Lorrie Moore's Self-Help
Credit: Lorrie Moore/Warner Books

Self-Help certainly conatains more wit and wisdom than ANY self-help book on the market, and it's a lot funnier too.

Lorrie Moore is a master of writing -- and complaining about it. Don't worry, you will enjoy it.

There are countless writing reference books, how-to-get-published guides, and self-help books aimed at writers, and many of them are certainly worth reading for any would-be author. They may be worth more, though, if one reads Lorrie Moore’s short story, “How to Become a Writer.” The story hails from her first collection of short stories entitled Self-Help, in which she utilizes her witty tone and her flawless prose to mock modern self-help books. “How to Become a Writer” is written in a “second-person mock-imperative,” Moore’s own moniker for her unique style,  and details a part of a young woman’s life during which she discovers her fondness of writing and pursues it, usually with stories about comically ludicrous deaths, and tries to understand life and its associated emotions, both as a writer and otherwise.

Moore is currently an English professor at the University of Wisconsin and has had several other books published since self-help. Self-Help contains a few other “how-to” works, including one that is entitled “How” (Not, interestingly, “How?”). Moore has since published Anagrams, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? and Birds of America; as well as an additional collection of short stories called Like Life (Moore and Blades) . Lorrie Moore, or, precisely speaking, Marie Lorena Moore, seems to have always had a talent for writing as she won first prize in the Seventeen magazine short story contest in 1976. As a writer, Moore displays stylistic genius through “How to Become a Writer,” using her mock imperative to add an indefinably direct tone and the structure of how-to prose to deliver a thought-provoking story of a woman’s writing birth, simultaneously (and seamlessly) developing a deep, but realistic character and framing a support deprived environment for the character to hilariously wander through. 


The laugh-out-loud moments that will inevitably occur during any reading of “How to Become a Writer” are undermined and paralleled by a steady, subtle overtone of sadness in the work. When in the first paragraph of a how-to work a reader is told “First be something, anything, else,” one may feel the need to laugh. But within a few sentences, wherein you are told to “Fail miserably,” things clearly, though silently, go down a road both amusing and depressing (even if the reader does not want to be a writer). The main character’s ambitions are continuously shut down by her brown-adoring mother (“She believes in wearing brown because it hides spots…”), and her instructors’ consistent accusation that she has “no sense of plot” (however true that might be, for the character, of course). In fact, one of the countless dimensions of this masterful work is the irony that a story about a writer of poorly put together stories with outlandish plots is presented by an impressively organized, perfectly written short story, in which the main character, in response to one of these criticisms, herself writes “Plots are for dead people.”

Short stories principally have layers of deeper meaning, and Moore’s is a fine example of that. Of the endless concepts addressed are: the many forms, styles, and principles of the art of writing; War, its need or needlessness, and effects on people; romantic relationships and sex, as well as their influence on writing and life; the power of questions; and, showing its importance, humor.

Writing, as an art and way of life, is the spine of this short story. Nearly every point, conflict, and struggle either revolves around or stems from the main characters decision write. There is a bit of writing instruction in the beginning, during which the main character tells the reader to write certain forms of poetry and prose as well as when and when not to count syllables (during poetry, not prose). The story is riddled with synopsis’ of short stories the main character writes, all about a pair of people (usually an elderly couple) accidently and, inexplicably, killing themselves (mostly by being “blown-up,” but always with a certain level of violence). The main character is told her plots are awful by every teacher, and signaled this by all of her peers’ “blank faces” displayed after having read or heard one of her stories. The frequent occurrence of ridiculous plots signals two opposite things, both true to the life of a writer: the importance of plot, and the unimportance of plot. Her teachers flatter her by telling her that her writing is good but her plots are bad, essentially telling the reader that there are multiple dynamics involved in writing. And of the writer’s life and struggles the main character encounters, one line sums it up sufficiently: “Say that of all the fantasies possible in the world, you can’t imagine being a writer even making the top twenty.”

War is succinctly addressed with a simple and all too common question: “Why is there war?” The main character has a brother in Vietnam who eventually returns with only half a thigh, and she has visibly strong feelings on the matter. It seems, as it is brought up in short, direct statements, that the main character has a grudge against war and doesn’t like discussing it very much, but can avoid her high emotions only so much. The rise of this subject brings about the rare instance when the main character takes a serious tone with no sarcastic or comedic tones to mask her actual feelings.

Romance, relationships, and sex are surprisingly absent of emotion, which probably contributes to the brevity of the piece. The story first confronts “love” in the first paragraph, where the main character states that her mother’s husband (she never says father) may be having an affair. The acquaintance with relationships carries on just as empty throughout the story. The main character has a boyfriend for the first half of the life she is telling, but the only way in which he is talked about by her is that he is funny and the description of her intention to use him as a subject for comedic writing. Later she tells the reader, after this boyfriend is gone, “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.” Obviously, since any mention of romantic relationships brings an explanation of its influence on the one's writing and no mention of emotions, she believes a writer’s romantic life impacts one’s writing grandly. But, whether that is true or not, the main character’s writing is inarguably affected by her relationships in some way due to her own stated reaction to something she read: “You will read somewhere that all writing has to do with ones genitals. Don’t dwell on this. It will make you nervous.”

Whereas writing is the backbone of the essay, its foundation, questions are the backbone of writing. The main character never says so herself, but it is heavily implied throughout the story. Though the main character’s writing seems to not only miss deep, cerebral questions, but avoid them entirely, she is often talking about or hearing about questions spoken synonymously with writing. Eventually, she does say “Why write? Where does writing come from?” and continues to ask questions about God, war, and writing. She artfully compares questions to “calling cards” and implies that a writer will use them to supplement and inspire subjects for writing.  Her teachers talk about questions as well, multiple times, furthering the implication that questions create the content for prose, since her instructor's purpose is to teach the students creative writing.

Typically, humor is used as a form of entertainment. However, Moore uses humor in a way that may bewilder a reader with relentlessly compounding irony that amazes as much as it does entertain. But it also, by making fun, makes a point.

The main character pursues comedy as her primary area of writing for part of the story, and the story itself is humorous in nearly every way one may perceive it. Humor, for the work itself, is simply another channel with which to present ideas and beliefs. But within the work, it is analyzed, utilized, and exemplified faultlessly. One of the main character's instructors defines humor as “self-contempt giving rise to comic form.” Of course, that fits comfortably into the story, as there is a prevalent tone of self-contempt audible from the main character whenever she refers to herself. Moreover, the failure of the main characters written comedy among her peers and teachers is one of the high points of the humor. Thus, as she describes her failure she unavoidably admits, in a way, that her own writing was unsuccessful and may even like it less for that reason, creating a light form of contempt for her own work.  On the topic of humor, perhaps most important is that the main character herself is funny. Not only does she write satisfyingly amusing stories (no matter how ridiculous her plot) but her entire rhetoric is dressed with comedy.

There are seven outrageous stories that the main character summarizes during the story, all but two involve old people dying, literally, unbelievable deaths; with one exception being a story in which an elderly couple lose the lower half of their bodies and then open a lemonade stand (one might consider that a happy ending). These stories epitomize humor, and shine in this story like candles during a blackout, bright concentrations of light-hearted absurdity amongst the darkness of her unsupportive and emotionally lacking environment as she searches for the key to becoming a writer.

Whether you intend to be a writer or not, reading this masterpiece of a short story is a great way to spend your time. Sarcasm, humor, sadness, humanity, emotion, struggle, and a downright good read make this work worht the short time it takes to enjoy.

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Lorrie Moore's Self-Help is a collection of riotously funny writing and terrifically told stories composed by an award-winning writer frequently featured in The New Yorker and many other high-profile publications.