How to Become a Writer Or, Have You Earned This Cliche?
By LORRIE MOORE
In your high school English class look at Mr. Killian's face. Decide faces are important. Write a villanelle about pores. Struggle. Write a sonnet. Count the syllables: 9, 10, 11, 13. Decide to experiment with fiction. Here you don't have to count syllables. Write 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. Give it to Mr. Killian as your final project. When you get it back, he has written on it: ''Some of your images are quite nice, but you have no sense of plot.'' When you are home, in the privacy of your own room, faintly scrawl in pencil beneath his black- inked comments: ''Plots are for dead people, pore- face.''
Take all the baby-sitting jobs you can get. You are great with kids. They love you. You tell them stories about old people who die idiot deaths. You sing them songs like ''Blue Bells of Scotland,'' which is their favorite. And when they are in their pajamas and have finally stopped pinching each other, when they are fast asleep, you read every sex manual in the house, and wonder how on earth anyone could ever do those things with someone they truly loved. Fall asleep in a chair reading Mr. McMurphy's Playboy. When the McMurphys come home, they will tap you on the shoulder, look at the magazine in your lap and grin. You will want to die. They will ask you if Tracey took her medicine all right. Explain, yes, she did, that you promised her a story if she would take it like a big girl and that seemed to work out just fine. ''Oh, marvelous,'' they will exclaim.
Try to smile proudly.
Apply to college as a child psychology major.
As a child psychology major, you have some electives. You've always liked birds. Sign up for something called ''The Ornithological Field Trip.'' It meets Tuesdays and Thursdays at 2. When you arrive at Room 134 on the first day of class, everyone is sitting around a seminar table talking about metaphors. You've heard of these. After a short, excruciating while, raise your hand and say diffidently, ''Excuse me, isn't this Bird-Watching 101?'' The class stops and turns to look at you. They seem to all have one face - giant and blank as a vandalized clock. Someone with a beard booms out, ''No, this is Creative Writing.'' Say: ''Oh - right,'' as if perhaps you knew all along. Look down at your schedule. Wonder how the hell you ended up here. The computer, apparently, has made an error. You start to get up to leave and then don't.
The lines at the registrar this week are huge. Perhaps you should stick with this mistake. Perhaps your creative writing isn't all that bad. Perhaps it is fate. Perhaps this is what your dad meant when he said, ''It's the age of computers, Francie, it's the age of computers.''
Decide that you like college life. In your dorm you meet many nice people. Some are smarter than you. And some, you notice, are dumber than you. You will continue, unfortunately, to view the world in exactly these terms for the rest of your life.
The assignment this week in creative writing is to narrate a violent happening. Turn in a story about driving with your Uncle Gordon and another one about two old people who are accidentally electrocuted when they go to turn on a badly wired desk lamp. The teacher will hand them back to you with comments: ''Much of your writing is smooth and energetic. You have, however, a ludicrous notion of plot.'' Write another story about a man and a woman who, in the very first paragraph, have their lower torsos accidentally blitzed away by dynamite. In the second paragraph, with the insurance money, they buy a frozen yogurt stand together. There are six more paragraphs. You read the whole thing out loud in class. No one likes it. They say your sense of plot is outrageous and incompetent. After class someone asks you if you are crazy.
Decide that perhaps you should stick to comedies. Start dating someone who is funny, someone who has what in high school you called a ''really great sense of humor'' and what now your creative writing class calls ''self-contempt giving rise to comic form.'' Write down all of his jokes, but don't tell him you are doing this. Make up anagrams of his old girlfriend's name and name all of your socially handicapped characters with them. Tell him his old girlfriend is in all of your stories and then watch how funny he can be, see what a really great sense of humor he can have. Your child psychology adviser tells you you are neglecting courses in your major. What you spend the most time on should be what you're majoring in. Say yes, you understand.
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.
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.
Why write? Where does writing come from? These are questions to ask yourself. They are like: Where does dust come from? Or: Why is there war? Or: If there's a God, then why is my brother now a cripple?
These are questions that you keep in your wallet, like calling cards. These are questions, your creative writing teacher says, that are good to address in your journals but rarely in your fiction.
The writing professor this fall is stressing the Power of the Imagination. Which means he doesn't want long descriptive stories about your camping trip last July. He wants you to start in a realistic context but then to alter it. Like recombinant DNA. He wants you to let your imagination sail, to let it grow big-bellied in the wind. This is a quote from Shakespeare.
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?''
The next semester the writing professor is obsessed with writing from personal experience. You must write from what you know, from what has happened to you. He wants deaths, he wants camping trips. Think about what has happened to you. In three years there have been three things: you lost your virginity; your parents got divorced; and your brother came home from a forest 10 miles from the Cambodian border with only half a thigh, a permanent smirk nestled into one corner of his mouth.
About the first you write: ''It created a new space, which hurt and cried in a voice that wasn't mine, 'I'm not the same anymore, but I'll be O.K.' ''
About the second you write an elaborate story of an old married couple who stumble upon an unknown land mine in their kitchen and accidentally blow themselves up. You call it: ''For Better or for Liverwurst.''
About the last you write nothing. There are no words for this. Your typewriter hums. You can find no words.
At undergraduate cocktail parties, people say, ''Oh, you write? What do you write about?'' Your roommate, who has consumed too much wine, too little cheese and no crackers at all, blurts: ''Oh, my god, she always writes about her dumb boyfriend.''
Later on in life you will learn that writers are merely open, helpless texts with no real understanding of what they have written and therefore must half-believe anything and everything that is said of them. You, however, have not yet reached this stage of literary criticism. You stiffen and say, ''I do not,'' the same way you said it when someone in the fourth grade accused you of really liking oboe lessons and your parents really weren't just making you take them.
Insist you are not very interested in any one subject at all, that you are interested in the music of language, that you are interested in - in - syllables, because they are the atoms of poetry, the cells of the mind, the breath of the soul. Begin to feel woozy. Stare into your plastic wine cup.
''Syllables?'' you will hear someone ask, voice trailing off, as they glide slowly toward the reassuring white of the dip.
Begin to wonder what you do write about. Or if you have anything to say. Or if there even is such a thing as a thing to say. Limit these thoughts to no more than 10 minutes a day, like sit- ups, they can make you thin.
You will read somewhere that all writing has to do with one's genitals. Don't dwell on this. It will make you nervous.
Your mother will come visit you. She will look at the circles under your eyes and hand you a brown book with a brown briefcase on the cover. It is entitled: ''How to Become a Business Executive.'' She has also brought the ''Names for Baby'' encyclopedia you asked for; one of your characters, the aging clown-schoolteacher, needs a new name. Your mother will shake her head and say: ''Francie, Francie, remember when you were going to be a child psychology major?''
Say: ''Mom, I like to write.''
She'll say: ''Sure you like to write. Of course. Sure you like to write.''
Write a story about a confused music student and title it: ''Schubert Was the One with the Glasses, Right?'' It's not a big hit, although your roommate likes the part where the two violinists accidentally blow themselves up in a recital room. ''I went out with a violinist once,'' she says, snapping her gum.
Thank god you are taking other courses. You can find sanctuary in 19th-century ontological snags and invertebrate courting rituals. Certain globular mollusks have what is called ''Sex by the Arm.'' The male octopus, for instance, loses the end of one arm when placing it inside the female body during intercourse. Marine biologists call it ''Seven Heaven.'' Be glad you know these things. Be glad you are not just a writer. Apply to law school.
From here on in, many things can happen. But the main one will be this: You decide not to go to law school after all, and, instead, you spend a good, big chunk of your adult life telling people how you decided not to go to law school after all. Somehow you end up writing again. Perhaps you go to graduate school. Perhaps you work odd jobs and take writing courses at night. Perhaps you are working and writing down all the clever remarks and intimate personal confessions you hear during the day. Perhaps you are losing your pals, your acquaintances, your balance.
You have broken up with your boyfriend. 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.
Sooner or later you have a finished manuscript more or less. People look at it in a vaguely troubled sort of way and say, ''I'll bet becoming a writer was always a fantasy of yours, wasn't it?'' Your lips dry to salt. Say that of all the fantasies possible in the world, you can't imagine being a writer even making the top 20. Tell them you were going to be a child psychology major. ''I bet,'' they always sigh, ''you'd be great with kids.'' Scowl fiercely. Tell them you're a walking blade.
Quit classes. Quit jobs. Cash in old savings bonds. Now you have time like warts on your hands. Slowly copy all of your friends' addresses into a new address book.
Vacuum. Chew cough drops. Keep a folder full of fragments.
An eyelid darkening sideways.
World as conspiracy.
Possible plot? A woman gets on a bus.
Suppose you threw a love affair and nobody came.
At home drink a lot of coffee. At Howard Johnson's order the cole slaw. Consider how it looks like the soggy confetti of a map: where you've been, where you're going - ''You Are Here,'' says the red star on the back of the menu.
Occasionally a date with a face blank as a sheet of paper asks you whether writers often become discouraged. Say that sometimes they do and sometimes they do. Say it's a lot like having polio.
''Interesting,'' smiles your date, and then he looks down at his arm hairs and starts to smooth them, all, always, in the same direction.
From ''Self-Help,'' a collection of short stories by Lorrie Moore to be published by Alfred A. Knopf. Copyright c 1985 by M. L. Moore.