For many nonfiction writers, diving deep into memory can open up skeletons from their closets that they’ve kept hidden for years. What advice do you give to those struggling to write their memories?
Memory is a fascinating place, full of mystery and intrigue. That’s good, not bad. Often, those memories that nag you because they are not perfectly clear are the ones with the most potential for discovery, so I urge my students in that direction. I also believe that memory can and should be researched. Spending time sitting with a memory, quietly, without distraction, is a starting point, but you can also ask others how they remember an event or time in your life. You can get in your car and drive to the farm your grandparents used to own, sit across the street and remind yourself of the trees and hills and smells of the area. The more you remember, the more you remember. Work at it, and you’ll remember more than you do now. As for the skeletons in the closet: they are often grateful to be released.
Memory can sometimes trick us by making us believe something happened when it did not. Nonfiction writers face this almost daily, especially involving family and friends who will disagree with a particular memory a writer has. Do you have several memories and/or versions of a same event? If so, how do you push those pests away to get to the truth of it all?
If you personally have several versions of a memory, don’t pretend otherwise: examine them on the page. If your sister remembers something differently than you do, acknowledge that. Examine it. Often, the fault lines between your memory and your sister’s memory are rich sources for discovering truths about family or relationship. There are reasons we remember differently–we see the world through our own point-of-view. Children, especially, have limited access to the full picture. They see and remember what matters to them. In the end, intelligent readers of literary memoir understand that what you are offering is “my best attempt to remember this truthfully.” Memory is flawed, rippled, uncertain, and always will be. Memoir is not about writing the “truth,” as if it were a mathematical algorithm. Memoir is about interrogating memory, learning not only from what we remember but how we remember.
Nonfiction writers are often challenged to make their stories believable–often a situation is so perfect that it can come across as contrived, even though it really happened. How do you deal with the “too good to be true” narrative hurdle? Do you remain true to your remembrances, or modify your writing to remove some of the convenience of it?
I’m not sure this is as real a phenomenon as your question implies. Maybe in workshop, where the readers are hypersensitive and overly technical, but in my actual experience as a writer, editor, teacher, I just don’t see that many stories that seem “too good to be true.” Not if the writer is giving a detailed, intimate version of events. Not if the writer is digging well below the surface. The few times I have run across a story “too good to be true,” it became clear quickly enough that the author was fudging, trying too hard to clean up the circumstances. But real life is always more complex, so just capture that complexity.
Reading some of your work we noticed that you have compelling structure methods that tend to stand out from the normal narrative. For instance, Mr. Plimpton’s Revenge is an essay written entirely within Google Maps. You also have the video essay called History, and in your memoir, Between Panic & Desire, you take on the persona of a psychic on a telephone hotline where you challenge yourself, the narrator, with questions we as readers need answered. What inspired you to express yourself in these various forms? How do you determine what form works best for what you are writing?
I go back and forth on this. In some cases, I struggle with an essay through sixteen or twenty drafts until I finally throw up my hands in defeat, then come back two months later and say, “let’s try this in a completely different form.” In other cases, like the Google maps essay [http://tinyurl.com/plimptonmap], I start with the form and try to envision some story that would fit the parameters. In my memoir, Between Panic & Desire, I realized early on in the drafting that experimenting with form was going to be a feature of the book, so I became pretty deliberate about seeking out new containers for prose narrative.
Like we mentioned above with the Google Maps essay and your video essays, you use a lot of different media to tell your stories. What pitfalls have you come across in your process writing in these forms? How much have you had to change or modify your craft to accommodate these media?
The biggest pitfall to avoid is being too glib–relying on the flashiness of the experiment to distract the reader. I deliberately struggle when I am doing something innovative or goofy–right now I am revising an essay written entirely on cocktail napkins–to be sure that I have some memoiristic or essayistic depth. I have a weakness toward superficial glibness anyway, so it is especially a challenge for me in experimental work.
Since we are focused on memory, what is your fondest memory of your writing career? Have you written about that memory, and if not, why not?
The fondest memories of my writing career or those times that someone has come up to me after a reading or a talk and confided that one of my books, The Accidental Buddhist, for instance, or Between Panic & Desire, had helped them through a rough spot in their own lives, made them realize that it was okay that they were imperfect, because this author, this Dinty W. Moore guy, was imperfect too, and more than willing to prattle on about it in his books. Those sorts of moments are pure gold. But no, I haven’t written about those moments elsewhere. I’m blushing even now, as I answer the question.
Dinty W. Moore is an American Essayist known for his memoir Between Panic & Desire, winner of the Grub Street Nonfiction Book Prize. His work is known to be unique and filled with humor, including an essay in the Google Maps structure. He has appeared in The Southern Review, The Georgia Review, Harper’s Magazine, The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Crazyhorse, along with many other journals. He is editor of Brevity, a journal dedicated to the essay form of 750 words or less. He currently lives in Athens, Ohio where he is the director of the Creative Writing program at Ohio University.