This week I revisited the pile of paperbacks waiting for me in my bedroom. My most recent choice was “How to Become a Writer,” a short story by Lorrie Moore. While I initially was not sure what to expect when reading about a writer writing to aspiring writers, I feel like I now have a better ability to analyze literary themes. And on a personal level, I am also trying to understand how to further my academic career in a constantly changing job market, not to mention the lack of hiring this summer.
Because of this, I now relate even more to the protagonist of this story, Francie. I have ambition and I want to have an important career, but for the moment my only option — and the only job I enjoy — is writing.
Francie is in high school at the beginning of the novel and has given up on her earlier, loftier goals. She has developed an interest in writing poetry. Unfortunately, for Francie, her extremely pragmatic mother shows little love for her or her choice in career.
Even Francie seems to doubt herself, seen by one of the story’s first quotes: “First, try to be something else, anything else. A movie-star/astronaut. A movie-star/missionary. A movie-star/kindergarten teacher. President of the World. Fail miserable. It’s best if you fail at an early age.”
As a writer myself, and someone who grew up wanting to be an author, I already liked Moore and what she had to say. The author had the courage to acknowledge the elephant in the room — writing is hard. I went into school knowing I wanted to major in journalism while also knowing that it was a difficult, and sometimes unrewarding, major.
Francie begins college intending to major in child psychology. However, after accidentally enrolling in a course for creative writing, she decides to stay in the class and eventually grows an appreciation for writing fiction.
She chooses to keep the lesson in her calendar. She publishes stories of maturing or hurting adult partners in strange and unlikely ways.
Her professor praises her prose, but her classmates doubt her abilities and say she does not have what it takes — that she does not have a proper understanding of plot progression. Like her stories, Francie’s life takes several unexpected turns.
“How To Become A Writer” is recounted much like an advice column: a collection of moments in Francie’s life and how she handles them versus what is expected. She struggles to further her character’s plot and storyline, as well as her own.
Although she is excited by her creative writing class and proud of her work, she receives little support from those around her and is uncertain how to further her career.
Her mother, for example, does not encourage Francie’s work and is focused on other familial relationships, like her son and husband. Majoring in literature is difficult to announce to family and friends, and saying “I’m majoring in English” is often seen as paying for a useless degree. However, this is not the case.
Few majors have easy, direct pathways to the perfect career. Still, Francie is hurt by her mother’s reaction.
My favorite metaphor is Francie’s grasp of her characters and their plot progression, echoing her own relationship with her friends and family and how she progresses in her own life.
It is interesting to see Francie as a narrator in second person because she has a literal plot within this story, but she is also in charge of telling the stories of others, including her fictional characters and her interactions with those around her.
Francie begins uncertain, but becomes excited by her writing abilities. She asks her mother’s support, despite her mother’s history of dismissing her enthusiasm. Instead of providing a warm response, she pivots the conversation and tells Francie that she suspects her husband is having an affair — one of many examples of her low emotional intelligence.
As the story continues, Francie becomes more like her mother, dismissing her ambition as a writer and taking on a more “realistic” career. She decides to study to become a child psychologist because she is good with kids. Simple logic, or at least that is what Francie tells herself. She enrolls in writing seminars, but does not plan to be a writer.
While Francie contemplates what she genuinely wants, her life continues. Her brother loses a leg in the war, her parents divorce, Francie loses her virginity, life goes on. She tries to draw inspiration from these events, but she is frustrated and uncertain.
I believe the reason Francie’s character struggled to have a clear beginning, middle and end is because Francie herself does not understand how to give proper directions and see things through. She wants her mother’s approval, but does not agree with her beliefs. She switches her major to writing, but later changes to law school. And her mother continues to try to influence her.
Her mother shows up at Francie’s college and offers her a book, “How to Become a Business Executive.” This is another example of her mother’s desire to control Francie, but it is also a humorous acknowledgement of how wrong that path would be for her. After all, the story is called “How to Become a Writer.”
Francie attempts to further this dream, eventually dropping any plans to go to law school. She continues writing seminars, working unfulfilling jobs and writing a novel between work and life passing her by. She seems directionless, but she still has a love for writing.
The biggest lesson from this book is the importance of ambition and believing in one’s self. After all, any major requires direction and persistence. Because of this, “How to Become a Writer” is ultimately telling readers that initiative and following through is the most important aspect of becoming a writer.