[Reading Room] How To Become A Writer by Lorrie Moore

I approached this story with some trepidation, as I’m always wary of writers writing stories about writers. Or, in this case about aspiring writers.

But this was salted with enough wry humor to draw me in. Take the first lines:

First, try to be something else, anything else. A movie-star/astronaut. A movie-star/missionary. A movie-star/kindergarten teacher. President of the World. Fail miserable. It’s best if you fail at an early age…

The author saves the character from an annoyingly sardonic tone by baldly relating what the teenaged writer can expect after slaving over her first story.

Show it to your mom. She is tough 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 at you with a face blank as a donut. She’ll say: “How about emptying the dishwasher?” Look away. Shove forks in the fork drawer. Accidentally break a freebie gas station glass. This is the required pain and suffering. This is only for starters.

As I read, the main character (Francine) began to emerge as someone distinct from the actual author, though we’ve all probably shared some of her experiences.

It’s not a traditional, narrative short story. How To Become A Writer is narrated almost like an advice column: a set of interludes, sharing how one particular writer reached this point in her development.

I really started rooting for her when she continues to write during college (which we learn about in this hypothetical list of things that ‘might’ happen while ‘you’ become a writer). In every workshop, the other writers consistently point out how bad she is at the same aspect of story craft. She persists. And that makes me hope she finds some success. An original voice, after all, is often misunderstood.

I was a bit startled by the abrupt ending, even though the pace had been slowing down.  I turned the page and discovered the next story had started, turned back and read the ending again. It was a lovely line. I just wasn’t exactly ready for it to be the end of the story. Which might be a good thing, after all.

I’d certainly read this again.

You can read this story in The Oxford Book of American Short Stories, edited by Joyce Carol Oates or online here.