A SHORT STORY
Lorrie Moore HOW TO BECOME A WRITER
First, try to be something, anything, else. A movie star/astronaut. A movie star
missionary. A movie star/kindergarten teacher. President of the World. Fail miserably. It is best if you fail at an early age -- say, fourteen. Early, critical disillusionment is necessary so that at fifteen you can write long haiku sequences about thwarted desire. It is a pond, a cherry blossom, a wind brushing against sparrow wing leaving for mountain. Count the syllables.
Show it to your mom. She is touch and practical. She has a son in Vietnam and a husband who may be having an affair. She believes in wearing brown because it hides spots. She'll look briefly at your writing, then back up at you with a face blank as a donut. She'll say: "How about emptying the dishwasher?" Look away. Shove the forks in the fork drawer. Accidentally break one of the freebie gas station glasses. This is the required pain and suffering. This is only for starters.
In your high school English class look only at Mr. Killian's face. Decide faces are important. Write a villanelle about pores. Struggle. Write a sonnet. County the syllables: nine, ten, eleven, thirteen. Decide to experiment with fiction. Here you don't have to count syllables. Write a short story about an elderly man and woman who accidentally shoot each other in the head, the result of an inexplicable malfunction of a shotgun which appears mysteriously in their living room one night. Give it to Mr. Killian as your final project. When you get it back, he has written on it: "Some of your images are quite nice, but you have no sense of plot." When you are home, in the privacy of your own room, faintly crawl in pencil beneath his black-inked comments: "Plots are for dead people, pore-face."
Take all the babysitting jobs you can get. You are great with kids. They love you. You tell them stories about old people who die idiot deaths. You sing them songs like "Blue Bells of Scotland," which is their favorite. And when they are in their pajamas and have finally stopped pinching each other, when they are fast asleep, you read every sex manual in the house, and wonder how on earth anyone could ever do those things with someone they truly loved. Fall asleep in a chair reading Mr. McMurphy's Playboy. When the McMurphys come home, they will tap you on the shoulder, look at the magazine in your lap, and grin. You will want to die. They will ask you if Tracey took her medicine all right. Explain, yes, she did, that you promised her a story if she would take it like a big girl and that seemed to work out just fine. "Oh, marvelous" they will exclaim.
Try to smile proudly. Apply to college as a child psychology major.
As a child psychology major, you have some electives. You've always liked birds. Sign up
for something called, "The Ornithological Field Trip." It meets Tuesdays and Thursdays at two. When you arrive at Room 134 on the first day of class, everyone is sitting around a seminar
table talking about metaphors. You've heard of these. After a short, excruciating while, raise your hand and say diffidently, "Excuse me, isn't this Birdwatching One-oh-one?" The class tops and turns to look at you. They seem to have one face -- giant and blank as a vandalized clock. Someone with a beard booms out, "No, this is Creative Writing." Say: "Oh -- right," as if perhaps you knew all along. Look down at your schedule. Wonder how the hell you ended up here. The computer, apparently, has made an error. You start to get up to leave and then don't. The lines at the reistrar this week are huge. Perhaps your creative writing isn't all that bad. Perhaps it is fate. Perhaps this is what your dad meant when he said, "It's the age of computers, Francie, it's the age of computers."
Decide that you like college life. In your dorm you meet many nice people. Some are
smarter than you. And some, you notice, are dumber than you. You will continue,
unfortunately, to view the world in exactly these terms for the rest of your life. The assignment this week in creative writing is to narrate a violent happening. Turn in a story
about driving with your Uncle Gordon and another one about two old people who are accidentally electrocuted when they go to turn on a badly wired desk lamp. The teacher will hand them back to you with comments: ''Much of your writing is smooth and energetic. You have, however, a ludicrous notion of plot.'' Write another story about a man and a woman who, in the very first paragraph, have their lower torsos accidentally blitzed away by dynamite. In the second paragraph, with the insurance money, they buy a frozen yogurt stand together. There are six more paragraphs. You read the whole thing out loud in class. No one likes it. They say your sense of plot is outrageous and incompetent. After class someone asks you if you are crazy.
Decide that perhaps you should stick to comedies. Start dating someone who is funny,
someone who has what in high school you called a ''really great sense of humor'' and what now your creative writing class calls ''self-contempt giving rise to comic form.'' Write down all of his jokes, but don't tell him you are doing this. Make up anagrams of his old girlfriend's name and name all of your socially handicapped characters with them. Tell him his old girlfriend is in all of your stories and then watch how funny he can be, see what a really great sense of humor he can have.
Your child psychology adviser tells you you are neglecting courses in your major. What
you spend the most time on should be what you're majoring in. Say yes, you understand.
In creative writing seminars over the next two years, everyone continues to smoke
cigarettes and ask the same things: ''But does it work?'' ''Why should we care about this
character?'' ''Have you earned this cliche?'' These seem like important questions. On days when it is your turn, you look at the class hopefully as they scour your mimeographs for a plot. They look back up at you, drag deeply and then smile in a sweet sort of way.
You spend too much time slouched and demoralized. Your boyfriend suggests bicycling.
Your roommate suggests a new boyfriend. You are said to be self-mutilating and losing weight, but you continue writing. The only happiness you have is writing something new, in the middle of the night, armpits damp, heart pounding, something no one has yet seen. You have only those brief, fragile, untested moments of exhilaration when you know: you are a genius.
Understand what you must do. Switch majors. The kids in your nursery project will be
disappointed, but you have a calling, an urge, a delusion, an unfortunate habit. You have, as
your mother would say, fallen in with a bad crowd.
Why write? Where does writing come from? These are questions to ask yourself. They are like: Where does dust come from? Or: Why is there war? Or: If there's a God, then why is my brother now a cripple?These are questions that you keep in your wallet, like calling cards. These are questions, your creative writing teacher says, that are good to address in your journals but rarely in your fiction.The writing professor this fall is stressing the Power of the Imagination. Which means he doesn't want long descriptive stories about your camping trip last July. He wants you to start in a realistic context but then to alter it. Like recombinant DNA. He wants you to let your imagination sail, to let it grow big-bellied in the wind. This is a quote from Shakespeare.
Tell your roommate your great idea, your great exercise of imaginative power: a
transformation of Melville to contemporary life. It will be about monomania and the fish-eat-fish world of life insurance in Rochester, N.Y. The first line will be ''Call me Fishmeal,'' and it will feature a menopausal suburban husband named Richard, who because he is so depressed all the time is called ''Mopey Dick'' by his witty wife Elaine. Say to your roommate: ''Mopey Dick, get it?'' Your roommate looks at you, her face blank as a large Kleenex. She comes up to you, like a buddy, and puts an arm around your burdened shoulders. ''Listen, Francie,'' she says, slow as speech therapy. ''Let's go out and get a big beer.''
The seminar doesn't like this one either. You suspect they are beginning to feel sorry for
you. They say: ''You have to think about what is happening. Where is the story here?''
The next semester the writing professor is obsessed with writing from personal
experience. You must write from what you know, from what has happened to you. He wants deaths, he wants camping trips. Think about what has happened to you. In three years there have been three things: you lost your virginity; your parents got divorced; and your brother came home from a forest 10 miles from the Cambodian border with only half a thigh, a permanent smirk nestled into one corner of his mouth. About the first you write: ''It created a new space, which hurt and cried in a voice that wasn't mine, 'I'm not the same anymore, but I'll be O.K.' ''About the second you write an elaborate story of an old married couple who stumble upon an unknown land mine in their kitchen and accidentally blow themselves up. You call it: ''For Better or for Liverwurst.''About the last you write nothing. There are no words for this. Your typewriter hums. You can find no words.
At undergraduate cocktail parties, people say, ''Oh, you write? What do you write about?''
Your roommate, who has consumed too much wine, too little cheese and no crackers at all,
blurts: ''Oh, my god, she always writes about her dumb boyfriend.''
Later on in life you will learn that writers are merely open, helpless texts with no real
understanding of what they have written and therefore must half-believe anything and
everything that is said of them. You, however, have not yet reached this stage of literary
criticism. You stiffen and say, ''I do not,'' the same way you said it when someone in the fourth grade accused you of really liking oboe lessons and your parents really weren't just making you take them.Insist you are not very interested in any one subject at all, that you are interested in the music of language, that you are interested in - in - syllables, because they are the atoms of poetry, the cells of the mind, the breath of the soul. Begin to feel woozy. Stare into your plastic wine cup.''Syllables?'' you will hear someone ask, voice trailing off, as they glide slowly toward the reassuring white of the dip.
Begin to wonder what you do write about. Or if you have anything to say. Or if there even
is such a thing as a thing to say. Limit these thoughts to no more than 10 minutes a day, like
sit- ups, they can make you thin.You will read somewhere that all writing has to do with one's genitals. Don't dwell on this. It will make you nervous.
Your mother will come visit you. She will look at the circles under your eyes and hand you a brown book with a brown briefcase on the cover. It is entitled: ''How to Become a Business Executive.'' She has also brought the ''Names for Baby'' encyclopedia you asked for; one of your characters, the aging clown-schoolteacher, needs a new name. Your mother will shake her head and say: ''Francie, Francie, remember when you were going to be a child psychology major?''
Say: ''Mom, I like to write.''
She'll say: ''Sure you like to write. Of course. Sure you like to write.''
Write a story about a confused music student and title it: ''Schubert Was the One with the
Glasses, Right?'' It's not a big hit, although your roommate likes the part where the two
violinists accidentally blow themselves up in a recital room. ''I went out with a violinist once,'' she says, snapping her gum.
Thank god you are taking other courses. You can find sanctuary in 19th-century ontological
snags and invertebrate courting rituals. Certain globular mollusks have what is called ''Sex by the Arm.'' The male octopus, for instance, loses the end of one arm when placing it inside the female body during intercourse. Marine biologists call it ''Seven Heaven.'' Be glad you know these things. Be glad you are not just a writer. Apply to law school.
From here on in, many things can happen. But the main one will be this: You decide not to
go to law school after all, and, instead, you spend a good, big chunk of your adult life telling people how you decided not to go to law school after all. Somehow you end up writing again.
Perhaps you go to graduate school. Perhaps you work odd jobs and take writing courses at
night. Perhaps you are working and writing down all the clever remarks and intimate personal confessions you hear during the day. Perhaps you are losing your pals, your acquaintances, your balance.You have broken up with your boyfriend. You now go out with men who, instead of whispering ''I love you,'' shout: ''Do it to me, baby.'' This is good for your writing.Sooner or later you have a finished manuscript more or less. People look at it in a vaguely troubled sort of way and say, ''I'll bet becoming a writer was always a fantasy of yours, wasn't it?'' Your lips dry to salt. Say that of all the fantasies possible in the world, you can't imagine being a writer even making the top 20. Tell them you were going to be a child psychology major. ''I bet,'' they always sigh, ''you'd be great with kids.'' Scowl fiercely. Tell them you're a walking blade.
Quit classes. Quit jobs. Cash in old savings bonds. Now you have time like warts on your
hands. Slowly copy all of your friends' addresses into a new address book.
Vacuum. Chew cough drops. Keep a folder full of fragments.
An eyelid darkening sideways.
World as conspiracy.
Possible plot? A woman gets on a bus.
Suppose you threw a love affair and nobody came.
At home drink a lot of coffee. At Howard Johnson's order the cole slaw. Consider how it looks like the soggy confetti of a map: where you've been, where you're going - ''You Are Here,'' says the red star on the back of the menu.Occasionally a date with a face blank as a sheet of paper asks you whether writers often become discouraged. Say that sometimes they do and sometimes they do. Say it's a lot like having polio.''Interesting,'' smiles your date, and then he looks down at his arm hairs and starts to smooth them, all, always, in the same direction.
From ''Self-Help,'' a collection of short stories by Lorrie Moore. Copyright 1985 by M. L. Moore.
Lorrie Moore was born in Glen Falls, New York on January 13, 1957. She attended St Lawrence University in Canton, New York, from 1974 to 1978 receiving a BA and graduating summa cum laude.She attended Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, from 1980 to 1982 receiving an MFA. She is currently Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin at Madison where she also lives with her husband and son.
Lorrie Moore has been the recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts award in 1989, the Rockefeller Foundation fellowship in 1989, and the Guggenheim fellowship in 1991. Her workfrequently appears in Fiction International, Ms, The New York Times Book Review, Paris Review,The New Yorker, and others. Her publications include: Self-Help (1985); Anagrams (1986); The Forgotten Helper (1987); Like Life (1990); editor, I Know Some Things: Stories About Childhood by Contemporary Writers (1992);Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? (1994) and Birds of America (1998).
Lorrie Moore 1957- SHORT BIO
(Full name Marie Lorena Moore) American short story writer, novelist, children's writer, and editor.
The following entry presents an overview of Moore's career through 2001. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 39, 45, and 68.
Among the most promising American short story writers to emerge during the 1980s, Moore is distinguished for the clever wordplay, irony, and sardonic humor of her fiction, all of which usually masks an underlying sadness or trauma experienced by her characters. Best known for her novel Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? (1994) and the short story collections Self-Help (1985) and Birds of America (1998), Moore presents female protagonists who are often exploring loss or moving toward a new, undefined stage in their lives. Her darkly comic stories are filled with relationships in which the partners feel alone and devoid of hope. Her adult characters typically find themselves coping with realizations that their lives will not fulfill their hopes and dreams; consequently, they experience feelings of displacement and unease. Moore's fiction has appeared in numerous periodicals, including the New Yorker, which featured one of her best known stories, “People Like That Are the Only People Here,” in 1998.
Born in Glen Falls, New York, Moore was interested in creative writing as a young child. Her parents participated in a local community theatre, where Moore learned to appreciate drama and language. Academically gifted, she advanced quickly through public school and won a Regent scholarship, which she used to attend St. Lawrence University. Her writing career began at age nineteen when she won first prize in a Seventeen magazine fiction contest for her short story “Raspberries.” Moore won several academic honors as an undergraduate, including the Paul L. Wolfe Memorial Prize for Literature, and was editor of the university's literary journal. After graduating in 1978, she worked for the next two years in Manhattan as a paralegal while attempting to develop her writing talents further. She entered Cornell University's Master of Fine Arts program in 1980, where she studied with Alison Lurie, and in 1982 received her M.F.A., staying on as a lecturer at Cornell through 1984. Her first volume of short stories, Self-Help, contained pieces she had written for her master's thesis. In 1984 Moore accepted a position at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where she remains as the Delmore Schwartz Professor in the Humanities and a member of the English department. She was also the Sidney Harman Writer-in-Residence at Baruch College in 2000. Throughout her career, Moore has received a number of prestigious prizes and fellowships, including the A. L. Andrews Prize at Cornell in 1982 for three of the short stories later published in Self-Help. She was named as a Granville Hicks Memorial fellow in 1983, and received a National Endowment for the Arts award and a Rockefeller Fellowship in 1989. Along with winning three O. Henry awards—for “Charades” (1993), “Terrific Mother” (1994), and “People Like That Are the Only People Here” (1998)—Moore has received six Best American Short Story awards and, in 1996, was included the “Best of Young American Novelists” issue of Granta 54. Her story, “You're Ugly, Too,” appeared in the 2000 anthology Best American Short Stories of the Century, edited by John Updike. Birds of America was nominated for a National Book Critics' Circle Award and was named one of the Best Books of 1998 by the New York Times.
Since the 1930s, the American short story has been noted for moving away from streamlined, carefully crafted prose toward minimalism and the sophisticated, witty, experimental work of Moore and other contemporary short fiction writers. Self-Help is one of the first of a group of short story collections that helped redefine the genre in the mid-1980s. The nine stories mock the popular form of “how-to” books, and most are written in the second person, including “How to Be an Other Woman,” “How to Become a Writer,” and “Go Like This,” which tells the story of a woman confronted with the news that she has terminal cancer. Other stories in the collection explore the often trying relationship between mothers and daughters. While Moore is best known for her short fiction, she has explored other genres as well. Moore wrote her first novel, Anagrams (1986), during her early years in Wisconsin. It is the story of a nightclub singer, Benna, who tries unsuccessfully to rearrange the letters of words to make anagrams, and similarly tries to make sense of the disjointed details of her life. In this work, as in Self-Help, Moore experiments with point-of-view. The eight stories of Like Life (1990) are less satiric than those in her earlier collection. Thematically, the stories are concerned with romance, particularly the pain and irony that can result from relationships gone awry. Two of the stories, “Vissi d'Arte” and “Starving Again,” focus on male protagonists who both fail at creating a lasting bond with an object of affection. “You're Ugly, Too,” which depicts the destructive effects of loneliness on a woman in her thirties, contains a haunting, ambiguous ending. The novel Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? opens in Paris, where Berie Carr and her husband are attending medical conference and hoping to renew their flagging marriage. Berie, however, cannot help remembering her fifteenth year, when, with her best friend Sils, she worked at a Canadian amusement park called Storyland. Sils played Cinderella at the park, but Berie, who had not yet attained physical maturity, was a cashier. The park's happily-ever-after fairy tale theme contrasts sharply with the reality of the girls' growing up and the challenges they face. A bildungsroman with a female protagonist, the novel is full of humor, derived primarily from wordplay, but the overarching theme is one of loss. Berie reminisces about her lost childhood and her lost optimism for the future.
Birds of America contains twelve stories—with ten focusing on female lives and perceptions. The title has been variously interpreted, with some seeing it as a reference to nineteenth-century naturalist and painter John James Audubon, who killed birds before enshrining them for posterity in his watercolors. The women in the collection, like nearly all of Moore's female characters, are Midwestern, well-educated, and in their thirties or forties. They have lived sufficiently to have experienced loss but still believe in the potential for exciting possibilities. A thread that runs through many of the stories is physical pain, the result of either accident or disease—Down's syndrome, polio, cystic fibrosis, or cancer. With two exceptions, however, the diseases and misfortunes do not afflict the protagonists; rather, they occur in the lives of a sibling, a child, or a parent and affect the protagonist in unexpected ways. “Real Estate” contains two plots that intertwine. The first involves a woman who realizes that her cancer is no longer in remission; the second concerns a young man who turns to armed robbery when he is fired from his job. The most celebrated of the stories in Birds of America is “People Like That Are the Only People Here,” in which a baby is diagnosed with a rare form of kidney cancer. The mother finds a blood clot in the baby's diaper, and the nightmare of an emergency room visit, surgery, and chemotherapy begins. The staccato nature of thoughts and events are memorably captured in Moore's raw and nuanced telling of this devastating event in the life of a young family. Moore has also authored a children's book, The Forgotten Helper: A Story for Children (1987), and edited an anthology of stories about childhood, I Know Some Things (1992), republished in 1997 as The Faber Book of Contemporary Stories About Childhood.
Critics have considered Moore to be one of the foremost practitioners of the innovative and urbane American short fiction that emerged in the final two decades of the twentieth century. While Self-Help has been acclaimed by reviewers, her novel Anagrams has been regarded as far less illustrative of Moore's talent. Critics have praised Like Life for its emotional engagement and broader thematic scope. Some of the short stories in this volume, notably “You're Ugly, Too,” have been considered as representative of the best in American short fiction. Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? has been generally well received, though some reviewers found the novel's Parisian sections overly coy and questioned Moore's ability to sustain the breadth and scope of the novel form. Birds of America has been widely complimented for its sharply etched vignettes and the maturity of Moore's narratives. In particular, “People Like That Are the Only People Here” has attracted notice for its emotional power, which has been considered by many reviewers as evidence of Moore's skill with narrative control. Moore's incorporation of humor, particularly puns and one-liners, has been both admired and admonished by critics, with some arguing that Moore's jokes lessen the emotional connections between the text and the reader.
About Lorrie Moore: A Profile
by Don Lee
Lorrie Moore hasn’t had a full night’s sleep in three and a half years. It’s not what you think, however. She has not, like one of her characters, fallen prey to love woes or obsessive-compulsive panic. If anything, Lorrie Moore is far tougher than most people would suspect. It’s simply that she has a feisty three-and-a-half-year-old son. “This particular parenting experience has been like a large nuclear bomb on the small village of my life,” she says.
The author of two novels and two short story collections, with a third, Birds of America, due out this fall, Moore has lived in Madison, Wisconsin, for the past fourteen years. Since 1984, she has been teaching at the University of Wisconsin, where she is now a professor of English. By all appearances, she has had a remarkably stable writing career. “I’ve rarely felt any pressure to publish,” she concedes. “I really feel like I’m writing what I want, at a pace that is the natural one.” Indeed, her biography reads like a model of serendipity, a guide to “How to Become a Writer”—the title of one of Moore’s earlier stories, which begins: “First, try to do something, anything else.” The irony of that line speaks volumes of her literary and personal temperament. While success has come quickly and easily to her, she has worked hard for it. Like most writers, she runs through dozens of drafts before getting a story or a book right, going back and forth from longhand to the computer, revising and polishing. And while Moore’s fiction is renowned for its wit and humor, filled with repartee, pithy one-liners, and wisecracks, she considers the essence of her work to be sad.
Nicknamed “Lorrie” by her parents, she was born Marie Lorena Moore in 1957 in Glens Falls, New York, a small town in the Adirondacks. Her father was an insurance executive, her mother a former nurse turned housewife. Moore, the second of four children, remembers her parents as rather strict Protestants, politically minded, and culturally alert. A quiet, skinny kid, Moore fretted, quite literally, about her insubstantiality. “I felt completely shy, and so completely thin that I was afraid to walk over grates. I thought I would fall through them. Both my younger brother and I were so painfully skinny, it still haunts us. Here we are, sort of big, middle-aged adults, and we still think we’re these thin children who are
going to fall down the slightest crevice and disappear.”
Academically precocious, she skipped ahead in school, earned a Regents scholarship, and attended St. Lawrence University. There, as an English major, she was the editor of the literary journal and won, at nineteen, Seventeen magazine’s fiction contest. It was her first publication, and it unearthed some surprising facts about her parents. Her father revealed that he had had literary aspirations of his own. He’d been in a writing class with fellow students Evan S. Connell and Vincent Canby at Dartmouth; he brought down some stories from the attic that he’d once sent to The New Yorker. Her mother, too, had wanted to be a journalist. Yet her parents’ revelations did not necessarily strengthen Moore’s resolve to become a writer.
Her expectations for herself were modest. Entering St. Lawrence, she hadn’t been exactly bursting with ambition. “I think I probably went to college to fall in love,” she laughs. “I had the same boyfriend from the second week of college until I was twenty-four.
I don’t recommend it. But I have to tell you what it allowed—it allowed me to study, and write, and have a very serious student life, whereas other people were still busy shopping around for boyfriends and girlfriends.” After graduating, she moved to Manhattan and worked as a paralegal for two years, then in 1980 enrolled in Cornell’s M.F.A. program, where she was in a class of five—two fiction writers and three poets—who were thrown together with second-year students to make up a single workshop.
As she became more devoted to her writing, she found that music, her first love, was now a distraction. Like her father, she played the piano, and even had had a professional gig as a freshman, at a reception for Eugene McCarthy. (She’d been playing in a dormitory lounge, the dean of women students heard her, and she asked Moore to provide background tinkle for the reception the day after the next. She was paid fifteen dollars.) But at Cornell, she decided she had to give up music. “It was eating into similar energies,” she says. “The typewriter and the piano were actually similar ideas, for my mind and for my hands. I was completely unaccomplished musically. Nonetheless, I was having ecstatic experiences in the practice room at Cornell and wasn’t getting any writing done. So I had to choose.” Slowly, the sacrifice began to redound, as her stories were accepted at magazines—one by Ms., for which they paid her but never ran, others by Fiction International, John Gardner’s Mss., and StoryQuarterly. The publications were encouraging, but she was still not convinced they would lead anywhere. “I remember thinking, rather naïvely, that I would give myself until I was thirty, and if I hadn’t published a book by then, I would probably have to find something else to focus on, that I obviously just was completely deluded and I didn’t know what I was doing.”
In 1983, when she was twenty-six, Knopf bought her collection, Self-Help, comprised almost entirely of stories from her master’s thesis. One of Moore’s teachers at Cornell, Alison Lurie, had mentioned that her agent, Melanie Jackson, was looking for clients. Neither Moore nor her classmates really knew what an agent was. “I sent her the collection, and she sent it to Knopf, and they took it. Now, I realize, that doesn’t happen ordinarily,” Moore says. Self-Help, which was published in 1985, produced a flurry of attention, reviewers comparing her to everyone from Grace Paley to Woody Allen. Six of the nine stories are written in the second-person mock-imperative, ironically imitating self-help books for contemporary women, particularly in regard to romance. One story begins, “Understand that your cat is a whore and can’t help you.” Another, called “How to Be an Other Woman,” starts, “Meet in expensive beige raincoats, on a pea-soupy night,” then continues, “After four movies, three concerts, and two-and-a-half museums, you sleep with him. It seems the right number of cultural events.”
By this time, Moore had been hired at the University of Wisconsin, but Madison often proved too lonely for her, and, whenever she could, she returned to Manhattan. “It was all very difficult,” she says. “I lived in Little Italy for the summer, then found an apartment in Hell’s Kitchen. I kept moving back to New York to worse neighborhoods and paying more rent.” Not incidentally, the predicaments of East Coast sophisticates landlocked in the Midwest became a motif in Moore’s next two books. Anagrams, her first novel, published in 1986, features Benna Carpenter and Gerard Maines, occasional lovers who live in Fitchville, U.S.A. The novel is structurally anagrammatic, the characters’ relationships and occupations changing from chapter to chapter; Benna also has a daughter and a best friend who are, the book reveals, imaginary. “It got many bad reviews,” Moore says. “I actually had to stop reading them. I just couldn’t take it anymore.”
Her next collection in 1990, Like Life, received raves, the eight stories showing a growing narrative authority, accompanied by her distinctive wit and mordant observations about love in the modern age. In “You’re Ugly, Too,” Zoë Hendricks is languishing in Illinois, teaching college history. It’s not that different from her last job in Minnesota, where her blond students assumed, because she is a brunette, that she is from Spain. She escapes to New York to visit her sister, who pairs her with a man at a party. Zoë braces herself for the initial conversation: “She had to learn not to be afraid of a man, the way, in your childhood, you learned not to be afraid of an earthworm or a bug. Often, when she spoke to men at parties, she rushed things in her mind. As the man politely blathered on, she would fall in love, marry, then find herself in a bitter custody battle with him for the kids and hoping for a reconciliation, so that despite all his betrayals she might no longer despise him, and in the few minutes remaining, learn, perhaps, what his last name was, and what he did for a living, though probably there was already too much history between them.”
“You’re Ugly, Too” was the first of many of her stories to be published in The New Yorker (and then to be reprinted, with regularity, in annuals such as The O. Henry Awards and The Best American Short Stories), but, in 1989, it was a controversial piece for the magazine. “All through the editing process, they said, ‘Oooh, we’re breaking so many rules with this.’ ” Robert Gottlieb had taken over as the editor, but the turgidity of his predecessor, William Shawn, still gripped the institution. “I could not say ‘yellow light,’ I had to say ‘amber light,’ ” Moore remembers. “And that was the least of the vulgarities I’d committed.”
In her next book, the short novel Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, which came out in 1994, Moore took a different tack and focused on adolescence. Lauded as her richest work, the novel has Berie Carr, a thirty-seven-year-old photography curator, in a childless, failing marriage. During the three weeks that she is in Paris with her husband, who is attending a medical research conference, Berie replays the summer of 1972, when she was fifteen. She worked as a cashier at an Adirondacks amusement park called Storyland, where her beautiful best friend, Silsby Chaussée, was costumed as Cinderella.
Moore took the title for the book from a Nancy Mladenoff painting, which depicts two girls worriedly standing over a pair of bandaged frogs—injured from too many kisses. The novel evokes the fairy-tale purity of Berie and Sils’s love for each other, as well as their hopes for the future, beyond this fallow period when they have “no narrative”: “it was liquid, like a song . . . It was just a space with some people in it.” Yet, heartbreakingly, the novel is just as much about the end of possibility, the realization that the narrative—all that waiting—has arced prematurely into disillusionment: “By then my parents had moved from Horsehearts to the east coast of Florida with my grandmother, who, when I visited, stared at me with the staggering, arrogant stare of the dying, the wise vapidity of the already gone; she refused to occupy the features of her face. The living didn’t interest her; she grew bored when anyone spoke. In her yawn I could see the black-and-white dice of her filled teeth, the quiet snap of her spit, all gathered in a painting of departure. It is unacceptable, all the stunned and anxious missing a person is asked to endure in life. It is not to be endured, not really.”
Birds of America, Moore’s new book—her fifth from Knopf with the same editor, Victoria Wilson—is her longest yet. “Almost three hundred pages,” she marvels. “Unbelievable. You could keep a small door open with this.” Of late, Moore has become more interested in the novelistic terrains of place and time and memory. She also notes the inclusion of children in her most recent work. She realized after the fact that nearly all twelve of the stories in Birds of America have a jeopardized child in them—most of them written well before she herself became a mother.
Moore is taking the next year off from teaching to work on a new novel. “It’s on my own nickel, so we’ll see if we end up in a shelter,” she says. “Having a child, you can start to feel money pressure, and if you get a bad review, you might think, How’s my kid going to go to college?” The new novel will be a marked departure for her. “It’s actually about hate. It’s hard to get in the same room with it. It may not be a book that is possible for me to write.”
Lorrie Moore claims her literary ambitions have become more prosaic than ever. “I used to stay up all night and write and read, and I was quite obsessive. But now it’s a much more modest endeavor. When your life gets crazy and complicated, your hopes turn into ‘I hope I get enough sleep so that I can get some writing done this year.’ ”
Copyright © Don Leehttp://www.pshares.org/issues/article.cfm?prmarticleID=4504
From The Times December 31, 2008
Birds of America by Lorrie Moore
Erica Wagner talks to Lorrie Moore about the future of the short story
I spoke to Lorrie Moore when her Collected Stories came out in hardback. Moore lives and writes in Wisconsin, where she holds the Delmore Schwartz Professorship in the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Her new novel will be published in the autumn.
Erica Wagner: What's it like to see all these stories collected together?
Lorrie Moore: I don't know who would actually sit down and do that, read them all the way through like that; I had to because I had to proofread the book [she's laughing here], but by the end I had my head in my hands. You feel distant, and you wouldn't write these particular stories now, especially some of them, and even if you did you would write them differently. And you think the words are stupid and ask why did I write it this way? Sometimes there's a pleasant surprise - right next to something that's mortifying. But everybody has that about their younger work. Except Hemingway, maybe. But maybe he even felt that way.
What do you think about readers who look at your work for clues to your own life?
It's a way of reading that has always existed. I try not to judge it; as writers we don't like it, we have a knee-jerk response, we want to set it aside. But there are ways of seeing it as a compliment, there are ways of understanding it as just natural human curiosity. I think fiction writers somehow feel disrespected by it, that it shows no comprehension of what fiction's doing or what literature is, but it's always been there. If it's a problem, it's always been a problem. It's always been in the conversation. So much so that now there's this rash of memoir-writing. People who would ordinarily take a manuscript and call it an autobiographical novel are calling it a memoir, and there's confusion - as with James Frey and Oprah [Winfrey]. Because Frey really did try to sell A Million Little Pieces as a novel, and he couldn't.
You know, almost all novels are autobiographical to some extent, that doesn't mean they're not novels. There's always been a biographical strain in lit crit. Whether it's analysis or a lit biog; it's just there. I try not to think it's absolutely philistine to think that way, because we all do. We're all curious about people's lives beyond the book and all of that. But it shouldn't be the main thing, it shouldn't be distracting. But I think it's a natural thing. Even if it's not ... attractive.
Is it a harder climate for fiction these days?
I'm not a climatologist. I don't really know what the climate is. Everybody's trying to take the cultural temperature, but what do they know? Writers are just home writing books, so we're the last ones to know - and if we did know, it would probably paralyse us.
Do you think the short story is in trouble?
But Jhumpa Lahiri's been at No 1 in the bestseller lists with Unaccustomed Earth, a book of stories - which is great! The downside is that shows that not very much is selling; the upside is that it's absolutely unprecedented, never before has a young woman's collection of short stories been No 1. So that's very exciting, and I try to get my students excited about it. They are so apprehensive about their own future that sometimes instead of taking inspiration from other people's success they feel that there's only a little success out there so if someone else has it, they won't. And they're close enough to her age to feel, almost, that she got all the success. Instead of feeling inspired by it.
What do you for recreation?
I don't do anything. I grocery shop. I go to the grocery store, get groceries, come back and say, Oh! I had my break. You know how it is.
January 3, 2009
Alyson Rudd on Birds of America by Lorrie Moore
HOW CAN A STORY end in a restaurant with a husband looking at the spine of his wife and her bright, new and terrible hair as she bends over at the table? What does that mean? Lorrie Moore does that to you, she makes you want to scream at the page.
If you do not much like tales with no endings then this collection of short stories might drive you crazy. However, how wonderful it is to be left hungry for more every 20 pages. I could not manage to read more than three stories without a break. I needed to pause, digest and accept that I would never know more about Agnes or Joe and that I did not need to know more. You have to trust that Moore has given you all the detail you need.
And it is splendid detail. There are snippets of conversation and thoughts and although we have been in a character's company a matter of minutes, Moore shows us enough for us to sense the irony or humour or pain. There is plenty of pain, much of it the mundane sort.
The book is packed with women who feel unfulfilled or are hurt by a glance in their direction. Women do all the talking; their men grunt or try to say the right thing and fail. The father of an actress was so horrified to see his daughter naked on screen that he now leaves for a nap whenever she visits. One woman, a dance instructor, likes people who talk not with their hands, not with their arms but who talk with their arms over their head. This collection is the writing equivalent. It is bold and slightly bonkers but also witty, fascinating and mesmeric.
Birds of America by Lorrie Moore
Faber & Faber, £8.99
Self Help - Lorrie Moore
"But I love you, he will say in his soft, bewildered way, stirring the spaghetti sauce but not you, staring into the pan as if waiting for something, a magic fish, to rise from it and say: That is always enough, why is that not always enough?"
Reviewed by Sarah Salway
How to become a writer like Lorrie Moore – go for the jugular, shape every sentence until it sings, tackle every subject head-on, observe.
Self Help was apparently written almost exclusively for her Masters thesis. Although it has a little annoying archness of a young writer showing off, overall this collection has stood the test of time. It’s one I return to when I want to look at unusual structures for a short story, before getting seduced by the quality of the writing. Open any page at random and you’re guaranteed a perfect sentence – "Dream, and in your dreams babies with the personalities of dachshunds, fat as Macy balloons, float by the treetops." Beautiful. As indeed, although in a different way, is, "Wives are like cockroaches…They will survive you after a nuclear attack – they are tough and hardy and travel in packs – but right now they’re not having any fun." Ouch.
Of the seven stories, three titles begin, ‘How to..’ and one is just called ‘How’. The slightly hectoring tone, and frequent use of second person, fits the theme of how Moore’s heroines want to know the answers to questions they can’t articulate, and feel nostalgic for things they’ve never really achieved – true love, belonging, purpose. Only Moore’s witty writing stops this falling into cynicism. It’s hard to resist a story which begins, ‘Understand that your cat is a whore and can’t help you’.
For me the two stand outs in this collection are How to Become a Writer – The only happiness you have is writing something new, in the middle of the night, armpits damp, heart pounding, something no one has yet seen – and How to Talk to Your Mother (Notes). I took apart the structure of How to Talk to Your Mother (Notes) the first time I read it, like a dressmaker deconstructing a fine garment. As it consists of a selection of paragraphs ranging back from after the mother’s death to the moment of conception, I guessed a strategic author like Moore would work in a middle point. Eureka. At exactly the centre of the story, in 1961, the grandmother dies and the narrator has an abortion – leaving only the two women at the centre of the generations, forever stuck with each other.
Although Moore has said in an interview that she shudders at the thought of her work being analysed, it proves to me that these seemingly slight stories have been crafted so tightly, both in language and structure, that it is only in the hands of a master that they can retain any character and passion. Luckily Moore is a master.
In her very funny How to Become a Writer, Moore has her narrator start with, "First, try to be something, anything, else", and at the end of the story, likens her need to write as "a lot like having polio." Interesting, smiles the date the narrator is telling this to, "and then he looks down at his arm hairs and starts to smooth them, all, always, in the same direction."
Show me another short story writer, or indeed any writer, who can beat the cruel biting humour of an observation like that.
Sarah Salway is a poet, short story writer and novelist. She is the author of the novels, Something Beginning With and Tell Me Everything (Bloomsbury). Her short story collection, Leading the Dance, is published by Bluechrome, and, with Lynne Rees, she is the co-author of the collaborative classic, Messages.Sarah's other Short Reviews: http://www.theshortreview.com/reviews/SelfHelp.htm
Copyright © 2009 Ploughshares