Dinty W. Moore is a writer, teacher, founder and editor of the online magazine Brevity, author of several books including 2009 Grub Street Nonfiction Book Prize winner Between Panic & Desire, and longtime friend of Creative Nonfiction. Dinty’s work has appeared in The Southern Review, The Georgia Review, Harper’s, The New York Times Sunday Magazine, The Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine, Gettysburg Review, Utne Reader, and Crazyhorse. His newest book, Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy: Advice and Confessions on Writing, Love, and Cannibals, will be published in August 2015.
Dinty is a presenter at the upcoming 2015 Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference, where he will discuss the importance of pacing and narrative structure, the ethics of writing about friends and family, using research in memoir, and more. Creative Nonfiction’s Katie McGrath spoke with him about the writing process, connecting with readers through first-person narrative, and the financial realities of running an online magazine.
CNF: Your website says that you’ve “failed as a zookeeper, modern dancer, Greenwich Village waiter, filmmaker, and wire service journalist.” What went wrong? And what led you to a life of writing and editing?
MOORE: At the time it felt as if everything was going wrong, but in hindsight, which is a true gift, everything was going just as it should have. The older I get the more I value the false starts and unwise adventures of my 20s and early 30s.
But in the end, I had always been good at writing. It was right under my nose all along and just took years for me to notice.
CNF: Once you noticed, how did you go about getting your foot in the door? What was your first writing and editing job?
MOORE: I was living in Philadelphia at the time and started writing short humor essays for the City Paper. They were fairly well received, so I decided to take some creative writing classes. Within a year or so I was applying to MFA programs, and ended up moving to Louisiana to study fiction.
CNF: What is your writing process like?
MOORE: My process is messy—lousy first drafts, bumbling revisions, hopeless third drafts, until eventually I find a few sensible sentences or solid images, and then I write out from that center, looking for more that I can say or discover.
CNF: What do you find appealing about writing in the first person? Do you also gravitate toward first-person narratives as a reader?
MOORE: Fiction is wonderful. Third person fiction is wonderful. But there is something brave, exhilarating, and bracing about writing in the first person, not hiding behind the mask of a character. My fiction was usually autobiographical, but here, in nonfiction, I’m more honest with the reader and more honest with myself.
CNF: How do you get readers to care about your stories when they're written in the first person? How do you make the personal universal?
MOORE: I could take hours answering that question – it is the question in narrative – but suffice it to say in this short interview that readers care when they sense the writer is being honest and open. We are so much alike inside, no matter what our gender, race, or geography, that once a window opens into an honest portrait of someone’s yearning and fear, the reader recognizes him- or herself, and the reader wants to know more. I think that is true of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and drama.
Beyond that, you have to be brutal with your editing. If a reader does not learn something new, understand something better, see something differently through reading your sentence, then why is that sentence in there? We are not writing “what we want to hear” or what “we want folks to know,” we are writing for the audience.
CNF: What is your favorite piece Brevity has ever published, and why? What makes it so good? What excites you about the short form?
MOORE: I love the short form because it is so incendiary, such a flash of image and language. And it is a petri dish for innovation and experimentation. But after 18 years, I could never name a favorite.
CNF: You recently published an old advertisement that read “how to make money writing short paragraphs” on the Brevity blog, and you’ve recently launched a Kickstarter to support the magazine. What’s the financial reality of running a modern-day literary magazine? What sustains you to keep going—not just financially, but mentally?
MOORE: The financial reality is that you can’t charge for subscriptions if you are an online magazine – people won’t have it – and there is almost no money in selling advertising. Bleak, huh? For many years, I ran the magazine out of my own pocket. Now we get a few donations to sustain us. But I’m a volunteer, as is my staff. What sustains me? I love good stories, and I love giving young writers a step up the ladder of publication.
CNF: What was the online publishing landscape like when you launched Brevity in 1997? How has the role of technology changed in literature since that time?
MOORE: I started Brevity on a lark. I wanted to see if I could build a website. We published four people in the first issue, and had eight readers that year. Now we have tens of thousands of visitors per year. What has changed? Every damn thing.
CNF: How much attention do you give to crafting an online presence? Do you think that writers these days need to pay more attention to their “brand?”
MOORE: No. Write, write some more, study your own weaknesses on the page, then write to better yourself and your writing.
CNF: What is something that you know now that you wish you had known when you were starting out?
MOORE: If you just keep doing the work, good things will happen.