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Why Lorrie Moore Writes

Her criticism collection, “See What Can Be Done,” tackles the pleasure—and the pain—of the life of the mind.

Lane Christiansen/Chicago Tribune/MCT/Getty

I first encountered Lorrie Moore when I read “How to Become a Writer,” a mesmerizingly bleak story from her 1985 debut collection, Self-Help, which I imagine to be so frequently anthologized because editors want something of hers and because the title is so appealing. Besides, it’s a promising one, suggesting a clear set of instructions. Like much of Self-Help, the story is voiced in second-person imperative, but it can only offer directions down a road to nowhere: “First,” its opening lines instruct, “try to be something, anything, else.”

Knopf, 432 pp., $29.95

Did Lorrie Moore ever try to be anything else? Her collected nonfiction, in the newly-released See What Can Be Done, offers a few answers: some about Moore herself, and some about the intertwined joys and despairs of a writing life—and the futility, perhaps, of resisting one. As in her fiction—for which the vast majority of readers know her—Moore’s one-liners are tart, but never acid. “The clichés here,” she writes of James Cameron’s Titanic, “are sturdy to the point of eloquence.” Of George H.W. Bush in the 1992 election: “He was too proud to flirt.” She strikes the reader as someone who could silence a room with a few well-placed glances; the most withering thing she will say about the most ridiculous of passages is that it “gives one pause.” I was three-quarters of the way through this book before I realized—shocked, and then shocked at my shock—that it contains no hatchet jobs.

See What Can Be Done is mostly cultural criticism: a scabbard sheathing 34 years’ worth of American media, from Nora Ephron’s Heartburn to the 2016 election, but studded, here and there, with gem-dense personal essay. The most unsettling of all these is “One Hot Summer, or A Brief History of Time,” Moore’s essay on her own honeymoon, folded into a book that contains occasional tossed-over-the-shoulder references to male partners who alternately support and undermine women’s creative work. (Edna St. Vincent Millay, we learn, was married to “the stunning Eugen Boissevain,” who cooked her dinners and tried morphine to better understand his wife’s addiction and withdrawal.)

We learn, in the piece, that Moore is looking back on a marriage that has already ended, and the essay is dense with images that would seem at home in one of Moore’s fictions: at her courthouse wedding, she recalls, “a sweet little orchid was placed into my hand by someone.” There is something vertiginously thrilling about watching a storyteller snatch, from her own life, the telling details that usually cluster around a character who has no idea she is in a story at all. But perhaps the desire for story is what gets us into trouble to begin with. About her and her once-future-now-former husband’s decision to marry, Moore writes: “We are all fiends for narrative, plot, rising action… Perhaps we were a little bored. Something, we both seemed to agree, should probably occur.

Perhaps there is no story—and perhaps this is the point. “How to Become a Writer” begins with the urge to write and ends in the desert to which such a desire may deliver the writer—not once, as ending or punishment, but daily, as a kind of side trip, between sentences. (Among the reader’s final instructions: “Quit classes. Quit jobs. Cash in old savings bonds. Now you have time like warts on your hands.”) The story does not, disappointingly, tell one how to become a writer—or at least this was the conclusion I came to when I first read it in a heavy class-assigned anthology. Its cover, which I spent a lot of time staring at, depicted a water-colored figure sitting peacefully at a library table, head bent in concentration as warm light poured in through the window behind them.

This was the kind of aesthetically lovely scene of learning I often tried to slip into—it had to be real, it was on a book—but felt had little to do with the role reading and writing actually played in my life: wrenching, exhausting, and life-altering when things were going well, or at least really going. Learning is frightening, and writing is pain. None of this, Moore’s writing suggests, means one should avoid such a life—only know what they are buying into, so they can take their chance to be something, anything, else.

Two of See What Can Be Done’s most visible themes are the pleasure and the pain of the life of the mind. Moore’s writing sings at the atomic level. She has an affinity for adverbs: John Updike’s satire is “frothily bleak”; a letter of Dawn Powell’s is “gently, icily weeping”; Stanley Elkin’s “prose is exuberantly betroped, exhilaratingly de trop.” There is a sense of energy and play here—of writing that takes shameless pleasure in itself—that animates each piece into something beyond “criticism,” that genre with its inevitable savor of a bitter lozenge of judgment and opinion. One comes to this book not to find out what one should think, or even what Moore thinks, about Don DeLillo or Anais Nin or Alice Munro; the questions one can answer here are, instead, why one might care about them, and how a book or a story or a sentence might offer safety, companionship, sight.

We are not searching for perfection: It is through a book’s manifest flaws, Moore suggests, or through its ability to succeed on its own terms—a criterion she frequently marshals—that it can offer us its greatest insights, and allow us to build on its own incomplete foundations. Moore reveals herself, in her criticism, to be the kind of reader every writer both longs for and fears. She seems to be incapable of missing a trick, and paces through novels like a casino manager surveilling the floor, with a sixth sense for chip hustlers and baloney dice. This is the kind of apparent ESP that can only come from living in language as much as one lives in the hurly-burly beyond—in what the characters in Stoner, John Williams’s novel of academic life, call, simply and fearfully, “the world.”

Of the unconscious tricks many great writers conjure, one of the most wonderful is the ability to let the reader feel, for a moment, that they can look at the world around them through another’s mind. You close the book and still the laugh or sigh of a visiting neighbor is newly complicated, the Midwestern delicacy of cold pack cheese newly worthy of attention. (Wisconsin, where Moore lived for much of this book’s composition, makes glancing appearances throughout, first as ambivalently but tellingly described as Moore’s husband, and then, with the benefit of distance—a divorce, a move from the University of Wisconsin-Madison to Nashville’s Vanderbilt—regarded in full, with reserved, bone-chilling candor, in a review of Making a Murderer.) We cannot be taught brilliance, but we can be taught this practice of noticing, of caring. 

Those of her stories that do this best tend to be the ones in which very little happens at all. At the heart of Self-Help are two wrenching stories—“What Is Seized” and “How to Talk to Your Mother (Notes)”—in which a mother sickens and dies, and a daughter stands by, and loves her with the terrifying ambivalence we feel when the figure who never gave us the love we needed and the figure who was never given the love she needed suddenly turn out to have been the same person all along. Moore’s fiction is filled with stories of loves too small, too itchy, too cracked, too meager, but still here, for a while, good for something, necessary, if only because we cannot let them go—“strings too short to use,” as her debut novel, Anagrams, put it.

In See What Can Be Done, Moore frequently bristles at the arguments of biographers and readers who plunder a writer’s work for clues about their life, and vice versa. It is difficult to infer details about Moore’s own life without feeling that one has been repeatedly warned not to, and so it is also difficult to avoid doing just that. Writing of V.S. Pritchett in 1989, Moore concludes that his is “a literature of deep humanity—a mature artist’s extension of affection into unexpected corners, a lover’s unflagging interest in life.” About Helen Gurley Brown, we learn, simply: “She loved most people.” (Oh, to be Helen Gurley Brown, whose husband did not sample morphine on her behalf, but who, Moore tells the reader, “worked” and “plotted” and “ate diet Jell-O” with her. Perhaps a more sustainable love, in the end.) 

What is the story here? Maybe it is not a story but a song—a round, or an invitation to one. “As readers,” Moore writes in her 1994 essay, “On Writing,” which carries the reader back to Moore’s childhood, and maybe the reader’s own, “we girls were all well trained for the hike” one took to a book written by a man, “and we didn’t learn to begrudge and resent it until later.” But “a book by a woman, a book that began up close, on the heart’s porch, was a treat, an exhilaration, and finally, I think, that is why women who became writers did so: to create more books in the world by women, to give themselves something more to read.” 

In another essay, meltingly slight as a macaron, Moore half-facetiously attempts to name the best love song of the millennium (music is never far from her work), and, as in so much of her jokier fiction, the piece suddenly twists into a sweetly gut-punching musing on the nature of love itself. “A love song with no death in it, love that is not a fatal bargain or an addiction: that is a love song for the ages.”  You may end See What Can Be Done feeling that you have come to the end of a love song, and though Lorrie Moore herself may be ambivalent on the question of whether a life given over to the love of writing is not a “fatal bargain,” she has also written a book generous enough to allow you to draw your own conclusions—or perhaps to accept what you cannot know.