Dinty W. Moore reflects on his legendary unpublished book.
There’s a paradox in book-writing. While it’s a true feat just to finish the draft of a book, few rookies and no civilians have a clue how hard it is to make that draft publishable. Yet even when the manuscript is ready, some of the would-be author’s advisors, usually fellow writers—not to mention those he’s pitching, the editors, agents, publishers—will still hate it. Or just be uninterested because it doesn’t do what they need or what they would’ve done. Once technique is under control, which of course is another matter of opinion, loving or hating a book comes down to taste or to preference or to market. Sometimes to character, on both sides of the equation: the writer’s and the reader’s.
And once in a while, because there are so very many ways to go wrong, the writer himself decides to put his manuscript out of its misery, to file it in the darkness under his bed. I’ve heard it said you’re not a true writer until you do that. Give up. Admit defeat. Start something else.
That’s what Dinty W. Moore did with a book he worked on for five years, according to his fascinating essay in a new book, Family Trouble: Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family, edited by Joy Castro (University of Nebraska Press, 224 pp.). I’ve heard Moore refer to this lost project, or read his references to it, and have always planned to ask him some day what happened. What was the problem he couldn’t solve? He wasn’t a rookie, having published a book of short stories and two nonfiction books, including his very successful The Accidental Buddhist.
In “The Deeper End of the Quarry: Fiction, Nonfiction, and the Family Dilemma” he explains, at last. The book was about his relationship with his pre-teen daughter and a sort of response to a book he found important, Mary Pipher’s Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls. Basically the problem was he couldn’t write honestly enough about the ups and downs of parenthood because his daughter was involved. She wasn’t just a character, someone he could give a pseudonym to and blur some details, but his daughter. And she’d have had to live with her dad’s decision to write about her and their relationship. Realizing this problem, admitting this dilemma, and walking away wasn’t easy at first. Especially not after the interest of two publishers, one of which gave him an advance, and not after all that hard work, Moore explains:
I estimate that I wrote upwards of 1,200 pages of material to complete the first “finished” draft of that book. I’m a constant reviser, so when I say “finished” draft, I’m talking twenty to thirty drafts at a minimum of each chapter.
Almost immediately, however, he felt relief. Even though, instead of a book, he published an eight-page essay. I’ve heard him read it; it’s very good—very funny. And, as he says in his essay in Castro’s book, it ought to be.
The issue of family exposure in memoir is important—and the writers collected in Family Trouble explore it well; besides Moore’s, of the essays I’ve read so far I especially admired Susan Olding’s and Jill Christman’s. And Olding, like Moore, confronts the issue of writing about one’s children, which is much stickier than writing about one’s parents. (Spouses and ex-spouses must be almost as fraught. There happens to be an excellent essay by Emily DePrang in Salon about her decision not to write about her ex-husband.)
Cautionary tales are vital, a genre unto themselves. So many of us feel like writing can save our souls, it’s salutary to hear that some have abandoned projects they felt would harm their souls. Or at least cause unacceptable pain to loved ones.
But honestly I keep thinking about Moore’s drafts. Twenty to thirty. Gulp. Twenty to thirty of each chapter. At minimum. Obviously it’s what pros do to produce a book that seems not only crystal clear but feels inevitable. And some people still won’t like the work—that’s their right—but its author won’t just think it’s publishable. He’ll know. Or he’ll learn for himself that it isn’t, and why, and will move on, a better writer.