November 2012

Jill Talbot

features

An Interview with Dinty W. Moore

The flash form has eluded me as a nonfiction writer. Even though I was a poet before I turned to essaying, I still get lost in lengths of language, and I linger in my own work like those people who stay as long as they can after last call. The flash form doesn't wander or linger. It passes through like the train that runs behind my house, its whistle reminding me of something I once felt or knew but cannot name. The flash is the form I most admire, so I opened the pages of The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction: Advice and Essential Exercises from Respected Writers, Editors, and Teachers in the hopes that I might better understand, that I might learn how to catch the flash, like a train.

Edited by Dinty W. Moore, the anthology features essays by twenty-six practitioners of the form. It follows The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction, edited by Tara L. Masih (2009), and The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Prose Poetry, edited by Gary L. McDowell and F. Daniel Rzicznek (2010).

In their preface to the anthology, Rose Metal Press editors Abigail Beckel and Kathleen Rooney quote from Moore's original pitch letter explaining the concept of the anthology that would inevitably complete the press's Field Guide trilogy:

In his introduction to the anthology In Short, Bernard Cooper suggests that short nonfiction requires "an alertness to detail, a quickening of the senses, a focusing of the literary lens... until one has magnified some small aspect of what it means to be human." This captures the challenge very well, I think, and the Field Guide will attempt to break down the units of his recipe -- alertness, quickening, focus -- into understandable craft elements.

Contributors to the anthology offer a "conversational, insightful" craft essay, a writing exercise or prompt, and a flash essay example. This approach yields a comprehensive collection of art, craft, and practice. Following the preface, Moore's introduction traces the history of the flash form and highlights anthologies edited by Mary Paumier Jones and Judith Kitchen, In Short: A Collection of Brief Creative Nonfiction and In Brief: Short Takes on the Personal, as well as Short Takes: Brief Encounters with Contemporary Nonfiction, edited by Judith Kitchen and published in 2005.

Moore's Field Guide to Flash Nonfiction features sections such as Mysterious, Ambitious, and Intimate: The Flash Nonfiction Form; "No Ideas But In Things": The Power of Image and Detail; Of You and I: Thoughts on Point-of-View; Speaking to the Reader: On Finding Your Voice; and The Singular Moment: Where to Begin, Where to End.
Dinty W. Moore, editor of Brevity, is the author of the memoir Between Panic and Desire, winner of the Grub Street Nonfiction Book Prize in 2009. He is also the author of Crafting the Personal Essay: A Guide for Writing and Publishing Creative Nonfiction and The Mindful Writer: Noble Truths of the Writing Life. A professor of nonfiction writing at Ohio University, Moore has won many awards for his writing, including a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Fiction. I interviewed him via e-mail, focusing each question on one of the sections in the anthology.

In the first section of the anthology, "The Flash Nonfiction Form," Bret Lott notes, "There ought to be an explosion of recognition, a burst of self-awareness that gives my reader the understanding that these few words she's read have had hidden within them a realm far larger than any she could have imagined." 

Bret's definition is really a definition of all excellent art. A painting is taken in through the eyes, but can magically bloom, in the viewer's brain, into words and sounds and aroma. A ballet is just movement of a dancer's arms and legs and torso but can be translated, in our minds, into a universe of feelings and associations. Brief nonfiction prose tells a story, provides information, but that is only the surface of what is possible. The author is trying to create, though language, image, metaphor, the possibility for that "burst of self-awareness" that the term "flash" implies. It doesn't just go by in a flash: it illuminates, like a flash gun.

Your referring to "what is taken in through the eyes" reminds me of Robin Hemley's discussion of Roland Barthes's classic study of photography. In his essay, which appears in the "Image and Detail" section, Hemley reminds us of Barthes's delineation between the studium (what the photo represents) and the punctum (the wound, our emotional response to it). Hemley notes, "If we refuse to allow speculation into the essay then we're closing a door on an important aspect of our lives." Do you think the flash form can function without such reflection?

I think speculation and reflection are two related but different moves in nonfiction. I am a strong proponent of speculation in nonfiction, as long as it is clearly indicated. For instance, if you are writing a memory from thirty years ago, perhaps one afternoon when your parents left you alone with your younger sister and drove off for an hour in the car, and you have no idea, even now, where they went for those sixty minutes, you can speculate on the page to excellent effect, because that speculation is part of the story of you, part of you as character. "I don't know where my parents headed in the Impala sedan that rainy Monday, but I've always imagined..." can open an essay to half-a-page or thirty pages of speculation on the subject, and through that lens we understand much more about you, your childhood, your parents, your unanswered questions. Reflection, of course, can be that sort of speculation or it can be a direct reflective statement: "Looking back after all of these years, I know my life was altered completely that rainy Monday afternoon."

An interesting essay in this regard, from a very early issue of Brevity (spring 2001), is "Drink It" by Patricia McNair. The author recounts a story from her childhood, a visit to the school counselor's office, with no editorial comment. We are left to draw our own conclusions about the counselor's odd behavior. She also inserts a brief flashback, an even earlier memory, which connects with the central issue of the story: her brother's repeated attempts at suicide and her response as the younger sister. She doesn't give us much visible speculation or reflection, though both are there, under the story, present simply because the author chose to share these two memories side by side on the page. To use Barthes's delineation, the story being told is the studium, while the punctum is implied, invisible, but very strongly there.

I realize I perhaps intended to use the word "contemplation" rather than "reflection," though I like the answer my error garnered. I had in mind Judith Kitchen's essay, "The End," in which she offers five modes of thinking a writer might employ at the end of a story in order to "[build] a process of thought" (Fourth Genre 3.2). You actually dedicate this anthology to Kitchen, and her essay in it, "The Art of Digression," has a line that wowed me: "In nonfiction we read with a kind of alternative reality in mind -- our own." It was one of those, "Of course!" moments for me as a writer and reader of nonfiction. Pardon my digression. Kitchen's essay appears in the "Shaping Flash Nonfiction" section and articulates five functions of digression. In such a brief form, how much space can we allow for such tangential shifts?

Editing Brevity and working with so many talented teachers and writers to assemble the Rose Metal Guide anthology have both been steep learning curves for me. My initial thought on flash nonfiction was that the brief essay was fundamentally a highly compressed scene, a crystallized, metaphorical moment from the climax of an experience. Some of my favorite essays still work in this way, but I've learned through the writers who have pushed the genre that much more is possible: the lyric essay works well, as does a classic Montaignean personal essay, and, as Judith Kitchen points out, even an essay of digression. How much is possible? Well, compression is still the rule, but the unexpected moment, or thought, or observation, when that unexpected turn somehow feels just right, is one of the true joys of reading, so it would be foolish to disallow such surprise in a flash nonfiction piece.

My teaching over the years has migrated from a "what is this essay saying?" to a "what is this essay asking?" approach, because it is the journey of interrogation, the search for meaning, that is essential, not necessarily any answer or conclusion. Digression may seem like a loss of focus, or an interruption, but when done with deliberate intent, it is simply another way of implying the question at hand, of turning the experience over in your palm and looking at it from another idiosyncratic angle.

That reminds me of the "dissociation" concept Nicole Walker describes, "It's in the looking away that I look to something else. Then I look back again," in the "Where to Begin and End" section, which also includes essays by Kyle Minor and Jenny Boully. It's about "how you capture your reader and how you let your reader go" (Boully). Yet it's a Minor line that stays with me: "Consider that the trouble might not be what you think the trouble is, and the beginning you thought you wrote might not be the beginning, but the middle or end."

You mention your teaching. I wonder how you encourage students to reconsider their beginnings? Their endings? In other words, the words we initially choose to begin, to end, may often be dissociated from the truth of what we want to say (ask).

In truth, it is very hard for certain students to ever imagine entirely scrapping a beginning or ending. There is too often that insidious voice telling them that if they just clarify a word here or add a clever descriptor there, perhaps it "will be good enough," and they can move on to something else. There's the dividing line between a true artist and someone who probably never will be, if you ask me. A writer wants it not to be "good enough," not even to make it very good, but to nail it, to make it as nearly perfect as she can. So I'm almost always scrapping my beginning and ending somewhere in revision, because it is somewhere in revision that I begin to realize what it is I am trying to say in an essay, and thus for me to nail it, to get it as nearly-perfect as can be, I have to start somewhere new, and often end somewhere other than where I thought I was going. That's what Kyle Minor's line is saying to me. Martha Graham, the modern dance pioneer, refers to this phenomenon as a "divine dissatisfaction." But how do I make my students see this? Most of them, I don't, but every once in a while, I find one with the hunger, and then anything is possible. I may be working with the next Joan Didion for all I know. You just show the students the way.

I am familiar with "divine dissatisfaction." It's what often leaves me sitting in one room with people while sitting inside my essay with myself, the way Nicole Kidman does as Virginia Woolf in the adaptation of The Hours. Everyone in that room talking small talk, and Woolf considering grand issues like the opening line of her novel. It's rare that a beginning like "Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself" arrives so clearly during afternoon tea.

Woolf, of course, was a master of the shifting point of view, and one of the sections in this anthology, "Thoughts on Point of View," includes an essay by Ira Sukrungruang, "Bye-Bye, I, and Hello, You." Sukrungruang describes the second-person narrator as the "disguised I."

I have noted a recent rise in the second-person essay, almost to the point that it seems to be the current "It" voice in nonfiction (and fiction), and it's not always used effectively -- as if the writer tossed a "you" into the piece and called it a day ("good enough"). I often use the second person in early drafts so that I can really look around, so I can watch from a distance -- and then I change the point of view in revision.

I wonder if you have seen an influx of second-person submissions to Brevity? Or is the "I" still the standard voice for the flash form?

I struggle with the second person essay myself: sometimes it seems just too gimmicky, a quick "fix" to insert drama and suggest intimacy. And yes, we receive a lot of them at Brevity, many of which don't make the cut.

But done well, I think the second person remains a powerful nonfiction technique. There is an essay in the current issue of Brevity, the "Ceiling or Sky: After the VIDA Count" guest-edited issue, in the second person. At first glance, "Some Numbers" is an essay about telephones, and I think, why the "you" move here? But deeper in the essay is a moment: "...The two of you had just come home from the cemetery. Somewhere between the cemetery and home, your mother couldn't catch her breath. She gasped for air. It was a beautiful spring day, the air crisp. Your mother collapsed in the grass verge..." That's where the second person does its work. It forces the reader to think "that could be me, my mother and me, I could find myself in a situation just like that, and what would I do?" The first example that Ira Sukrungruang gives in his Rose Metal craft essay, Sheryl St. Germain's "What We're Good At," first appeared in Brevity as well, and it is another illustration of how powerful this technique can be. The essay looks at a couple in bed just after lovemaking, post-Katrina, and though it is about sorrow, and shock, it is also about urgency. The second person fits beautifully.

I recently taught an essay from Brevity 39 (spring 2012) that employs the second person narrator as direct address, and that is Ander Monson's "Letter to a Future Lover." This line, in particular, resonated with my students: "You know, your lovers surely number more than mine; that's fine, but when I fall, it's ditch-witch hitting electric line, the whole world alive and lit in amperes for a moment." We couldn't help but take turns reading it out loud because we loved the juxtaposition of the long "i" and the short "i" sounds in the sentence. The entire piece is poetic, an electric lyric.

In the "Sound and Language" section of the anthology, Barbara Hurd suggests the following as part of a six-part exercise:

2. Experiment with sound rules: Write a 50-word sentence using at least fifteen words with, say, long "e" and/or "l" sounds. Compare that sentence to one full of short "u" and hard "g" sounds.

Such attention to assonance, consonance, the rhythm of sentences, the poetry of prose stands out in your anthology via poets who also write prose (Jenny Boully, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Jeff Gundy, Lia Purpura, Peggy Shumaker). As Hurd suggests, "Prose writers have much to learn from poets." What do you think distinguishes a prose poem from flash nonfiction?

Not much really. I have attended panels where very smart poets and essayists have hashed this very question out for ninety minutes, and at the end no one seemed any surer than at the beginning. The truth is that a prose poem, especially if it has a narrative bent, and a flash nonfiction essay can look exactly the same on the page. If the events recounted in the prose poem are true, or as true as memory and observation allows, then the piece could actually be said to be both, or whichever of the two the author decides to label the piece. So perhaps it comes down to intention. Today, I am going to write a prose poem. Tomorrow, I'll work on a flash essay.

In my workshop this semester, we have been exploring the "sonic pleasure" of the sentence, how it is felt in the ear. Sometimes this sonic pleasure has to do with long "e" or "i" sounds, sometimes with rhythm and pacing, sometimes with consonant use, sometimes onomatopoeia, and so on, but it is yet another ball the serious writer has to juggle, and perhaps one of the most important and overlooked. Writers seem to have a hard time pinning down voice -- they know it when they see it in Joan Didion, Richard Rodriguez, or Terry Tempest Williams, but where does it come from, how is it achieved? I think much of it is the poetics, the sonic qualities of the syllables, words, phrases, and sentences. There is more than just sonic delight in a good sentence; sound can also suggest nuances of meaning.

If a beginning writer comes to me and wants to improve his or her writing enormously, I recommend revising the third, seventh, and thirteenth draft by reading the piece out loud. The ear is often better than the brain at locating awkward moments, clumsy phrasings, and unexplored truths.

Where does voice come from? Context, experience, a separate self within us that only appears on the page?

Allow me an anecdote: I was walking home today after dropping my car off at the oil change place, thinking how the man who took my keys had a voice of gravel -- of engines, grime, a black under the fingernail grit, and then I wondered about my own voice, the one I use to write, how it's different from the voice I use to teach, to talk to my daughter, my students, to you here. I wondered how I would describe it, and I realized how difficult it is to pin down. Except this, as I passed the convenience store, the bank, and the houses with their pumpkins out front, I realized I could be anyone walking down that sidewalk -- a persona separated from her context, the way I am when I'm driving long stretches of highway alone. It's only in those moments I feel the way my voice sounds to me when I write. It's what Lee Martin calls "that private voice" in the section, "On Finding Your Voice." Sue William Silverman, in that same section, asks, "So who, then, narrates an essay? It's both me and not me."

I'm hoping you'll tell of a writer whose voice you know both on and off the page and how a particular flash nonfiction piece by that writer resonates with you because of "that private voice."

We've been fortunate to publish Brenda Miller a number of times in Brevity. She is the one writer who has appeared most often in our pages, going back to 2002, so I suppose that says something about how well her writer voice works for us. And yes, I have met Brenda at conferences and such, and of course she doesn't sound the same in person as she does in her essays. There is overlap, but Brenda at dinner and Brenda on the page are two different voices. She is an intense person one-on-one, in the good way that a conversation seems to matter a lot and in that she clearly tries to get her words and questions exactly right. But she is also generous and friendly; quick to laugh. In her writing, that intensity can burn you. It feels as if everything in the world is at stake in the moments she chooses to put down on the page.

Her essay "Swerve" is a good example. Half of her essay is just one long sentence, and in it we get alliteration, confession, intimacy, repetition, a bit of anxiety, rhythmic patterns, and painful memories. Though the sentence is 152 words long, there are only two or three words longer than two syllables. It is an amazing sentence, and filled with Brenda's writer voice: "I'm sorry, I said, and I said it again, and we continued on our way through the desert, in the dark of night, with the contraband you had put in our trunk, with the brake light you hadn't fixed blinking on and off, me driving because you were too drunk, or too tired, or too depressed, and we traveled for miles into our future, where eventually I would apologize for the eggs being overcooked, and for the price of light bulbs, and for the way the sun blared through our trailer windows and made everything too bright, and I would apologize when I had the music on and when I had it off, I'd say sorry for being in the bathroom, and sorry for crying, and sorry for laughing, I would apologize, finally, for simply being alive, and even now I'm sorry I didn't swerve, I didn't get out of the way."

Brenda Miller is a voice I trust. Her essay in your anthology detailing her process of writing "Swerve" illuminates how the brief form allowed her to write about a difficult, emotionally wrought time in her life. She had been struggling to write a memoir of that time and found it overwhelming, but by taking "only a slice of that time," she "unravel[led] the rest."

I hope we've done that here, examining one slice of your anthology at a time in order to unravel the multitudinous threads of the flash nonfiction form.

So let's turn to the final section of the anthology, "Alternative Approaches to Flash Nonfiction," which features essays by Patrick Madden and Jeff Gundy. In "Writing the Contrary Essay," Madden makes an intriguing claim: "The essay is a kind of anti-genre." Will you unravel that, please?

I think Patrick is referring to the limitless flexibility of the essay form. It can meander, it can progress logically, it can jump wide gaps; it can be long, short, funny, somber, classically rhetorical, or wildly experimental. It is almost always on the page, except when it isn't. The video essay is growing. The spoken word essay is huge. The other night, discussing a modern dance choreographer, a friend said her latest work was "just like a bad essay." Anytime people string thoughts together, one after the other, they are "assaying," in a way. Any thinking person is constantly writing essays in her mind. The essay is anti-genre because it is a genre almost impossible to pin down.