How to Become a Writer

by Lorrie Moore

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Ironically for a story whose title purports to tell someone "How to Become a Writer," Moore's story seems to discourage people from becoming writers at all—at least at first glance. The protagonist, Francie, compares it to a disease: at dinner, a date asks her if writers "often become discouraged."

Say that sometimes they do and sometimes they do. Say it's a lot like having polio.

Being a writer can cause a person, as Francie does, to grow "thin" or develop "circles under your eyes"; in its obsessive and sometimes lonely nature, it can seem to be an unhealthy choice.

Not writing hardly seems more fulfilling, however. Those in the story who do not write are consistently described as having passionless, obtuse faces. Various characters react to Francie's writing and ideas with vacant confusion: her mother's face is "blank as a donut," her college roommate's "blank as a large Kleenex," and a date's "blank as a sheet of paper." The fact that others do not understand Francie's longing to be a writer seems like a shortcoming on their part rather than on Francie's. Moore presents the story's central choice—of whether or not to become a writer—as one Francie approaches with both continuing ambivalence and ultimate devotion.

After all, it is not easy to be a writer: Francie's teachers and peers tell her that she has no sense of plot or idea of what is happening in her stories. She begins to mine her social life for plot points, using her boyfriend's jokes and anagrams of his ex-girlfriend's name in her work. In confronting pivotal moments in her life, Francie describes having sex for the first time and her parents' divorce, but is unable to grapple with the impact of her brother's return from Vietnam "with only half a thigh": this, she writes, is something there are "no words" for. There is a limit to what writing can do—and sometimes, words fail us. But where is this point? And is it more easily accessed through entirely imagined plots, as one of her creative writing professors recommends, or ones that rest more squarely in life itself, as another does? Should writers write what they know or open themselves up to anything they can imagine?

Especially given the story's use of the second-person voice, which allows the reader to feel included in the narrative, one can read Moore's descriptions of the writing life as metaphorical for life itself. After all, no one really knows what they are doing or how they are constructing the plots of their lives. Life has a way of making us sick sometimes, just as writing makes the narrator feel ill. All people go through phases of being misunderstood by those around them—but all we can do, in the end, is keep trying to write (or live): to map out a plot that makes sense. In life, we experience real tragedy, we have sex, we fall in love and back out, we feel let down and misunderstood by others. None of this is specific to writing alone. Trying to be a writer is, in some ways, like trying to be a person: it is difficult, it takes a lot of work, and it can leave us feeling completely exhilarated as well as utterly defeated.

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