In Lorrie Moore’s story, “How to Become a Writer,” a second-person “you” (though it’s actually not the reader, it’s someone named Francie) tries to be all sorts of things (primarily a movie star) but fails miserably, so when she’s fifteen she tries to write haikus and sonnets and villanelles. She tries to show them to her mother, but she doesn’t believe that Francie can become a writer. Francie tires of counting syllables, so she tries to write fiction. She writes a story about an elderly couple who shoot each other with a malfunctioning rifle, and her English teacher tells her that she is bad with plot. Francie simply blows him off. She is good with kids, so she takes many babysitting jobs and goes to college as a child psychology major. However, when she tries to go to her elective class, birdwatching 101, she ends up in the creative writing classroom due to an error in the computer that made her schedule, and she chooses to stay in this class instead of fixing the problem. She continues to write violent stories about couples who are electrocuted or blown up. Again, she is accused of having a bad sense of plot. She decides to write comedies and dates a very funny man so she can use his comments in her stories. She starts getting in trouble for taking more creative writing courses than child psychology courses. No one likes her work, and she feels dejected. Writing, however, is very important to her, and she even switches majors. Her teacher wants her to be imaginative, so she decides to write a parody of Moby Dick, but her roommate doesn’t like it because, again, there is no real story. Suddenly, her teacher wants her to write pieces based on her own life. She only writes a few words about losing her virginity and can’t write about how her brother lost his leg in Vietnam, but she can write about her parents’ divorce—well, it ends up being a story about an elderly couple blowing up. At a cocktail party, her drunk roommate states that Francie always writes about her dumb boyfriend. Francie insists that she’s interested in syllables—what she so hated counting as a teenager—and everyone finds that ridiculous. Her mother tries to get her into becoming a business executive. Instead, she writes a story about a confused music student that involves exploding violinists. She writes a manuscript, but no one likes it. Francie breaks up with her boyfriend, quits numerous jobs, and dates random people—many of which just see her as a sex object—including one man who constantly straightens his armhair in the same direction, similar to the way Francie’s life constantly points in the same direction: Writing about people blowing up.
I chose to highlight the characterization of Francie and her change throughout the story and the evolution of her writing. They both mirror each other a bit, as the reader learns a lot about Francie through the things she writes and the careers she chooses. Ultimately, her writing, though it changes faces several times, is plotless and mediocre, while her hope and sanity is at first high but eventually falls to meet the goodness of her writing.
At first, Francie tries to write poetry. Her mother doesn’t believe in her, but Francie stays determined, as it is said in the quote,
This is the required pain and suffering. This is only for starters.
Later, Francie moves on to fiction:
Decide to experiment with fiction. Here you don’t have to count syllables.
When her English teacher tells her she has no sense of plot, Francie writes on her paper,
Plots are for dead people, pore-face.
Next up, however, Francie’s career dramatically changes. She branches off from writing altogether and instead tries at babysitting. As it says in the story,
Take all the babysitting jobs you can get. You are great with kids. They love you.
Apply for college as a child psychology major.
However, later Francie’s career turns again and she ends up back in the creative writing field:
Perhaps your creative writing isn’t that bad. Perhaps it is fate.
Unfortunately, this class does not go well. As her teacher says,
Much of your writing is smooth and energetic. You have, however, a ludicrous notion of plot.
Then Francie’s career changes again—she tries to stick to comedy. However, her writing still has no plot, and Francie’s feeling finally change and she begins to feel down.
You spend too much time slouched and demoralized.
“Why write? Where does writing come from?”
Francie has lost her confidence and is questioning why she even writes. Eventually, she comes up with an idea.
“It will be about monomania and the fish-eat-fish world of life insurance in Rochester, New York. The first line will be, ‘Call me Fishmeal,’ and it will feature a menopausal suburban husband named Richard, who because he is so depressed all the time is called ‘Mopey Dick’ by his witty wife Elaine.” Of course, it is disliked because, again, it has no plot. “You have to think about what is happening. Where is the story here?”
Francie loses even more confidence about her work.
Begin to wonder what you do write about. Or if you have anything to say.
Her mother tries to get her into business, but Francie still likes to write despite it all. She writes about exploding violinists, which her roommate likes only because she used to date a violinist (it can be assumed that that relationship didn’t end too well), and it is even admitted that the story wasn’t a big hit.
In the last few paragraphs, Francie seems to have lost her mind over her writing. As the story says,
Perhaps you are losing your pals, your acquaintances, your balance.
She finally gets a manuscript done, but it’s still not good. Francie compares being a writer to having polio.
Ultimately, Francie’s feelings and career can be summed up in the last line:
…he looks down at his arm hairs and starts to smooth them, all, always, in the same direction.
Francie is essentially the arm hair, being smoothed in the direction of writing, and in the end it doesn’t turn out that great.
In my own writing, I can use this technique of placing two things side-by-side to compare them, such as how Moore essentially compares Francie and her writing. In this story, Francie’s writing doesn’t change but Francie does, as her writing remains plotless but she herself slowly loses her mind in a way. In my own writing, I could do a similar thing, but perhaps they both change in the same way or opposite ways. It serves a form of characterization, to help the reader better understand the character and their arc.
Questions for discussion:
- Why do you think the author chose second person point of view? (which I should’ve made this presentation about)
- Why do you think Francie was always writing about people, particularly couples, dying and/or blowing up? (which I also should’ve made this presentation about)
- Why do you think Francie’s stories still lacked plot despite years of teaching?