How to Become a Writer

by Lorrie Moore

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Last Updated on November 13, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 733


Lorrie Moore’s “How to Become a Writer” is a short story that was published in her first collection, Self-Help, in 1985. The piece, which is written in the second person, is one of several in the collection that use a tongue-in-cheek how-to title format in tension with fictional content; others include “How to Be an Other Woman,” “How,” and “How to Talk to Your Mother.”

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Plot Summary

As the story begins (and in contrast with its title), the protagonist—a writer named Francie—addresses her initial attempts to be “something, anything, else” than a writer:

A movie star/astronaut. A movie star/missionary. A movie star/kindergarten teacher. President of the World.

Francie goes on to indicate that her early sense of failure is important to her initial interest in writing. She writes a haiku sequence and shows her mother. Her mother says nothing and looks up with her “face blank as a donut” before asking Francie to empty the dishwasher. In Mr. Killian’s high school English class, after several failed attempts to write different forms of poetry, Francie writes a short story instead. After turning in a story as her final project, Mr. Killian tells Francie that she has no sense of plot—a criticism that will come up repeatedly in the narrative.

Francie takes some part-time jobs as a babysitter and does well with the children. As a result of the compliments she receives from the children’s parents, she decides to enroll in college as a child psychology major.

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After entering college, Francie takes several electives in addition to her child psychology classes. She signs up for a class called “The Ornithological Field Trip” but, due to a computer error with her schedule, attends a creative writing class the first day instead and decides to stay there:

Perhaps you should stick with this mistake. Perhaps your creative writing isn’t all that bad. Perhaps it is fate.

Francie’s stories for class receive mixed feedback; while her teacher calls her writing “smooth and energetic,” he comments that she has “a ludicrous notion of plot.” Her classmates echo her teacher’s comment about plot, saying that it is “outrageous and incompetent,” and ask if she is “crazy.” These criticisms are similar to what Francie heard in high school, but they don’t deter her now from writing as a whole. Instead, she begins to focus on comedies and starts dating a man whose jokes she secretly writes down to use in her work.

Francie continues to take creative writing courses, and she ultimately drops her child psychology major. She feels “slouched and demoralized”—seemingly in both life and art—but Francie continues writing: despite the pain it causes, it is also her sole source of ecstasy.

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.

Of course, Francie’s feeling of “genius” does not persist into creative writing workshops, but she still “understand[s] what [she] must do”: keep writing, even if it is often painful and difficult.

Francie’s creative writing professors have various views on writing. Whereas one asks that everything be altered from reality “like recombinant DNA,” the next is interested in writing that stems directly from life. This gives Francie a kind of permission to address memories like the loss of her virginity and her parents’ divorce—but some events are still too difficult for Francie to approach, such as her brother’s wounding in Vietnam.

About the last you write nothing. There are no words for this. Your typewriter hums. You can find no words.

At college parties, people ask Francie about writing; her roommate jokes that Francie mainly writes about “her dumb boyfriend,” but Francie demurs, though she can’t pinpoint a single topic that she does prefer to write about. Instead, she talks about her interest in “the music of language,” in “syllables” themselves.

Though she seems to consider taking a break from writing and even applies to law school, Francie ultimately decides not to attend. Instead, she goes to graduate school for writing, works odd jobs, and eventually finishes a manuscript. When a date asks Francie if writers “often become discouraged,” she answers,

sometimes they do and sometimes they do.

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