I have a hot crush on the em dash. What does my need to stuff—while simultaneously fracturing—my sentences—with the meandering, the explanatory, the discursive, the perhaps not-entirely-necessary—say about me?
Have you ever wished there were an advice columnist for writers, but one who didn’t take things so damned seriously? This unique writing guide pairs questions sent in by top contemporary essayists with hilariously witty answers and essays from acclaimed author Dinty W. Moore. Phillip Lopate asks for advice on writing about your ex without sounding like an ass, Julianna Baggott worries that to be a great writer you must drink like a fish, and Roxane Gay asks whether it’s kosher to write about writing.
Taking advantage of all the tools available to today’s personal essayist—egregious puns, embarrassing anecdotes, and cocktail napkins—Professor Moore answers these questions, and more, demystifying the world of nonfiction once and for all. With a tip of the hat to history’s most infamous essay—Montaigne’s “Of Cannibals”—this book provides rollicking relief for writers in distress.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Perhaps you are standing in the bookstore, scanning this introductory chapter, wondering just what sort of book you have in hand. You are a good-looking person whose minor flaws seem to only accentuate your considerable charm. You are intelligent. And immune to flattery. Moreover, you admire those who are plain-spoken, so let me be entirely forthright: This is the most important book ever published, except for a very old book that Moses started writing back in 800 BCE, one that a bunch of saints and raggedy disciples had to finish for him over the next thousand years.
Talk about missing a deadline! Boy, his editor must have been mighty ticked off. In any case, that other book is all well and good, but it rapidly bogs down in questions such as how many goats must be slaughtered to atone for beheading your eldest son and who begat whom. Good stuff if you are a theologian, but stop to think a moment: are you a theologian?
The book you are holding here tackles more urgent questions, questions more relevant to the modern reader, questions such as “What is the essay? And why? And how ought we to feel about it, given that there is nothing on television this evening?”
To that end, I have reached out to contemporary essayists such as Phillip Lopate, Cheryl Strayed, Diane Ackerman, Lee Gutkind, Steve Almond, Lia Purpura, Ander Monson, and a host of other fine writers, many of whom are close friends with Oprah Winfrey. I asked each of them to send me a question about the contemporary essay, in an attempt to once and for all settle the burning question: who reads this stuff?
My inspiration here is the sixteenth-century French nobleman and father of the essay form Michel de Montaigne. He broke literary ground by writing mainly of the self, bravely admitting to the reader, “I cannot keep my subject still. It goes along befuddled and staggering, with a natural drunkenness.”
Drunkenness, befuddlement, the occasional staggering. What’s not to like? For those of you who have wondered, by the way, the name Montaigne is pronounced this way: Montaigne.
So this is a Writing Guide of sorts, but since the true arc of the essay is the author’s thoughts moving on the page in a compelling fashion, this is also a Thinking Guide. If you have trouble thinking, this is the book for you!
Enjoy yourself. Consider reading passages aloud to your spouse or partner, or just slither up to a complete stranger at the corner coffee shop and let loose a chapter or two. You’ll find yourself making lifelong friends that way.
And afterward, if you have questions, or are wondering where to send flowers, feel free to contact me (email@example.com).
I do so look forward to hearing from you.
Dinty W. Moore
aka Mister Essay Writer Guy
Table of Contents
A Question from Phillip Lopate & “Of Old Girlfriends” 4
A Question from Cheryl Strayed & “Dash It All” 14
A Question from Julianna Baggott & “The Napkin Is the Message” 22
A Question from Judith Kitchen & “A Striped Essay” 44
A Question from Barrie Jean Borich & “Mr. Plimpton’s Revenge” 56
A Question from Lia Purpura & “Understanding Your Cauliflower” 70
A Question from Sue William Silverman & “How Tasty
Was My Little Frenchman” 78
A Question from B.J. Hollars & “Have You Learned
Your Lesson, Amigo?” 86
A Question from Diane Ackerman & “Of Bums” 100
A Question from Dinah Lenney & “Pulling Teeth, or Twenty
Reasons Why My Daughter's Turning Twenty Can't Come
Soon Enough” 106
A Question from Philip Graham & “How to Choose an Appropriate Essay Topic” 116
A Question from Michael Martone & “Four Essential Tips for
Telling the Truth in Memoir and Securing That Blockbuster
Book Deal” 120
A Question from Patrick Madden & “The Actual Message Mike the Tree Guy Left on My Answering Machine the Evening I Arrived Home to Find that the Tree He Was Cutting Down When I Left for Work That Morning Still Stood Tall in My Side Yard” 136
A Question from Steve Almond & “An Essay on the Inherent
Dangers of Memoir Writing” 140
A Question from Ander Monson & “Nelson Algren’s Shorts” 144
A Question from Brenda Miller & “Why I Trained My Dog to Post” 154
A Question from David Shields & “Beep! Beep!” 168
A Question from Roxane Gay & “Don’t Read This Essay” 174
A Question from Brian Doyle & “Clogged and Stupid and Weary” 182
A Question from Lee Gutkind 186
about the author 193
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