Dinty W. Moore recently visited Widener’s campus as part of the Distinguished Writers Series. Throughout the week he met with students who have been reading his creative nonfiction books and essays in class and a shared a few selections from his new book, Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy, at a public reading on Wednesday. As a published author who has taught creative writing at multiple universities and has been writing for over 30 years, Moore had a lot of insightful advice for aspiring writers, which he generously shared:
1. What’s important about writers is what they say
Every writer has their own voice, “which is going to be different from any other voice,” said Moore. “That is something that can’t be taught. That we have to discover.” He also emphasized the importance of trial and error and repetition for a writer. “Your first draft is you wandering around the page trying to figure out what’s going on.” For him, the first few drafts are the hardest parts of the writing process. He writes the first draft of a book or essay solely to help him figure out what he is trying to say. Only during later drafts, when he understands what needs to be said, does he writes with the reader in mind.
2. You need curiosity to be a writer
To truly discover your own voice and figure out what it needs to say, you have to ask questions. “The trick,” he explained, “is not knowing what you want to say, but to be curious. Have questions. Discovery is starting with a question and working the answer out on the page.” Curiosity about a subject is a quality that all good writers have. One debate in the literary world is if creative writing is something that can be taught. Moore believes so. “There’s a lot about writing—including creative writing—that can and should be taught,” he said. “Students take math so they understand a little bit more about how mathematics works, and students take science classes to understand how science informs the world,” he said. “I think if you take a writing class, and you don’t end up being a writer, it still opens the mind and lets people see how a certain part of the world works and thinks…You can’t teach creativity, but you can encourage it.”
3. There’s no such thing as writer’s block
“Writer’s block is when you listen to the voices in your head that say you can’t do it,” Moore said. The solution? “Talk back to the voices. Say, ‘I hear you, but I’m going to ignore you and write this now.’”
That’s easier said than done. But in his book, Crafting the Personal Essay, Moore dedicates an entire chapter to the idea of writer’s block and how to push through it. You’ve got to “Expect the Negative Voices” and “Expect a Lousy First Draft” (literally the section headings of this chapter), and realize that “the true definition of writer’s block is when the writer gives up.” You’ve got to keep trying. Which brings us to our next writing tip:
Moore has a busy life teaching, writing, traveling, and just living in general. In order to make time for his writing, he implements the “ass-in-chair” method; he gets up early in the morning, sits down, and makes himself write for two hours a day. It’s not easy, especially for college students, to make writing a part of our daily schedule. For some who juggle classes, work, and a social life, writing can get pushed to the background. Moore suggests that aspiring writers set goals for themselves. “Maybe watch 6 hours of football on the weekend instead of 10,” he joked. But he is right; schedule some time to sit down and focus on your writing. Make it a priority.
Another piece of advice Moore offered is to make a lot of mistakes. “Write a lot of failed poems or failed stories,” he said. “You learn the most from trial and error. It’s like trying to learn how to play tennis. You get out there and swat at the ball and make a total fool of yourself. If you do that for two or three days, you won’t become a wonderful tennis player, but you’ll start to get a little bit of control. Eventually you’ll hit something that goes straight over the net. If you practice long enough you may not become Serena Williams, but you’ll be able to play tennis, and as wonderful and mysterious as the art of literature is, writing is kind of the same.”
If you’re craving Moore, be sure to check out Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy: Advice and Confessions on Writing, Love, and Cannibals, Moore’s newest book of and on essay writing, available now.
Written by Jennifer Rohrbach