Dinty W. Moore is a professor and director of creative writing at Ohio University and is regularly invited to speak and teach in the U.S. and Europe. In addition to publishing fiction and nonfiction, he has published two books on the art and craft of writing. He has been published in Harper’s, the New York Times Magazine, Arts & Letters, the Gettysburg Review, Utne Reader, and many other venues. He’s a National Endowment of the Arts fellowship recipient. His new book, The Mindful Writer: Noble Truths of the Writing Life, is published by Wisdom Publications.
HFR: What is your relationship with Buddhism? Where did it all start and how has it changed your outlook on writing or perhaps even life?
DWM: I consider myself a stumbling, bumbling Buddhist. I’m not very good at it, but I still haven’t given up. It is so hard to say when it started, because I tried to learn more about Buddhism in college, and again in my twenties, but both efforts left me frustrated and confused. Sometime in my mid-30s I started attending weekend-long retreats, and reading more about Buddhist thinking, and even though I’m a pretty spotty meditator, one who neglects the mat more than he should, the Buddhist way of thinking—non-attachment, not grasping, understanding the absence of a distinct “I”—has become an integral part of who I am and how I lead my day-to-day life. How has this changed my writing? The book is an attempt to explore that.
HFR: One of my favorite quotes from The Mindful Writer comes from Michael Martone, “In the stories we tell ourselves, we tell ourselves.”
You expound upon this quote by saying, “Even when writing about distant lands, or events far in the past, or people and places greatly removed, we are still telling the same story—the story we tell ourselves, which is the story of who we are.” How do the stories writers tell themselves make it to the page?
DWM: If I were to write a book about Tibet—I’d love to, by the way, but have never managed to visit—I could only see Tibet through my own eyes, through my own preconceptions, through my own filters. Even if I am reading history and the long ago accounts of other people, my mind is doing the processing and making the connections. In that way, all writing is memoir of a sort—an imprint of the writer and the life she has lived. Depending on the project, you try to keep that personal dimension to as much a minimum as possible. And you always try very hard to get beyond your expectations in order to see what is really there. Still, certain projects—the work of David Sedaris, Hunter S. Thompson, or Terry Tempest Williams, for instance—demand as much of the writer’s sensibility as can be offered. The writer’s sensibility is part of the joy and beauty of such work. No matter what the project, though, the writer is always there. A strict historic account of the battle of Shiloh still needs the infectious presence of the historian’s ongoing fascination.
HFR: Who do you think needs to read The Mindful Writer most?
HFR: Let’s talk about the four noble truths of writing. One of the noble truths states, “Much of this dissatisfaction comes from the ego, from our insistence on controlling both the process of writing and how the world reacts to what we have written.” Could you explain that a little more? Where does this ego come from and what does it do to us as both writers and people in the world?
DWM: Well, I’m certainly not the first person to point out the amount of time we authors waste worrying about where our work will be published, whether we will get a big advance, whether we will get reviewed in the important magazines, whether we will win the big awards, and whether after the first book hits all of those goals we will do even better with the second. I’m not immune to such distraction, but I do see it as just that: a major distraction. Imagine if you took the amount of hours you spend in one month worrying about the non-writing aspects of writing, or daydreaming about the success of your writing, or obsessing about the difficulties of publication, and just turned those hours into writing time. You would have a lot more work to show for your efforts, and because writing is a process that teaches you to write even better, you would be much improved. I’m not being glib or suggesting any of this is easy, but it is worth recognizing as true. We waste a lot of time on aspects of the artistic life over which we have little or no control. Where does the ego come from? I don’t know. We almost all seem to have it, but have you noticed that those who don’t have it seem happier? What is always sad to me is when I meet someone who achieved so much more than I could even dream, someone who is standing on the pinnacle, only to realize that they are in many ways miserable, caught up in their own disappointments and obsessed with what they do not yet have. It is as if in some of us the hunger is insatiable.
HFR: Describe some of the challenges you faced in composing The Mindful Writer. How did you overcome them?
DWM: The chief challenge was to believe that I had enough to say. The best writing advice is the simplest: “Just keep writing, learn from your mistakes.” So part of making myself believe in this book was making myself believe that expanding on that advice would be useful to readers. So that led to a lot of crossing out places where I thought I was repeating myself, or repeating the obvious. Having said that, there is probably no subject that can’t be explored in depth if the writer is willing to keep at the process of digging down, and digging down further, and the mystery of artistic inspiration, because it is so hard to put into words, is often overlooked in favor of ‘craft’ and ‘revision’ advice. So in the end, I allowed myself to think out loud on the page about the mystery of it all, how sometimes a part of our brain that we don’t control provides far richer material than what we can harvest from that rationale part of our brain that we do control, or at least think we can control.
HFR: The Mindful Writer is published by Wisdom Publications. Can you tell us a little bit about that press? What Wisdom Publications books (or other Buddhist texts) might you recommend?
DWM: Wisdom Publications is a not-for-profit Buddhist press based out of the Boston area. They publish a wide-range of books aimed at readers with an interest in Buddhism, Buddhist history, meditation and mindfulness, including translations of ancient texts as well as books aimed at a more popular audience, such as children’s book and the recent title,Enlightenment to Go. Among my favorite books for those just beginning to understand Buddhism are one from the Wisdom catalog, Mindfulness in Plain English, by Bhante Gunaratana, and one from Parallax Press, Being Peace, by the Vietnamese Monk Thich Nhat Hanh.
HFR: In the book you talk about a project you worked on for four years and the struggle you had with it. Only after you set it aside did many doors open up for you. What advice do you have for writers struggling in the same way? How does one know when to set a project aside or keep going?
DWM: This is a hard question for many writers, myself included. It is a mistake to give up on a project too early. The fruits of multiple revisions, of fresh eyes, of those wonderful breakthroughs where after months of struggle you suddenly see exactly what a manuscript needs, are real and they are part of the magic and joy of being a writer (or really a creative person of any sort). But sometimes you have to move on. Sometimes you have to say to yourself, “This is not a failure, because I’ve learned so much from trying, but at the same time it is never going to be the story I want it to be.” The truth is, most successful writers that I know have one or two books, often the first novel, tucked away in a file cabinet somewhere. But how do you know for sure when it is time to set a project aside or time to gear up and work harder? That’s an individual call, and often as much of gut call as it is a logical one. I don’t mean to duck the question, but there is no formula that works all of the time.
HFR: Another quote from the book that I particularly enjoy comes from John Steinbeck, “When I face the desolate impossibility of writing five hundred pages, a sick sense of failure falls on me and I know I can never do it. This happens every time. Then gradually I write one page and then another.” You mention that one way to overcome this sense is to let it pass and keep going. How can one work up the courage to continue on in the face of defeat and failure?
DWM: I just ran across this Confucius quote: “It does not matter how slowly you go so long as you do not stop.” That was said well before Steinbeck, obviously, and it wasn’t meant to apply to writing necessarily, but I think that it does, very well. Now I have to be careful here—it is too easy for me to pontificate on how writing for its own sake is wonderful, and how great it is to be a writer and live a writing life even if you don’t receive the outside validation that publication can bring, because I have been lucky in my career. Still, it is very dangerous to turn over your self-esteem to outside forces, and much better if you can remember that the goal of writing is to discover with your words: discover new ways of seeing, new ways of thinking about the human experience, new ways of understanding the deepest questions. If you can do that through your writing, you’ve already been rewarded. If you can’t do that, if you are in a stretch where you are writing dull sentences, flat images, and nothing seems alive, just keep pushing. Don’t stop. As Steinbeck tells us, gradually the work will flow.
HFR: Any advice for those wanting to practice mindfulness in their everyday lives?
DWM: My best advice on this subject is to recognize how hard it is. If you are like most people, you spend much of the day up in your head, thinking about work or relationships or family problems, not seeing or smelling or hearing the actual world you live in. Taking just a moment to stop, stare at the clouds, listen to the birds, smell the wind, is a triumph. Or really stop and hear what your co-worker is saying to you, not about the broken photocopy machine, but about her life and her worries. Taste your food instead of gulping it. These simple things are harder than they seem, and like meditation, you should expect to make progress in only small increments. But even those small increments are worth the effort.
HFR: Use the following words to craft a short piece of writing that describes a time when somebody was disrupted during meditation: giraffe, “planking,” chime, nocturnal, tapping, balloon.
DWM: What Thurman thought was his neighbor Marianna “planking” on her dining room carpet was actually a new form of horizontal nocturnal meditation. But when the end chime rang, Marianna turned to see him tom-peeping through her window, giraffe-style, and Thurman’s eyes turned into twin, blue balloons. “I’ve been caught,” he thought. “She’ll never love me now.” Suddenly someone was tapping on Allen’s shoulder. An orange-robed monk, head-shaved, wise-smile, twirling a black stick. “Into the car,” Officer Tenzin Gyatso said softly. “You’re about to become enlightened.”