a Quarterly Literary Journal
on the Writer's Life
HOW TO BECOME A WRITER
by Lorrie Moore
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
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
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
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
''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
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,
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
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 work
frequently 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).
Click here for
the New York