My guest today, Dinty W. Moore, is a writer and professor of English at Ohio University. His books include The Truth of the Matter: Art and Craft in Creative Nonfiction; The Accidental Buddhist: Mindfulness, Enlightenment, and Sitting Still; The Emperor's Virtual Clothes; and most recently, a “Post-Nixon, Post-panic, Post-modern, Post-mortem” memoir, Between Panic and Desire (University of Nebraska, American Lives Series), on which he graciously agreed to a few questions.
Hey, Dinty. Listen, when we first met online, I didn’t do that thing, did I? God, I hope not.
Did you use a smiley-face in your e-mail? Is that what you are asking?
No, that thing with your name. As you know, my name is actually Griswold, and I can’t tell you how many Vacation comments I’ve endured in my life from hostesses and store clerks only trying to connect.
I’ve heard so many stew jokes in my life that they don’t even register anymore. They’re like a breeze going by.
In short, your name comes from a comic strip created in 1913, Bringing Up Father, or “Maggie and Jiggs,” as it was called. Chapter 13 (“Son of George MacManus,” the comic’s creator) in your new book asks, “[W]hy in heaven’s name would a woman knowingly name her son after a comic strip whose chief activity was luring respectable fellows out of their homes to drink beer and play cards? Especially given the fact that her husband stayed out night after night, drinking beer and playing cards. There’s an odd one for you.” I see you’ve adapted that chapter for The Southern Review (“Mick on the Make: Notes on an Unusual Name”). Is this identity issue the core of the book?
Oh, I suppose “identity issues,” as you call them, are at the core of all memoir and essay writing. Who am I? What am I doing here? Does it matter?
But the core issue in this book to me is vision – and misperception. We all are so convinced that we see things clearly, but we don’t. There are so many factors clouding our perception. I look at a quite few of these vision-clouding factors in various chapters, both those that are personal to me and those that I consider more universal.
I ask this next one entirely defensively, since I’ve been writing about fathers too: Hey, aren’t you getting a little old to still be dealing with the theme of the absent father? What are you, Robert Bly or something?
I once saw Robert Bly on a dance floor, doing disco moves with the poet Donald Hall. Really. They were sweet. Having the most unabashed, un-self-conscious, happy time. But that doesn’t answer your question, does it?
It’ll do. Between Panic & Desire is both thoughtful and a lot of fun (in the vein of Bly and Hall shimmying to “Muskrat Love”) and reads quickly. Many of the chapters are short (“Why Oprah Doesn’t Call” is a page-and-a-half), and the book has fewer than 140 pages. Couldn’t you think of anything else to write?
Ran out of ink.
But the book calls itself a cultural memoir. If it’s possible to speak of an entire generation having an experience together, then surely that’s one very large story to tell. How do you think shorter forms still get the job done?
I like short essays, and short fiction, and for that matter, short poems. There is just something about the compressed form—like the diamond made out of coal. If done well, the form produces something like a miniature dollhouse, with windows, and furniture, and the tiniest little lamps you’ve ever seen. You draw close in, stare through the windows, and you keep seeing new things inside.
When I release my memoir, it’s gonna be a tetralogy of 800 pages each ( Book Three: The Inside Higher Ed Years.) Most of your chapters in Panic begin with aphorisms, short poems, or song lyrics. The book contains a quiz, lists, a brief autopsy, and a short ABCdarium. You’re also the editor of Brevity, a short-form creative nonfiction journal. Where did you get this interest in the small, short, or miniature?
I hadn’t set out to have such an interest, but it sort of snuck up on me. You know, like John Lennon says, “Life is what happens while you’re making other plans.” So I started this journal, Brevity, thought short prose would work better on a computer screen, thought the journal would have a lifespan of maybe three months, and here I am, nearly ten years later, still editing the darn thing. And since I edit it, people think I know something about writing very brief prose. Here is what I know: “It is hard as a rock.”
I can’t help but connect your interest in Buddhism with certain short forms in the Asian tradition, such as the haiku, aphorisms in the Analects, the koan (your Chapter 15 uses one), and the brushstroke minimalism of Zen painting. Is there any Asian influence on your writing?
Not that I'm aware, really. But part of the thesis of Panic and Desire is that we aren't always aware of what is influencing us, or how it influences us, or how what we perceive as free will and freedom of thought is never so free as we think, so perhaps you are onto something. Perhaps my leaning toward Buddhism has influenced my writing in ways that I'm not fully grasping.
You say that you didn’t plan to do Panic but rather had it pointed out to you by a kind editor who saw it amongst independent shorter pieces. Your publisher still calls it a collection. Is the structure of the book what you call a braid or a collage in your creative nonfiction textbook, or something else?
I don’t think of it as a collection, as in collected essays, because much of the material is entirely new to the book, and I think a very irregular, zig-zag narrative accumulates as you move from chapter to chapter.
I think of the book as a memoir—one connected narrative—albeit a quirky one with odd moves. The logic is emotional, certainly not chronological. I jump from thing to thing, from fantasy to reality, from 1963 to 2001, much the way our thoughts will jump, and if you are as old as me (52), the way memory jumps. It isn't stream-of-consciousness—I did a lot of work shaping the jumps and leaps until they seemed right to me, but it isn't always clear to the reader, I suspect, why the chapters are ordered as they are.
You say in your prologue that you’ve “been here [between panic & desire] all my life.” “Here” in the context of that moment appears to be ignorance. (You call it “mystery.”) The book is in three sections, with “Panic” being Part One and “Desire” being Part Three. But Part Two isn’t “ignorance”; it’s “Paranoia.” How come? Are ignorance and paranoia the same?
Yes. Look at Nixon.
You suggest a cultural paranoia that results from political leaders such as Nixon lying and subverting the popular will. But you also indulge other paranoias, such as John Lennon’s numerological belief in the number nine, and something else that comes close to what Spalding Gray calls “an invisible cloud of evil that circles the Earth and lands at random in places like Iran, Beirut, Germany, Cambodia, America….” How literally do you intend these?
Oh, I don’t take them too literally, or seriously. I don’t take much in this life very seriously, as you may have gathered from the book. I certainly don’t take myself or my importance in the world very seriously. But is there evil in the world? Surely. Does it frighten me? Yes. Do I believe any conspiracy theories or paranoid fantasies about how this evil shapes and moves? No.
“Human perception is little more than a funhouse mirror covered with dust and jelly,” you write, and, “Human beings, truth be told, are inept narrators of their own lives.” An editor I know says his entire childhood is a gray mist due to the drugs he did later. My students often have trouble writing about events five years ago. Still, I feel as if I have, in some cases, near-eidetic memory. What do you think the limits are of honest portrayal in creative nonfiction?
Simply put, my belief is that a memoir writer, or creative nonfiction writer, has a pact with the reader that goes like this: “Memory is faulty, but I’ve done my damnedest. I’ve fact-checked where possible, wracked my brain where appropriate, sat outside my old house on Memory Avenue for a while and tried, tried, tried, to get it right, and this is what resulted. I’m not faking it, ginning it up for book sales, grinding an ax against my parents, or in any other conscious way deceiving the reader—or myself. I’ve worked hard to access my memory and get an honest version here. But yes, I admit some of it may be influenced by memory’s tricks.”
That’s all you can do, that’s all I expect of a writer.
Having said that, the more a person forces himself to remember, the more he remembers. Memory is like a string, and if you tug on it hard enough, the string is longer than you might at first think. Childhood memoirs aren’t court-transcript accurate, but I believe many of them are pretty accurate nonetheless.
There’s a lot of the Beatles in your book, and you know I’m all for that. So: John or Paul?
John. Always John. Though Paul certainly has his gifts.
You say your search for a “replacement father led nowhere, of course. The fact that I searched primarily on television, where people are not real and thus are entirely unavailable, had something to do with that.” Boy, can I relate to that. As a kid I had designs to get Lee Majors, the Six-Million Dollar Man, and his then-wife, Farrah Fawcett, to adopt me. See, first I’d write them a really nice letter and they'd become my pen pals, then…well, never mind.
In a hilarious, Walker-Percyish quiz in your book, Yoko Ono seduces you then says, “You’re a very, very bad man.” Is John Lennon one of your missing fathers and this an Oedipal fantasy?
Probably Yoko was. She was the father in that relationship, I sense.
You wrote a collection of stories, Toothpick Men. What’s the difference between the impulses of fiction and nonfiction, the storyhood of each?
The impulse is often the same—I feel this strong feeling or concern, and I want to write about it. The approach is what’s different. In fiction, you create a character, set up some obstacle, imbue your character with that feeling or concern, and let the character lead the way. You discover the story as the character acts, reacts, and plods onward. In nonfiction, you know the story; what you are trying to discover is what it all might mean.
I remember some bit of advice that one should write “like a guy said it to you in a bowling alley.” But there are risks to writing in a style that’s seemingly plainspoken or populist, and author Curtis White accused you in Harper’s of being of the “Middle Mind,” which is “all…charm and banality.” In the penultimate (that’s a big word) chapter of your new book, you fire back. How does one invest a style and form meant for wide consumption with significance? (I’m thinking of E.B White or John Hersey, who often sound simple, when simple is the hardest and final thing, in my opinion.)
Let me say this: Curtis White attacked me roundly in Harper’s because my book, The Accidental Buddhist, was written in an accessible style, such that any curious reader might understand my journey into American Buddhism. I don’t think I dumbed anything down, but I did unpack the ornate philosophical language of Buddhism and attempt to lay it out in very simple, everyday terms. To date, I’ve received probably 1,000 e-mails from readers thanking me for doing this. Many of them are quite touching, because people can start to hate themselves if they think they are failures, and trying to meditate on a cushion with uncomfortably folded legs for an hour is a great way to feel like a failure. My book, it seems, makes folks feel better, makes them take it easy on themselves, and keeps many of them on the spiritual path after they are tempted to just quit. That’s validation enough for me.
And as for being attacked in Harper’s, it was actually fun. I was glad to be noticed.
You write in Panic and Desire, “[G]ood days…come along just in the nick of time…they do. If you wait long enough.” And elsewhere: “[T]he glasses are half-full.” But you also describe taking a daily anti-depressant, speak of capitulation, and echo Vonnegut’s “so it goes” a couple of times, which seems to me a grim (if comic) worldview. Has what you learned in the writing of The Accidental Buddhist sustained you?
Yes. I can't control my circumstances, but I can control my reactions. Very basic Buddha wisdom, and very powerful.
Then why the statement earlier that evil “frightens me”?
I can't control all of my reactions. Some days I can’t control any of them. But even here, though evil frightens me, I can react with paralysis or I can go on to live the best life I can lead. That's in my control. So, despair, paralysis, throwing one's hands into the air and giving up hope because we live in a world of repetitive war, genocide, bigotry, and cruelty, is a tempting reaction, but not useful, so I plug along, we all plug along, doing the best we can do. And so it goes.
Last request: You’ve been a journalist, documentarian, artist, sculptor, dancer, and as you said in an interview at Critical Mass, a “hideous, ill-prepared street performer” in Central Park. What was your act? And would you YouTube it for us? Please? I’ll pay you cash money.
Never. Thank goodness this—my foray into street performing—came well before handheld video. I think I’m safe.
Many thanks, Dinty.