Story Club # 1: Life of a Writer

Hello everyone! How’s the week going so far? Hang in there, half done anyway 🙂 If you remember I threatened promised to begin the Story Club today. Until yesterday, the going was slow. But now Story Club is officially on with a slight change. Instead of a weekly event, it will be a fortnightly activity – 1st and 15th of every month. I shall take the first step today and Yvette will do The Open Boat by Stephen Crane on the 15th of July. If anyone is interested in doing one on the 1st of July please do let me know. Otherwise I will take Yvette’s advice and go for a monthly event.

All set? Great – let’s begin!

For today I have chosen a story by Lorrie Moore, a contemporary American award-winning writer known for her brilliant, funny and yet poignant short stories. I was spoiled for choice but I finally settled on How to become a writer, or Have you earned this cliché from the book “Self-help.” I do apologize for not announcing the name of the story earlier but to tell the truth I wasn’t quite sure if this was happening or not. Besides, this is not a story – story but more of an insight into the life of an aspiring writer.

 How to become a writer is a vastly entertaining read but more so if you are not a writer. Yet, it’s the writer who needs to read it the most. As the title suggests, this is a guide about how to become a writer or more like what you should be prepared to face in case you want to take up writing, particularly as a full time job.

I would go so far as to suggest any aspiring writer to read this piece and use it as a sort of an acid test. If you feel more of a sinking heart than a desire to burst out laughing – writing as a full time job is probably not for you.

Through Francie, our guide to the world of writing, Lorrie leaves the aspiring writer no scope for any sort of delusions or hallucinations regarding the ‘glamorous’ life of a writer – with dollops of cracking humor.

This is how she begins:

First, try to be something, anything, else. A movie star/astronaut. A movie star/ missionary. A movie star/kindergarten teacher. President of the World. Fail miserably. It is best if you fail at an early age – say, 14. Early, critical disillusionment is necessary so that at 15 you can write long haiku sequences about thwarted desire. It is a pond, a cherry blossom, a wind brushing against sparrow wing leaving for mountain. Count the syllables. 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 up at you with a face blank as a doughnut. She’ll say: ”How about emptying the dishwasher?” Look away. Shove the forks in the fork drawer. Accidentally break one of the freebie gas station glasses. This is the required pain and suffering. This is only for starters.

This kind of sets the tone for the piece – witty, funny and hard-hitting. The aspiring writer with the slightest bit of delusions about the grandeur of his or her work (and future) is in for a huge shock. She goes on to say:

Experiment with fiction. Here you don’t have to count syllables.

In creative writing seminars over the next two years, everyone continues to smoke cigarettes and ask the same things: ”But does it work?” ”Why should we care about this character?” ”Have you earned this cliche?” These seem like important questions.

On days when it is your turn, you look at the class hopefully as they scour your mimeographs for a plot. They look back up at you, drag deeply and then smile in a sweet sort of way.

The seminar doesn’t like this one either. You suspect they are beginning to feel sorry for you. They say: ”You have to think about what is happening. Where is the story here?”

There is simply no let up – she continues unrelenting:

Thank god you are taking other courses. You can find sanctuary in 19th-century ontological snags and invertebrate courting rituals [….]Be glad you know these things. Be glad you are not just a writer. Apply to law school.

Begin to wonder what you do write about. Or if you have anything to say. Or even if there is such a thing as a thing to say. Limit these thoughts to no more than ten minutes a day; like sit-ups, they can make you thin.

Lorrie goes deep into the life of a writer and catches it by the heart. She then proceeds to unveil the mystique behind the writer’s life, handing out punch after punch – her biting humor the only respite.  The entire subtext of the piece underlines the hard work, patience, grit, persistence and unflagging unwavering commitment that a writer must have. That rejection, discouragement and frustration are par for the course.  In the entire piece there is only one bit from where aspiring writers can draw some hope:

You spend too much time slouched and demoralized. Your boyfriend suggests bicycling. Your roommate suggests a new boyfriend. You are said to be self-mutilating and losing weight, but you continue writing. 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. Understand what you must do. Switch majors. The kids in your nursery project will be disappointed, but you have a calling, an urge, a delusion, an unfortunate habit. You have, as your mother would say, fallen in with a bad crowd.

Lorrie Moore not only has a remarkable control over the language but a neat turn of phrase which I can only marvel at. Here are a few gems and my personal favorites from her other works:

Love drains from you, takes with it much of your blood sugar and water weight. You are like a house slowly losing its electricity, the fans slowing, the lights dimming and flickering; the clocks stop and go and stop.” ― Lorrie Moore, Self-Help

Forgiveness lives alone and far off down the road, but bitterness and art are close, gossipy neighbors, sharing the same clothesline, hanging out their things, getting their laundry confused.” ― Lorrie Moore, Self-Help

 Her voice was husky, vibrating, slightly flat, coming in just under each note like a saucer under a cup.” ― Lorrie Moore, Birds of America

Reading her work makes me wonder about mine. Perhaps I should get back to doing what I have been trained to do. But then I wasn’t doing particularly brilliantly there either. So it’s a toss up between doing something that I am supposed to know and well, like doing or, do something I don’t know the basics of but yet feel almost obsessively compulsively drawn towards. In fact, it’s almost like a disease. Interestingly, Francie described writing as ‘a lot like having polio.’

In that case, once infected with the writer virus, one is doomed for life – awesome isn’t it?

Coming back to Lorrie, in an interview she was asked, What kind of eye do you cast on your earlier work?”

Her response is liberating to say the least.

“I don’t go back and look at my early work, because the last time I did, many years ago, it left me cringing. If one publishes, then one is creating a public record of Learning to Write. My first two books, I know, are full of energy, and there are sentences I still like here and there, but mostly they are chock-full of mistakes of judgment and taste and sensibility. I did not have the skill to take on some of the material I took on, even when the material was fairly stock or meager. But that inadequacy, or feeling of inadequacy, never really goes away. You just have to trudge ahead in the rain, regardless.”

No doubt she is being modest and self-deprecating but it is heartening to know and hold on to the thought – it happens to all of us, no matter how good or bad one is. So without any further debate, I shall continue to write (hey! I saw those eyes roll) – for writing is something I not only want to do, but need to do, have to do, regardless. With the hope and prayer that I get better at this elusive craft.

Anyway got to rush, I have to, simply have, to read Self-help now!

Thank you for reading and don’t forget to leave me your notes, suggestions and thoughts. If anyone has another perspective to share on this story, please put up a post on your blog with a pingback here so that we can all hop over for a read.

Is anyone willing to host a Story Club on the 1st of July (or any other date)? Do let me know.

Rules are simple – advance announcement of story name ((I already apologized!) and date. Bloggers should post on their blog while non-bloggers can email me –

Quote of the day: “A short story is a love affair, a novel is a marriage. A short story is a photograph; a novel is a film.” ― Lorrie Moore

Readers of Moonshine, here’s Chapter 67 and Calvin :- Poor Susie :(  Click here for more Short Stories or here for more information About the Blog