Lorrie Moore's short story, "How to Become a Writer," tells the reader a tale of all the strife and struggle it takes for a person, Francie, to follow her dreams. The story reads much like an instruction manual, due to the fact that it is told in the second person. As such, the reader goes into the story expecting to be given details about how one would pursue a career in writing. Moore uses fragmented glimpses of specific occurrences in Francie's life, which are wrought in humor and irony, to give the audience this information. All of the disjointed events in the story come together to portray a splintered account of Francie's pursuit to write. Using symbolism, Moore represents all of the chaotic aspects of her character through a single image, that of coleslaw. The chaos signified by this image of coleslaw depicts the twists and turns in Francie's life path, including her uncertainty of educational pursuits, her rocky relationships, and even her mental instability. Francie also exposes her own life's pandemonium through the horrific events that she subjects her unfortunate characters to in the plot-less stories that she addictively writes.
Francie's chaotic struggle to become a writer can be seen in the symbolism of coleslaw at Howard Johnson's diner, which the entirety of "How to Become a Writer" can be connected to. She sees the path of her life when she orders the coleslaw, which "...looks like the soggy confetti of a map" (Moore 126). This image portrays the fragmented road that Francie follows to be a writer. It shows the shredding of her dreams and plans for the future, as well as the destruction of her past. Before this map was turned to "confetti," it showed "... where you've been [and] where you're going..." (126). The map, being destroyed, emphasizes that the past and plans for the future do not really matter to Francie. As she orders the coleslaw at Howard Johnson's, she notices that the diner menu has a red star on it that says "You Are Here," which forces Francie to realize that the present is all that can be counted on (126). A sign telling the character where she is gives hope in that everything which really makes a difference lays in the here and now, regardless of what occurred in her past or what instances of chaos her future may bring.
The shredded map being symbolized by the coleslaw conveys a sense of confusion in Francie's life. Instead of a whole map showing the roads to follow, the torn pieces are thrown together carelessly, pointing in every direction. This imagery could be connected to a chaotic life-style because there are many instances throughout the story that show Francie's hectic life. In fact, the chaos begins almost immediately when, at fourteen, she fails at being anything but a writer. She explains that some "early, critical disillusionment is necessary so that at fifteen you can write long haiku sequences about thwarted desire" (Moore 119). As Francie realizes that her dreams for the future can be shattered at any given moment, her unsatisfied hunger for success pushes her to start writing. Looking for encouragement to follow this direction in life, she shows a haiku she wrote to her mother, whom rejects her writing even at this premature stage (119). This early rejection only frustrates Francie and can be seen as the very first shred torn from the map of her ultimate life plan. Her path gets damaged even further when she starts babysitting. This babysitting job becomes chaotic when she falls asleep with her employers' sex magazine in her lap, only to get woken up by them. As time progresses, Francie's direction in life really becomes destroyed because the path of her schooling is plagued with many abrupt changes. Going to college, she first decides to become a child psychology major, but, due to a computer error, she ends up in a creative writing course. Realizing that she is in a class that she did not intend to sign up for, Francie is mentally torn between the options of following her plans or feeding them into the shredder herself. She explains that "you start to get up to leave and then don't," which is a physical representation of her own mind's chaotic ambivalence (120). As Francie decides to stay in the class anyway, believing that it might be "fate," her disorientating map begins to splinter more drastically than before (120). From there, she spends most of her time in writing classes instead of child psychology for her major and decides that it would be in her best interest to just switch majors completely. After all, the majority of her life's layout is already shredded at this point, so by putting her past plans behind her, Francie starts in a new direction (122).
As Francie pursues her writing in school, other aspects of her life fall spectacularly to pieces. She explains that "in three years there have been three things: you lost your virginity; your parents got divorced; and your brother came home from [fighting in war] . . . with only half a thigh, a permanent smirk nestled into one corner of his mouth" (Moore 123). These instances have caused a large piece of the remaining portion of Francie's directional map of life to be shredded. She writes about how the three occurrences have caused chaos in her life, including how they can just blow up suddenly out of nowhere, how they changed her, and even how they have had such an impact as to leave her speechless (123-124). Losing her virginity, Francie explains that "it created a new space, which hurt and cried in a voice that wasn't mine" (123). This "voice" that she does not claim as her own conveys to the reader that Francie is confused by this separation from her former self and is mentally being torn apart by the chaotic divide between who she was and who she now is (123). Towards the end of Francie's undergraduate schooling, her path gets shattered even more when she applies to law school, only to change her mind, and ends up not going (125). After this point, her map becomes complete coleslaw, as chaos erupts all over her life like the flow of lava from a volcano. She takes writing classes, works odd jobs, and has a rapidly decaying social life. All of Francie's relationships with others are being torn apart, just like her past and future plans. She states that "perhaps you are losing your pals, your acquaintances, your balance," and even "... go out with men who, instead of whispering 'I love you,' shout: 'Do it to me baby" (125-126). In losing her "balance," Francie suggests that her life as a writer is extremely unstable and, similar to the way her plans were shattered before, her social life is splintered by her chaotic lifestyle (125). Having shredded all relationships just like coleslaw, she says that the ensuing chaos helps her write. She then quits her classes and jobs in order to have more time devoted to writing. Francie even "keep[s] a folder full of fragments" in hopes that she might be able to piece these "fragments" of her writing, which simultaneously represent the fragments of her life, together someday (126). This idea of Francie's life falling to pieces continues to the end of the story, where she is on a date with a guy and tells him that writers are usually discouraged. In response, she states that her date "... looks down at his arm hairs and starts to smooth them, all, always, in the same direction" (126). This man striving for his hairs to point only in one direction is a direct contrast to Francie's chaotic life. It suggests that her date does not want to deal with the chaos writing brings her because he wants life to run smoothly and wants everything in its place, like his arm hairs. These unhealthy types of relationships that Francie now has can (and does) have significant chaotic effects on a her emotions and self-esteem.
Seeing a map torn to pieces in the coleslaw also symbolizes inner chaos. While in college, Francie spends so much time on her writing that chaos is being seen in her, mentally and physically. Others suspect her to have some sort of psychological problem because "you spend too much time slouched and demoralized . . . [and] . . . are said to be self-mutilating and losing weight" (Moore 122). Francie's symptoms may be caused by the chaos in her mind. She seems to be conflicted because she wants to be a writer, but also sees it as something negative. Even when she switches majors, she explains writing as ".... a calling, an urge, a delusion, an unfortunate habit" (122). Described in this way, Francie having a desire to become a writer seems like having obsessive-compulsive symptoms or addiction. It is something she is compelled to do, with some unknown force pushing her towards it, but also knows that giving in could end up disastrous. This uncontrollable "urge" could explain the resulting madness from writing that causes all the aspects of her life to become fragmented, which is very similar to how addiction can cause chaos (122). Also, writing, like giving into a compulsory habit, is the only thing that puts Francie in a good mood, which is seen when she says "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" (122). The physiological symptoms seen here, sweating and accelerated heart rate, are effects of some addictive substances too. After Francie has given into her writing addiction for such a prolonged period of time, her mother, seeing the dark circles under Francie's eyes, decides to intervene by giving her a book "entitled: How to Become a Business Executive" (125). Knowing that her mother continues to disapprove of her writing makes her already distorted life even more disjointed. Nonetheless, this minor intervention from her mother does not work. She continues writing and, hence, her life continues to be chaotic.
The shredded map of disorder shown in the coleslaw can be seen in the stories that Francie writes too, as all of her characters are placed in extremely chaotic circumstances. For her high school English class, she turns in "a short story about an elderly man and woman who accidentally shoot each other in the head, the result of an inexplicable malfunction of a shotgun which appears mysteriously in their living room one night" (Moore 119). This tale is all about violence and turmoil. Francie is incessantly drawn to write about violent happenings in her stories, which can be seen as projections from the constant battles and struggles in her own life. When she gets the story back, her instructor told her that it does not have a plot (119). The whole purpose of a plot is to act as a "framework" for the organization of events in a story, as well as to establish a causal relationship between those events (Murfin & Ray 386). By not having a plot, Francie's stories are sporadic and unorganized, resembling her own life, and are written as disjointed events, extremely similar to the way in which Moore herself has written this story about Francie. This plot deficiency in Francie's stories also suggests a chaotic writing process and connects to Francie's own lack of direction in life. As her life has no straightforward plot, her writing does not have a direction either. This pattern is seen for many of her other short stories as well. For example, she writes a few stories for her creative writing course in college. One of them is about "... two old people who are accidentally electrocuted when they go to turn on a badly wired lamp" and another is about a couple who "... have their lower torsos accidentally blitzed away by dynamite [and then] . . . buy a frozen yogurt stand together" (Moore 121). These occurrences of mayhem that Francie puts her characters through all include accidental injuries or death. By being classified as accidental, these happenings reveal the chaotic twists and turns in peoples' lives, which they have absolutely no control over. Francie has no control over what happens in her directionless life either, though her desire to be a writer insinuates that she really does long for the power of control. While projecting her own chaos onto the characters in her stories, Francie is striving to grasp a coherent perspective on the fragments of her life by sorting out her problems and trying to put them into place. However, Francie's writing has no plot and is, therefore, extremely fragmented itself, which suggests that she wants her writing to be just as chaotic as her own life, if not more so. A couple years later, whilst still in college, Francie represents more disjointed aspects of her unstable life by writing a tumultuous story attempting to alter Melville and make it about living in the modern-day world. Although she does not feature any accidental explosions in this story, she still emphasizes bedlam as she talks about "... monomania and the fish-eat-fish world of life insurance in Rochester, New York" (123). Francie has some symptoms of monomania herself because all she ever thinks about and focuses on is her compulsory obsession for writing. However, there is a very fine line between being a monomaniac and having an extreme passion for something. This story is written chaotically also, as the people in her writing seminar continue to tell her that there is no plot. In the next writing class that Francie takes, she composes a tragic story in which the characters are "...an old married couple who stumble upon an unknown land mine in their kitchen and accidentally blow themselves up" (123-124). In this story based on her parents' divorce, Francie goes back to writing about life's unexpected obstacles and accidental deaths, which displays a direct connection from her real life to her writing and demonstrates that she is projecting her own life's chaos onto the characters in her stories. Another story includes a couple of violinists that get blown up in a recital room, by accident of course (125). Francie's characters getting blown up most of the time shows how aspects of her life just keep getting destroyed. There are many commonalities in these short stories written by Francie, all of which, like her own life, involve occurrences of chaos.
In the image of coleslaw, Moore illustrates the fragmented road of Francie's life, complete with all its' unexpected twists and turns. Moore's unconventional writing style, purposely chaotic and sporadic in itself, portrays a splintered account of how Francie perseveres as a writer even as her academic life, personal relationships, and mental state becomes extremely unstable. The multi-faceted layers of creative writing in this short story present an intriguing display of the unforeseen obstacles that one must overcome in order to be a writer. As Moore creatively writes about the creative writing of Francie (a creative writer), she represents a confused state of mind and the chaos of life by creating a composition that is altogether confusing and chaotic in itself. Deciphering the connections between the disjointed events in the story, the reader realizes that Francie's plot-less fragments of stories, which are projections of her life's chaotic circumstances, are weirdly reminiscent of Moore's own illogical writing. As such, the reader begins to question if Moore herself was subjected to similar tumultuous situations in her pursuit of becoming a writer. Whether or not Moore experienced such chaos in her own life makes no difference, however, because the message that she is trying to convey to the reader is the same; a writer-to-be must persist through all of life's obstacles, even if they result in shattered plans, a shredded past, destroyed relationships and unstable mental health, as well as any other instances of chaos that may suddenly appear on the fragmented road to following one's dreams.
Moore, Lorrie. "How to Become a Writer." Self-Help. New York: Warner, 1995. 117-126.
Murfin, Ross & Ray, Supryia. The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms. 3rd ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2009.