How to Become a Writer

by Lorrie Moore

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Art and Passion Require Sacrifice

One of the central themes of "How to Become a Writer" is that passion can become all-consuming. Writing forms a large part of how Francie creates her identity, but it also monopolizes her life. She forsakes a possible career in child psychology to study writing, and after college, she is uninterested in retaining a job. The idiom "to burn with passion" fits well with the way the story presents the pursuit of art: Francie's other interests and goals are burned away in pursuit of the goal of writing professionally.

Francie's passion becomes somewhat parasitic, taking from her the goals and aspirations for a productive life, and leaving her drained and jaded. Despite her initial attempt to major in child development in college, a computer glitch enrolls her in a creative writing course. She comments that it might be "fate" and does not attempt to rectify the mistake, showing her inability to walk away from writing. Talk of writing dominates her social circles, even injecting itself into the conversation at parties. Despite choosing to pursue writing, Francie prefers to keep her writing relatively private because of the mixed feedback she receives, and any discussion of her writing brings on a melancholic mood. Derailing her social life is one of several sacrifices she makes to continue the pursuit of her passion in and after college.

Despite its cost, writing remains at the center of Francie's self-image. She identifies as a writer and wants to continue writing despite the sacrifice required. At the end of the story, she has given everything for the art, including eschewing a traditional career path and using her life savings. Ultimately, the story shows that any art or passion will require drastic sacrifice.

Pain as Fuel for Art

During college, Francie's boyfriend is loving and kind, but Francie ultimately jokes that positive emotions do not provide the right source material for good writing. The love she feels in her college relationship does not foster the type of turmoil that she needs to make her writing enjoyable; instead, it causes her writing to be drab and center around her boyfriend. Every antagonist in her stories turns into her boyfriend's ex-girlfriends, and her art suffers. Her roommate lambasts her at a party because "she always writes about her dumb boyfriend," providing a valid criticism that hurts Francie's feelings.

Francie decides to break up with her boyfriend and instead dates a string of men who do not feel any real emotional attachment to her. They are mostly in it for the sex, which suits her fine.

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.

There is an element of irony to Francie's statement that these relationships benefit her work, perhaps related to the common cultural misconception that misery is necessary for artists. Regardless, there is an edge of truth to it, too, and Francie seems to believe (even as she mocks this belief) that quality writing may be better fertilized by pain and complication than by love and comfort.

The Solitary Nature of Making Art

Throughout the story, non-writers offer several criticisms about the topics Francie explores in her writing. People like teachers and parents, who should be supportive of her passion and art, fail to encourage her desire to write. Francie's first critic is her mother, who does not believe that writing is practical. Instead of writing, she tells her daughter, "How about emptying the dishwasher?" Francie has a natural desire to win her mother's approval, which is...

(This entire section contains 857 words.)

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why she initially pursues child psychology, a much more lucrative and stable job field, in college. Her mother attempts to be conciliatory when Francie pursues writing professionally after graduating. However, there is a distinct tone of disapproval in the way that she speaks to Francie:

Sure you like to write. Of course. Sure you like to write.

Her mother's disapproval carries throughout the story, proving that even the closest family member might never support or approve of an individual's goals.

Francie's teachers in high school and college also criticize her work. Despite their intentions, much of their advice is vague and fails to suggest a way to improve Francie's writing. Her high school teacher tells her,

Some of your images are quite nice, but you have no sense of plot.

On its face, this seems like helpful criticism, but in reality, it is too vague to make her writing better. The vague criticism continues in her college writing class, where a professor once against focuses on her difficulties with plot. The story takes these educational settings and professionals and positions them as antagonists—allies turned villains who chip away at Francie's confidence. The most striking part of her interaction in these classrooms is that, though her instructors and classmates are attempting to help her, their criticism diminishes her will to write.

The story provides an explicit critique of the relationship structures in a writer's life, showing that even the closest relationships might not provide the support that people need. Ultimately, the narrative acknowledges, artists must work alone.