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.”
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.
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,...
(The entire section is 733 words.)