reasons Why My Daughter’s Turning Twenty Can’t Come Soon Enough,” a list essay in which Moore unveils a strained relationship with a teenaged daughter. He prefaces the essay with a rare earnest reply letter, explaining that he once tried to write a book about his daughter, but in the end, the book failed and the best of it turned into the subsequent essay. Moore seems to acknowledge that parenting granted experiences that changed him, and thus something as personal as his relationship with his daughter became fodder for his work. But he also suggests that early manuscript drafts struggled because his awareness of protecting his relationship with his child hindered his ability to access the story. Perhaps there was too much at stake to write toward fearful ideas in the way essayists often must. The job of the writer, then, is to recognize when we’re on the wrong path, when the road the essay requires us to travel is one we can’t bear to choose, even with a book deal, five years of your writing life and angry editors at the end.
Perhaps surprisingly, it isn’t the questions contributed by Steve Almond and Cheryl Strayed and Roxane Gay that readers will remember about Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy. It’s the lessons on craft that stick with the reader. In his response to a question from Lia Purpura, Moore writes, “We are essayists and we try. We explore. We discover. We want to know about every little thing in the world.” Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy is an exploration of craft, shining a light on style, form and story.
The universe of possibilities in nonfiction expands upon reading Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy. Moore is leading by example, illuminating a broad playground for a new flock of apprentice writers to explore. Assuming he is successful, we have a lot to look forward to as readers of this book venture into dark corners of unlikely essays, pursuing the centuries-old dream of writing something true.
Robin McCarthy's work has been published or is forthcoming in Hayden's Ferry Review, Gulf Coast, and The Rumpus, among other journals she deeply admires. She is a managing editor for Passages North, which means she brings the snacks.