Dinty Moore cover
Crafting the Personal Essay
by Dinty W. Moore

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An exclusive Authorlink interview
with Dinty W. Moore
creative nonfiction guru




By Ellen Birkett Morris
November 2010

Creative nonfiction guru Dinty W. Moore believes good essays are born out of the unknown, the thing you are curious about, the problem that puzzles you, or the issue that leaves you with conflicted feelings.

“The minute the writer sits down to tell you what they already know, the writing is already stale. ”

“The minute the writer sits down to tell you what they already know, the writing is already stale,” said Moore. His first two nonfiction books, The Accidental Buddhist and The Emperor’s Virtual Clothes, began with questions. The Accidental Buddhist explored why Eastern philosophy had moved into the American heartland and whether it could ever truly find a home there. The Emperor's Virtual Clothes looked at why people use the internet for personal things like counseling, dating, activism and charitable giving.

To write the book on Buddhism, Moore, a self proclaimed Catholic kid from the shores of Lake Erie, practiced “immersion writing” by taking up mediation and attending retreats.

Good writing, he contends, is like car. You must be able to take it apart and see how it works. The engine is your curiosity, noted Moore, and the fuel is the new information and angles you discover as you explore what it is you want to say.

“The best writing has surprises in it. Start with your questions and let the questions grow and develop as you learn something new,” said Moore.

His memoir, Between Panic & Desire, was winner of the Grub Street Nonfiction Book Prize in 2009.

“When I wrote it, I kept telling myself that my life wasn’t interesting enough. I was not famous, not a political prisoner. I had parents who drank too much, but that is not a spectacular story. I tricked myself into writing the book by focusing on the cultural events, Kennedy, Vietnam, The Beatles, Manson, that simultaneously shaped me and the generation that I grew up in,” said Moore.

His most recent book, Crafting the Personal Essay: A Guide for Writing and Publishing Creative Nonfiction, offers springboards for exploration as well as tips and techniques to craft a reader friendly essay. Moore is a professor of nonfiction writing at Ohio University and president of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs.

“I work in a genre called creative nonfiction that includes sub-genres such as memoir and literary journalism. Creative nonfiction uses the tools of fiction of poetry to make the writing more vivid. The personal essay was at the root of the genre when it began,” said Moore.

He began writing as a journalist and was around 30 years old when he decided he wanted to do a more personal type of writing. He took a class at Temple University with novelist David Bradley and loved it. He went on to get an MFA in fiction from Louisiana State University.

While he has written a textbook before, the creation of Crafting the Personal Essay required a more personal approach. Moore wrote the book with the individual writer in mind.

“It is not hard for me to think as a beginning writer because writers are always learning.”





“It is not hard for me to think as a beginning writer because writers are always learning. Each time you sit down to write you tackle a new narrative problem,” said Moore. He draws on his broad knowledge of essays to provide concrete examples of good writing and tips and techniques for effective writing.

The book includes writing exercises on using gestures to convey meaning, metaphor, and harnessing your curiosity, information on the benefits of establishing a writing routine, and advice on revision, rejection and perseverance. Moore wrote the book in a year, spending “a lot of time in the chair pushing words around and trying to get them to behave.” Moore writes in the mornings before the classes begin or he opens his e-mail.

He wrote multiple drafts of each chapter and ended up cutting a lot of material to avoid repeating himself. He worked with Editor Scott Francis at Writer’s Digest Books who suggested adding chapters on blogging, revision and rejection.

In addition to encouraging exploration, Moore cautions writers to “remember the reader.”

“Many writers think that it is really important for them to get their vision down on paper. That won’t serve you as a writer at all. Stop thinking about yourself. Think how you can make this clear, meaningful and intellectually stimulating for the other person,” said Moore.

He suggests first time writers in any form start small.

“Learn to write scenes before committing to a book project.”





“Successful chefs didn’t make a 12 course meal for 600 people as their first dish. They made a single dish for two people. Learn to write a ten page essay before you write the memoir. Learn to write scenes before committing to a book project,” he advised.

When it comes to getting published, Moore suggests that writers put 90 percent of their energy into the writing and 10 percent into marketing themselves.

“Lots of people reverse this and it doesn’t serve them well,” he said.

Moore is currently editing an anthology on writing flash nonfiction. He has begun his next book, “a quirky memoir” that explores the concepts of heaven and hell.

About Dinty W. Moore

Dinty W. Moore's memoir Between Panic & Desire was winner of the Grub Street Nonfiction Book Prize in 2009. He has published essays and stories in The Southern Review, The Georgia Review, Harpers, The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Gettysburg Review, Utne Reader, and Crazyhorse, among numerous other venues.

About Regular Contributor
Ellen Birkett Morris

Ellen Birkett Morris is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in national print and online publications including The New York Times. She also writes for a number of literary, regional, trade, and business publications, and she has contributed to six published nonfiction books in the trade press. Ellen is a regular contributor to Authorlink, assigned to interview various New York Times bestselling authors and first-time novelists.