Dinty W. Moore reflects on his legendary unpublished book.

Dinty W. Moore, in black and white

Dinty W. Moore

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.


  • During my long would-be-a-writer history (since I was a child), I have simply lost a number of things that weren’t saved from my “salad days,” but the only two things I have consciously destroyed were a first novel (and there never really is a “first” novel, since there are always many avatars of it before it surfaces as a “first”) and a poem. The first novel was a fantasy novel, and I destroyed it because it was too derivative of Tolkien to be viable. The poem I destroyed because I felt it was a descent into evil feeling that had no “upside.” The novel I simply placed in a public trash bin in its one copy, the poem I rather superstitiously burned. I still have another novel which I set aside years ago and haven’t worked on for years, but it remains a puzzle. I may decide to try to improve upon it later, when enough time has passed that I can use its workable parts and cast off what doesn’t work remorselessly and sensibly, without regret or sentimentality. We’ll see….

    • Richard says:

      How interesting, Victoria. Your comment makes me realize something. I have always mourned for some of my early work—ha! callow teenage and early twenties stuff, really, so not so much “work”—but like anything you lose or give away, in a way you always have it MORE. A great surf fishing rod I gave a friend years ago when I moved out of Florida still feels like its mine.

  • cynthia says:

    Really interesting post, Richard. Coincidentally, just a few days ago, Sheri Joseph wrote about this very subject on my blog. For her most recent novel, she wrote an entire pre-novel, 400 pages, that was not included in the actual book!

    • Richard says:

      Neat, Cindy. No writing is wasted! Now I am heading over to your blog to catch up with that post.

      • I agree. I’ve killed 2 novels and a book of essays. There are smatterings of decent writing in them, and my husband thought I should rework them, because he didn’t want me to have “wasted” all that work. But I don’t see it as wasted. I see it as the hours (years of hours, nearly two decades of hours) a dancer puts into barre and floor exercises before she ever enters the stage. It’s about: training the muscles to respond to the emotions; acquiring stamina; and gaining conscious control of the artistic impulse.

        If I were a different kind of person I might rework them, but I’ve grown and changed, and I’m just not interested in that material/those stories now. And if I have no enthusiasm for them, I could hardly expect a reader to enjoy them.

        And yes, part of the impetus to kill some of it was a decision to lock my familial relationships in the realm of “private.” It took me a long time to come to that decision because I was mentored by writers of the confessional school, who believed that I MUST tell the “truth” of that “important” story. I now disagree. Everyone’s story is important; mine is no more important than the next person’s. What matters to a reader, ultimately, is whether the story engagingly told and well-crafted. Plus, it would feel to me like I was betraying the confidence of people who never imagined I would go public with their intimate lives. So I won’t, after all. But none of those thousand-plus pages was “wasted” writing. It was good training.

        • Richard says:

          What a great story, Tracy. And so well put. You have a mini essay here already—I for one would love to read a whole essay about this journey, your decisions, the influences you mention, and finding your own way.

  • shirleyhs says:

    I too stumbled over that casual comment about twenty to thirty drafts. But I will be sure to point my students toward it. :-) I admire Dinty Moore’s decisions, all the way around. To write, to turn down a book contract!, and to retell the story in a way that does not do damage to his relationship to his daughter. “People are more important than things ” was a mantra at our house.

    I found the comment about the difference between writing about parents and about children really fascinating. Of course, you’re right. Parents are much fairer subjects than children.

    Your newly designed website is a delight to explore! Such clean design.

  • Book Nanny says:

    A fascinating post and what interesting content! Such a tough and brave decision for a writer to have to make after all his hard work. He has my sympathy and admiiration.

  • Susan Olding says:

    I’m still eagerly awaiting my copy of Family Trouble. Now I will be looking forward to it even more. I admire Dinty’s decision, but more than that, his dedication to the work. And thank you for the shout-out, Richard.

    Incidentally, I have not written the book I talked about in that essay, either. Wrote the essay, but not the book. Hmmm. Am I detecting a pattern here?

    • Richard says:

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Susan. Yes there’s a pattern, and one I admire. I think it is part of what makes a pro a pro: doing the work, spiking it if it doesn’t cohere, and moving onto something else rather than throwing in the towel.

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