Creativity in The Other Genre: Jen Knox on Dinty W. Moore’s Between Panic and Desire

Between Panic and Desire, Dinty W. Moore, Bison Books/University of Nebraska Press, 2010

Dinty W. Moore brings a lot of well-deserved attention to the genre of creative nonfiction. He is the founding editor of Brevity, one of the first literary journals to highlight the art of creative nonfiction in short form, and he serves on the editorial board of Creative Nonfiction. Further, he teaches his craft at Ohio University, and has published two memoirs, The Accidental Buddhist and the subject of this review, Between Panic and Desire.

Knowing most of this background going in (I visited Moore’s website for a few of the aforementioned details), I had high hopes and an admitted bias toward the text. I began to read thinking, “Alright, Dinty, show me how it’s done.”

Between Panic and Desire is a memoir in parts. The book begins by way of explanation, introducing a philosophy that interweaves throughout Moore’s light-hearted, digressive prose. In the prologue, Moore recounts his curiosity about two Pennsylvania towns, one named Panic; the other, Desire. He visits each town out of sheer curiosity, in an attempt to find the origin of their names. Although the information Moore finds is minimal, this narrative introduction sets a cozy stage. As Moore sits in his car, half way between Panic and Desire, he comes to a realization: “I have been here all my life.”

This insight is rather transparent, and although it is a depiction of an actual event, the sappiness of it almost caused me to stop reading. But the art of nonfiction is not about metaphor or interpretation. It’s about narration, dynamic insight, humor, curiosity and a certain sense of inclusion the reader seeks—the sense that the author is confiding in his reader. So, I continued reading. When I reached the introduction, which included a mnemonic disclaimer and the author’s reasoning for writing the book (both seem a requisite for the genre), I got a taste of what was to come: humorous insight, self deprecating asides, an odd assortment of pop trivia and a drawing. Moore makes connections between societal norms and social blunders (including playful commentary on an exchange between Fresh Air’s Terry Gross and Gene Simmons), personal reflections and emotionally-driven interpretations, and I came to realize Moore’s narration is not sappy at all it’s just devoid of pretension.

If I finish a memoir (admittedly, I often don’t—I’m persnickety when it comes to the genre), it is inevitable that I have pieced together some portrait of the author by the time I close the book. But it didn’t take too many pages of Moore’s experimental prose before I felt this portrait emerging. I’ve never personally met Dinty W. Moore, but as I read his memoir I began to imagine a man who’d make a pleasant dinner companion. I imagine he laughs often and loudly, and that his capacity for conversation is dizzying as he seems capable of transitioning from mundane chit chat about the weather forecast to in-depth commentary about the socioeconomic impact of his choice to order the asparagus over corn at a Midwestern diner. Perhaps I’m wrong. But the very fact that I have such a detailed (albeit wholly imagined) portrait of the writer after reading his work proves that my expectations were met—Moore knows how to create a strong narrative presence.

I was impressed by Moore’s swift, witty style and his willingness to share candid analysis of, well, everything without spending a single sentence disclaiming his stance or apologizing for the connections he draws. He executes the art of digression by using a myriad of forms: essays, plays, a list and a quiz. The cohesion of theme—the pendulum swinging between panic and desire—allows Moore to tie personal experiences (and reactions) to societal norms (and abnormalities) in a frank and humorous manner.

Although I still wish that I wasn’t force-fed that initial thematic portrait of being stuck between two extremes (towns), Moore’s authorial voice quickly redeems itself. After all, the beauty of this genre is not found in the conclusions the author draws; it’s found in the ideas and experiences that allow the reader to understand how he came to them. And Moore takes his initial image: him, relaxing in a car that is parked between panic and desire, and drives it home in an extremely entertaining and dynamic way.

Jen Knox is the author of Musical Chairs, a memoir. She earned her MFA from Bennington’s Writing Seminars and currently works as a fiction editor at Our Stories Literary Journal and a Creative Writing Professor at San Antonio College. Jen’s short essays and fiction can be read in Flashquake, Foundling Review, Metazen, Slow Trains, SLAB, and Superstition Review. Jen grew up in Ohio and lives in Texas, where she is working on a novel entitled Absurd Hunger.