In his most recent collection, Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy: Advice and Confessions on Writing, Love, and Cannibals, Dinty W. Moore displays a seasoned dexterity for writing and understanding the essay. His approach? To teach and to amuse. In an epistolary fashion, twenty practicing essayists contact Moore for general writing advice. A series of exchanges form the book’s spine, giving it shape. In true tongue and cheek fashion, Moore responds to his stack of mail much like an advice columnist would. Each piece of advice includes a pun, a polar bear, or both.
An early joke likens the importance of Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy to the importance of the Bible. In fact, it goes further, stressing the unique relationship between the essay and contemporary culture. In the book’s introduction, Moore writes, “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?’” Though they are no small questions, Moore authoritatively attempts to answer them or at least begin a [End Page 37] fresh conversation. His humorous quips help mask the loftiness of this goal.
The humor is heightened when the questions come from writers the reader may already know, writers that obviously understand the nuances of nonfiction writing. Cheryl Strayed writes to ask about punctuation. David Shields wants to track the connection between Buddhism and writing. Roxanne Gay questions writing about writing. Brian Doyle asks Moore about his artistic process. Even Lee Gutkind, the “the godfather behind creative nonfiction,” finds his way into the collection at its emphatic close: “Have I ever read anything you have written?” he teases. Moore’s responses are jokingly thoughtful.
When Phillip Lopate asks how to write about past relationships “without coming off as a male chauvinist pig,” Moore responds with sage advice about crafting the nonfiction persona. In the essay that follows, “Of Old Girlfriends,” Moore demonstrates this concept in action. Instead of writing an emotionally-charged exposé of past relationships, Moore uses his persona to adopt a tone of gratefulness toward each past girlfriend—this persona has perspective, as does much of Moore’s work.
In addition, Moore is conscious of his relationship to flash nonfiction. In a letter full of wordplay that all but overtly acknowledges this relationship, Ander Monson asks about the risks of “being the guy who always wears or writes shorts.” In response, Moore underlines the importance of both. Consistent with the book’s overall pattern, one of Moore’s shorter essays, “Nelson Algren’s Shorts,” follows this exchange.
To the savvy reader, it may be obvious these writers are not really asking for advice. Rather, the correspondence serves as a set-up or mechanism that links the essays together in the collection. The letters also serve as introductions that tell the reader what to pay close attention to in the essay that follows. Although Moore’s correspondence with well-known members of the writing community may seem contrived, each conversation works to frame a technique, approach, or concern unique to the nonfiction genre. Distilled, Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy is a book of twenty important craft lessons and twenty essays that reflect Moore’s columnistic advice. In this way, Moore showcases his talent as a writer and educator.
The artful arrangement of the question-answer format, as well as the range of formal play in Moore’s own writing, introduces readers to the core tenants of nonfiction inch by inch. Stylistically, the example essays run the gamut. From traditional scene work (“Have You Learned Your Lesson, Amigo?”) to writing about writing (“Four Essential Tips for Telling the Truth in Memoir and Securing That Blockbuster Book Deal”) to co-opting existing forms like Google Maps and bar napkins (“Mr. Plimpton’s Revenge” and “The Napkin Is the Message”), the collection functions as a curio cabinet of essayistic possibility. Readers are exposed to a wide range of forms and styles...